- A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich -

As a 30 year veteran of the public policy setting arena, the influential Senator Pete Domenici shares his insider's insights and political perspective on the past, present and future of nuclear energy.  He recounts the damage done by Presidents Carter and Clinton contrasting U.S. nuclear policy to several other countries, most notably France.  His visit to France, where a completely closed nuclear fuel cycle is embraced by its citizens and successfully implemented by the national government, sealed his vision of a future for all people of all countries -- a future energized by a clean, affordable, reliable, efficient, safe and secure supply of power. 

A BRIGHTER TOMORROW:  FULFILLING THE PROMISE OF NUCLEAR ENERGY focuses on the technical and political aspects of the U.S. open nuclear fuel cycle and highlights key departures from France's thriving closed nuclear fuel cycle.  These deviations comprise the two most politically-daunting nuclear energy issues in the U.S. today:  proliferation and waste management.  According to Domenici, both concerns are based on an incorrect political ideology and have stymied the growth of nuclear power in America.

A Brighter Tomorrow: Fufilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy

Domenici explains that the most damaging political decision affecting the future of nuclear power was President Carter's unilateral decision to halt recycling of spent nuclear fuel.  Regarding that monumental decision Domenici states, "There was fear that even if well safeguarded, civil nuclear plants and civil reprocessing plants could become a major avenue for the proliferation of nuclear weapons." 

The Carter Administration was woefully wrong in assuming that the "American example of killing the closed fuel cycle would inspire other countries...Several other major nuclear program countries-the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Russia-all went down the reprocessing and MOX fuel road to plutonium management."

Spent nuclear fuel is defined as high level waste by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.   Domenici explains why he favors reprocessing over disposal of spent fuel, primarily from an energy resource recovery and waste minimization viewpoint stating, "The energy value of the spent nuclear fuel currently stored at nuclear power plants today is roughly the equivalent to that contained in 6 billion barrels of oil-equal to two years of American oil imports." Concerning waste minimization Domenici said upon his return from France, "One day on the Senate floor, I presented my colleagues with a version of the French glass waste canister, similar to the ones I saw at La Hague, which held the total amount of waste that a family of four would generate over a period of twenty years."

He continues detailing the spent fuel disposal situation as it existed in 2004 and covers the Congressional and Executive branch decisions that led to Yucca Mountain's siting by President Bush in 2002 as the repository to be licensed by the NRC.  Domenici emphasizes the importance of a solution to the waste disposal problem.  When he wrote the book in 2004, Yucca Mountain was well on it way to becoming the nation's spent fuel disposal site.  However, Domenici ominously warned, perhaps based on his inimitable ability to foresee the future, that, "Failure to license, construct, and operate the nation's first waste repository or to agree on an alternative management strategy, could have a devastating impact on the potential resurgence of the U.S. nuclear industry. " 

Domenici observes that reprocessing of nuclear spent fuel doesn't present an unsolvable technical challenge to other countries, including France.  Yet, in America, Domenici laments that ideology trumps science "regarding the truths and risks of disposing nuclear materials" and quotes author Richard Rhodes who said, "Nuclear waste disposal is a political problem in the United States because of widespread nuclear fear disproportionate to the reality of the relative risk, but it is not an engineering problem, as advanced projects in France, Sweden and Japan demonstrate."  

Recognizing that people in developing and underdeveloped countries pine to live as their western counterparts, Domenici describes the obvious shortcomings of fossil fuels and renewables and focuses on the potential of nuclear power.  In comparing the rest of the world to the U.S. Domenici finds, "It is of interest to note that in 1999, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. generated 30 percent of the world's GDP, consumed 25 percent of the world's energy, and emitted 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide. ... By every human measure the world "runs" on energy, and in the future the world will need more and more energy." 

Regarding renewables, primarily unreliable and large footprint solar and wind power, Domenici discounts their ability to make a significant contribution to the electrical energy production in America in the foreseeable future.  To underscore his point Domenici notes that environmental opposition to siting large wind projects such as the Martha's Vineyard fiasco will increase as wind projects accelerate.  Comparing the amount of wind power needed to equal the 20 percent of the U.S. annual electrical generation that nuclear power currently supplies would require over 16,000 square miles covered by windmills equally spaced every 50 acres - affecting aesthetics as well as wildlife.

Although at the time that this book was written the hydrogen economy was highly touted as the fuel of the future, one just doesn't hear much about that option these days.  Accordingly, Domenici's insistence on hydrogen replacing gas and diesel fuel makes for interesting reading regardless of the seemingly intractable technical hurdles such a program faces.  

Finally, most books dealing with nuclear energy invariably contain a plethora of facts and consequently, errors inevitably arise.  Although the errors were few and far between, unfortunately, a couple did survive the final editing of this book.  On page 171 when describing the long lived fission product makeup of spent nuclear fuel Domenici incorrectly cited 8 day half life iodine 131 along with 30 year half life cesium 137 and strontium 90.  Also, on page 192 Domenici inexplicably states that the annual limit for occupational radiation exposure was 5 millirem, when in fact it is a thousand times higher (5 rems).  Regardless, these minor oversights do not detract from an otherwise useful and informative manuscript outlining the technical and political aspects of the need for nuclear power now and in the future.  

Senator Pete V. Domenici with Blythe J. Lyons and Julian J. Steyn
271pp. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (Paperback) $17.95 US/$21.95 CAN (2004)

About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  After developing the State of South Dakota’s environmental radiological monitoring program, he became a Health Randy BrichPhysicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, eventually transferring to the Department of Energy where he specialized in environmental monitoring, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.  Later in his career he published a multi-sport adventure guide book and became a regular contributor to The Entertainer Newspaper’s Great Outdoor section. 

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review Email Randy Brich>> randy@nuclearstreet.com

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  • Anonymous

    It would be more compelling if he weren't singling out Democratic Presidents.  Carter's decision actually made sense back then, once-through was (and probably still is) cheaper.  But, politically it seems much easier to sell the public on reprocessing than the repository (which is still necessary, but it puts things off).  The once-through plan would not have been a disaster.  The spent fuel would still be there.  I always assumed we would just go dig it up, when we came to our senses.