The new nukes

As the planet heats up, prominent environmentalists now agree with George W. Bush that nuclear energy may be our last best hope. Has panic set in?

Illustration By Don Button

Power numbers
2: Nuclear power plants operating in California: San Onofre and Diablo Canyon
2,000: Megawatts of electricity each produces
103: Nuclear reactors operating in the United States
300: Nuclear reactors in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s plan for nuclear renewal
1.8: Annual growth rate for electrical consumption in industrialized countries
4.2: Annual growth rate in the developing world is 4.2 percent

The future of fusion: Find out more about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor at

Here’s what’s really important,” says UC Davis physics professor David Hwang, fingering a wall switch. “The air conditioning works.”

At 11 in the morning on a recent summer day, it was already pushing a balmy 90 degrees at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Here, in the laboratory complex founded by Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, Hwang and a team of UC Davis scientists and engineers conduct research in experimental plasma physics, work that may someday become an integral part of the world’s first functioning fusion reactor.

Such a reactor might produce as much as 40,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 40 million medium-sized, 1,000-watt air conditioners, one for every man, woman and child in the state of California.

The additional 40,000-megawatt kick would come in handy in California, where a sudden heat wave pushed statewide electrical usage past 50,000 megawatts for the first time ever, causing energy officials to warn of rolling blackouts.

Fusion offers other advantages, as well. Its fuel, hydrogen, is the most abundant element in the universe. Fusion produces no greenhouse gases and is relatively clean compared with conventional nuclear power.

That makes it the ideal solution for two crises bearing down upon civilization with alarming velocity: global warming and the energy shortage. Some climatologists believe that unless we act to curb greenhouse gases immediately, the planet will be irrevocably damaged. Petroleum experts warn that global supplies of oil and natural gas may be exhausted by the end of this century.

Fusion would kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. However, there’s a hitch. Although progress is being made, scientists estimate a working fusion reactor is still some 40 years away.

How do we get there from here? The road to fusion is paved with the uranium bricks of fission, according to a growing number of scientists, including prominent members of the environmental community.

Our choice, they say, is to go nuclear or perish.

Seventeen years ago, Northern California’s lone nuclear power plant, Rancho Seco, got shut down by Sacramento voters. Not long after it closed, scientists began wondering aloud whether nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gases, might help slow down the process of global warming.

Not every scientist, though.

UC Davis physicist David Hwang and the coaxial rail gun being developed by his team and the university’s Department of Applied Science.

Photo By Andrew Nixon

“The nuclear industry has jumped like crazy all over the greenhouse issue because they are still trying to sell reactors to the public,” UC Davis physics professor Paul Craig told the Sacramento Bee in 1989. “But it’s the same old reactors, run by the same turkeys. That is not an answer to global climate change—about which there is still no consensus—or the country’s energy problems.”

Craig, now professor emeritus at Davis, acknowledges that a scientific consensus about global warming exists today, but he still sticks to his guns.

“There’s no question that nuclear energy can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions,” he told the News & Review. “But does nuclear power make sense? I would say it does not make sense.”

There are many reasons why Craig believes nuclear power is not the answer to global warming, but if he had to nail it down to two, he’d cite the expense and the inherent fallibility of humans.

Nevertheless, to an increasing number of humans—including prominent environmentalists such as Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog; Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace; and James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis—nuclear power does make sense. The threesome has joined the growing chorus of proponents singing the praises of nuclear power. It makes perfect sense to Russ Evans, a research engineer on Hwang’s fusion team.

“The big advantage for fission is you can have a fission plant today, now,” he explains. “There’s not a fusion plant coming to your neighborhood anytime soon.”

His colleagues look crestfallen at the remark, but there’s no questioning its validity.

For the past hour, the fusion team members have been explaining the complex workings of their baby, a 15-foot-long assemblage of machined stainless steel, tubes, wires and glass known as a “coaxial rail gun” that occupies the back room of their lab.

The gun is designed to inject superheated blobs of plasma into a torus, the donut-shaped vessel that serves as the core of a fusion reactor. Plasma, for those who skipped high-school physics, is ionized gas, in this case deuterium and tritium, the isotopes of hydrogen that are “fused” together in a fusion reaction.

If scientists can solve the riddle of fusion, it promises to provide a nearly inexhaustible power supply. Says Hwang: “The estimated amount of oil right now can last in the hundreds-of-years range. The amount of nuclear material, fission, can last you roughly thousands of years. The amount of fusion material on earth, in the ocean … we’re talking about hundreds of billions of years.”

Physicist Robert Horton seconds his colleague’s pronouncement.

“If humans are going to be around for the long haul, fusion has a lot of advantages,” he says. “Deuterium is incredibly abundant. The power you’d need to run the United States for decades, if you had it in the form of deuterium, could fit in a truck.”

UC Davis physicist Robert Horton hopes nuclear fusion will be a reality in the future and believes conventional nuclear power will supply needed energy and help reduce global warming.

Photo By Andrew Nixon

That’s why researchers are so excited about fusion’s prospects. However, figuring out how to inject plasma into the torus is just one of the many problems perplexing scientists working on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently being constructed in the south of France by a consortium that includes the European Union, the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Hwang’s team is part of the American contingent working on the project, which isn’t moving along as fast as Horton would like.

“It’s proceeding at such a slow pace that it’s perceived as not proceeding at all,” he laments. Success has always been “40 years from whenever you are, regardless of when you ask.”

Adherents of global-warming theory don’t have 40 years to wait around for fusion. That’s why many of them are now turning to nuclear fission. When leading environmentalists start agreeing with President George W. Bush that nuclear power is the answer to controlling greenhouse gases, it’s a safe bet panic has set in. Such concern is not unwarranted, if Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth is to be believed.

“According to some studies, we’re at the breaking point,” Hwang notes.

“This carbon-dioxide burden is no joke,” Horton agrees. “If the world’s energy use continues to go up, and if it’s all done with coal, oil and natural gas, then the CO2 level is just going to go up and up.”

Environmentalists Moore, Brand and Lovelock aren’t just drinking from the same radioactive punch bowl. There’s ample evidence that nuclear power can decrease greenhouse-gas emissions. For example, there are 103 nuclear power plants currently operating in the United States, providing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. In lieu of those reactors, to meet demand, that amount of electricity would have to be provided by other sources, most likely coal or natural gas, both of which produce carbon dioxide.

But according to a 2003 interdisciplinary study by MIT, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” America’s ability to respond to global warming with nuclear fission may be in jeopardy. No new reactors have been ordered in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the study notes. As older reactors go offline, the percentage of electricity produced by nuclear power declines. Unless these reactors are replaced, we risk losing our nuclear know-how and the ability to respond to global warming, the report argues.

That’s all the more distressing given that the study found that a dramatically increased emphasis on nuclear power could substantially reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere on a global level. The report’s authors postulate that the number of nuclear reactors worldwide would need to be increased from 366 to as many as 1,500 by midcentury. “Such a deployment would avoid 1.8 billion tons of carbon emissions annually from coal plants, about 25 percent of the increment in carbon emissions otherwise expected in a business-as-usual scenario,” the study found.

Business as usual, as defined by the study, includes a tripling of global electrical demand by mid-century. This growth is particularly troubling in large developing countries such as China and India. According to the report, “Unless provided with incentives, these developing nations are likely to seek the lowest cost supply alternatives that can meet their growing industrial and consumer demand.”

In other words, they will seek to use more coal and natural gas, further exacerbating the greenhouse effect.

“If you want the rest of the world to get rich, which would be nice, you’ve got to increase energy use enormously,” says Horton. “Although the coal is there, we can’t afford the global-warming hit, which means you’ve got solar, hydro … and fission.”

If fusion is 40 years off, and fission is our last best chance to combat global warming, the MIT study’s findings paint a bleak portrait of the obstacles that must be overcome in order to triple the number of reactors in the United States and the world by midcentury.

California Energy Commissioner and “Father of Energy Efficiency” Arthur Rosenfeld thinks more energy should be conserved before any new power plants—nuclear, coal or natural gas—are constructed.

Perhaps the most formidable barrier nuclear power faces is public opinion. “In the United States, people do not connect concern about global warming with carbon-free nuclear power,” the MIT study found. “The public’s views on nuclear waste, safety and costs are critical to their judgments about the future deployment of this technology.”

The report makes no attempt to whitewash the public’s worries about nuclear waste, noting that the United States has yet to commission the proposed national high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain (see sidebar, page 20). The addition of more than 1,000 new reactors would require that a “new repository capacity equal to the nominal storage capacity of Yucca Mountain … be created somewhere in the world every four years.”

That’s not likely to settle public nerves still frayed by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Since then, the nuclear discussion has really been taken off the table. Moore argues that the accident, in which a Pennsylvania reactor suffered a partial meltdown after an equipment malfunction and subsequent operator error, was actually an argument in favor of nuclear power’s safety.

“What nobody noticed at the time, though, was that Three Mile Island was in fact a success story,” Moore writes in a Washington Post essay published earlier this year. “The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do—prevent radiation from escaping into the environment.”

Moore’s explanation, though accurate, hasn’t flown well with the public, and neither will the increased risk posed by the proposed fleet of new reactors. “The expected number of core damage accidents during the scenario [through the year 2055] with current technology would be four,” MIT reports, recommending that every effort be made to reduce the number of potential accidents, through quality-assurance programs and increased training.

UC Davis’ Craig agrees that the training of personnel is critical, particularly if more than 1,000 new plants are to be built.

“The people problem is the most important single aspect of the whole thing,” he says. “You’ve got to do it right, every day, every single time. There’s an enormous number of people who have to be very well trained and highly reliable.” There’s also a considerable downside to training people in the nuclear field. “Inevitably, you’re going to have this huge workforce that knows how to do the things we don’t want done.”

What we don’t want is the occasional stray employee to use his or her knowledge to manufacture nuclear weapons or to teach someone else how to manufacture nuclear weapons. To counter nuclear proliferation, MIT suggests that the new nuclear fleet be composed entirely of light-water reactors—the most common model in operation today—instead of more-modern designs that use fuel more efficiently but produce weapons-grade material as a byproduct. The problem with that plan, according to Horton, is that there may not be enough fuel to supply 1,500 light-water reactors.

“That may be the real Achilles’ heel of this ‘everybody gets a fission plant,’ “ he says.

Even if enough fuel can be found, there may not be enough money to fund MIT’s aggressive proposal. Private companies are unlikely to foot the bill for such an ambitious endeavor, and there will be considerable resistance to spending what little public funding is available on nuclear power, particularly when options such as increased conservation and energy efficiency have yet to be fully explored.

“We have learned from the 1973 oil embargo that it is very easy to improve efficiency,” says California Energy Commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld. “Efficiency has turned out to be four times cheaper than new power.”

Rosenfeld isn’t the average conservation advocate. He studied nuclear physics under Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist who constructed the world’s first nuclear pile in 1942, an innovation that would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb. Rosenfeld co-founded the Center for Building Science at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which has developed many of the energy-saving principles in use by businesses and consumers today, and is known as the Father of Energy Efficiency.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Rancho Seco’s cooling towers have remained dormant since voters elected to close the plant in 1989.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Rosenfeld says he’s not “for or against nuclear power"; he’s for “less nuclear power, less gas power, less coal power, less everything power.” He notes that Americans have saved more than $700 billion by curbing energy usage since the 1970s without incurring any noticeable side effects. “Among the things we did not have to do was build a lot of new power plants—not just nukes, but coal and gas, too,” he says.

Rosenfeld believes there are still many areas where energy can be conserved by increasing efficiency, and he sees no reason why we should immediately start building new nuclear power plants.

“There will be a role for nuclear power sometime in the future,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a long time before it’s on the table in California.”

If anything, the members of the UC Davis fusion team are an optimistic lot. It helps to be optimistic when the fruits of your labor lie in the distant future, perhaps beyond your own lifespan. Give them the money today, and they’ll deliver fusion on your doorstep tomorrow.

Well, almost tomorrow.

“The short answer is: How much are you willing to pay?” asks physicist Stephen Howard. “The issue that we’re trying to solve is we’re trying to make fusion economically viable. Right now, if we spent $100 billion—that’s ballpark—we could make a working fusion reactor in five years.”

Horton is slightly more realistic.

“I just want it to move along at a fast enough pace to get it done,” he says. “It’s not that we’re going to reach a point where we absolutely have to have it. I think there are ways to limp along for a very long time.”

He thinks one of those ways undoubtedly will be nuclear power.

“I’d rather see fission plants built [instead of coal plants], at least in the United States, at least in countries I trust,” Horton continues. “Countries that I trust would include any country that already has nuclear weapons, because the cat’s already out of the bag. I don’t love it, but I think it’s better than doing it with coal.”

His colleague Hwang worries that if a massive amount of resources is committed to building fission plants, there could be very little incentive to build fusion plants.

“Ultimately, I think all of these things are going to come down to economics,” he says. “But on the other hand, with the greenhouse effect, if you kill the planet off, forget about the money thing.”

And the air conditioning, for that matter.