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The Nuclear Power Puzzle

Do you think nuclear power is dead, on hold, or moving forward?

The partial meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011 set off a fresh round of questions around the world. Nuclear energy produces a steady supply of electricity with no greenhouse gases—yet the radioactive fuel does pose significant environmental and public health dangers. Are people willing to accept those risks and focus instead on the benefits?

In Fukushima, the massive earthquake and tsunami seem to have overwhelmed the risk management planning there. Some of the technology used within the nuclear power plant may not have been appropriate for that location. As events happened, human errors in judgment and the actions taken—or delayed—may have made matters worse. It will take many years to figure out exactly what went wrong.

In the meantime, are public attitudes around the world changing?

Reactor fuel from Kentucky
Within Kentucky, attitudes toward nuclear power have typically ranged from “no” to “maybe” to “yes.” An old Kentucky law (KRS 278.600-610) bans the construction of nuclear power plants for electricity production within the state until the federal government develops a policy and method for permanent disposal of nuclear waste. National plans to use the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada fell through and efforts to find a replacement site have not succeeded yet. That’s the “no” part.

But a new law enacted in Kentucky this year (House Bill 559) says that nuclear energy could be used as a small part of processes that aim to improve the efficiency of using coal and natural gas for electricity production. That technology does not exist yet, but it might be developed in the future. That’s the “maybe” part.

Within the region, attitudes toward nuclear power are similarly variable. Five of the seven states surrounding Kentucky (Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri) produce some of their electricity with nuclear reactors. That’s a big set of “yes” attitudes.

However, the situations in the two other bordering states offer a contrast. West Virginia, like Kentucky, has laws that effectively ban nuclear power plants until a workable national policy about nuclear waste is developed. So that’s another “no.”

In Indiana, nuclear power was clearly a “yes” option in the 1970s when work began at the Marble Hill nuclear power plant on the Ohio River upstream from Louisville. But Indiana’s answer changed to “no” the next decade. In 1984, long before nuclear fuel was ever brought to the site, construction at the Marble Hill nuclear power plant was halted; cost overruns played a large role in abandoning the project. Indiana has not applied for any new nuclear power plant permits since then.

In addition to Kentucky’s “no” and “maybe” answers, the Bluegrass State also has a “yes” answer to the nuclear power discussion. Paducah is home to one of only two commercial uranium enrichment facilities currently operating in the United States. In western Kentucky, the United States Enrichment Corporation (a subsidiary of USEC Inc.) produces the fuel used in nuclear reactors at many American power plants and in several other countries around the globe.

Changing world attitudes
Within the United States, attitudes toward nuclear power continue to seesaw. One hundred and four nuclear reactors (at 65 sites) generate about 20 percent of the electricity for the American power grid. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, reported in May 2012 that work at five nuclear reactors already under construction is moving forward. However, in August 2012 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it will not issue any new licenses until problems with current nuclear waste policies are solved.

Elsewhere, about 330 nuclear reactors in 29 other countries also produce electricity. Altogether, nuclear power generates about 13 percent of electricity worldwide.

But in the months following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, national and international regulatory agencies around the world have asked engineers to re-examine every step of nuclear technology, review operating systems and emergency plans, and check and recheck for ways to make improvements at nuclear power plants.

In 2010, long before the meltdown at Fukushima, German officials looked at their country’s long record of experience with nuclear technology and agreed to extend the operating life for their 17 nuclear power plants. Then in May 2011, just two months after Japan’s disaster, Germany’s government shifted its stance completely and said it will phase out all its nuclear power plants within 10 years.

In nearby France, the disaster on the other side of the world set off serious discussions about sharply reducing nuclear power’s contribution to that nation’s electricity supply from 75 percent to 50 percent. French officials are considering two options: not renewing the operating licenses for some existing nuclear power plants, as well as banning any new nuclear power plant construction projects.

For governments in rapidly developing nations seeking to raise living standards with a steady supply of electricity, nuclear power still looks like a good option. Sixty-one nuclear reactors are rising from the ground in 13 countries.

The International Atomic Energy Agency predicts that by the year 2030 the use of nuclear power will shift dramatically away from western Europe and toward Asia and eastern Europe. That trend is already well along, with work continuing in India on seven new reactors, as well as in Russia with 11 new reactor projects, and in China with 28 new nuclear reactor projects in progress.

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