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Nuke opponents cling to old fears

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opinion Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

The Minnesota Senate has voted 50-14 to lift our ban on consideration of new nuclear plants. Nuclear advocates are pointing to the pollution-free, round-the-clock operation of nuclear plants, versus the harmful emissions from coal-fueled facilities that nuclear has the power to replace. Opponents retain the old fears, especially the issue of storing radioactive spent fuel pellets. They propose that renewables, especially wind power, be used instead. 


There are reasons the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has so far approved 20-year operating extensions for 61 of our 104 nuclear power reactors, giving each 60 years of operation. First, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nuclear plants average 0.34 accidents per 200,000 worker hours versus 2.3 accidents for all U.S. industry. Second, once amortized, nuclear plants can produce electricity for 2-3 cents/kwh including fuel. Third, U.S. nuclear plants have an up time operating factor over 90 percent, three times more than intermittent wind farms. And the nuclear plant downtime is a scheduled break every 20 months or so for refueling and maintenance. Nuclear plants emit no green house gases, mercury, or sulfuric acid rain. And they don’t kill birds and bats.

The nuclear reactors developed for our navy by Admiral Rickover and his team power our naval vessels reliably and safely, as they patrol on and under the world’s oceans. Those naval power plants were the prototypes for the larger scale reactors that provide 20 percent of U.S. electric demand.

A recent  issue of the journal Science noted, “The electrical grid demands exquisite balance. At every instant, the supply of electricity throughout the system — thousands of power plants, substations, and transmission lines — must equal demand. If not, wires overheat, voltage drops, and circuit breakers snap open to protect parts of the grid.” Unpredictable variability is a major reason why the EIA is forecasting that wind and solar combined will provide 3.6 percent of our electric energy fuel in 2020, not the 20 percent and more that legislatures like Minnesota’s dream about.

Storage of spent nuclear fuel is also manageable at Yucca Mountain as proved by thorough geologic studies. Instead, we now have storage spread over 121 above-ground sites. In the future, the radioactive 5 percent of the spent fuel capsules that needs storage can be separated by reprocessing as France does. The remaining 95 percent of the spent fuel is  low radiation uranium and 1 percent plutonium, all of which can be recycled. 

As to Yucca Mountain, a Department of Energy review of the site included the following: “Yucca Mountain has changed little over the last several million years. Extensive scientific studies of potential natural hazards at the site show it is highly unlikely that volcanoes, erosion, or other geologic processes and events would disrupt a repository at Yucca Mountain. In addition, the repository is in solid rock about 1,000 feet under the surface and on average 1,000 feet above the water table,” The issues blocking Yucca Mountain are political, not geologic.

The notion that wind turbines can replace the base load electric power supplied by coal and nuclear facilities has no basis in science or experience. Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must keep some of their conventional power plants in spinning reserve, ready to ramp up and down to balance wind output. But coal and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don’t, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase. It’s like the good gas mileage a car gets at a constant speed versus being in stop-and-go traffic.

Recently, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytics firm, looked at power plant records in Colorado. Bentek concluded that despite big wind investments, wind-generated electricity “has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide” emissions. Bentek found that because of the cycling of Colorado’s coal-fired plants in 2009, at least 94,000 more pounds of carbon dioxide were generated. 

Texas has three times the wind capacity of any other state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) reported on Aug. 23, 2010, a new Texas electricity demand record at 65,776 MW. ERCOT also reported that its 9,319 MW of nameplate wind capacity produced an actual 650 MW during that period, or 1 percent of Texas demand. Wind power tends to be lowest on those sultry summer days, when there isn’t a “breath of air,” and all air conditioners are running. 

 Reports from Europe’s recent cold spell indicate that low wind conditions can also prevail in winter at times of peak load over very large areas. For example, at 17.30 on the seventh of December, 2010, when a near record United Kingdom load of 60,050 MW was recorded, the UK wind fleet of approximately 5,200 MW was producing about 300 MW (i.e. it had a Load Factor of 5.8 percent).

Such figures confirm arguments that regardless of the size of the wind fleet, most countries will never be able to reduce their conventional electric generation fleet.

There is a role for wind energy in our electric future, but it’s a supplement, not a substitute, requiring substantial taxpayer subsidies. In 2009, wind provided 71 billion kilowatt hours to the U.S. electric grid, just 1.78 percent of our total demand. A number of states, including Minnesota, have passed renewable energy standards, calling for wind to provide an impractical 20-25 percent of electric energy within 10-12 years.  

It is clear that the laws of physics and nature are not taught in law schools.

ROLF WESTGARD, who has homes in both St. Paul and Deerwood, is guest faculty for the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education. He is a member of the Brainerd Dispatch advisory board and is currently teaching “Nuclear Energy: Past, Present, and Future.”