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People should not be afraid of using nuclear energy

Alternative energy source is not as dangerous as it seems and may solve climate change problems

By Frank Chen

The Daily Bruin Science and Health articles published on March 30 reflect the great concern the general public has about nuclear power, a sensitivity heightened by the tsunami damage to the Fukushima reactors in Japan.

Nuclear power is actually very safe, and our energy future would be quite dismal without it. Many countries depend on nuclear power and have had no accidents.

For instance, France uses nuclear power for 75 percent of its electricity, Sweden 37 percent and South Korea 35 percent. Fukushima is the third large accident after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. A Chernobyl can only happen in a society without regulation. Three Mile Island was worse than Fukushima, but no one was killed.

In comparison, coal mining kills about 3,000 per year in China alone, and cars about 40,000 per year in the U.S. Statistically, in the case of Three Mile Island, a well-regulated nuclear industry should cause only 0.00007 deaths per 100,000 people per year, compared to 16 for motor vehicle accidents, 0.4 for airplanes and 5.2 for falls.

It’s only the uncertainty of radiation that’s so frightening. You never know if something you ate had something in it that can raise your chance of cancer by 10 percent. But we take a chance like that every time we eat sushi.

Generation III reactors are much safer than the old types, which had problems. Most of these still use pressurized water for cooling and neutron slowing-down, but they are designed to be safe without human intervention or uninterruptible power. Generation IV reactors, such as pebble-bed reactors that have racquet-ball sized fuel elements that neatly contain all the safety features inside, are also safe.

Of course, one can never be completely protected against a natural disaster like a volcano eruption or a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. But we must not let these events prevent us from securing our future energy.

The U.S. gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Imagine what it would be like to lose that 20 percent.

It’s equivalent to having a blackout one night out of five. No television, no Internet, no cooking and studying only by candlelight.

Temporary power, like solar and wind, cannot be stored. Hydro and geothermal sources are not found everywhere. Auxiliary power cannot replace central-station power that is on all the time.

Besides nuclear, only fossil-fuel burning plants can provide such “backbone” power, and those contribute to climate change. No coal plants have been converted to capture the global-warming gases that they emit.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Fusion reactors, which use a plasma to convert hydrogen to helium using only water as a fuel, can generate electricity without the problems of pollution, meltdown, proliferation and waste storage. They can solve both the energy and climate change problems at the same time.

It’s not easy, but progress has matched Moore’s Law for computer chips. Seven nations are collaborating to build the ITER experimental reactor in Cadarache, France.

It will take a lot of time and a lot of money before fusion can come online, and we need nuclear reactors to keep our lights on in the meantime. So let’s not be scared of nuclear power. It’s safe, and it’s our best option in the near future.

Chen is a professor emeritus in the electrical engineering department.

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