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Nuclear Power and the Pulp and Paper Industry

The manufacture of pulp and paper require a great deal of energy.  The U.S. Department of Energy reports, "In 2002, the paper manufacturing industry consumed over 2.4 quads (quadrillion or 1015 Btu) of energy according to the Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey (MECS), and represented over 15% of U.S. manufacturing energy use."  (  Self generated and renewable energy makes up over half of this total, but purchased electricity and on-site use of coal, gas, and fuel oil are major costs for many facilities.  These costs could rise significantly if governments regulate carbon emissions more strictly or world demand for energy increases faster than the extraction of fossil fuels.

Could small, onsite nuclear reactors nuclear be an option for powering the pulp and paper mills of the future?  Nuclear fission already powers submarines, commercial cargo ships, and ice breakers; technology is not a barrier to running a mill with a local reactor.  The World Nuclear Association details recent advances in small reactors and lists a plethora of designs that have been proven feasible or are in development (  Cost is a different matter.  In the wake of the March 11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and subsequent damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility, the costs of nuclear power – both economically and politically – have spiked. 

Before the crisis in Japan, nuclear seemed to be gaining momentum, at least in the United States.  Managing radioactive waste is difficult, but some "pragmatic environmentalists" see nuclear as a bridge between the status quo and a future in which renewable energy sources are cost-effective and ubiquitous.  President Obama mentioned an expansion of nuclear alongside wind, solar, clean coal, and natural gas in his 2011 State of the Union address, and Republicans seemed interested in at least reducing regulatory hurdles for permitting nuclear power facilities. In the wake of the Japanese disaster, progress will certainly slow.  (In my home state of Colorado, the Pueblo County commissioners recently rejected a proposal to develop a nuclear site The Economist's sober assessment is that "distressing though it is, the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi is not in itself a reason for the world to change energy policy… Coal, with its emissions of sulphur, mercury and soot, will continue to kill far more people per kilowatt hour than nuclear does... [Nuclear power] won’t go away, but it must to some extent remain a sideshow, however spectacular it looks when it goes wrong" (

Power generation in general sparks a great deal of not-in-my-backyard angst.  To paraphrase David MacKay, groups rally against coal (too dirty), wind (too ugly), and nuclear (too dangerous), but everyone in the developed world expects the lights to turn on when we flip a switch.  A reckoning is coming, or already at hand.  We are becoming more aware of the consequences of our energy choices, but policy is slow to react.  As for small-scale nuclear, for at least the next decade it seems destined to remain in the realm of jet packs, hovercrafts, and fuel cell vehicles, a technology that is perpetually 5 – 10 years from market.  In the medium-to-long range the prospects for nuclear are still good.  I predict at least a tenfold expansion of large-scale nuclear capacity in the United States and globally by 2050 and some on-site industrial applications.  I would bet a steak dinner on my prediction, but in a low-carbon future the price of steak might be prohibitively high.


Travis holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the Lyndon B. Johson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA.  He resides in Golden, Colorado, USA.


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