Editorials, Opinion

Consider before lifting nuclear ban

The West Virginia Legislature will be considering lifting the state’s nuclear energy ban this session.

If images of Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima flashed through your mind, you are not alone. Nuclear energy makes many of us skittish. There’s no doubt nuclear power offers incredible benefits — but there can also be high costs.

Nuclear power production starts with mining uranium. According to the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, there are six mines in the U.S. that provide uranium, but the ore is extremely diluted, which means the U.S. imports most of its uranium for its existing nuclear power plants.

Anything that needs mined, as West Virginia has come to know all too well, is a finite resource. That means “new” uranium will eventually run out, and the mining process itself leads to a variety of environmental (water contamination) and health (lung disease) problems.

The kind of uranium that is usually found in the earth’s crust is not immediately useable for nuclear power production: It has to be enriched from U-238 to U-235. This is a complex process involving chemistry, gases and/or centrifuges. 

Here’s where the nuclear energy discussion becomes relevant to West Virginia: Nuclear power plants operate very similarly to coal-fired power plants. Both types of plants use heat from a fuel source to turn water into steam; the steam powers turbines that generate electricity. The main difference is one burns coal and the other uses heat from nuclear fission (atoms splitting apart). Theoretically, parts of existing coal plants could be reused in new nuclear plants, according to Scott Madden Management Consultants. Because of the similarities, coal workers can be easily cross-trained to work at nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy has its pros — especially for a region looking to kick its coal dependency — but also its cons.

While the nuclear fission process itself is “zero-carbon,” the entire nuclear energy cycle still produces    emissions, though less than coal or natural gas. The UM Center for Sustainable Systems says, “The life cycle [greenhouse gas]  intensity of nuclear power is estimated to be 34-60 gCO2e/kWh — far below baseload sources such as coal (1,001 gCO2e/kWh).” However, renewables such as solar, wind and hydro produce even fewer emissions than nuclear.

We’ve already mentioned mining uranium, which we’d count as a “con.” That said, there is an alternative: Nuclear weapons can and have been converted for nuclear power use for at least a decade.  If West Virginia is going to seriously consider bringing nuclear energy to the state, then it should require the plants to use uranium from nuclear warheads instead of freshly mined.

Legislators will also need to know ahead of time what will happen to the waste — much of nuclear waste stays dangerously radioactive for sometimes thousands of years. Most often, the waste is stored on-site, in dry storage casks.

There is some hope for recycling “used” uranium. According to the article “Recycling Nuclear Waste and Breeder Reactors,” the U-238 left over when all the U-235 is used up can be converted to Plutonium-239, which is also useable in nuclear reactors. However, the U.S. does not currently recycle nuclear waste. So while the possibility to recycle exists, most nuclear waste is kept in storage, as described above. And, at the moment, there is no good long-term solution for getting rid of radioactive waste.

All of this means West Virginia’s legislators — and residents — have much to consider before lifting the state’s nuclear energy ban.