It’s Nucular


On a sunny Saturday morning 30 years from now, you may decide to take your family for a ride to the country. You’ll still be driving a car, and you may still get stuck in traffic. But that’s OK, because the only thing you’ll be breathing in is water vapor from the car in front of you.

Welcome to the seemingly benign “hydrogen economy” President Bush has touted over the past year. Pollution-free cars. Abundant fuel. A cleaner environment.

But there’s one factor the president isn’t talking much about: the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new nuclear power plants his administration imagines making all of that hydrogen.

The Bush administration and Senate Republicans want to give billions of taxpayer dollars to the nuclear industry to make high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs), which—theoretically—can co-generate electricity and hydrogen, side by side, inside cheap modular reactors. Advocates of the plants say they wouldn’t need the expensive protections required for traditional models.

This summer, the Senate is expected to vote on the Energy Policy Act of 2003, which includes funding for new HTGR plants and the construction of a pilot co-generation facility to be run by the U.S. Department of Energy in Idaho. The bill was sent to the full chamber by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month.

Spokespeople for the committee and the DOE say the aim is to cut greenhouse emissions, since energy companies continue to use coal and natural gas in making hydrogen. But small, modular HTGR plants may do it more efficiently and cleanly, they said.

That all depends, of course, on how you define “cleanly.” To extract hydrogen from water—to get the H out of the H2O—you first have to make steam. The modular nuclear plants would do that without polluting the air, but would also leave behind radioactive waste.

Scientists have not yet designed a nuclear facility whose safety and efficiency trumps that of gas or coal. One proposal, from MIT, has a nuclear reactor sitting under the same roof as a chemical plant bubbling with sulfuric acid and hydrogen iodide.

Each modular plant would produce as little as one-tenth of the energy of a single light-water reactor. And since by some estimates the United States would need the equivalent of 500 light-water reactors to produce enough hydrogen, it may take thousands of modular plants to get the same job done.

The nuke industry, not surprisingly, says it’s interested in joining the hydrogen economy. Entergy, the second-largest nuclear energy producer in the U.S., hopes to break ground on its co-generation Freedom Reactor within five years.

But only the feds seem willing to pay for the research and development that would make the futuristic plants a reality. “We generate electricity,” said a spokesperson for Exelon, the country’s largest producer. “We’re not heavily involved in funding research and development.”

Taxpayers may soon be. The Senate’s energy bill affords the DOE $1.1 billion to build an HTGR co-generation nuclear plant at its Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory within 10 years.

The bill also proposes to kick-start a nuke renaissance by subsidizing half the cost of six to 10 new HTGR power plants in the United States.

“We need to move toward clean-air energy sources that are more reliable than wind and solar,” said Marnie Funk, a spokesperson for New Mexico Republican senator Pete Domenici, chair of the energy and resources committee.

Renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, are emissions-free. But the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Many people also see wind turbines as an eyesore: Cape Codders are fighting plans for an offshore wind farm that would obstruct their views. “And then you’ve got the bird issue,” said Funk. Wind turbines earned some notoriety by killing as many as 50 golden eagles along California’s Altamont Pass during the 1990s.

Today, wind and solar proponents are appalled that Senator Domenici and the nuke industry are pushing nuclear energy as a greener choice. “It’s disingenuous to suggest that the nuclear provisions in the energy bill come out of a commitment to the environment,” said Lisa Gue, a senior policy analyst with Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment program. Gue said the energy bill is a thank-you to nuclear companies, who have contributed some $1 million to energy committee members’ campaigns over the past three election cycles.

The Senate energy committee wants to lessen greenhouse gases at the cost of increasing nuclear risks, said Gue. “Hydrogen does offer great potential,” she said, “but to use one of the most expensive and lethal sources of energy is a travesty.”

Gue bases her criticisms on the risks many people associate with the 103 so-called “Generation III” reactors currently operating in the United States. These are the aging, leaking, water-cooled reactors built before Three Mile Island nearly melted down in 1979. The new plants will supposedly be safer. “But even with their new designs,” said Gue, “I’m still not satisfied they’ve dealt with the waste issue.”

Nuclear waste has never been a serious problem, if you ask the industry. “People automatically picture vast quantities of drums, oozing green slime and ruining our lives,” said John Ritch, director general of the World Nuclear Association. “But the truth is that all of the waste produced by all of the world’s nuclear reactors could fit in a two-story building, on an area the size of a basketball court.”

And unlike today’s light-water reactors, HTGR reactors—which would be cooled by helium gas—should burn up their radioactive materials more efficiently. The new facilities would then retain their waste for up to 40 years before carting it off to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Proponents of HTGR also boast that the reactors require none of the concrete and steel containment walls that keep radioactive material locked inside light-water reactors. The uranium and graphite pellets inside HTGR reactors—even if all of the coolant is lost—would heat up so slowly they’re unlikely to melt down.

Officials at the Idaho lab hinted at a dramatic exhibit of its pilot reactor’s safety. “We could even do a demonstration in which we dump the helium coolant,” said James Lake, associate laboratory director. “That would be a way to show the public in a visible way how safe the technology is.”

Lake may have trouble selling tickets to that event, but opponents of HTGRs are less concerned about accidents than another scenario: “In a word, it’s terrorism,” said Charles Sheehan-Miles, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.

Existing plants have already been targeted by terrorists, suggest warnings from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Presented with the prospect of a plane slamming into an HTGR reactor, Lake starts adding layers of concrete and steel (and significant cost) to what was once a spiffy little module. “We could put the reactor underground, inside a robust, concrete citadel,” he said.

MIT professor Andrew Kadak, who worked on the U.S. government’s “Generation IV” Roadmap for new reactors, said his nuclear research lab’s own plan for an HTGR reactor does not include robust containment walls. “Most of the reactor, however, is protected by concrete,” he said. “And the reactor is mostly underground. If necessary, we could move it completely underground. But we have not done the [damage] analysis yet.”

Still, Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, questions why nuclear energy companies and HTGR proponents are seeking free insurance from U.S. taxpayers. The Senate energy bill also calls for the extension of the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, a U.S.-funded disaster insurance policy, to cover HTGR reactors.

“Why would a safe reactor require Price-Anderson liability protection but not containment protection?” Lochbaum asked.

Read responses from Voice Question of the Day: Are hydrogen cars worth pursuing if it means building more nuclear power plants?