April 12, 2011

Two Cents: Nuclear Energy

Print More

In the interest of fostering dialogue on the nuclear energy, The Sun solicited the opinions of several knowledgeable professors on the topic — in what will be the first in a series of debates on a host of controversial matters. The aim is to present a sampling of views, which in no way will be entirely comprehensive, but will hopefully allow readers to learn about different topics from a variety of perspectives and disciplines.

Given the recent events in Japan, what do you think will happen to the use of nuclear energy either globally or nationally (in the U.S.)? Do you think the events will cause a major change in the way nuclear energy is perceived? Why or why not?

The Fukushima Disaster will (and should, in my opinion) cause all countries with nuclear power plants to re-evaluate their assumptions about the worst possible natural or human caused (terrorist or operator error) disaster that could affect the reactor.  Every site is different — the events that triggered the Fukushima reactors’ present problems that quite literally could not happen at most reactors throughout the world.  Likewise, the worst possible consequences of the worst possible reactor problems are site specific.  This re-evaluation must be the responsibility of the governments because it will always be in the best interest of the reactor operators/owners to keep them running as much as possible and to spend as little money as possible on “safety upgrades” or additional safety equipment.

Meanwhile, the general public is inundated with inflammatory headlines and 30 second summaries of the terrible things that could happen next, all of which are good for selling newspapers and getting people to watch news programs on television, but which don’t say whether less, or even much less disastrous outcomes are more, or even much more likely.  These stories are likely to have a major “short term” negative effect on the way nuclear power is perceived.  If the worst is over with the Fulushima reactors (and we cannot be sure that it is yet), then just as coal-mine disasters and other disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil platform disaster of last Spring and Summer and the bridge collapse in Minneapolis a few years ago, inevitably fade from the public mind except where they happen, we will not see more than increased safety studies (a good thing) along the road to increased use of nuclear power.  However, if there is a major spread of radioactivity that has long-term consequences outside of Japan, then the nuclear power industry is likely to have its present potential renaissance nipped-in-the-bud as a result of the negative effect on public perception.

-Prof. David Hammer, electrical and computer engineering

I think the events at the Fukushima site in Japan will certainly slow what appeared only recently to be an imminent resurgence of nuclear power in the U.S. The incident at Three-Mile Island in 1979, even though it released very little radiation and caused no fatalities, put a virtual stop to nuclear power development in the U.S. for about 30 years. I don’t know how long we will feel the political effects of the events in Japan, but I think it’s likely to be at least 10 years, and we must recognize that the future of nuclear power production in the U.S. is fundamentally a political issue.

My work in the past on nuclear power issues has focused on the waste products, and particularly on safely transporting spent fuel. Dealing with the spent fuel after it is removed from the reactor is one of the important challenges of using nuclear power safely and effectively. The spent fuel cooling in the pools at the Fukushima plants is the direct source of most of the concern for radiation leakage in the current incident. Under normal operating conditions, after the fuel cools it needs to be removed from the pools and either stored under dry conditions, transported to a repository, or reprocessed. Since the 1980’s the U.S. has been struggling politically to address the issues of managing spent fuel, with very little success. Depending on who is powerful at a given time (and what states they are from), Congress moves one way and then another on policy for how and where to handle nuclear waste. In the current deeply divided political environment in Washington, I see little chance for much movement on this issue any time soon, and I think it will be years before it again becomes “politically safe” to promote more nuclear power in Washington.

– Prof. Mark Turnquist, civil and environmental engineering

We won’t know the full consequences of the Japanese disaster for at least several months, so any response to this question is speculative.  It is my guess, repeat guess, that in the U.S. there will be a significant change in the public’s perception of the dangers and benefits of nuclear power, but that this and subsequent administrations and Congresses will be swayed more by two other factors: the political power at the disposal of those who want a major expansion of nuclear power, and the cost of new plants. I think the extension of licenses beyond the original 40 years will become more difficult, as will getting approval for new sites because of local opponents. But as we see in so many other matters these days, public opinion is often not a significant factor in public policy — cf., financial regulation, health care, etc. etc.  Globally attitudes will probably be mixed, and in many countries public attitudes matter less than here.

– Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried, physics

Modern nuclear reactors are fairly different from the reactors that were affected by the events in Japan. Do you think that modern nuclear reactors still pose an environmental threat either in an emergency situation such as an earthquake, or on a day to day basis?

If by modern nuclear reactors, you mean modern nuclear reactor designs, then yes, they are different and they are much more inherently safe.  In particular, the so-called Generation 4 reactors are designed to be completely safe if they all electrical power is lost, all cooling pump power is lost, all control is lost, etc.  That is, the back-up to the engineered back-up safety features uses gravity and natural convection (warmer air and water both rise and cooler air and water fall) to provide the back-up emergency cooling to the back-up cooling systems.  Power plants still should not be built close to fault lines where a significant earthquake might occur!

Nuclear power plants operating under normal conditions pose a MUCH lower environmental threat than a coal-fired power plant.  That includes delivery of radioactivity to the environment, not just sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and other heavy metals and CO2.  The reason for the radioactivity is that coal mining slag heaps and the ash from coal-fired power plants contain natural radioactivity in the form of the elements thorium and uranium and the elements produced by the radioactive decay of those two very long-lived radioactive elements, such as radium.  The level of radioactivity in coal ash is higher than is measured anywhere near a nuclear power plant!

Let’s ask the question, is there any conceivable way that the radioactivity in a Generation 4 power plant could get out and into the environment in spite of all of its inherent safety features in addition to its engineering safety features?  One way is if a large meteor were to make its way through the atmosphere and hit the ground right there, vaporizing everything within a half a mile as a result of the impact and spreading it around the globe.  We know that such a meteor impact has happened a few times in the 4 billion year history of the earth at different locations.  That is a pretty rare event, indeed, and its consequences are likely to be beyond catastrophic for all animal life on earth even without worrying about the radioactivity that is spread around the planet.

At the level of what a terrorist could do, as opposed to a large meteor encounter, those inherently safe reactors are designed to contain their radioactive material with a high degree of surety.

-Prof. David Hammer

“Modern” reactors do not form one category.  Those being proposed for licensing before the US NRC are not fundamentally different from the GE plants in Japan. It seems clear that in Japan the government and industry have done a much poorer job than their US counterparts, and that the location of the destroyed plants was the major factor in their demise. The “modern” U.S. plants would probably not have survived the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in the same location; U.S. spent fuel facilities are even more vulnerable than those in Japan. Fundamentally safer design — such as one on the market from the French manufacturer Areva — are not being considered by industry in the U.S. because they are too expensive.  To a large extent, the safety of plants on a day-to-day basis depend on whether the owner of the utility is willing to spend the money to insure safety, and whether the regulator (here the NRC) has the political will and muscle to demand adherence to regulations.

-Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried

According to the U.S. Dept of Energy, the last reactor built in the U.S. was the “River Bend” plant in Louisiana. Its construction began in March of 1977. The last plant to begin commercial operation is the “Watts Bar” plant in Tennessee, which came online in 1996. Do you think the reason for this is due to a fear of alarming the public by building more reactors, or are there severe safety concerns associated with building them?

After the Chernobyl reactor disaster in the former Soviet Union, there was definite public reluctance in the U.S. to have more nuclear power plants built.  That was true even though that Russian design could not have been licensed in the U.S. because it wasn’t adequately inherently safe even for the early days of nuclear power in the U.S.  Furthermore, the cost of a nuclear power plant starting in the 1980′s was about 5 times the cost of a coal-fired power plant of the same generating capacity (for example, 1000 megawatts).  Of course, the fuel for a coal plant is much more expensive in the long run, but corporations nowadays have a time horizon that is less than five years, by which time a nuclear plant hasn’t yet paid for itself in fuel cost savings.  Thus, in my opinion, once the utilities stopped being discouraged by public perception/fears, probably soon after 2000 when C02 from fossil fuel use became the pending-disaster-of-the-day, they were discouraged by cost – until there was a run-up in the price of fossil fuels starting 5-8 years ago. Please notice that I am not an expert on power-plant economics and this is the opinion of a citizen who reads the newspaper and magazines and listens to speakers every week in the Energy Seminar (ECE5870 and ECE5880).

-Prof. David Hammer

When the Three-Mile Island accident occurred in 1979, it was only a few weeks after a Hollywood movie, “The China Syndrome”, had become a hit.  As a result, Hollywood played an unintended, but significant, role in establishing the general public perception of what the accident at Three-Mile Island was like. Like most Hollywood portrayals, this one was not very accurate, but it created an enormous sense of public fear. The recovery from that might have taken less than 30 years, but then there was the Chernobyl accident in 1986, in a reactor design that would not have been considered appropriate in the U.S. Public fears, once in place, take a long time to abate, whether they were originally well-founded or not. Certainly there are safety concerns with nuclear reactors, just as there are with many other large-scale industrial processes, and they must be well-engineered and carefully operated. There are lessons being learned from the Fukushima incident – the “largest credible event” used for design standards may not be sufficient, for example – but this does not mean that nuclear power is an anathema that should be avoided at all costs.

-Prof. Mark Turnquist

No. The reason is cost — the cost of new plants is prohibitive unless the government supplies massive  subsidies, or some other factor penalizes other energy sources. The obvious one would be a cost on carbon to penalize fossil fuels for the purpose of stemming climate change (this cost on carbon could be in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.) The Obama administration has offered huge nuclear loan guarantees (over $50 billion), but it appears that they are still not high enough for most utilities. I should emphasize, that by cost I here mean capital costs — operating costs of nuclear power are very competitive. It is likely that the Japanese disaster will raise capital costs.

-Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried

The U.S. is currently largely dependent on foreign oil, which is problematic for numerous economic as well as social reasons. Many argue that natural gas is the best solution for the dependency, while others argue that nuclear energy is the way to go. Which do you think is more sustainable? Why?

Claiming no more expertise on this than any thoughtful citizen, no single solution is a good idea if national security is at stake, including threats to our national economy, through shutdown all at once of a whole bunch of power plants.  (Did you notice that the Japanese economy is suffering because of a lack of adequate electric power as a result of the shut-down of the several nuclear reactors in the earthquake-tsunami zone?)  Therefore, I think we should start building safer modern nuclear power plants on the site of existing plants (to avoid problems of siting), AND we should develop our national gas resources in an equally careful and safe way, including keeping both personal and environmental safety in mind.  I also think we should be developing “renewable resources,” solar, wind and geothermal, where they are economically viable and also don’t harm the environment.

Ultimately, we need nuclear fusion (that’s my own long-term research goal, and so of course I’m going to say that!) and low cost solar power to displace everything else, but both of those are still resisting rapid development.  In the meantime, a portfolio approach seems like the best solution, including biofuels, electric cars run on nuclear electricity as soon as batteries are good enough for that to be possible, and natural gas heating and peak-load electricity generation.  The medium-term goal (say 20-30 years from now) should be to cut back our use of petroleum for fuel by 80%, and nuclear electricity powering electric cars seems to be an important player in any goal like that.

-Prof. David Hammer

Nuclear power is used to generate electricity, and until electric cars become a major factor in transportation, nuclear power will not alter the demand for oil.  The same goes for natural gas, unless we develop a large vehicle fleet that can run on gas.  But all major changes in transportation take decades.

Ultimately, all fossil fuels are unsustainable because of climate, coal is worst but gas is not a panacea in the long run — it is a transition fuel until renewables and nuclear become the major suppliers. Nuclear has, to my mind, a critical Achilles heel — nuclear weapon proliferation. The spread of nuclear power to politically unstable or dangerous regions is to my mind the greatest danger posed by nuclear power.

-Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried

Original Author: Maria Minsker