The production of nuclear power can be safe. The U.S. Navy demonstrates that fact 24/7.

However, the fact that it can be safe doesn’t mean that the American public will welcome an increase of its commercial use.

NPR station WCAI recently put out a story about the future of nuclear power. The story includes statements by David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He gives reasons for lack of enthusiasm for nuclear energy.

“We’re seeing more power plants being shut down due to unfavorable economics than we’re seeing being built, and the ones that are being built are way over budget.”

“These nuclear power plants need a lot of concrete for shielding and to support a lot of the safety equipment. Concrete is surprisingly expensive, and it’s a large share of the construction cost for nuclear power plants.”

“Clearly, nuclear does have some environmental benefits – a much smaller carbon footprint, but the price of that is too high. Nuclear power is very expensive.”

Even if nuclear power weren’t very expensive, it isn’t likely that the American public would welcome more nuclear power plants, especially not after what happened at Fukushima. University of Houston professor Ramanan Krishnamoorti writes, “Perhaps the single largest barrier for nuclear energy, after the economics associated with traditional nuclear power plants, is one of social acceptance. The near-misses such as Three Mile Island and the catastrophic incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima highlight the challenge of gaining broad societal acceptance of nuclear energy.”

The American public has just cause to question the safety of commercial nuclear reactors. After all, those reactors are not designed the same way as the reactors used on U.S. Navy ships and submarines. The latter aren’t designed with cost in mind. Instead, they are designed with safety in mind. One simply doesn’t cut corners to reduce cost when one is going to require military personnel to constantly work and live within meters of an active nuclear reactor.

Besides, naval reactors are designed to withstand harsh conditions not normally experienced on land. So, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear safety record is irrelevant when discussing the safety of nuclear plants built for commercial use.

Then there is the issue of the below-ground storage of radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants. Right now, there isn’t any such place in the USA that can accept such waste.

The Obama Administration shuttered the project at Yucca Mountain, and Nevada government officials are fighting tooth and nail to keep Yucca Mountain from ever being used to store radioactive waste.

At the same time, the state of Texas has filed a federal lawsuit in order to get the Yucca Mountain project going again.

Without the use of a permanent below-ground nuclear waste repository, it wouldn’t be wise to generate more radioactive waste just to reduce carbon emissions.

Nuclear power is one hot potato that few Americans have an appetite for. So, I don’t expect it to show up often on America’s future energy menu.

Doel nuclear power plant cooling tower.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

DISCLOSURE: I am a graduate of the U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School, and part of my military training took place at a nuclear power facility located on land. That doesn’t make me an expert on nuclear power, but it does explain my knowledge of the U.S. Navy’s use of nuclear power.

David Robertson
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