A Letter to President-Elect Obama 

By Cheng Xu, Dec 20, 2008

An Overview of Energy, Environmental Impact, and Social Barrier against Nuclear Power

I write this letter with little hope that it will reach anyone of significant influence to affect the changes that I deem to be of the utmost urgency and importance. However, your election has energized the youth base to take a proactive role in trying to make a difference in the world, and as part of that group, I am writing this letter to offer my point of view in my field of study, so you may have a variety of different ideas that you have publicly claimed to seek.  

On your campaign trail, you implied a multi-faceted approach to tackling the energy problem and nuclear energy will be a part of the solution. Personally, I have arrived at that approach fairly early in my studies and finally choose to study in the field of nuclear engineering as my own contribution to solve the global energy problem. I am by no means an expert in my field yet and I am sure you are already fairly well informed about the problems we face. But I will still like to offer you my own view on what I think would be a sustainable energy policy and what directions we should head in as a country as a whole. I believe a comprehensive scientific perspective might offer a new way of looking at things that politicians might not be so familiar with. 

Generally, we can separate power consumption into three categories by the nature of its usage. The first is power consumed by transportation. The main fuel for that economy is oil, and the lack of it is causing political tension, wars, and the collapse of the American auto industry. The second is power consumed by everyday citizens in their everyday lives at home. The third is power consumed by industry which drives the American economy.  As of now, the major source of power for private consumption and industry consumption is supplied from the same source, electricity generated by power plants: including coal plants, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power plants. When we say we want to achieve sustainable energy and energy dependence, we need to consider problems for each category individually and find replacements that make sense for each.

The replacement fuel for transportation consumption is already well underway. Electric cars are already slowly becoming practical and hydrogen fuel cells are under intense development. However, switching from fossil fuel to electric only serves to put more power demand burden on the power plants. The electricity and hydrogen has to be generated from somewhere, and that somewhere falls right back to the power industry. If we continue to generate electricity using coal plants with the additional demand from electric cars, then we will simply increase the release of green house gas and further global warming. The potential replacements for coal are many, but each has their shortcomings, therefore we must pursue every solution accordingly.

In order to successfully battle global warming, we need a source of energy that is versatile enough to be implemented anywhere fossil fuel is currently operating and it has to be technology we currently have, because we can’t afford to wait. Hydroelectric and geothermal plants all need specific geological conditions for them to be a truly viable form of energy. They should be built where they can be built, but they can’t completely replace fossil fuel due to their inherent limits. Building dams also has severe impacts on rivers, and further research is needed to minimize environmental damage. Clean coal is not a technology that we already have that can be implemented in time to curb emissions. That leaves only solar, wind, and nuclear energy.   I think we all agree that solar power, and wind power are the truly sustainable energy generation methods that we should all pursue. However, there are limitations to their application. They all have energy efficiency limits and more importantly, their power density is not comparable to those of fossil fuel. That means to get the same amount of power output, they will need much more land to achieve what fossil fuel did. For example, they are planning to build a solar power plant in Arizona in 2011, it will generate 280MW of power for 70000 homes, but it will take 1900 acres, or equivalently 7.6 million square meters.  This kind of power generation might work in the fields of Arizona, but it will not work in densely populated areas, nor will it work in developing countries such as China or India to be effective in battling emissions.

What does work however, is small scale power generation from solar and wind power on a commercial level.  Wind and solar power is specially suited for the second category of power consumption I have described above. The technology is there for each individual family to install solar panels or even a small wind turbine to generate electricity, making them independent from power companies for electricity in their own home. The main obstacle against their implementation is economical. People don’t do it simply because they do not think it’s worth the money, and there are few companies in the solar industry because they don’t have the demand. That is a problem that will be easily fixed by government subsidies and incentives. New companies that build solar panels and wind turbines on a large scale will also create the jobs that we will need in this recession. The push for solar and power should not be aimed at big power plants, but individual companies that will transform every rooftop into their own sustainable power generator.

Now that we have theoretically taken care of the second category, we are still left with the power consumption of industry, including the transportation industry. There is no way a factory will generate enough power it needs for operation by littering its rooftops with solar panels (although they should for backup and auxiliary power). Only nuclear power has the necessary power density and versatility to completely replace fossil fuel as an alternative emission free source to drive progress in industry. With the next generation nuclear power plants designed, they can achieve 600MW of thermal power in a building as small as 3600 square meters; that is a power density thousands of times better than solar and wind power.  Of course, there are downsides to everything and I am sure you are well aware of the shortcomings of nuclear power.

You have said you are willing to consider nuclear power, if it is safe. Although I may be biased because I am studying the field, but I do believe that over the past 50 years that nuclear power plants have been operating, there are only two major nuclear power plant mishaps; and the one that happened in Three Miles Island caused no direct deaths. Nuclear power also has a much higher safety factor in every one of its components than similar components for conventional power plants, and rightly so. However, despite its record and strict regulations, people are still not convinced that nuclear power is safe. I believe this irrational fear is two-fold and could be remedied if people were appropriately educated about nuclear power with the support of government and environmental agencies.  

Firstly, people have an irrational fear of the word “radiation”. We can see that from the standard imposed upon Yucca Mountain proposal. The proposal wants a nuclear fuel storage facility to have no more than 15 mRem of radiation per year.  To put this in perspective, the normal background radiation we are exposed to as everyday people is 360 mRem per year. Every time we take an international flight, we are exposed to an extra 5 mRem. To expect a facility, that is suppose to house all the used radioactive fuel in the country to emit radiation that is less than 3 international flights per year, puts unreasonable expectations on those designing and building the facility. However, the congress expects it, and the people who voted for the congress expect it. It is exactly this type of mentality that pushes reasonable judgment aside out of fear, and kept the nuclear power industry in dead water for the past fifty years. This irrational fear may be fixed if only people and politicians were educated and provided with the accurate information about the nuclear power industry.

The other aspect of the fear is the same kind that keeps people from flying. Even though more people are killed in car accidents every year than airplane crashes, the magnitude of a potential disaster is enough for people to say no to a safer option and chose a more dangerous one. This phenomenon is happening to the nuclear power industry and we simply need to overlook this irrational fear and get into the cabin. Just as we can’t simply drive across the Pacific Ocean, we also can’t fix global warming without nuclear power.

The only real aspect of concern against nuclear power is nuclear proliferation. In that regard, the government is especially important in providing the safety aspect with its political and diplomatic powers. The industrial design of every nuclear power plants takes into account the number of guards needed and provides a difficult route to access potentially dangerous material. However, there is only so much the industry can do to deter potential terrorists and the responsibility falls upon the government to make sure we will not be the target of a nuclear attack. DOE’s GNEP program is a good first step towards developing a way to battle non-proliferation and the nuclear engineering industry will never stop to search for better ways to provide national security.

I believe I have described a general overview of what I deem to be a viable way to achieve the kind of sustainable energy policy we need. It consists of nuclear power plants providing the electricity for industry and transportation while solar panels and wind turbines will pick up the slack on the family level.  However, nuclear fission plants are by no means a sustainable fuel alternative. If demand keeps on rising as the rate it is now, the world supply of uranium will run out in 100 years if we replace all coal plants with nuclear plants. A truly sustainable energy will be nuclear fusion, that takes water as fuel and generate nothing but helium. Although international effort is underway to build ITER and DEMO fusion generators, this is still a technology we still need to research for 50 to 60 more years. In an idealized world, we would completely stop development of nuclear fission plants and pour all our money into fusion research. However, we do not have 50 to 60 years to waste and need a solution to replace fossil fuel now. Nuclear fission power plants are the only bridge that we have in order to achieve a sustainable world, and I hope your policies will reflect the urgency for an energy solution you have so eloquently spoke of.

Have a wonderful presidency, the whole world is watching.

Cheng Xu is a graduate student at the University of Michigan working on nuclear materials.