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Nuclear Energy Research

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Producer photoProducer: It may look like a scene straight out of a movie. But for operators here at Idaho's advanced test reactor, this simulation of a complete power failure in the northwest grid is a real possibility, one for which they often practice.

But a little over 50 years ago, just down the road, it was a different story.

This modest control room was center stage on December 20, 1951 as operators here switched on the first electricity to be generated by a nuclear power plant in the world.

Experimental Breeder Reactor 1, or EBR1 as it's known, is now just a tourist stop. Scientists at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory hope this area will once again be a breeding ground for new nuclear reactors. Even as they research new forms of energy, though, they'll have to fend off political heat generated decades ago by prominent nuclear accidents.

The meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 and then at Chernobyl in 1986 soured public and investor interest in nuclear power. But scientists who stayed in the field say it's time to revisit those decisions.

Dr. James Lake photoDr. James Lake (Ph.D., Associate Lab Director, INL): Energy needs are going to double in the next 50 years. That's a phenomenally challenging issue.

Producer: Dr. James Lake is one of the people in charge of "Generation Four" nuclear energy research.

That's the latest initiative to find safer and more efficient reactors, and the Department of Energy has picked the INL to lead the charge.

Officials here hope Congress will fund a large new test reactor at the site, one cooled by gas instead of by water.

James Lake: That reactor design, because of the way it's configured and the materials it's configured with, operates at a very high temperature, and even under severe accident analysis where you can't cool it for some reason, the reactor will not melt and release the fission products.

Producer: It also has another potential benefit . . .

James Lake: The next generation of high temperature reactors may be the key technology that we need for making hydrogen for fuel celled vehicles in the future.

We're looking at some very exciting advanced technology.

Producer: And this non-descript building in Idaho Falls is where research into that technology occurs.

Dr. Eric Loewen photoDr. Eric Loewen (Ph.D, Consulting Engineer, INL): This is how it started 40 years ago. If you go back to Stagg Field underneath the court in the University of Chicago, it was a run-down laboratory.

So what you're seeing is the ground floor of it starting again.

Producer: Dr. Eric Loewen and his students are studying several new models for nuclear reactors, including one cooled by lead.

Eric Loewen: It offers the world the most sustainable energy generation system, if you will.

Producer: Sustainable, Loewen says, because it could burn waste from other reactors, waste that otherwise could get in the hands of the wrong people.

Eric Loewen: We have all this excess weapons grade plutonium that we're just sitting around as a society deciding what to do. This reactor can easily burn that plutonium and not produce extra plutonium.

Producer: Loewen and his students are also studying gas-cooled reactors.

But despite the search for newer models, he still has confidence in the current reactors.

Eric Loewen: Nuclear energy is the safest energy source that we have. And it has been and we've demonstrated that with the commercial reactors that we have running in this nation. We have 103 of them, and every year they're operating better and better.

Jeremy Maxxand photoJeremy Maxxand: We don't share that same opinion about nuclear power.

Producer: Jeremy Maxxand is the executive director of the Snake River Alliance, Idaho's anti-nuclear group.

Jeremy Maxxand: Calling nuclear power an environmentally friendly energy source is part of the marketing campaign that the nuclear industry has been promoting.

The spent fuel rods are extremely dangerous; they're extremely difficult and expensive to deal with. They're dangerous for an extremely long period of time, and you know even a simple or a small accident could mean, could mean lives, could mean the contamination indefinitely of certain parts of the environment.

James Lake: Nuclear waste, although highly toxic, is very concentrated. It's very small. The waste coming out of all the 103 nuclear plants in the US operating for their whole lifetime if stacked end to end which is not the way we store it, would fill a baseball, or a football stadium, to a depth of a few feet.

Jeremy Maxxand: If we had spent the same amount of money on researching and developing truly sustainable sources of energy over the past several decades rather than subsidizing the nuclear energy industry we would be much further ahead in making sure that we're not approaching an energy crisis.

Producer: Back in Idaho Falls, Loewen and his students often meet over milkshakes to talk over the days' work.

These young scientists weren't alive when Three Mile Island occurred and were just children during the Chernobyl disaster.

Because of the political and public relations fallout from those accidents, though, they may not see the practical results of their research any time soon.

Keyna Riley photoKeyna Riley (Purdue University engineering student): It's kind of depressing, because it has so much potential.

If you can teach people that it's not as bad as they're seeing, like in movies like "Atomic Twister," where you have a tornado coming and it's going to hit the nuclear power plant, it's going to blow up. That doesn't happen.

Mitch Harkenrider photoMitch Harkenrider (Purdue University engineering student): I think it's a really exciting and promising technology that once people learn about it they'll say, "Hey, yeah this is, this is cool, they're building things very safely."

Producer: Their teacher remains confident, though, that public opinion will change.

Eric Loewen: All new technologies are feared, over-regulated, and misunderstood. So I think we're in this transition period and I'm not frustrated at all. Because I think by the time my kids get to my age it will be widely accepted. People are realizing they like their standard of living and they need energy to sustain that.

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