In the United States the debate on whether nuclear power plants are the answer for an energy hungry society is sharpening as the Arab oil boycott begins to bite.
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Background: In the United States the debate on whether nuclear power plants are the answer for an energy hungry society is sharpening as the Arab oil boycott begins to bite.
There is a new intensity in the attempt to balance the cost of nuclear plants, and their possible risk, against the need for power.
Recently President Nixon urged the Nuclear Energy Commission to speed up the granting of licenses to nuclear plants.
But at the moment the United States uses 30 per cent of the world's energy and its 39 working nuclear plants produce only 4 per cent of America's needs. Fifty five are under construction with 76 more in the planning state. Yet by the year 2,000 the most optimistic prediction is that they might be producing 55 per cent of what is needed.
Many of these plants are seen by some scientists and non-scientists as potential environmental time bobs which carry the seeds of disaster.
Each has more radiative material than 2,000 of the first nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. and although experts agree a nuclear type explosion is unlikely, the dangers of a "melt down" are believed to be just as frightening and less remote.
If the nuclear core which contain the fuel were to be deprived, because of an accident, of the water which keeps it cool, the fuel could melt. Nothing could hold it and there would be a massive release of radioactive material into the environment. One such catastrophe, it has been estimated, could leave 45,000 dead, 100,000 injured and contaminate most of the state it was situated in.
Yet there seems no easy answer. Oil, when it is available, pollutes the seas when it is transported and the air when it is burned. The mining of coal ravages the countryside.
The dilemmas have led many to look to the sun for a solution. Solar energy has been successfully used to power space craft. But using straight thermal conversion has its practical disadvantages. Twenty miles of countryside would have to be paved with thermal absorbers to equal the output of one nuclear station.
So although there is still a question mark over the nuclear power plants. Experts say it is clear they will have to cope with a large part of the United States' power problem. For the balance there is now an urgent need of new forms of energy as yet undiscovered.
SYNOPSIS: As the oil boycott bites deeper, the people of the United States are only too aware of the needs of their energy hungry society. They consume thirty per cent of the world's power and can produce nothing like so much.
Many look to nuclear power for the answer President Nixon recently called for the speeding up of the licensing of new nuclear power plants. The United states' thirty nine nuclear plants produce only four per cent of the country's needs.
Although another fifty five are under construction and seventy six more are at the planning stage, by the turn of the century nuclear power is expected to produce only half America's needs. And the cost could be astronomical.
Scientists agree there is little danger of a nuclear type explosion. The risk is one of massive radio-active contamination.
The core of the nuclear plants is cooled by water. If the supply of water stopped for any reason he fuel would melt. Nothing then could stop nuclear activity escaping into the environment. One such catastrophe could leave forty five thousand dead, one hundred thousand injured, apart from the threat of genetic damage to an unborn generation.
To run nuclear power plants safely, perfection is required.
Many fear infallibility cannot last for ever.
The obvious standby is traditional coal. It can now be converted into oil or gas and American reserves are large.
But its extraction ravages the country side and its burning belches smoke into the atmosphere.
The United States search for energy has turned towards the sun. But powering a space craft is simple compared with powering a city with solar energy.
A brighter hope is the new generation of fast breeder nuclear reactors. They burn one type of uranium and at the same time produce electricity and "bread" a different form of nuclear fuel to be used again.
As experts try to tread delicately between economic necessity and safety they say the need is for forms of energy as yet unknown.