MOUNT VERNON — It’s no secret energy use in the United States has risen, with Americans having a seemingly unending appetite for the cars, gadgets and appliances that help them get through their day. The increasing cost, environmentally and financially, of supplying this energy using fossil fuels is bringing the discussion of alternative energy sources to the forefront. Alternatives include wind, solar and nuclear.
Safety issues, the effect on the environment and construction costs are the three main issues revolving around the nuclear option.
Mention nuclear, and thoughts of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl immediately come to mind.
At Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, through a chain of events which happened in the non-nuclear section of the plant, the core of the reactor overheated, and radioactive gases and contaminated cooling water filled the containment building. Some radioactivity was released into the atmosphere, but it did not hurt people or the environment.
In 1986 at the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union, the reactor core was severely damaged and a large amount of radioactivity was released into the environment. The reactor was built different than those in the United States, and did not have a containment building.
More recently, Ohioans were set on edge in 2002 when it was discovered corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole in the reactor vessel head at the Davis-Besse plant in Oak Harbor. Although it did not lead to an accident, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission shut down the plant for two years.
According to the Energy Information Administration, coal-generated electricity is predominant in the United States, accounting for 44.4 percent. Natural gas is second at 23.7 percent; nuclear comprises 20 percent of electricity generated. In 2007, coal accounted for 85 percent of the electricity generated in Ohio.
“I think we need to get away from the coal,” said Apple Valley resident Kim Cox. “I think the safety issues surrounding nuclear energy have come a long way, but still have a long way to go.”
“I think they have it about as safe as they can get it now,” said Donald Dalrymple of Mount Vernon. “They had some errors in handling [nuclear plants], but I think they pretty well have those ironed out.”
“The technology has improved since the last time a power plant was built in he United States,” said Jack Shaner, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “There’s no question the power output of nuclear is clean. The multibillion dollar question is where do you safely contain the waste? Before you produce more waste, that question needs to be resolved.”
Dave McIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the spent nuclear fuel that comes out of the reactor is highly radioactive. Speaking Thursday from his office in Rockville, Md., McIntyre said about one-third of the fuel is replaced every 18 months. At one point the U.S. Department of Energy planned to store this waste in an underground repository in Yucca Mountain in Nevada but in 2009, the Obama administration ended that option.
There are 104 nuclear reactor sites in 65 locations in the United States. Because there is no national repository, McIntyre said, each location stores its waste on site.
Every location has a spent fuel pool, which he likened to a swimming pool, about 40 feet deep. The spent reactor rods are placed in the pool, where the water acts as a shield and a coolant.
“The problem is, the pools fill up eventually,” he said. “After the rods are cooled, about five years, they are placed into dry cask storage.”
McIntyre said the Davis-Besse plant and Ohio’s other nuclear plant, the Perry plant near Cleveland, use dry cask storage.
“These fuel rods are put in a steel alloy cylinder, and the cylinder put inside a concrete cask,” said McIntyre. “The casks are stored outside.
“They’re very safe; the steel and concrete shield it.”
Other than storing the waste on site, McIntyre said the options are for the DOE to create some other site for storage, or to reprocess or recycle the fuel.
A federal panel has been convened to study options other than Yucca Mountain. Recycling, said McIntyre, is not very effective and is very expensive.
McIntyre said inspection of commercial reactors has changed over the years, and lessons were learned from Three Mile Island and Davis-Besse.
“There is now an NRC inspector on site full time,” he said. “We also do regular inspections from our Rockville, Md., office or a regional office.”
Other changes include upgrading plant design and equipment requirements, including fire protection and the ability of plants to shut down automatically; increasing operator training and staffing requirements; and expansion of collecting and assessing data from the plants.
The effect on the environment from coal-generated electricity is another consideration when determining the energy source.
According to the EIA, Ohio’s electric industry ranked second highest in the country in carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions in 2007. It ranked highest in sulfur dioxide emissions.
“Coal emissions take a toll every day on human health and the environment,” said Shaner. “In Ohio, we lose thousands of hours every year due to illness from power plant emissions, according to the EPA. Premature deaths due to illness from power plant emissions, again according to the EPA, are greater than motor vehicle accidents.”
In addition, he said, communities have to deal with acid rain and mercury levels.
“The Great Lakes waterways have background levels from power plant emissions,” he said. “Coal-fired power plant emissions are a clear and present danger, and you may be tempted to say go nuclear. But you have to be very careful when you say trade one for the other.”
Construction estimates for a new nuclear power plant range from $6 billion to $10 billion. Last week, President Barack Obama announced $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for the construction of a plant in Georgia, the first in nearly 30 years in the United States. His 2011 budget proposal includes an additional $36 billion in new loan guarantees, to be added to the $18.5 billion already budgeted but not yet spent.
Dalrymple said nuclear energy should be explored, but not at all costs.
“I think rather than depend on imported oil, it’s a better alternative,” he said, “but until I hear more about it, I am not really in favor of going into more debt.”
“I really feel we need to make a change for better energy choices for America,” said Cox, adding that the United States probably needs to spend more time and energy in the direction of “going green.”
“I think we are headed in the right direction for cost saving incentives with Energy Star appliances,” she continued, “but I don’t think we need to have energy at any cost. ... The spending needs to be done wisely.”
Appearing on “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill on Wednesday, Erich Pica, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, questioned the intervention of the federal government.
“Wall Street won’t invest in this technology, so why should the federal government?” he asked.
On Wednesday, three utilities, including First Energy Corp., which operates the two reactor sites in Ohio, signed an agreement to promote a new type of reactor. Smaller than conventional reactors, the idea is they can be operational more quickly and cost less than the reactors now in use.
On Sunday, General Atomics announced a program to develop a new, smaller reactor that would run on spent fuel from big reactors. If successful, the program would go a long way toward answering the question of what to do with the nuclear waste.
Any new jobs generated by a new plant will not materialize overnight.
McIntyre said getting a new reactor site up and running is a lengthy process. Safety inspections, an extensive environmental impact study, the adjudicating process and license review can take 3 1/2 to four years, plus another two years for actual construction.
“It definitely does not just get a rubber stamp,” he said.