On March 28, 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in unit-2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. The partial meltdown resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases including iodine into the environment. A vast literature of epidemiological studies have concluded that there have been no observable health effects as a result of the meltdown. Nonetheless, the TMI disaster shut the door on a world that could have been.
After a hiatus on nuclear power development in the United States for some time, concerns of climate change firmly embedded in the public conscience have fostered a concerted effort globally and at home to “decarbonize,” and nuclear energy is back on the menu!
President Biden has set aggressive 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals of more than 50%. In order to accomplish this goal, the President aims to accelerate electrification of our economy while weaning us off fossil fuels in the process. The challenge widens when considering that wind and solar fulfill approximately 10% of U.S. electricity demand. Couple this with unproven large-scale batteries and required overhaul of the electric grid and the problem barely begins to come into focus. Simply put, a green energy revolution is nearly impossible, but we can protect American energy security and significantly reduce emissions with increased investment and innovation in nuclear power.
Ahead of his time, Oak Ridge Lab Director, Dr. Alvin Weinberg noted that the first nuclear era would have been successful if a greater focus had been placed on operational safety and spent nuclear fuel management. Indeed, Weinberg’s Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) successfully operated for over 6000 hours without incident and was a showcase for the future. Decades later, Weinberg, who invented the ubiquitous pressurized water reactor, was noted as saying that if he were to do it all over again, he would have focused on the waste first. Thankfully, there are innovators today in our national labs and private industry that might be on the verge of solving our waste problems.
With Weinberg’s departure from the lab, the seed of the thorium fuel cycle, Uranium-233 (U-233), sat at Oak Ridge National Lab mostly forgotten. With the discussion on a closed fuel cycle dimming, the Department of Energy deemed the U-233 waste and transferred ownership to the Office of Environmental Management DOE’s trash collectors. However, it has become clear that U-233 is a very unique and valuable material. It has the potential to revolutionize both clean energy and cancer treatment, a truth that is not lost to our geopolitical adversaries, most importantly China. Aggressively pursuing thorium molten-salt reactor technology, China’s next-gen aircraft carriers, now under construction, will be powered by American thorium-reactor technology. Making matters worse for America’s prospects, the CCP claims they will be deploying commercial-scale thorium reactors by 2030. Considering the TMSR program to be one of the “perfect technologies” for their Belt and Road initiative, China plans to own the future. Meanwhile, America doesn’t even have the capability to create High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (or HALEU) for the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) recipients, who are reliant on Russia. Moreover, we do not research alternative fuel cycle reactors, like plutonium and thorium for peaceful purposes, nor do we recycle our nuclear fuel like many other countries.
France, Japan, Russia, China and others have solutions for the back-end of their nuclear fuel cycle, but here in the U.S. nuclear fuel recycling has been all but banned since the Carter administration. The law of the land calls for a geologic repository, and with the failed Yucca Mountain project, it’s clearly not a workable solution anymore. We call the valuable nuclear fuel “waste” and expect citizens to store it in their “backyard.”
Whereas other countries have been building reactors at a rapid pace, our Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is no longer in the business of licensing reactors, and its needless regulations have been making nuclear power expensive, stifling American innovation, and holding back the nuclear reactors of tomorrow.
Dr. Alvin Weinberg once said, “to deny the rebirth of nuclear energy is to deny human ingenuity and aspiration.” With the promise of a second nuclear era beckoning, we must ask ourselves, will it be China or the U.S. that will be holding the keys to a future of abundant clean energy. Without a refocus of our system, closing the fuel cycle with recycling and advancing a plethora of advanced nuclear technologies to leapfrog our competition, I fear we may already know the answer.
• Senator Roger Marshall, M.D., Kansas Republican, serves on the Energy and Natural Resources; Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committees. He is a 5th generation farm kid growing up in Butler County and received his Medical Doctorate from the University of Kansas. Dr. Marshall served in the Army Reserves for seven years and practiced medicine in Great Bend for more than 25 years.