As China and India begin building nuclear fast breeder reactors, the United States is losing a role in a technology it once dominated, and advocates blame political pressure from opponents.

That means the U.S. is giving short shrift to an economical, safe, low-pollution source of energy, past nuclear officials told a Green Valley audience Wednesday at the Green Valley chapter of OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) lecture series.

David Rossin, former assistant Secretary of Energy in the Reagan Administration, told the audience "we've got a good product, a good technology," but "utilities are afraid they will be bled to death" by paying up to $1 million a day in interest on large capital investments. Rossin blamed anti-nuclear activists and regulators for licensing delays that have scared off Wall Street financiers.

Critics, who were not part of the lecture program, say fast breeder reactors are not economical in this country, and say nuclear power plants draw large amounts of capital away from approaches they say are more sustainable, and say that the mining, milling and enriching of nuclear fuel involve the emission of carbon dioxide and other forms of pollution.

Waste disposal

There are 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. and the issue of disposing nuclear waste haunts the industry, said Yoon Chang, a distinguished fellow emeritus of the Argonne National Laboratory.

"Without solving the spent fuel dilemma, in my view, we cannot go through with construction (of new plants). The public will not accept it," Chang said.

Rossin said disposal is "media" hype, not a technical concern, as nuclear waste could simply be sealed in metal canisters and safely stored 1,000 feet underground indefinitely. Rossin is former president of the American Nuclear Society, was a researcher in the 1970s for the nuclear pioneer Commonwealth Edison, now Exelon, and helped develop Argonne National Laboratory's second Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR II).

Rossin told the audience that after $12 billion in federal money had been spent on a plan for a national waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, President Obama blocked it in 2009 at the request of Sen. Harry Reid, D.-Nev., who had supported Obama's election.

Without a permanent site for the nation's 40,000 tons of spent fuel rods, most are sitting in 141 concrete cooling pools at nuclear plants in 39 states, pools that were not designed for long-term use.

Rossin and Chang touted FBRs as a way to meet future world energy needs, saying they can burn fuel more efficiently than traditional plants and ultimately can reduce the amount of nuclear wastes. That's because in FBRs, uranium U238 atoms capture the neutrons released during the splitting of uranium U235 atoms, creating plutonium (Pu239), which burns more efficiently. Some fast breeder reactors can generate up to 30 percent more fuel than they use.

Of the 436 nuclear reactors in the world, just a handful are FBRs, none in the U.S.

As recently as 2006, a Scientific American article said "only India, Russia, Japan and China currently have operational fast breeder reactor programs after the U.K., France and Germany have effectively shut down theirs."

That has changed, Chang said, as "there is interest around the world now after a 20-year hiatus" and China and India are moving forward on FBRs at "an amazing pace."

Growing number of FBRs

China began operating an FBR in July 2010. India and Russia will have one each operating by 2012, and Japan, South Korea and France "envision" construction, Chang said.

Chang said nuclear energy is much more economical in China than in the U.S., not just because of labor costs but also because China can build plants more quickly and start repaying the capital costs.

However, Russell Lowes of Tucson, research director at SafeEnergyAnalyst.org, said the uncertainty of nuclear economics has blocked construction of commercial FBRs.

"Fast breeder reactors have never economically produced electricity. All of them have been shut down for reasons related to accidents or economics, with only one restarted that just went back into operation in Japan. FBRs are one of the many pipe dreams of the industry," Lowes said.

Progress stopped

The U.S. developed FBRs in the 1950s, but in 1977, President Carter ordered an end to the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, which is crucial to operating FBRs, in a naive attempt to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, Rossin said. Carter felt reprocessing would lead to weapons proliferation and hoped to persuade other nations to stop reprocessing by having the U.S. set an example.

Nuclear critics say reprocessing yields a weapons-grade fuel and represents a terrorism risk, but Rossin and Chang said the reprocessed fuel cannot be used for weapons.

Rossin said Carter asked his aides for a one-page summary of the issues and no more than four options from which to choose, but had already made up his mind to act quickly, before the nuclear industry could organize a response.

Rossin said he later asked former Secretary of State George Schultz about blocking reprocessing as a way to stop the spread of weapons and Schultz simply said "that's ridiculous."

After the lecture, Rossin said President Reagan rescinded Carter's order, but by then the nuclear industry, having lost billions, was gun-shy, as was Wall Street.

In fact, the electric power industry at first was leery of the safety issues involved with nuclear power despite the 1950s prediction that it would produce energy "too cheap to meter," and only jumped in after Congress in 1957 passed the Price-Anderson Act, providing the nuclear power industry more than $12 billion in liability insurance protection in the event of a reactor incident.

The OLLI speakers said a federal court has required that any disposal system be safe for 1 million years, up from the earlier Environmental Protection Agency rule requiring 10,000 years of safety.

Lowes said "Disposal is a major issue, provided you care about protecting future generations. Nobody can come up with a system that is guaranteed to remain safe for that many years."

Michael Mariotte of Nuclear Information and Resource Service said in a recent article that the vast majority of uranium comes from overseas, so nuclear does not contribute to energy-independence. Also, that uranium must be mined, milled and enriched in energy-intensive, heavily-polluting ways, that power generation requires large volumes of water, and that the entire process emits anywhere from 33 percent to 100 percent of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by other fuels, so nuclear is not a solution to global warming.