Nuclear Will Never Die

Issuing new licenses for nuclear power plants is an important step forward for securing a clean, reliable source of energy. Nuclear energy’s progress has been hindered by the massive upfront costs of building new facilities, but even more so by the public fear of nuclear accidents. To be sure, nuclear accidents such as those at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are horrifying events. However, what most people do not realize is that all three were the result of human error, and not some inherent danger of nuclear power itself. Fukushima was located in an earthquake zone, Chernobyl’s operators disabled the plant’s safety systems, and Three Mile Island’s operators failed to realize a problem with the plant’s cooling system. These issues can be overcome by proper training, regulation of plant location and advances in system design.

The key to safe nuclear power is plant design and location of facilities. As pointed out in The Economist article, British nuclear plants are not located in earthquake zones. New technologies for nuclear plants such as the gravity-induced cooling systems of the AP1000 are important for improving the safety of nuclear reactors. The self shutdown mechanisms like the one described in Popular Mechanics allow reactors to protect themselves from human error. Systems such as these have been in use on naval reactors for decades and are a crucial mechanism in ensuring plant safety. Accidents such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima are the direct result of the inability to cool fuel rods. The positive reactivity of Chernobyl’s coolant can be overcome by simply using a different type of reactor.

The debate over safety concerns and whether nuclear is truly a ‘green’ energy will probably never cease. However, the quest to find sources of energy that are cleaner than traditional coal means that nuclear will never be entirely excluded as a potential source of energy. Clearly politicians on both sides of the Atlantic believe that nuclear power is an important part of their countries’ future energy mix.

References:

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/debunking-myths-about-nuclear-fuel-coal-wind-solar

http://money.cnn.com/2012/02/09/news/economy/nuclear_reactors/index.htm

http://www.economist.com/node/21532330

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Nuclear Will Never Die

  1. cbs26

    You may be right that “politicians on both sides of the Atlantic believe” in nuclear power’s future, but the free market clearly does not. Fred Beach laid out the case for why nuclear power makes sense from a societal perspective last Thursday, but perhaps most interesting was his observation that the financing and construction of America’s nuclear reactor fleet was only possible because utilities at the time were highly regulated and could guarantee the sale of their electricity for decades at a stable price. In the future, nuclear power will only flourish in highly regulated electricity markets where the state often assumes the role of writing the check (read: not the US). China, Abu Dhabi, and South Korea, places where new reactors are now under construction, all fit this profile. Nuclear is an all-or-nothing $5-10 billion investment (you can’t put some money in and get some power as with solar PV) with a construction process that lasts as much as a decade and is beset by a horrific regulatory and political environment. There are plenty of examples across the world of plants where construction started, dragged out over decades, and was never completed. Think of Bellefonte in Alabama (one reactor 90% complete now for decades) or Kalkar in Germany (scuttled by politics). From an investor’s perspective, these sites represent billions of dollars that may never be recovered. The economics of nuclear power are not just “tricky”, as Dr. Beach put it. They’re downright dismal.

  2. selmster

    One issue regarding nuclear power that has not been addressed fully yet is the fact that there is no permanent nuclear waste disposal solution in the US. Burying the waste seems to be the best idea so far however, where should we bury it? It must be contained properly in order to avoid pollution and it must be buried in an area with little groundwater flowing through since this could erode the containment canisters over time. [1]

    Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the chosen area although there is strong opposition that has prevented the project from moving forward. Although the area is far from the nearest population center and the canisters would be buried about 1500 feet underground, many Nevadans strongly oppose the proposal. It seems as though this project will not be moving forward considering that it has been pursued for nearly three decades now with no success. The Department of Energy has already spent $8 billion studying the site and constructing a five mile long exploratory tunnel. Building the site would require an additional $97 billion according to the latest estimates. [2]

    So what can we do with this waste? Until this problem is solved, the future of nuclear power is unsure.

    1) http://library.thinkquest.org/17940/texts/nuclear_waste_storage/nuclear_waste_storage.html
    2) http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/news2011/pdf/nv110427ym.pdf
    3) http://www.lvrj.com/news/key-senate-leaders-seek-post-yucca-answer-to-nuke-waste-138601754.html

  3. lwinm

    This post provides a good introduction to how the causes of disasters at nuclear power plants can in large part be attributed to human error or inadequate design. The post further introduces new passive safety designs, which aim to eliminate the component of human error in regards to cooing the reactor after an accident. Advancements in safety design and technology are vital for the industry to grow; however, it is no guarantee that future accidents cannot occur. The boiling water reactors (Mark I containment) at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and their location would have met all required safety and regulatory requirements at the time they were built. I would further point out that new designs for passive safety systems only affect new nuclear power plants which utilize this design, like the AP1000 (Westinghouse). Another well known, next generation reactor design, the EPR by Areva does not utilize passive safety systems [1]. Furthermore, retrofitting existing reactors with new safety system designs would be a massive undertaking, especially considering that the technology has not been proven during real accident conditions. I am, of course, not trying to suggest that nuclear power is inherently unsafe, but rather that a wide range of safety issues needs to be considered to produce a robust design. These safety risks, be it human error or otherwise, greatly impact the economics of the plant.

    To expand on cbs12’s comment, the poor economics of nuclear power can be attributed to the many risks associated with investing in nuclear power plants. Investors face a variety of uncertainty that is just associated with the construction of the plant: the licensing process, high (possibly increasing) capital costs, extended construction timescales, decommissioning costs, and waste storage costs. Additional risks unrelated to plant construction include the price of competing energy sources, such as natural gas, and the uncertainty of carbon tax policy, which could benefit low-carbon emitting nuclear plants.

    Even if all these risks were mitigated to warrant investment, unfortunately, the public’s perception can quickly be changed by events out of the hands of the investor. Take Germany and Italy for example. The arguably poor design decision to locate the Fukushima Daiichi plant near a coast at risk of a tsunami essentially shifted public opinion and changed the industry in those countries. With all the benefits that nuclear power provides, it will be important for the industry to thoroughly address these challenges in order to grow in the future.

    References:
    [1] http://www.economist.com/node/21541833
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Pressurized_Reactor
    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AP1000#Construction_plans
    [4] http://www.economist.com/node/21547265

  4. This is an excellent discussion that has grown out of this post and Dr. Beach’s lecture last Thursday. I agree with the comments above that reactor safety is a reasonable and achievable goal and that scientific and technical facts have often been lost in the political scramble. But what are the costs of these delays in terms of our ability to deliver on nuclear projects and promises? As the nuclear industry continues to languish, we are rapidly developing a “skill gap” between the older generation of nuclear engineers and scientists and the younger generation (see: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20101002092718863). Once we lose the expertise, it will likely be hard to regain quickly and may leave the USA relying on foreign experts to help ramp up the nuclear industry. If we ever decide to embrace nuclear–which seems less likely in the near future, given the current boom in natural gas.

    This problem is not unique to the US, China is also facing serious shortages (http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ2011102816028) which is likely to continue as the country’s energy needs grow. I think this is more than just an economic or political risk–I am concerned that if countries are unable to fill positions with highly trained and competent engineers we won’t be able to guarantee the quality of regulation and oversight. If private companies, paying high salaries, cannot attract nuclear engineers, how will the public sector compete? I would highly recommend this report (http://www.aps.org/policy/reports/popa-reports/upload/Nuclear-Readiness-Report-FINAL-2.pdf) as mandatory reading for nuclear policy makers. Beyond delays of construction permits and huge risk to investors, we are beginning to run a generational human capital shortage in nuclear engineering!

  5. kramlal

    Disposal of radioactive waste is a major concern, and probably one of several key factors that affect public perception of nuclear energy. selmster raised this important issue and I agree that burial does not seem to be the most appealing means of disposal but it may be the best that we can do at this time. So where do we bury it? Multiple barrier systems are believed to be most effective in containing the waste from nuclear reactors, which involves construction of several man-made barriers to enclose the waste material prior to burial in stable geological locations. According to Dr. James Conca of New Mexico State University, there is a salt repository below New Mexico that covers sixteen (16) square miles, and has been in use for the past eleven (11) years. The salt belongs to the Salado Formation, which lies in an environment that has been geologically stable for the past 225 million years. A very minor amount of seawater (1%) is said to be trapped in the formation as tiny inclusions which have been immobilized since the last 225 million years. This seems logical as large quantities of mobilized water would tend to dissolve the salt, and salt deposits are generally associated with dry conditions in stable environments. The formation is part of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) which is used for disposal of transuranic waste that was left over from the US nuclear defense programme.

    There is also an interesting occurrence of apparently natural radioactive waste disposal in the Oklo uranium mine of Gabon, Africa, where approximately 2 billions years ago, naturally occurring uranium-235 was abundant in the earth and existed under suitable conditions that caused nuclear fission reactions. These reactions lasted for about 1 million years until the uranium concentrations were too low to cause any further activity. The processes resemble those that occur in our nuclear reactors today, and the naturally generated waste material in Oklo has been safely stored for the last 2 billion years in deep granite, sandstone, and clay deposits nearby. This natural example offers some hope for the burial method of disposal and illustrates the multiple barrier system in effect on a long timescale. The WIPP project also seems to be a success so far although it took many years to obtain necessary approvals. Despite the challenges and fears associated with nuclear waste management, I think there is at least one advantage of it being localized, as opposed to another source like coal where emissions can be more widespread and difficult to manage.

    References:
    http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/decommissioning/dr-james-conca-%E2%80%9Cnuclear-waste-disposal-%E2%80%93-not-problem-it-appears%E2%80%9D
    http://oklo.curtin.edu.au/why.cfm
    http://nuclearinfo.net/Nuclearpower/TheRisksOfNuclearPower
    http://www.wipp.energy.gov/fctshts/salt.pdf

  6. I agree about your point that nuclear will never die. From Dr.Beach’s lecture it was apparent that nuclear plants have been safe. The question whether nuclear will die or not seems to be more political. Case in point is the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant that is a key source of power for NYC. The plant is up for re-licensing for another 20 years and its application is in front of the NRC. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo is strongly opposing the plant (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/shut-aging-indian-point-nuclear-power-plant-gov-cuomo-reiterates-article-1.123495) on the grounds that it cannot withstand a major earthquake. On the other hand, the nuclear industry and NY Mayor Bloomberg have supported the relicensing of the reactors stating that these reactors are key for electricity supply to New York City (30% of electricity for NYC comes from Indian Point – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Point_Energy_Center) and getting energy from replacement sources is very difficult for the state of New York.
    Even though Indian Point has a track record being safe for about 40 years, the question of wheather it will relicensed or not seems to be more political than anything else.

  7. jucarosan

    I believe that the Fukushima accident was not caused by the human error of being built in an earthquake zone. Because that argument would have make that not only Fukushima but other nuclear plants in Japan and other countries around the world would have go through similar stress situations and even accidents like the one that arose from the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. However, I do believe that this accident was caused partially by different negligent human decisions and also some bad luck.

    I will start by the easiest point, bad luck. By bad luck I am saying that Fukushima Daishi Nuclear plant faced on March 11, 2011 the strongest earthquake that has ever hit Japan in its history and one of the top five largest earthquakes in the world since seismological record-keeping began, measuring 9.0 in the Richter scale. And while the damage the earthquake made to the structure was considerable, the nuclear plant faced it and overpassed it. However what actually “kill” it was the fact that latter on that same day, the nuclear plant was facing a tsunami with waves surpassing the 30 feet. As a result, the external power in the plant was out and the emergency generators were damaged or flooded, leading the reactors to begin to overheat. Additionally, the flooding and earthquake damage hindered external assistance that could help prevent the disaster.

    On the other hand, negligent human decisions took place before and during the disaster which lead to “the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl explosion in 1986”. All started with TEPCO, the utility running the plant, being a corrupt, negligent and irresponsible company that made a lot of bad things on its way to avoid costs and gain the trust of the public. First, they falsify safety records of the plant [1], then they didn’t learnt of an early incident in one of its emergency generators [2]. Additionally, they were too confident about the infrastructure of the plant, therefore when reports addressing the possibility of huge impacts to the plant safety as a result of tsunami and seismic activity, they didn’t made any enhancements or restructures to the plant [3][4]. Furthermore, during the accident, TEPCO was negligent in respond to the public, its chairman only appear in public almost one week after the earthquake, and during the disaster, they didn’t measure the radioactivity that was leaking from the reactors. Finally, these situations, and the accident itself seem to be additionally a consequence of the lack of experience of the workers in the plant were they had no clear sense of what was happening and also that they had an erroneous assumption that an emergency cooling system was working when it was not [5].

    However, it seems that TEPCO, was not the only one with negligent human decisions, apparently the government trying to shown to the public that their nuclear infrastructure was one of the finest in the world, made some of the same mistakes TEPCO did. First, they thought that the risk of major earthquakes and tsunamis was exaggerated. Additionally, they lack on pressure the utilities that run many of the nuclear plants on improving their facilities, probably as those upgrades would mean major maintenance periods were plants should be shoot down, and would eventually require that Japan would import more oil, coal or LNG for produce its electricity, and additionally increasing their CO2 emissions [6] [7].

    From this accident, I think that we have to learn, which seems as that they didn’t in Japan, is that while nuclear energy is a green energy source, it requires stringent policies and rules to operate, and also good policy makers and reliable institutions that keep a tight control over the utilities that operate them, so that we can continue having it in our energy panorama.

    Sources:
    [1] http://uk.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=UKL3E7EM23620110322
    [2] http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/news_images/pdf/ENGNEWS01_1325217663P.pdf
    [3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/15/fukushima-nuclear-disaster_n_1278500.html
    [4] http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/news_images/pdf/ENGNEWS01_1317702304P.pdf
    [5] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/27/world/asia/report-condemns-japans-response-to-nuclear-accident.html?scp=4&sq=fukushima%20Daiichi&st=cse
    [6] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/world/asia/japanese-official-says-nations-atomic-rules-are-flawed.html?_r=1&ref=japan
    [7] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/world/asia/17japan.html?ref=atomicenergy

  8. shaastra09

    I bend down to the fact that nuclear energy is inevitable due to its high energy density (both in terms of W/m^2 of land use, and output/inputs) and its green nature as compared to other types or power plants.

    Also, we have enough evidences to suggest that nuclear power is safe and that the disasters are caused due to human error only. However, are we to be sure that there will not be any further human error at any of the power plants? The possibility of another black swan raising its head can be anything but overruled.

    Statistics show that despite of growing concerns and advancement in nuclear technology and safety standards, accidents have continued to occur with surprising regularity. Also, there is no evidence to show that the losses in these disasters have gown down with time (as we would like to expect with advancement of technology). Based on this, can someone believe even if the experts promise a fail-safe power plant??

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/77835495@N05/6827524698/in/photostream (This is a link to the graph I have plotted which shows the number of nuclear disasters in the last 60 years. WordPress does not allow posting of Pictures in comments, as far as I know)

    Though dangers are associated with all power plants, it’s the scale of the nuclear ones that makes them disastrous.
    It will take a significant amount of evidence to remove the fear of the nuclear from people’s minds.

    References: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Disasters

    Worth reading: http://theenergycollective.com/barrybrook/75598/black-swan-theory-and-anti-nuclear-sentiment

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