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The 100-Year Gap in Understanding

William Tucker, author of the forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy, blogged here earlier this week about nuclear power. This is his last of three guest posts here on the subject.

When I was in college I took a course on the great political philosophers. Soon I had them all lined up with their respective eras: Hobbes and the 18th-century monarchies, Locke and the American Revolution, Kant and 19th-century nation-states.

Then I chanced to see a timeline of their births and deaths. To my amazement, each had lived 100 years before I had placed him. The lesson seemed plain. It takes about 100 years for ideas to enter history.

It has been the same with nuclear power. The potential of nuclear energy was first formulated in 1905 in Einstein‘s famous equation, E=mc2. Most people know it by now. Mariah Carey even named her latest album after it. But its true significance has not yet been recognized.

E=mc2 says that energy is created out of matter. Chemical energy comes from the transformation of very small amounts of matter in the electron shells, which contain one eighteen-hundredth of the mass of an atom. But most of the atom’s mass is in the nucleus and the energy stored there is two million times greater.

To most people, this has meant “big, big bombs.” But the more important implication is “small, small environmental impact.”

A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.

By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.

It all seems too good to be true. People conjure up all kinds of nightmare scenarios just to compensate. Yet the reality remains: nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign discovery ever made.