Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Not Nuclear?

Several times (more than 3) in the last couple of months I have been asked either "why don't we have more nuclear power?" or "should we have more nuclear because the waste issue has not been solved?" or both.  While the exact phrasing of the questions is slightly different in each of the cases, I can't help but think that the entire nuclear power industry in the U.S. has failed to communicate on a host of issues.  Several years back, Cable and I both decided that the American Nuclear Society (ANS) was a failure as an organization because of this communication problem and stopped paying dues.  When it became clear that ANS didn't miss our $150/year, we had to figure out a way to change things from within the system.

I think the following issues are the ones that ANS has failed to provide leadership in communicating to the general public.  I must admit that it does a good job communicating to engineers and physicists (and that is probably the problem).

  • Nuclear reactor safety
  • Cost of new nuclear reactors
  • Nuclear waste
Nuclear Reactor Safety
I believe the first thing that most members of the general public think about when they hear the word nuclear is either "Three Mile Island (TMI)" or "Chernobyl."  The two accidents, while wildly different in actual impact, are viewed through a prism that reflects only fear.  While ANS can't do much about the Chernobyl (other than to point out the design flaws of the RMBK-1000 -- such as a positive reactivity void coefficient), ANS needs to emphasize that the design would NEVER have been licensed to operate in the U.S. On the other hand, TMI was the worst case scenario for a reactor licensed to operate in the U.S.  The result of the accident was billions of dollars in damage to both the reactor and the nuclear industry, but there were no fatalities and minimal radiation exposure to the general public.

The U.S. nuclear industry learned a ton from TMI including how to operate plants better and to share information among "competitors" in the nuclear business.  Some of this was led by Dr. Ron Knief (a co-worker of mine in Tech Area V at Sandia National Laboratories) who was part of the team that analyzed the events leading up to and following the reactor accident. Some of the experiments that attempted to better understand what happens when nuclear fuel melts and fission products are released were performed 300 yards from where I sit when I am in Albuquerque (in the same reactor that I perform experiments).  We KNOW how safe our current reactors are, but some of the "communicators" have decided to sell the next generation of reactors on improved safety or "inherent" safety.  This concept makes it sound like the 100+ reactors (generating ~20% of our electricity) are unsafe.

The entire nuclear industry (led by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations [INPO]) has bought into the concept of continual improvement. I think that this is a good thing because we have shown steady and amazing improvement in occupational radiation exposure, refueling outage times, and overall operating efficiency in the last 25 years. This record of improvement should be put forward as justification for the opportunity to a have "Nuclear Renaissance." We shouldn't say, "We didn't do so well when we designed them the first or second time, but THIS time, we will do better." While it is true that the new generation (GEN3+ for you nukes out there) of reactors does have more inherent and designed safety features, those features are not the driving concepts behind the designs.

Cost of New Nuclear Reactors
Estimates of the cost to build a new reactor range from $5-10 BILLION and a time frame of about 7 years. WHY?  Well, I think that the industry has decided that the economy of scale works for it when it build large (1000+ MWe) plants rather than smaller units. I am uncertain whether the economics have shown that the cost curve to build the larger plants provides a cost break for the "extra" MW that you are designing into the process.  While the baseload plant idea probably is justified by each individual utility that makes this decision, the lack of a national energy policy has left orphaned the idea that smaller, modular (factory-built rather than custom built) plants could be made economical.

One of my colleagues has envisioned a reactor concept that is known as the Multi-Module Reactor (MMR) that significantly reduces the capital cost for new reactor power. He has met significant resistance from the nuclear power proponents at the DOE and SNL because it doesn't meet the general consensus idea of what nuclear should be.  It doesn't need a "containment" building or other significant capital investment.  His idea is to use the "swimming pool" concept of the TRIGA reactor design (natural convection cooling and significant negative reactivity temperature coefficient) to meet the safety emphasis and to reduce the capital cost.  Basically, he changes the fuel and reactor design enough to produce electrical power from these well-known and studied reactors that were designed for teaching and training.

In order to have a nuclear renaissance, new nuclear plants must compete economically instead of being an option to stave off global warming or climate change. Nuclear engineers need to be honest brokers in communicating the cost/benefit equation of nuclear power and environmental concerns. If we resort to climate change as the justification for increasing the proportion of nuclear electricity, then that can ONLY lead to mistrust of nukes as the whole house of cards surrounding the theory of anthropogenic global warming is in the process of collapse.

Nuclear Wastes
The main objection that I often hear is that we shouldn't build more reactors until we have solved the nuclear waste disposal issue. To most of my nuclear engineering colleagues, this is simply a political question.  In the U.S., we have defaulted to a once-through fuel.  This is very different from the approach of France, Russia, England, Japan, etc. where they have decided to re-process or recycle their reactor fuel. No utility or consortium of utilities has stepped forward to recycle the fuel in the U.S. since Jimmy Carter made the foolish executive order to prohibit the process in the U.S.  Even though Ronald Reagan rescinded the EO on fuel reprocessing, the risk to capital is so great in the political arena that no one has come forward to pay for such a recycling facility.

A once-through fuel cycle requires a large repository to store spent fuel for time spans longer than recorded history.  Recycling removes the long-lived radioactive material and burns it in reactors making the needed storage time on the order of hundreds of years (rather than hundreds of thousands).  In addition, some of the isotopes in the spent fuel are valuable, but we can't get to them because of the lack of reprocessing capability.

I also find the reasoning that we should not reprocess so we can prevent a "plutonium economy" very underwhelming. The very act of saying no when everyone else is saying yes removes us from the decision/policy making processes in a plutonium economy that DOES exist. From the other nuclear nations point of view, we have no economic stake in the outcome, so they feel justified in ignoring our input.

As a nuclear engineer, I feel a certain sadness that we have not done a better job in communicating our industry.  ANS and other nuclear advocacy groups need to focus on both the science and the communication of the science.  Enlisting non-geeks to let us know how to better talk with non-geeks is probably a good idea.  I am not suggesting that PR provides the answer to our problems, but I do feel like it would crack the door open on at least 2 of the issues I discussed.  The economics of nuclear power have to be put in realistic terms, and perhaps some non-conventional thinking such as the MMR could turn the economics quickly in our favor.

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