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Why nuclear power still matters

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Environment and energy writer Bill Tucker says nuclear energy is here to stay, and America needs to embrace it, not shun it to stay ahead in innovation on the global stage.

Despite the political fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, we shouldn't give up on nuclear energy, William Tucker says.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Tucker -- environment and energy reporter and author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey -- urges Americans to scale back the knee-jerk reaction to nuclear power as dangerous, expensive and unfit for use as an alternative energy source to fossil fuels.

The reason? Because "there are no better alternatives available" -- fossil fuels are, by comparison, exceedingly unsustainable.

He writes:

Uranium fuel rods sit in a reactor core for five years. During that time six ounces of their weight—six ounces!—will be completely transformed into energy. But the energy produced by that transformation will be enough to power a city the size of San Francisco for five years.

A coal plant must be fed by a 100-car freight train arriving every 30 hours. A nuclear reactor is refueled by a fleet of six trucks arriving once every two years. There are 283 coal mines in West Virginia and 449 in Kentucky. There are only 45 uranium mines in the entire world. Russia is offering to supply uranium to most of the developing world with the output from one mine. That is why the environmental impact of nuclear is infinitely smaller.

It's not just fossil fuels, either. Tucker outlines the case against other alternatives that have made headlines recently:

  • Natural gas. "Fracking has been able to proceed so rapidly only because it has been exempted from federal regulations governing air and water pollution."
  • Hydro power. "A hydroelectric dam must back up a 250-square-mile reservoir in order to generate the same electricity produced by a reactor on one square mile."
  • Wind energy. "Replacing just one of the two 1,000-megawatt reactors at Indian Point in Westchester County, N.Y., would require lining the Hudson River from New York to Albany with 45-story windmills one-quarter mile apart."
  • Solar energy. "It would take 20 square miles of highly polished mirrors or photovoltaic cells to equal the output of one nuclear reactor."

Tucker says that America needs to bite the bullet and innovate in nuclear technology, instead of raising its collective nose up at it. At stake: national energy security, and the possibility that Russia or China will surpass the U.S. in the export of useful energy technology.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure