by Will Davis
Looking at the news every day these days, remembering of course that algorithms collate content for me quite often on various platforms, it seems that there’s some considerable momentum growing for nuclear energy here in the United States. What’s troubling is that while there is a growing sense of urgency, I also see a continued, repeated focus in far too many articles on ‘probably in ten years’ technologies. If there’s really an urgency, it seems probable that looking to the next hill is ridiculous while we’re getting ready to die on this one. If we really do need urgency, what do we do? Here are a few suggestions – feel free to add some constructive or additional ideas in the comments.
1. Open Yucca Mountain. We continue to see hard opposition to nuclear energy in many places and, in fact, even bans on new construction because we have no long-term used fuel storage. Yucca Mountain, as has been stated (again) recently by the Secretary of Energy, is the law of the land. Despite former NRC Chairman Jaczko’s partisan and, likely, illegal defunding of the Yucca effort it turns out that the NRC is not after all a fourth branch of government. It’s a regulator – and as such, it needs to follow the nation’s laws. Getting the government to finally obey its own law (OUR law, since we’re the government) and take used fuel from existing nuclear plant sites (whether the plant’s still there or not) is a primary goal to the rapid build of any kind of nuclear energy here. So it’s job one.
2. Figure out GW-class LWR plants. Folks, it’s a fact- the rest of the world that’s demanding large builds of nuclear energy is asking for and getting gigawatt-class light water reactor nuclear power plants. It’s not surprising (at least, it shouldn’t be) that China has recently announced a restart of nuclear buildout with the domestic Hualong One as the preferred plant. The Western plants have not proven constructible on a credible pre-project schedule. Perhaps the Chinese plants aren’t either, but the important thing is that the Chinese now have a considerable skill base they can employ and, perhaps just as importantly, they also know where the strengths and weaknesses of that skill base lie. They can tailor their plant designs to their capabilities – a level we had reached in this country once long ago. So what do we do here? As I’ve suggested before, we really need to get someone, somewhere looking at what’s held up the Western builds. And don’t tell me project management – I’ve heard that before. It’s part of the problem (due to long years without such complex projects), but what we need is a design that can be constructed on schedule, and in numbers. It needs to be exportable. It needs to be competitive. The 1000-1500 MWe light water nuclear plant is what the rest of the world is largely demanding; it’s what we will need, sooner or later, to replace vast amounts of fossil power. Who’s listening? And, unpopular as it may be, who is ready to allow government support of such a design? The foreign plants are all government supported. Do we compete?
3. Figure out small reactors and get going. We’re seeing a very positive push to allow small modular reactor concepts to do what they’re intended – and that is to be built in numbers. Serious consideration is being given to shrinking EPZ’s to the range of the site fence. Talks are continuing to allow control room operators to manage more than one reactor, using new concepts of control and interface and display. In all this, I think the NRC is to be commended as being extremely proactive in an effort which, I hope, will be remembered as a watershed moment in energy and regulation. But, if we’re going to use small reactors to do the kinds of things we’d really like to do, such as provide district heat for cities, repower fossil fired plants, provide heat energy and electricity for large factories, then we’re going to have to launch a fairly large program to educate the public about these needs. There’s no other way. If the government gets behind these uses for small reactors, it needs to educate the public about them. That means putting nuclear BACK into today’s common core class environment, it means ensuring that facts are easily available on the net, and yes, it even means allowing more folks than ever to see and even tour our nuclear plants. Making this a national priority means making the government educate folks about what it’s doing and why.
4. Admit that safe enough is safe enough. Friends, if it were really true that we desperately needed safer nuclear power than we have now, we’d have a lot more than just one, single commercial nuclear reactor accident in our country’s history. People like to say that an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere, and while being thorough and cautious is absolutely necessary, the sensibility of this phrase only goes so far. To compare a coast line prone to earthquakes and tsunamis to Kansas or Illinois borders on the ridiculous, and to imply that an RBMK has anything at all in common with any commercial reactors in operation today in the US is ludicrous. The point is this – if we’re in a hurry, we need to admit that light water reactors are safe enough and then use those as “Round One” in any sort of hurried buildout, whether planned or actual. Even Alvin Weinberg himself admitted after Three Mile Island that present designs of that time were “probably safe enough,” before advocating for gas cooled and light water cooled PIUS designs in the now-obscure book “The Second Nuclear Era.” (Find that book, folks.) If we are to start now, today, then we need to use what we have now, today.
Our upcoming American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting this summer has, as its theme, “The Value of Nuclear.” I truly hope that discussions such as those I’ve suggested above abound at that meeting. I hope that we come away feeling that if there really is a sense of urgency, then we need to value what we have now even while looking to the future. Progress is constant, but remember – we still use hammers even in the 21st century because they’ve always worked.
Will Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He has been a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he used to write his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves as Vice Chair of ANS’ Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar. His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy. He has begun collecting early calculators from the 1970’s, as if he needed something else to collect.