National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
URANIUM Too hot to handle? P ENNSYLVANIA, which saw the birth of the oil industry, has also witnessed milestones in U. S. nuclear development-from the first commercial reactor at Shippingportin 1957 to the highly publicized nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. In the wake of the accident, public attention has become sharply focused on this energy source and its radioactive fuel that generates a tenth of our electricity. Doubts intensified by this incident make the future of nuclear power unclear. The energy uranium holds is awesome. A pound of enriched fuel contains nearly three million times the energy in a pound of coal. Its radioactive power demands elaborate precautions during plant construction and operation and in the safe disposal of waste-still an unsolved problem and a subject of anxious study both here and abroad. More than a quarter of the world's uranium underlies the western United States, primarily in New Mexico and Wyoming. Estimates suggest that these reserves could power all domestic reactors now operating, plus those under construction and in the planning stage, for their 30-yearlifespans. Last year the nation's 300 uranium mines gouged out some 20 million tons of ore. From each ton, mills and enrichment plants concentrate a few ounces of radioactive uranium 235, the isotope that the reactor splits to release the atom's enormous energy. When the reactor boom blossomed in the early 1970s, utilities ordered a hundred plants in three years, and optimists envisioned 1,500 reactors generating thousands of megawatts by the year 2000. Then escalating electricity costs and the Arab oil embargo coupled with quickening conservation efforts, rising inflation, and plant costs slaked energy demand. Reactor orders dropped. Increasing health and environmental worries forced further plant delays. As a result, the American uranium industry has fallen upon hard times, and miners have been laid off. Yet nuclear energy has carved a vital niche, especially in New England and the Midwest. Reactors produce 80 percent of the electricity in Vermont, 60 percent of Maine's electric power, half of that in Connecticut and Nebraska. Outside the U. S., 21 nations operate 166 reactors, with the densest concentration in Europe. Research abroad and at home promises substantial improvements in reactor efficiency. In addition, recycling of spent uranium can recover much of the nearly one-third of the uranium 235 thatis not consumed during a conventional operation. The breederreactor, which produces more fuel than it uses, is already operating in four foreign countries. Breeders could multiply the reactor fuel supply 70-fold. But breeders convert uranium to plutonium reactor fuel, only a few pounds of which are needed to make a powerful bomb. Many fear nuclear weapons proliferation, and breeder development is stalled in the U. S. With uranium, as with so many other fuel alternatives, the raw material and technology are already at hand. The question is not can we, but will we. RECOVERING ENERGY FROM NUCLEAR FUEL The amount of energy a reactor can extract from the available energy in the fuel. LIGHT ADVANCED WATER CONVERTER REACTOR REACTOR 1% 3% Most U. S. reactors are of the light water type, while Canada has developed a more efficient advanced converter. The U.S. is still debating the future of its breeder program. 77172737475767778 The sharp decline in plant orders reflects higher plant costs, reduced electrical demand through conservation, tighter regulations, and increasing public opposition.