April 29, 2004

Profs Debate Nuclear Power

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Should the U.S. build new nuclear power plants? Prof. Bingham Cady, theoretical and applied mechanics, and Prof. Duane Chapman, applied economics and management, presented strong support for opposing sides of this issue in a debate held last night by the Cornell University Renewable Energy Society and the Cornell Economics Society.

According to CURES President David Colle ’05, the debaters were chosen in memory of their participation in a similar debate, held in 1982 before a nearly full Bailey Hall.

Yesterday’s event was publicized as a “rematch” of the historic debate, with Cady again arguing for the construction of new nuclear power plants and Chapman arguing against the use of nuclear power. About 70 students attended.

Before the debate began, moderator Leili Fatehi ’05 of the Cornell Policy Debate Club gave an introduction explaining that the 103 nuclear power plants that produce 20 percent of America’s electricity are aging rapidly. As many as half of these plants, she said, may be closed in the next couple decades, and all existing licenses will expire within the next 15 years.

Although nuclear energy is extremely controversial, Fatehi said, “the U.S. must now decide nuclear energy’s role in the new millennium. Most fundamental is whether or not to replace aging facilities by building new power plants in the United States.”

After this introduction, the debate was organized into opening statements and rebuttals from each debater, followed by a question and answer session with the audience and closing remarks.

Cady began by addressing the safety of nuclear power plants and the radioactive wastes that they produce. “Radioactivity is everywhere,” he said, waving a beeping Geiger counter in the air and then using it to demonstrate the radioactivity of a number of objects, including a fiesta ware bowl and a smoke detector. Even people are radioactive, he said, due to the radioactive potassium in their bodies.

While the radioactive wastes produced by nuclear power plants can be dangerous to people who ingest them or are in close contact with them, Cady said, the alpha radiation that they produce cannot harm anyone from a distance. After hundreds of years of nuclear decay in protected containment sites, such as that at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, these materials are no more dangerous than those found naturally in the Earth, he said.

Chapman also discussed the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants, saying that the plutonium-239 that they produce has a half-life of 20,000 years, and that the waste must be stored in protected areas for between 500,000 and a million years. If we increase our use of nuclear power, he said, we will need to find more storage sites for the waste the reactors produce.

Heat produced by the decaying radioactive materials, he said, can cause the tunnels in storage facilities to melt and collapse so that, although extreme precaution is taken, the materials might not remain adequately contained.

If one ten-thousandth of a gram of the plutonium in the radioactive waste were to stay in a person’s body, Chapman said, that person would have a 50 percent chance of developing cancer.

Chapman also expressed concern that nuclear power plants and the transportation of the reactants and products associated with them provide great opportunity for disaster to strike in the form of an accident or terrorist attack. Radioactive materials could escape and be spread, he said, if terrorists were to attack a nuclear power plant or the trucks that carry its wastes to containment sites.

Chapman introduced the fact that some of the same materials used in nuclear reactors can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Fifteen to twenty pounds of the same uranium-235 used in nuclear power plants would be enough to make a suitcase bomb with destructive power equal to that of the bomb that demolished Nagasaki, he said.

He related that the accident at Chernobyl affected 60,000 square miles, caused 60 deaths within the first two weeks of its occurrence, and contributed to 24,000 premature deaths and 3.5 million illnesses.

Cady responded to these concerns, saying that it is unlikely that materials from nuclear reactors would ever be used to produce nuclear weapons because this would require centrifuges and other technology and might be very dangerous to those making the weapons. He added that the United States is a responsible country and would not likely have this problem.

Chapman emphasized that, whatever advances Cady hopes for, the construction of nuclear power plants is currently extremely expensive. The stranded cost of building nuclear reactors may account for as much as a third of what consumers pay for electricity, he said, despite the fact that no new reactors have been built in the past thirty years.

In closing, Chapman said that, although we must accept that renewable energy sources can be expensive and inefficient, they are safe for both people and the environment and are therefore a better choice than nuclear energy.

If we were to use the same intellectual talent and some of the money that we use in the study of nuclear energy, to improve the use of renewable energy sources, he said, we could improve the reliability and cost effectiveness of these energy sources.

Cady finished, saying that there is no way to eliminate the need for nuclear power and that “no true environmentalist would come out against nuclear power.”

Archived article by Marianne Spatz
Sun Contributor