Nuclear energy not going to waste

June 30, 2008
By: Tim Heston

Reading news of the campaign trail last week, I recalled a park cookout I attended years ago while visiting a friend in West Lafayette, Ind. The conversations there weren"t normal, and not your typical neighborhood get-together talk. These people, including my friend, were nuclear engineering majors at Purdue University, and they were talking about the benefits of, well, their majorand France.

The conversations covered a lot of the same stuff as Sen. John McCain did on the stump last week (albeit with a bit more technical jargon). The French are able to generate 80 percent of their electricity with nuclear power, McCain said, providing the lead for a BusinessWeek report. There"s no reason why America shouldn"t.

Generating that 80 percent, 59 plants dot the French countryside. By contrast, the U.S. gets only 20 percent of its power from nuclear reactors. This country remains skeptical about the technology: What about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and that nasty waste?

Ironically, the French made strides in solving the waste issue by embracing an American-made technology. They invested in pressurized water reactors pioneered by Westinghouse, which allowed for the recycling of nuclear material. From the beginning the French had been recycling their waste, reclaiming the plutonium and unused uranium and fabricating new fuel elements, according to an online report by the PBS news documentary Frontline. This not only gave energy, it reduced the volume and longevity of French radioactive waste. The volume of the ultimate high-level waste was indeed very small: The contribution of a family of four using electricity for 20 years is a glass cylinder the size of a cigarette lighter.

Of course, engineers still must find a place to put this ultimate high-level waste, and as Frontline reported, no one in France wanted the stuff in their backyard. So today the stuff sits in secured and monitored repositories, waiting for science to catch up and find ways of using that last bit of once-fissile material.

Seeing the rising costs of oil, and the fact nuclear reactors spew no greenhouse gases, manyincluding McCainhope nuclear energy may yet see an American Renaissance. Hurdles, though, remain. The country badly needs new nuclear plants to deal with the climate issue, John Rowe, CEO of nuclear operator Exelon, told BusinessWeek. But they are expensive, very high-risk projects.

Recently Congress provided some significant tax breaks for the technology, and with the rising cost of fossil fuels, those breaks change the cost-benefit analysis. And with proposed carbon taxes, the scale may swing nuclear"s way.

The Electric Power Research Institute & puts the cost of nuclear electricity at 6.5 cents a kWh. Not cheaper than coal"s 5 cents, but cheaper than coal that has had a price put on its carbon emissions, The Economist reported last week. The time has come to rethink.

I"m sure Don Olson rethought the issue a long time ago. The president of Greensboro, N.C., metal fabricator Columbiana Hi Tech, a 75-employee firm, Olson hopes in three months to have 40 more employees.

The company, covered in Friday"s Business Journal, a local business newspaper, fabricates on-site storage containers for the nuclear industry. The company does some pretty basic fabrication, Olson told the newspaper, though its quality assurance program must be topnotchand pass regulatory scrutinyto handle nuclear material.

According to the article, the company"s 75,000-square-foot facility sits in a good spot, now that 34 reactor units planned for expansion or construction are located in the southeastern U.S. from Maryland to Texas.

Judging by those numbers, Olson may need more to add more than 40 employees to satisfy demand in the coming years.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
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