The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We have to stop being afraid of nuclear energy

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2021. (Toru Hanai/Bloomberg)

The April 17 Washington Post Magazine article on nuclear waste, “Nowhere to go,” was reasonably well balanced, but it continues to amaze me that our disproportionate fear of nuclear power prevents us from energetically promoting it as an important part of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. The best example of the hysteria associated with nuclear power is the public response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster killed thousands; the ensuing nuclear problems have killed only one. Which do we focus on?

Robert Geiger, Atlanta

Nuclear “waste” could be a treasure: It is not trash. Less than 1 percent of the potential energy of uranium is used to produce power in a nuclear reactor. The isotope U-235 of uranium must be enriched from less than 1 percent to about 5 percent to be used in most nuclear reactors. The remainder, mostly U-238, is left as so-called waste. However, it has the potential to produce prodigious amounts of energy in what is called a breeder reactor without requiring any further uranium mining.

Unfortunately, no commercially viable breeder reactor has ever been built. A breeder reactor can provide a twofer: disposing of what is now considered a problematic waste while producing a very large amount of energy for centuries. The government and private companies have spent billions trying to improve conventional reactors and to develop fusion reactors while ignoring the potential of a breeder.

Inventor Neal Mann has proposed a simple, relatively inexpensive way to build a breeder. Mr. Mann used the Energy Department’s own computer programs to show that this is a viable approach, and the Energy Department has validated his conclusion. Because Mr. Mann’s reactor would operate at high temperatures, it offers advantages over other concepts, and he has developed features to improve reactor control and safety.

Research and development into breeder-reactor technology begs for funding as fusion research — which will yield no practical results for many decades — gets billions in funding. What’s wrong with this picture?

Carl E. Nash, Washington