Technological Advances Promise a Safe, Efficient Nuclear Future

Published February 1, 2010

While groups in favor of using more nuclear power are waging a strong battle of common sense and the opposition is weaker than a decade ago, a national nuclear revival remains a long way off. Pro-nuclear advocates must still turn the remaining skeptics and convince the financiers the near-term potential for efficient, affordable nuclear power is real.

The unfortunate and often incorrect charges against “dirty” carbon-based fuel will continue to create demand for clean fuels, of which nuclear is the only one with serious potential for success.

Global Demand Is High
There is no doubt future reactors will be even safer and more cost-effective than those in operation today, but the time required for licensing and construction remains the greatest obstacle to serious investment. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, applications for 26 new nuclear units are now pending with federal regulators, but we will be fortunate if construction starts on four in the next decade.

By contrast, 34 nuclear power plants are under construction in 12 countries elsewhere in the world, including seven in Russia, six in China, and six in India, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports.

On September 8, 2009, the Wall Street Journal touted nuclear energy in a special energy section, but a close reading revealed the Journal’s support and predictions were tepid at best. The Journal continues to give weight to know-nothing anti-nukes who truly despise nuclear energy for the economic and industrial progress it will support. The global warming fear-mongers fit this description as well, for despite their rage against carbon dioxide they certainly have not embraced carbon-free nuclear energy.

The facts, however, still support a bright nuclear future. It just remains to be seen how soon it will come about.

Promising New Designs
New designs will be more passive, allowing gravity to ensure the distribution of coolant to heat-sensitive components, instead of relying on pumps that theoretically could fail. 

Upcoming plants will have a life of 60 years, spreading their amortized costs over more years, and modular construction will allow quicker and less expensive assembly.

In addition, inherently safe systems such as the pebble bed reactor require fewer safety features because the systems cannot achieve dangerous levels of heat when malfunctions occur. In the case of pebble beds, the uranium fuel is encased in ceramic spheres the size of tennis balls, and the melting point of the ceramic is well above the level of heat that can be generated by the uranium.

These extraordinary safety factors, however, make it likely the best price we can hope for is $4,000 per kilowatt capacity as compared to $2,300 per kilowatt for a coal-fired power plant and $850 for natural gas.

Waste Problems Mythical
Waste disposal is actually not a problem, though it gets the most headlines. Even most critics agree existing used fuel rods can stay where they are for another 50 or 100 years until permanent storage is determined.

We currently use only 5 percent of the available fuel in each rod before disposal, because of a misguided directive not to reprocess nuclear fuel, first put into place by former president Jimmy Carter and never corrected.

Unlike the United States, most nations reprocess their fuel. France, for example, generates 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, using 95 percent of the available fuel and leaving only 5 percent as waste.

Even here, however, there is greater hope for the future with what are called “fast reactors” that can directly utilize nuclear waste. Fast reactors are able to unlock energy in waste because they can burn plutonium and neptunium and other materials that are by-products of current nuclear reactors.

The small amount of potentially weapons-grade plutonium yielded upon reprocessing is what motivated Carter to prohibit reprocessing in 1976.

New Designs More Economical
The Wall Street Journal, in the aforementioned article, quoted GE-Hitachi as estimating their fast reactor now under development could supply all our nation’s energy needs for 70 years using only nuclear waste already in storage today. GE-Hitachi will apply for design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within two years, and the firm hopes to build its first fast reactor within a decade.

Although it will initially cost more money to generate electricity from fast reactors than conventional ones, GE-Hitachi expects costs to drop significantly after a few of the newer reactors go on line.

In summary, nuclear power is progressing technologically and finding greater public acceptance, but the battle for the future of mankind’s energy needs is far from won.

You can help. Talk about it everywhere. You don’t have to be an expert to make a difference. Just let your friends know that you have it from good sources that nuclear is the safest and most plentiful form of energy to power the future of civilization. Their doubts will subside if they trust you.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.