What if we DO need nuclear now?

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 DavisWill 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.

10 thoughts on “What if we DO need nuclear now?

  1. Will Davis

    I agree with you on that, Larry. What we need to do is capture EVERYTHING that’s gone wrong with the AP1000 and EPR builds, whether it was design or overdesign or construction (trade) capability or management limitation and then rethink the next plant design to mitigate those areas. I’d like to see modular design of very large units thrown right out. If you have a plant component that might need to be replaced in whole, make THAT modular (EDG’s for example) but nothing else. (Probably will get heat for this, but I have before when voicing this opinion!)

  2. Larry D Kenworthy

    I would like to be encouraged but am pessimistic. We need to build what we have now but we can’t build what we have now.

  3. Tom LaGuardia

    Will,
    You are correct on every issue! I applaud your pro-nuclear viewpoints (from an experienced decommissioning engineer). I too share your passion for nuclear power.
    Not only must we develop new NPPs both small and large, we need to keep the existing fleet running! That means both state and federal assistance to compete against natural gas plants, and so-called renewables ( that depend on NG when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow).
    We need to dispel the idea of “clean NG.” It emits 60 to 70% of the CO2 of a coal plant, and unburned methane which is about 70 times more damaging than CO2.
    The current nuclear power utilities that are bailing out of merchant nuclear power plants (but not their other regulated NPPs), need to be offered an opportunity to be re-regulated either by the individual states or by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or both.
    The “Green New Deal” should be exposed for the folly it repreents. This nation (or any nation) is not going to stand on it’s head and do away with what we have striven so long to achieve! When in this country has a bartender earned more respect than the scientists and engineers who built this country?
    In summary:
    1. Open Yucca Mountain
    2. Apply the federal funds paid to utilities for on-site spent fuel storage to the utilities to support operating merchant and regulated plants.
    3. Promote federal funding of new small and large nuclear plants.
    4. Expose NG plant emissions as a worse greenhouse gas contributor than coal plants.
    5. Encourage utilities operating merchant NPPs to accept re-regulation.
    6. Expose the Green New Deal as the start of serious socialism and destruction of our industrial prowess!

    Keep up your good work!
    Tom LaGuardia

  4. Barry Butterfield

    Good points! I would add, “levelize the playing field.” Stop picking winners or declaring losers in the energy business. Give nuclear the same subsidies as renewables or, better yet, subject all renewables to the same rigorous design, licensing, permitting and construction standards.

  5. Carl Landstrom

    I’ve been out of the loop for a while but what comes to my mind is as follows: 1) Help Japan restart the 40 something units shut down following Fukushima, particularly Units 5 and 6 adjacent to the affected units. What better plants to operate than ones where the area is already evacuated. 2) Alter the economics of nuclear unit retirement. Surely it must be faster and more economical to repair units like Crystal River and San Onofre than build an entirely new unit. And what is the excuse for planned shutdowns of Indian Point (in AOCs backyard) and Diablo Canyon? May be nothing wrong with those units except they have already been depreciated. Create a rule that all new gas fired units must capture 100% of the CO2 and those scheduled for shutdown should become desirable again.

  6. Jim Van Zandt

    To promote SMRs, I suggest that all major military bases should get nuclear power plants and nuclear district heating. That should provide enough orders to support several suppliers. Then they can start supplying islands, isolated cities, etc.

  7. Larry A. Wagner

    What seems so unreal is that while all the rest of the world is building nuclear facilities using existing technology, the United States is so hell bent of eliminating nuclear units without a viable realistic source of replacement power.

  8. FORREST REMICK

    With a caveat about an aging memory, I think it is the US Supreme Court that decided that absolute safety is not a requirement of the Atomic Energy Act. Regulations require adequate protection of public safety which is pretty much not defined, but for which the Commissioners can decide and which they pretty well did in their Safety Goals policy statement. General Counsel/staff — Help!

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