Nuclear or renewables in humanity’s future

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In a recent presentation at Rock Valley College (RVC), Linden Griesbach demonstrated how residents of Winnebago, Boone and parts of Ogle County could meet today’s energy needs using local renewable resources. He also indicated energy released at Byron Nuclear Generating Station, if targeted exclusively for the same area, would nearly meet the region’s energy needs.

The relative importance of nuclear and renewable energy in the world’s energy future remains a topic of debate. As of May 7, Japan’s last nuclear reactor was shut down for maintenance. Reopening their 52 reactors has proven problematic, as local opposition is very strong. Since nuclear power provided more than 30 percent of their energy, replacing it with imported fuels has proven costly and cannot maintain the same level of energy services.

Germany, following the disaster in Japan, declared they would shut down their nuclear power plants and accelerate a transition to renewable energy. According to a Bloomberg report, Germany expects to replace their 17 nuclear reactors that supply about 20 percent of their electricity with a $263 billion investment in solar and wind. If successfully implemented, global support for renewable energy will grow.

In Finland, construction continues on building a safe permanent storage site for nuclear wastes. Construction is behind schedule, and commercial operations planned for 2009 are expected to be in place by 2014. If successful, it will solve a major problem of how to handle nuclear wastes. Success will be hard to define and verify, as safe storage must be maintained over the 100,000 years it takes for the radioactivity to cease.

The long-term storage issue brings us to what Alvin Weinberg, former head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, declared in the 1970s — that using nuclear power amounts to a Faustian bargain. When properly handled, nuclear power plants are almost nonpolluting and offer lower-cost electricity than fossil fuel plants, but their use demands a level of vigilance and longevity that is beyond society’s experience.

Charles Barton, an advocate of the thorium reactor, indicates Weinberg saw the unending striving for more power and success as dependent on knowledge, energy and other resources inherent in human existence. Along with other scientists, he wanted to continue to explore the secrets of nature and felt society would benefit from the discoveries.

In 1971, Barton describes Weinberg as striving for the following three things:

1. Nuclear safety — if not fulfilled, a threat to humanity’s future.

2. Control carbon dioxide emissions — a threat to humanity.

3. The development of a thorium breeding molten salt reactor technology seen as saving humanity from the adverse consequences of its quest for energy.

Weinberg’s desire to move on to thorium technology led to his dismissal, as supporters of conventional nuclear power plants prevailed in Congress.

This year in the United States, approval to build two new nuclear plants, not thorium-based, in Georgia was granted. Supporters believe the new plants will avoid the economic and safety concerns that cut short the nuclear revolution of the 1970s.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the May 16-22, 2012, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!