Go nuclear! That’s not only William Tucker’s suggestion to scientists — it’s also the key to securing America’s energy future. In his latest book, Terrestrial Energy, Tucker argues that nuclear power has the potential to revitalize America’s industrial economy with cheap, clean electricity. Below, he answers questions from National Review Online.
NRO: The title of your book: Terrestrial Energy – what’s that supposed to mean?
TUCKER: Terrestrial energy means nuclear energy comes from the earth, as opposed to the sun. We get 99 percent of our energy from the sun, but a small portion is also available from the heat of the earth. The internal temperatures of the earth reach 12,000degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. No one is exactly sure of the figure, but at least 50 percent, maybe as much as 90 percent, of that heat comes from the radioactive breakdown of uranium and thorium atoms in the earth’s crust. It’s an amazing testament to the power of nuclear energy. Together they form only about 0.000012 percent of the earth’s crust, yet they produce all that heat. It has always aggravated me that people tend to group together geothermal and solar as “alternative and renewable.” Geothermal energy is actually nuclear energy. I thought the term “terrestrial energy” expressed this best.
NRO: What’s holding up nuclear now? Why is it so difficult to get anything done in this country, when places like France and Japan are moving ahead?
TUCKER: A lot of it has to do with a sense of necessity. When the French went nuclear in the 1970s, they had a slogan: “We don’t have any oil, but we’ve got ideas.” Our slogan was, “We don’t have any ideas, but we’ve got lots of coal.” Pres. Jimmy Carter made a deliberate decision to abandon nuclear and promote coal. After all, we were the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” He promised we would double coal consumption to a billion tons a year by 2000, which is exactly what we did. At the time, nobody even thought of worrying about carbon dioxide.
The Japanese faced the same decision. They have no coal or oil and knew they needed something else. At the time, anti-nuclear people were arguing that nuclear power was a bastard technology of the bomb, and the only reason we were developing it was a sense of guilt over Hiroshima. Japan now gets a greater portion of its electricity from nuclear than we do, so you can see how legitimate that argument was. South Korea also has a very large nuclear component. Right now, of the 44 reactors under construction in the world, 28 are in Asia.
As for why nuclear is still moving so slowly in this country, I think we have a tremendous sense of overconfidence about our place in the world right now. We don’t think we have to hustle to get ahead. I was at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2006 and the Chinese delegation came through looking for advice on picking a nuclear technology. They finally chose Westinghouse — which, by the way, was subsequently bought by Toshiba. Those reactors are now under construction. With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s glacial pace of review, and all the expected court challenges, it’ll be at least five years before we get shovels into the ground.
NRO: Is this all just bureaucracy or is there something particular about nuclear?
TUCKER: It’s both. With all the environmental and regulatory reviews, it’s hard to do anything anymore in this country – except, perhaps, put up a windmill. I’m amused when President Obama talks about rebuilding the electrical grid in order to bring wind and solar power from remote parts of the country. Utility companies say the only thing more difficult than trying to build a power plant in this country is trying to build a new transmission line. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a special case. It’s under such pressure because of fear of nuclear, it has tremendous incentive to follow the classic bureaucratic tactic — ask for more data, delay, and delay. It has beefed up its staff and is making a good effort at keeping these licensing procedures moving, but it’s still going to take three years to get a license application through the mill, and then anti-nuclear activists are rubbing their hands with glee, waiting to take them to court.
NRO: What about the costs? Haven’t nuclear reactors become ridiculously expensive? Is Wall Street really going to invest? Why does the government have to help out on these projects?