Even before the colossal oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlighted the downsides of fossil fuels (as if we needed reminding), nuclear energy was looking better to me. In a previous post, I bashed Barack Obama for trying to revive nuclear power. Nuclear energy materials, equipment and expertise can be diverted toward building nuclear weapons, I fretted, and every reactor and waste repository represents a potential dirty bomb. I reiterated these anxieties in an online chat on Bloggingheads.tv, a segment of which was aired by The New York Times.

Then Rod Adams e-mailed me. Adams is a U.S. Navy officer who served on nuclear submarines, founded a firm to promote small reactors and blogs about nuclear power at Atomic Insights (highly recommended). Adams asked if I would like to talk to him on Bloggingheads.tv, and I said sure. Here are some of the major points that Adams made in our conversation:

  • Nuclear energy, far from undermining anti-proliferation efforts, can supplement them. Shortly after the cold war ended, the U.S. started buying warheads from Russia and converting the weapons-grade uranium into fuel suitable for commercial reactors. This so-called Megatons to Megawatts Program has eliminated 15,000 Russian warheads in the past 18 years. Ten percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. in the past decade stems from Russian warheads. The program will soon start consuming Russian plutonium as well as uranium. "It's an amazing example of beating swords into plowshares," Adams said.

  • Nuclear waste can be viewed as a feature, not a bug, of nuclear energy. First of all, spent fuel rods from a typical plant cannot easily be converted into weapons-grade explosives. "The mixture of isotopes is just way too complicated to be able to effectively do that," Adams said. But spent reactor fuel, which still contains more than 90 percent of its potential energy, can be reprocessed to make it reusable as fuel. "There is an enormous amount of energy in the 60,000 or so tons of used nuclear material in the U.S.," Adams said. The 900,000 tons of uranium waste generated by the U.S. nuclear weapons program represents an even larger potential source of energy, "more than all our oil, coal and natural gas combined," Adams said.

  • Terrorists cannot easily blow up nuclear plants to create dirty bombs. Reactor vessels and waste-containment pools are heavily guarded, and they offer much smaller targets for planes than the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which terrorists struck on 9/11. If a plane did smash into a reactor containment shell, it would probably not penetrate it; the shells typically consist of concrete three to four feet thick, reinforced by iron rebar as thick as a man's forearm. In a test by Sandia National Laboratory, an F4 jet, which is more dense than a commercial airliner, simply vaporized when it struck a reinforced concrete wall. (Some commenters on Adams's blog have questioned the validity of this test.)

  • The spread of nuclear power need not lead to nuclear weapons proliferation. Many countries that have nuclear power plants do not possess weapons. And almost every country that has nuclear weapons today acquired them before acquiring nuclear reactors. (Some commenters on Adams's blog have pointed out that India is an exception to this rule.) More importantly, nuclear power can promote peace by making nations less reliant on outside sources for energy. "You can write the history of world conflicts over the past 100 years as a battle over resources," Adams said.

  • Nuclear energy is cheaper as well as cleaner than fossil fuels. Adams cited these statistics from the (obviously pro-nuke) Nuclear Energy Institute: The average production cost from a U.S. nuclear power plant in 2008 was 1.87 cents per kilowatt-hour, much less than coal (2.75 cents) or natural gas (8.09 cents). The nuclear energy costs, Adams noted, include "labor, material and supplies, contractor services, licensing fees, and miscellaneous costs such as employee expenses and regulatory fees…amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value." Adams thinks that the costs of nuclear power could be reduced much further by small, mass-produced reactors.

I still dream of a breakthrough in solar energy that gives us a truly clean, cheap, inexhaustible source of energy. But because of Rod Adams, I'm giving nuclear power a closer look.



John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

 Image: Los Alamos National Laboratory

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.