Certainly no consensus yet exists on what the succession of human and equipment failures at Metropolitan Edison's Nuclear Reactor No. 2 means for the future of nuclear power in America. Some groups, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, demand an immediate moratorium on all construction of nuclear plants. Others, like Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, perceive the signals as yellow rather than red, and urge that we proceed, with caution, to license the construction of additional power reactors.
If we should decide to go ahead with the development of nuclear power, however, a Gallup poll might find something approaching a consensus on the question of where future nuclear plants should be built. The message from Three Mile Island seems to be coming through loud and clear: Nuclear plants should be built as far from densely inhabited cities as possible, so that if another highly improbable nuclear event does occur, there will be few human beings in the immediate vicinity to suffer radiation exposure.
Averting danger to human beings from possible nuclear accidents is part of the rationale behind the concept of "nuclear energy parks" strongly advocated by Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg, the director of the Institute for Energy Analysis at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Weinberg's idea is to build large energy installations in remote sections of the country (perhaps even close to uranium mines), where the uranium could be enriched, fabricated into fuel pellets, "burned" in reactors to generate electricity, reprocessed (if the country decides we need reprocessing of nuclear fuel) and, finally, where radioactive wastes from the reactors could be secured either above or below ground on a semi-permanent or permanent basis. The initial candidates for such energy parks might well be existing nuclear installations like those at Oak Ridge, and Hanford, Wash.
Such nuclear energy parks would have other advantages in addition to the safeguarding of human lives in case of an accident. They would greatly reduce the possibility of sabotage, with the attendant risk that terrorists could obtain enough Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239 to build a nuclear bomb. Nuclear fuels are much more vulnerable to sabotage when they are in transit from fabrication plant to reactor, or from reprocessing plant to reactor, than they would be inside a nuclear park. Such parks would eliminate the transport of nuclear fuels and reduce the added danger to human life from accidents suffered by trucks or trains hauling nuclear materials.
Another benefit would be to restrict the disposal of radioactive wastes to such nuclear parks, which presumably require tight security measures whether or not they were used for nuclear waste disposal. Hence the three problems of greatest importance in the nuclear energy field-safety, sabotage and the storage of nuclear wastes-would all find at least partial solutions if nuclear parks become a reality.
Of course, to quote Emerson, "Nature never gives anything away. Everything is sold at a price. It is only in the ideals of abstraction that choice comes without consequence." If nuclear energy parks are the choice, they would clearly require tight security, and would take on some of the aspects of an armed camp. This, however, does not seem too high a price to pay for nuclear power. As Weinberg has suggested, the workers in these plants and the security forces protecting them would be an elite corps who would be suitably compensated for the danger and isolation to which they subjected themselves so that you and I might live in well-lighted homes and enjoy hot meals.
The second negative consequence is more troublesome. The problem is more troublesome. The problem with energy parks in remote locations is that they are, by definition, far removed from the homes and industries that need the electrical power they produce. The transmission of electrical energy to consumers over long power lines is a wasteful process, even when 765,000-volt lines are used. Cooled and even superconducting underground power cables are possible solutions. If the idea of nuclear energy parks becomes popular, electric power transmission is a field where investments of government research funds could pay large dividends. A more satisfactory solution may be to use the electricity produced in nuclear parks on the site to break down water into its component hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could then be piped to users the way natural gas is today, and either used directly to supplement our natural gas supplies for heating, cooking and industrial processing or, through the use of fuel cells, converted back into electrical energy to meet consumers' needs.
Any of these new techniques would obviously increase the cost of electricity produced by nuclear plants. But the centralization of all components of the nuclear enterprise in one locality may produce a compensating lowering of costs. In any case, no cost should be too great to guarantee the future safety of our citizens from nuclear radiation. If for no other reason than to indicate that we have learned this lesson from Three Mile Island, we should begin soon to plan our first nuclear energy park.