Have you ever wondered why so many former opponents of nuclear power are switching sides and are now advocating for nuclear power plant construction with the same passion they once devoted to fully abandoning this controversial technology? Why is Dr. Jim Hansen, the godfather of climate change, in favor or nuclear power? Why is Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, also advocating for nuclear power? Add to that two former national directors of Greenpeace, the world’s most powerful anti-nuclear organization, plus a veritable who’s who of environmentalists, energy experts and former anti-nuclear activists. What’s going on here can’t simply be dismissed as a mass delusion, as some would have us believe. Perhaps these people know something that most us don’t.

Last month I was filming at the site of the test bed for what’s known as the Integral Fast Reactor in Idaho. News of this little known and largely forgotten project has been one of the reasons why nuclear power is being reconsidered as a solution to the climate/energy crisis. Between 1984 and 1994 some of the best minds in nuclear physics and engineering succeeded in developing a new type of reactor that was fueled by nuclear waste (no need for any more uranium mining or burying plutonium for 100,000 years). It was physically incapable of melting down. It was highly resistant to being diverted to weapons production. And it was of a far simpler modular design that could potentially be more economical to produce on a mass scale than today’s nuclear reactors. In short, this ain’t your daddy’s nuclear power plant.

But, the whole promising endeavor fell victim to the politics of the moment when President Clinton killed the program in 1994. Today, it sits as a monument to a clean energy future that was passed over for largely political and ideological reasons. Is it possible that we environmentalists should have advocated for improving nuclear technology rather than for abandoning it? If we had, perhaps coal would not now be the fastest growing source of energy on the planet. Perhaps America, like nuclear powered France, would be well on its way to having the best air quality and the lowest CO2 emissions in the industrialized world, rather than being in dead heat with China for the title of ‘world’s biggest polluter.’

As I was leaving the test reactor, accompanied by its chief designer, Dr. Charles Till, I turned to him and said with my best Dr. Strangelove impersonation, “VY DIDN’T YOU TELL DA VORLD?” He laughed and said, “I tried.”

Comments

  1. Max Lewandowski
    Indianapolis,Indiana U.S.A.
    January 18, 2012, 10:38 pm

    USA Today special report January 18,2012 Cleanig up a Cold War Mess. The U.S. goverment is building a treatment plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of waste left from a half -century of nuclear weapons production.The radioative sludge is so dangerous that a few hours of exposure could be fatal. A major leak could contaminate water supplies serving millions across the Northwest.

  2. George Arnold
    Texas
    August 25, 2011, 6:20 pm

    I appreciate the thoughts on nuclear energy presented on this blog. I was also surprised at the support voiced by environmental groups and Stewart Brand, of all people (See Howard Odum’s seminal article on ‘Energetics,’published in Brand’s Whole Earth Epilog.)
    Two things I DO know about nuclear power (but that are rarely discussed) are:
    1. Nuclear power is neither ‘green,’ nor as ‘clean’ as industry would like you to believe. While the reactor buildings should normally release nothing – they had better not – the nuclear fuel they utilize is the end product of a complex and dirty, coal-fired industrial process. The required mining and plant construction work also cause environmental damage and use large amounts of fossil fuel. The best estimate I’ve seen of relative carbon emissions suggest that nuclear power results in half the emissions of coal-fired power, and roughly double the emissions of PV solar and wind. Unclear if that’s ‘good enough’ to warrant the risk factors, but it’s fair to say that nuclear power would not be viable without large amounts of cheap fossil fuel. And:
    2. As was noted in a comment above, only a small fraction of enriched fuel, some 3% to 5% is actually burned in the reactor before removal to the waste pool. Given the great expenditure of fossil fuel energy needed to create the fuel assemblies, the lower-temperature and less-efficient operation of the power generation process, and the transmission losses involved in delivering power to remote end-use customers (nuclear power plants are typically built far from centers of population for obvious safety reasons,) it is questionable that nuclear power plants actually return net energy, or energy in excess of what must be expended to build, fuel, and maintain them in operation, let alone protect the waste products in perpetuity.
    So say again: how did we get into this?

  3. Anthony
    Chico, CA
    March 29, 2011, 11:37 pm

    The only real competition for large scale power generation is coal-fired plants, and we know how polluting that is, so given the two, I would choose Nuclear power any day.

    I think it’s really quite simple.

  4. Claudio Alpaca
    ITALY
    March 15, 2011, 2:40 pm

    The Japanese nuclear problem is not an hysteric reaction, how some tell.
    It is a reaction that is objective and is not based merely on economic market gains; it has it’s basis on the tutele of people’s lives, that is the most important reason for referring others sources of energy.
    Other energies are present and are not dangerous for anyone.
    Hiroshima and Nagasaki lessons have not been understood. Its affects, like that of Chernobyl, are temporally not definable.
    History lessons are difficult to be understood or we have brain’s problems that us not consent to logically learn?
    It is time to study sustainable forms of energy that guarantee life.
    That is the problem.

    Pieve di Teco, 15. 3.2011 Claudio Alpaca

  5. skinny
    November 23, 2010, 2:41 pm

    Thanks buddy. Not bad article you got here. Have some more sites to point to which have a bit more information?

  6. Nicole Stricker
    Idaho Falls, ID
    November 18, 2010, 11:56 am

    Hello, I am a science writer at Idaho National Laboratory, “the site of the test bed for what’s known as the Integral Fast Reactor” Stone visited and referenced in this post. You can learn more about INL’s past and current nuclear energy research at its website, http://www.inl.gov.

    Thanks again, Robert, for taking the time to visit INL and tell the story of this important work.

    Nicole Stricker, Idaho National Laboratory

  7. Tim Mantyla
    Michigan
    November 17, 2010, 11:31 pm

    This turns around some outdated notions I’ve held–clearly similar to those of many ecology activists and sustainability supporters–that nukes are universally bad.

    Let’s learn more and promote the heck out of it!

    I’ve tweeted about it, and started a sustainability group on Facebook…with mention of this blog. Join the group if you like, “Sustainability & Social Justice”…see you on FB.

    Follow @mygreenhandy on Twitter.

  8. pharmacy technician
    China
    November 16, 2010, 2:43 am

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!