Spring 2009

Nuclear Solution

Spring 2010 cover
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When author Gwyneth Cravens (Power to Save the World, published by Vintage, 2008) brought her message of conversion to Oregon State University in February, she found an engaged, congenial audience. The former editor at Harper’s and The New Yorker had been opposed to nuclear power until she learned more about the industry and compared its record to that of coal and other fossil fuels. She advocates for renewables such as solar and wind, but with an urgent need to meet increasing global energy demands and to reduce carbon emissions, she sees nuclear energy as a critical part of the solution.

Wading into this debate is not for the timid. It brings up memories of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, in the Northwest, battles over Oregon’s Trojan plant and the overly ambitious Washington Public Power Supply System (nicknamed Whoops) project. Blog posts and media stories focus on myriad topics from uranium mining to power station economics and nuclear weapons. And then there are the technical details about grid reliability, co-generation, baseload power and other issues. Bringing up nuclear energy, even OSU’s radically new approach, to those of us who have stayed out of the fray usually leads to questions about waste and safety. Oregon is one of eight states that prohibit new nuclear power plants until a permanent waste repository is constructed.

Much as opponents might like, nuclear technology is not going away. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 436 nuclear power stations produce 16 percent of the world’s electricity. There are 44 nuclear stations under construction, including six in China (using a “passively safe” design tested at OSU). The U.S. Department of Energy suggests that global electricity demand could double by 2050. The Obama administration calls nuclear power a necessary component of policies to reduce climate change.

As our cover story notes, OSU is a leader in the responsible development of this energy source. The Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics addresses concerns about safety, waste and proliferation. Chinese engineers train here to prepare for their country’s nuclear power expansion.

A spinoff company, NuScale Power, is leading commercial development of OSU research with a small-scale, modular design that, if approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, could offer investors and communities a flexible alternative to megaprojects.

People tend to have strong opinions about nuclear, pro or con. Gwyneth Cravens has shown that opinions can change when facts temper fears.

— Nick Houtman

Editor