As we read once again about routine refueling activities at the Callaway nuclear power plant, called grandly the Callaway Energy Center, we are prompted to think again about the future of electrical power generation in this nation and world.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride. Nuclear generation became a favorite alternative as the world suddenly decided coal and other fossil fuels were taboo. At Callaway and elsewhere we built huge amounts of nuclear capacity, but as reality replaced eager anticipation, inevitable wrinkles emerged. Plant construction costs were higher than expected (isn’t that always the case with such complicated projects?). As years passed and experts turned thoughts to the future, challenges of long term fuel waste storage grabbed the headlines (it became a NIMBY problem as scientifically plausible solutions were rejected by nearby politicians who found it easy to rouse local constituents). Then, dagnabit, Fukushima occurred. The full and proper name for the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan made us worry the same might occur here (never mind it took an earthquake to trigger Fukushima).
During this paralysis we happened to learn how to mine great new fields of oil and gas. Fracking relieved the pressure of future worries about adequate fuel sources and, ironically, blinded and deafened us to the nuclear power debate. We forgot that nothing inherent in nuclear generation was anywhere near as dangerous and destructive to human existence as fossil fuels. We had learned to live with the daily troubles of coal mining and oil drilling. We worried vaguely about a nuclear world even though generations of nuclear experience had been essentially trouble free.
As engineers finish their routine work at Callaway, where does all of this leave us? About in the same place, as I see it. The big difference between now and several decades ago is the fact the U.S. has become the world’s leading oil producer. That doesn’t make much difference in the production of today’s domestic power, but we have reason to let that issue slip out of mind.
The environmental future remains essentially the same. We are learning how to conserve energy, but we are not on the way to the sort of severe reduction in polluting emissions conservationists (and realistic souls of all callings, for that matter) say we need to achieve.
All of which leads me to think we should keep nuclear power generation in our future plans.
We won’t need to expand capacity as fast as we once thought, but nothing looms in the future that can produce as much power without polluting the air. Nuclear’s main challenges are high initial cost and worries about future storage of spent fuel. Both are worth ongoing study and analysis but both seem within the realm of scientific resolution. If reducing air pollutants is the answer, nothing matches nuclear.
Simply stated, we should keep maintenance and/or expansion of nuclear power generation in our plans.
Fortune does not change men, it unmasks them.
—French-Swiss writer Suzanne Necker