Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1118:
NUCLEAR POWER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1118.

Today, let's talk about nuclear power in America. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Philip Abelson, retired editor of Science magazine, returns to write a guest editorial on nuclear power [1]. He documents America's decline in that field. We so abhor the idea of nuclear weapons that we've let the nuclear generation of electricity drift out of focus. But power and weapons are not the same thing.

America has 110 nuclear power plants. They generate 20 percent of our energy. Take that away and we'd be in deep trouble. At the same time, we haven't authorized a new one since 1986. Why?

The 1979 Three-Mile-Island incident served as a focal point for rising anti-nuclear sentiment. Shortly before that I did some work for the power industry. And I watched the federal regulation of nuclear power growing more and more bizarre. For example:

In the mid-70s someone in government asked if a tornado could pick up a telephone pole and hurl it, like a spear, at a nuclear plant. So Sandia Lab shot poles at concrete walls. To be safe, they made them much larger than real telephone poles and launched them at almost twice the highest wind-speed of any real tornado. In the end we were assured reactors could withstand even that assault.

By the 1980s, federal regulations were running nuclear costs skyward. Red tape extended the time required to build a plant to ten years. Finally, the industry could no longer make money with nuclear power. They quit building plants and they've quit developing the technology. The crowning irony is, as engineers focused their energy entirely on satisfying regulations, they abandoned all thought of inventing safer nuclear power.

Now the mantle has passed to Europe and Asia. A third of Japan's power is nuclear. Korea and Taiwan are rapidly building reactors. So's China. Those new plants are more efficient, more reliable and much safer than our 30-year-old reactors. And as Europe and Asia modernize, we regress. In 1978, 80 U.S. universities taught nuclear engineering. Now we're down to 35. Our expertise is drying up along with the industry itself.

Environmental irresponsibility and low costs have driven us back to cheap fossil fuel systems. They pose terrible toxic waste disposal problems and they're devastating to the ecology. Meanwhile, environmental tunnel-vision has demonized nuclear power -- equated it to Chernobyl. But the primitive, badly-built Chernobyl reactor had little to do with modern reactors.

And what about renewable energy -- from the wind, sun, and tides? Of course, similar shortsightedness has kept us from developing that as develop it we must. Those systems still have far to go. The new generation of nuclear power plants exists today. They do less damage than fossil fuel plants and they're even to the point where they can produce cheaper power.

We'll catch on soon enough. But then we'll find ourselves buying quality off-the-shelf reactors -- from Japan and France.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


1. Abelson, P.H., Nuclear Power in East Asia. Science, Vol. 272, 26 April, 1996, p. 465.

For more on the dilemma of nuclear power, see Episodes 126, 402, 673, 713, 1043, and 1097.


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