By Adam Testa, The Southern
Saturday, March 28, 2009 11:07 PM CDTIllinois finds itself in the hot seat of the debate over nuclear energy - an understandable position given the facts.
It all began Dec. 2, 1942, when a group of scientists led by Enrico Fermi initiated the first controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago, and from there, the field expanded greatly.
Now, Illinois houses 14 reactors at six of the nation's 68 nuclear power plants, more than any of the other 29 states with at least one nuclear power plant. In 2005, nuclear power accounted for 48 percent of the state's electricity generation, putting it equal to electricity generated from coal, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Advocates of nuclear energy tout its production potential, benefits to surrounding communities and environmental advantages, while opponents challenge its safety, security and production of waste.
Dave Kraft, director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, said his organization has 27 years advocating the phasing out of nuclear energy, responsible handling of waste and implementation of alternative, renewable energy sources.
Reflecting on the 30-year anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979, near Harrisburg, Penn., when radiation leaked from the nuclear generation station, Kraft said the world has seen firsthand what can happen when nuclear energy goes wrong.
"We can see what can go wrong when the genie gets out of the bottle many times," he said, also referencing the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 in the Soviet Union. A 2005 report estimated upward of 4,000 people may die as a result of the incident, when a meltdown released severe levels of radiation into the atmosphere.
Ray Crawford, chairman of the Center for Reactor Information, said those disasters were horrible experiences but the industry has changed in the years since and they are unlikely to be repeated.
Three Mile Island did not result in any loss of life and was "probably one of the worst things we ever postulated could happen," Crawford said, adding it also created a financial disaster.
"It clearly was a traumatic event and it clearly indicated the nuclear industry had to make major changes," he added. In the past 30 years, the industry has seen drastic modifications in design, safety and training, he said.
The design of the Chernobyl plant was unstable from the beginning since it was designed to create weapons-grade materials in addition to generating electricity, Crawford said. No plant of this design has been constructed in the United States.
Kraft contends, however, there are other problems than a worst-case scenario disaster.
"Is that your only criterion - that someone has to drop dead in front of you from radiation poisoning?" he said.
Disposal and storage of waste has long been an issue surrounding nuclear energy, and a recent decision by the administration of President Barack Obama will add difficulties to the process, Kraft said.
Obama's administration has shut down a long-standing plan to develop a storage facility at Yucca Mountain, located in the desert about 90 miles from Las Vegas. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has ordered the formation of a committee to "chart a new path" for nuclear waste management.
Kraft said continuing to expand nuclear usage without a designated storage facility would be like building a skyscraper with no bathrooms.
"There's no place for the waste to go," he said. "That's essentially what the nuclear industry is doing."
About $30 billion has been collected from nuclear generators to be used for storage facilities, with about $8 billion of that going toward the Yucca Mountain project before Obama's administration shut down that proposal, Crawford said, adding he believes the project may still continue or another option will be pursued.
The amount of energy nuclear power contributes to the nation's electrical grid would be nearly impossible to duplicate with renewable sources, Crawford said.
Using wind power to produce electricity levels currently offered by nuclear would require a wind farm the size of West Virginia, he said. Delivery would also be a costly venture to develop infrastructure to transport energy from its point of production to the electrical grid.
George Stanford, a retired reactor physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory, said new technology exists that can greatly improve efficiency of nuclear generation.
Current nuclear power plants use thermal reactors, which slow down neutrons in the process, but it's also possible to use fast reactors, which would not slow these neurons down, he said. Thermal reactors use 1 percent of the energy stored in mined uranium, whereas fast reactors would be able to harness 100 percent of the energy.
"There's enough uranium already mined that with fast reactors we could power the country and the world for hundreds of years," Stanford said.