Nuclear, Reactors

Short-term Focus Creates Nuclear Roller Coaster

Issue 10 and Volume 107.

By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E.,
Contributing Editor

This year marks a number of significant anniversaries. The Wright Brothers inaugurated the age of flight 100 years ago. Ford, Cadillac and Harley-Davidson all are celebrating their centennials. And GM introduced the Corvette 50 years ago. Another event 50 years ago, on Dec. 8, 1953, marked the beginning of the U.S. civilian nuclear industry. President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations (UN) that afternoon started the nuclear industry on a roller coaster ride that continues to this day.

Barely eight years after the two nuclear blasts that ended WW II, President Eisenhower acknowledged the horrors of nuclear weapons and stated that, now, “U my country’s purpose is to help us to move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light, to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men everywhere, can move forward towards peace and happiness and well-being.” He suggested establishment of an international atomic energy agency under the aegis of the UN. Specifically, he proposed that, “Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

In the ensuing 50 years, industrial applications of radioisotopes have become everyday activities, and more than one-third of all hospital patients now are aided by some form of nuclear medicine. But during that same interval, nuclear energy – President Eisenhower’s “special purpose” for the atom – has been transformed from a great promise for mankind, to a dynamic new industry, then to a pariah. There are signs its redemption may be at hand, at least temporarily.

Barely eight months after Eisenhower’s speech, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, permitting the private ownership of nuclear facilities. One year later, an experimental nuclear reactor in Idaho furnished the first electric power to a civilian population. And only four years after the speech, the first full-scale nuclear power plant in the U.S. went into service at Shippingport, Penn. Then in 1959, a mere six years after the Eisenhower proposal, Dresden I became the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant. Nuclear power was on a roll.

The roller coaster continued its climb during the early 1960s, with universities starting nuclear engineering programs and the nuclear navy also training thousands. Orders for new commercial nuclear power plants flooded manufacturers, and the roller coaster reached its zenith with 41 new plant orders in 1973.

Then the industry began the ride downhill. After the first Earth Day in 1970, politicians were afraid to stand up to the environmentalist protesters who demonized nuclear energy. Also, by the mid-1970s, rampant inflation was making nuclear construction projects prohibitively expensive while a faltering economy reduced the need for new electricity generators of any kind. President Carter preached conservation and sacrifice rather than greater production. Government backing for nuclear energy fell victim to the short-term view.

The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 exacerbated this situation. Public opposition, fanned by anti-nuclear ideologues, became more widespread; new regulations made plants more complex and expensive; and new-plant licensing became nearly impossible. Companies cancelled their nuclear plant orders. Reactor manufacturers and equipment suppliers laid off employees. Fuel producers closed their mines and mills. Universities eliminated their nuclear engineering programs. The industry stagnated, with no new U.S. nuclear power projects initiated in the ensuing 25+ years.

Now, politicians’ concerns have turned to energy security, as instability in the Middle East has deteriorated into a series of crises affecting U.S. fuel supplies. The recent massive failure of the transmission system in the Northeast focused even more attention on the need for a reliable energy supply. Encouraged by ever-improving performance of nuclear plants and their demonstrated safe and economical operation, the U.S. Senate proposed an Energy Bill containing several elements to start the nuclear roller coaster on the upslope, again. Policy-makers now appear ready to encourage nuclear plant construction.

As long as the industry is at the mercy of the political winds, its health will be in doubt. Who will make the 50-year commitment of capital for new plants when the politically-correct position may change in 20 years? Who will commit to a 40-year career in nuclear engineering if unemployment looms in 20 years? Without the massive investment required, and without the people to build and run the plants, there can be no nuclear renaissance.

Nuclear medicine and the industrial radiation uses President Eisenhower envisioned 50 years ago have thrived because they have not been politicized. In contrast, politicians have spent 50 years alternately supporting and condemning nuclear power. The current support for nuclear energy in Washington is encouraging. But as long as the industry’s future remains at the mercy of people whose planning horizon doesn’t go past the next election, the roller coaster ride will probably continue.