Extreme Makeover

Is nuclear power 'green'?

Environmentalists surfing the Web must have blinked their eyes in disbelief in April 2006 when Patrick Moore, environmental activist and cofounder of Greenpeace, began advocating for nuclear power.

Conceding that in the early 1970s he and his Greenpeace compatriots had viewed nuclear power as synonymous with nuclear holocaust, a 30-years-older Moore was espousing an entirely new opinion and calling on others to join him: "My views have changed," Moore wrote in 2006, "and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.

"Look at it this way," he continued, "More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions—or nearly 10 percent of global emissions—of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely."

Fellow environmentalist and former publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, jumped on Moore's bandwagon, telling the New York Times in 2007 that he regretted how he and his fellow environmentalists had created so much fear of nuclear power.

"There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power," Brand told Times reporter John Tierney, "But now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective. Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don't know where it is and you don't know what it's doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody's atmosphere."

At the time, Brand also was raising awareness about the need for "green nuclear engineers" to help build and run future nuclear power plants.

Audeen Fentiman, professor of nuclear engineering, serving in a courtesy appointment as professor of construction engineering and management, says the need for nuclear engineers and construction engineers with expertise in nuclear power facilities is critical and growing worldwide, but is particularly acute in the United States.

Fentiman, who also is associate dean of engineering for graduate education and interdisciplinary programs, says that because there was a lack of demand for new nuclear power employees during the final decades of the 20th century, the field didn't grow.

"No nuclear power plants have been ordered in the U.S. for the past three decades," she says. "There has been little need for new employees at nuclear facilities. Now the people who have been working in the industry are reaching retirement age just as the industry is on the verge of expansion worldwide.

"But because there was so little demand for new employees between 1980 and 2000, half of the nuclear engineering programs at U.S. universities closed down and several of the programs that remained went to work on nuclear medicine or other applications of nuclear science and technology.

"Purdue is one of the very, very few that kept its nuclear reactor running, kept its program going, and kept its focus on nuclear power."

That consistency of curriculum has paid off for Purdue's College of Engineering, whose nuclear engineering program is ready to accommodate the uptick in student interest in light of nuclear power's new green image.

"At Purdue, we are educating three times the number of undergraduates in nuclear that we were five or six years ago," Fentiman says. "Nuclear engineering pays quite well. Students think, ‘Here's something green, exciting and new, and it pays well.'"

And those students are likely to find that jobs are plentiful, given an August 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy. The report stated that "Nuclear energy must play a significant and growing role in our nation's—and the world's—energy portfolio."

Signed by the directors of the DOE's national laboratories, the report also stated that nuclear power, which now provides 16 percent of the world's electricity, should be further exploited to provide hydrogen and high-temperature process heat as well as electricity: "It is the only existing technology with capability for major expansion that can simultaneously provide stability for base-load electricity, security through reliable fuel supply, and environmental stewardship by avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Furthermore, it has proven reliability (greater than 90 percent capacity factor), exemplary safety, and operational economy through improved performance.

"Nuclear energy has great potential for contributing more to our broader energy needs, however. For example, nuclear energy could supplement or even supplant fossil fuels by providing the electricity for electric-powered vehicles, or it could be used to generate hydrogen for vehicles that utilize hydrogen fuel cells. Nuclear energy could also help to generate high-temperature process heat, provide a valuable input for feedstock to chemical production and aid in the production of freshwater from seawater and contaminated surface and groundwater sources."

With the prospect of growing opportunities in the field of nuclear power plant construction, Makarand "Mark" Hastak, head of CEM, is working to build interdisciplinary educational programs so that CEM students and nuclear engineering students have easy access to curricula in both disciplines. The aim is to offer Purdue engineering students the educational background to succeed in the highly specialized field of nuclear power plant construction engineering management.

In addition, in fall 2009, CEM will make a minor available to all engineering students. Students of nuclear engineering or any engineering discipline who pursue a CEM minor will be required to participate in two internship programs. The requirement for CEM majors is three internships.

"In the area of nuclear power plant construction, we hope to work with our sponsor companies doing work in nuclear construction to help students learn how industry is providing service to nuclear power providers," Hastak says. "They're very eager to have our student interns work for them.

"There is a serious need for nuclear construction expertise and we are trying to fill that need. The last nuclear power plant built in the U.S. was approved in the mid-1970s and finished in 1990. Those with expertise have found other things to do.

Meanwhile France, Japan and South Korea, have forged ahead and they have the people with the expertise."

Amy Raley