Two Nukes in Thirty Years Do Not a Resurgence Make!

Falling US Reserve Margins

I know it’s an election year and the administration is looking for good news anywhere it can find it, but the press reports about Energy Secretary Steven Chu saying “the resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new reactors,” are both sad and laughable.

He was of course talking about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s February 9th approval of the two unit expansion at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia.  The Secretary said rightly that nuclear power has played an important role in the U.S. energy portfolio and still provides 20% of total electricity produced and 70% market share of all the carbon-free electricity produced.

Story is sad because nuclear power’s spectacular performance for more than 30 years gets no respect from environmental advocates clamoring for greenhouse gas emissions reduction.  Another inconvenient truth is that if we had not killed off every new nuclear plant since the 1970’s we would today have a lot less coal fired generation today and would be a lot closer to the goal of emissions reduction.

What was laughable in Secretary Chu’s remarks was his warning that global competition for nuclear technology leadership is “fierce.”  It is laughable because it is true everywhere but America. He said we needed to build more nuclear power today or import it tomorrow—–hello!   News Flash for the Department of Energy, the US surrendered long ago in the fight for nuclear power.  The technology, manufacturing and expertise are now found in Japan and South Korea and China and the US must get in the queue and wait our turn.

Enough ranting, the approval of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design is indeed good news but we should not get excited about seeing many of these giants built.  We won’t.  The cost is too high and the risk of fickle regulation too large, and ruinous inflation too near over the long construction cycle.  Building a new nuclear power plant is a career not an assignment.

There is indeed a future for nuclear energy but this is not it.  The new future for nuclear is small, modular, passive designs that allow package plants to be build in baby nuke factories and trucked to their locations.  If Secretary Chu wants to change the future he should make a bet on this new modular nuclear technology and give America a chance to reclaim its leadership role in clean, reliable nuclear power.

There ends the rant, and begins the prayer.

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4 responses

  1. Being a bit of a techno-freak and gadget nut I tend to view new technology with awe and occassional shock. I had no idea that the technology is here to produce “transistorized” versions of those big nuclear plants. But I am still left wondering if nuclear power generation is the way of the future anyway. I must admit, I am perhaps only one in a growing public apprehension that nuclear plants are accidents waiting to happen. Whether it’s some human operational or regulatory failure, unexpected results due to aging infrastructure, or the result of some quirky unpredictable act of nature (weather, quakes, meteors from space, roving bands of zombies, etc.), these things seem to me to be ticking radioactive time bombs. The thing is, we can’t afford just one mishap because the results are so devestating to man and the environment. This is an industry where you can’t just have a sign near the time clock that reads “XXX number of days since the last accident. Great Job!”… we gotta get it right 100% of the time… and since we are only human there’s really no such thing as 100%. Somehow the trade off of being a cleaner and more limitless source of electrical power over coal or natural gas doesn’t seem all that appealing when compared to a nuclear accident for whatever reason. Maybe rather than advancements in smaller, more modular designs of nuke generating systems we shift the effort to making solar more practical. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, though.

    1. Well said, Doug!

      That is actually what I like most about the new modular ‘baby nuke’ designs. They are passive. That is if something goes wrong they trip off and shut themselves down unlike the older designs including those in Japan that melted down because of a loss of cooling water being pumped through them. The other thing I like is that the military would actually uses these things to run forward military bases and aircraft carriers and versions of that same technology would be adapted for civilian use.

      1. Well, perhaps I should check out the baby nuke designs to see just how they work compared to the more contemporary large designs. Please feel free to share any url info on where I can view such stuff. But the big selling point of the large reactors, as I recall, was also that there would be manned or automated shutdown sequences… and there still were serious accidents. So I’m not sure if being “passive” is any greater security. Which brings up another point… having more modular versions of the big one’s operating around society suggests that there would be more nuclear cores slung around. Albeit smaller cores than the big guys, they would still require physical security in order to keep some nutcase terrorist group (or nation) from running off with the cores to make low yield bombs. Modular design is great but that also means it’s easier to cart off, I am guessing.

        It’s sounds like you are a proponent of nuclear power. Is my fear of nuclear power unfounded?

  2. Doug, I split my first atom in 1972 and have been working nukes almost my whole life. SMR’s are great idea, the Navy has been using them for decades on subs and aircraft carriers. These new SMR’s couldn’t be used on aircraft carriers, they wouldn’t fit. The Navy plants are very small and compant and use what I’d call high octane fuel, nearly pure U235, which can’t be used in commercial because it is too expensive to refine Uranium that pure. One reason commercial reactors are larger is because the cores have to be physically large for the unusable U238 they contain.

    The last thing you’d have to worry about is someone carting off a core to make weapons. Although it is called “Small” it is still pretty big and takes very large transports to move. Not talking something you can through in to car and drive off. Adding to that, if some terrorist was able to get into the reactor and remove the core’s fuel assemblies, they wouldn’t get very far. The core brought to critical and producing power is lethal it you were to get near then fuel asseblies with no shielding. Basically, even if they were to get the vessel head off to get at the fuel assemblies, the radiation given off by the core would kill them in a matter of minutes.

    You can get information on various reactor types on the USNRC website under Advanced Reactors. You can web search by the reactor’s name too.
    http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/advanced.html
    http://www.nuscale.com/
    http://www.babcock.com/products/modular_nuclear/

    There are other designs out there too, but these are the ones actively working on getting design certified.

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