A Good News/Bad News Day for the Nuclear Energy Industry

We wrote recently about nuclear energy in the U.S. — how, after much early promise, the industry faltered badly but now seems poised for a renaissance. (Here is some supporting evidence for the column.)

Two related stories broke yesterday, one of which is good news for the nuclear industry. The other is probably — hopefully — not very consequential in the long run, but it still looks pretty bad.

The first story is that NRG Energy, according to David Whitford at Fortune, “filed a license application to build two new nuclear reactors at its existing facility in Bay City, Texas.” Whitford writes that “it has been nearly 30 years since the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received the last such application.” At the New York Times, Matt Wald explains that NRG “wants to be the first to pour concrete in the main section of the plant, allowing it to qualify for the maximum federal benefits.” Clearly, this is a signal moment for the nuclear industry.

Now for the bad news: the Wackenhut security guards employed at the Pennsylvania Peach Bottom nuclear plant operated by Exelon, which also operates Three Mile Island, were caught napping on videotape in their “ready room.” Exelon fired Wackenhut from Peach Bottom, and may also fire them from its other plants. This good Philadelphia Inquirer article has a lot of detail, including this closing jolt: “Last month, an NRC inspector found an armed guard asleep at a gate outside the Indian Point nuclear generating station in Buchanan, N.Y.”

That said, the security I saw at Three Mile Island was so tight, complex, and thorough that I think it would take a lot more than one sleeping guard to create a vulnerability. They wouldn’t let me photograph anything having to do with their security — the numberless armed guards, physical barriers, electronic monitors, etc. — but I thought they had it backwards: if a potential attacker could see how impenetrable the plant is (at least from a ground attack; an air attack is another matter), he would probably take his business elsewhere in a hurry.


David A. Spitzley

How >do

Alex T

Air attacks are also accounted for under current nuclear reactor regulations, as containment structures are designed to withstand the impact of a 747 jet.

Silvanus

But the problem with nuclear energy is still not resolved- what do you do with the spent nuclear fuel rods? The highly radioactive, easily absorbed into aquifers, lethal to all life on this planet, spent nuclear fuel rods?

Coal we can do something about- we can create carbon traps. We can plant more trees. We can do a lot of things to mitigate the harms of coal.

Hydro energy we can something about- we can learn to not expect salmon on the menu.

Wind energy we can do something about- we can change our idea of what is an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Nuclear? No. Three Mile Island was a wake up call. The long term problem with nuclear power has not been solved, nor will it. No one wants the nuclear dump in their backyard. No one. Not the Yucca native Americans. Not you and not me.

Jim

What if we are able to convert all of the worlds energy needs to some alternative source rather than oil based fuels. Would there still be down stream products that have to use natural oil based products? Could the world survive without oil?

It would seem that there are so many products that are dependent on oil based derivatives that the conversion away from oil will be economically painful as the price of natural oil derivatives goes up. Maybe I'm just being a Cassandra, especially since I won't be around to see the disappearance of this natural resource.

Lee

Everything carries a risk and nuclear power seems to be the most deadly of all. However, weighing it against pollution which could be widespread, the risks of nuclear power generation could be confined to a limited area. Japan has more than 50 nuclear power plants and about 10 more on the pipeline. On top of that they are in earthquake zones.

http://www.japannuclear.com/nuclearpower/program/location.html

On the other hand, the US has more than 100 nuclear power plants providing aout 20% of its energy and one major accident that happened almost 30 years ago. Sure there are risks including problems with the radioactive waste but these are manageable compared to oil spills and carbon emissions from coal and fossil fuels.

We are being paralyzed to inaction and fear by the hype against nuclear power promoted by "Talibangelists" who blow things out of proportion.

alex t

"The long term problem with nuclear power has not been solved, nor will it."

Never, ever?

How about flying it into the Sun? (Some people worry that the rocket might explode on the way up but we could just put the waste in an explosion-proof box, like the black boxes planes use)

More likely, however, some nuclear scientist will come up with a way to fix this problem sometime in the next 500 years.

Sentinel

"Air attacks are also accounted for under current nuclear reactor regulations, as containment structures are designed to withstand the impact of a 747 jet."

Are all of the coolant and control systems also designed to take such an impact? How about all of the on-site waste storage now commonly used? Granted, a nuclear explosion is unlikely but can you say "big fat dirty bomb"?

David S

“The long term problem with nuclear power has not been solved, nor will it.”

"How about flying it into the Sun? "

A better solution may be to encase the radioactive material in glass and then bury it in the middle of the pacific ocean in the subduction zone where two tectonic places combine. By burying the waste in this location, it will be deep underwater, far from people and food supplies. Furthermore, it will be pulled into the mantle before it can corrode. It will taken many thousands years before it recycles to the surface. By that time, the toxic components will have decayed.

ryan

Might it be possible to design a reactor that will have non-radioactive fission products? I thought I read somewhere about research of such a reactor.

Perhaps even one whose waste will be . . . coal?

synapticmisfires

It is WAY too early to start building plants if the solution to the waste problem won't come for 500 years (as alex t suggested). Fortunately, I believe we are very close to being able to manage waste. Already there is research being done on converting the radioactive material into less harmful isotopes.

I think that nuclear fission may be our best source of energy for many years between the demise of fossil fuels and the rise of whatever's next (hopefully fusion). However, I am glad that the US has been slow to adapt fission. Had we jumped in with both feet, we have made a costly mistake, for instance becoming dependent on uranium instead of the more available plutonium, or building plants with less sophisticated containment methods, or without accounting for the risk of thermal pollution that wasn't originally considered.

roamer

' Three Mile Island was a wake up call. The long term problem with nuclear power has not been solved, nor will it. No one wants the nuclear dump in their backyard. No one. Not the Yucca native Americans. Not you and not me. '

Nonsense. Not that the author of this inane paragraph will bother researching the truth of the matter, but the actual radiation dosage of an individual on three mile island was roughly equal to the dosage you receive if you fly across the continental US. Far less than the radiation you receive when you get an x-ray.

And the nuclear dump in your backyard? It has been calculated that if we were to move to 100% fission production of electricity, we could store all the nuclear waste produced in a century in a dump the size of a college football stadium. You simply store it in standard drums encased in thick leaded glass, stacked above ground in a desert facility (Desert due to the stability of the external environment). you could store them in any one of a dozen government facilities and no one would know, or care, if the facts were what people responded to.

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synapticmisfires

I think a reactor that produced nonradioactive products would be realistic and really incredibly awesome. Should be noted though, designing a reactor that produced coal as a by product seems unrealistic. Coal isn't it's own element, it's just sophisticated collections of Carbon that have been allowed to sit for millions of years under pressure. Without this time, it's just carbon. So you could maybe have a reactor that produced graphite, but not coal or diamonds.

Blain

There has never been a problem in knowing how to safely deal with the waste. The problem has been that opponents of nuclear power have pandered to ignorance about nuclear power and radiation to create fear about every aspect of handling the waste responsibly to the point that we now do have a crisis of nuclear waste.

Fuel rod reprocessing was stopped in the Carter Administration, which would significantly reduce the volume of waste we're dealing with. Once reprocessed, the remaining waste can be glassified and stored at Yucca Mountain where worst-case scenarios have radioactive waste reaching humans only after the radiation levels have reached background level.

The reality is that today's designs, such as liquid sodium reactors, pebble bed reactors, and the potential of thorium fission are safer than the designs of the reactors in use, and release far, far less radioactive material into the environment than coal generators have. Nuclear reactors haven't created one death, where coal produces deaths on a regular basis (remember the coal miners in Utah). If more people understood high-school level physics with regard to fission and radiation, we could dispense with much of the public phobia of things nuclear and, paradoxically, reduce both our CO2 emissions and our C14 emissions.

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Dennis Mancini

The boyz at the 'Nuke Plants' are not worried about having a plane crash into a dome. What really scares them is a plane crashing into cooling pond. Doh?!

Pat

Dennis, could you elaborate on that point? What is the potential issue with a plane crashing into a cooling pond? (Note: It will be easier to take your response seriously if it doesn't include cutesy terms like "boyz" and "doh".)

Silvanus

Roamer, thanks for insulting my intelligence by claiming I haven't done any research into nuclear power. In addition, Roamer is employing the straw man argument- creating a false argument that I am not making. This straw man is the "promulgating nuclear myth" and easily beaten down. Bravo, your rhetorical acumen can push over a scarecrow.

My good friend Daniel is a mechanical engineer at the Brownville Nuclear Power Plant in Nebraska, which is my home state. They currently store their radioactive waste in the basement because they are prohibited by law from transporting the nuclear waste and also, because there is no where to put it. Yucca is not operational-
http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/6600AP_NV_Yucca_Mountain_Drilling.html

In fact, Yucca is still being opposed and there are still legal impediments- look at the story, probably not operational if at all until 2017.

Blindly believing that technology will "save us" when all it does is postpone or inflate problems is the same as the fundies claiming "God will save us" when the hurricane comes. The problem is thus: the radioactive isotopes from split fuel rods have half lives on the order of millenia. While some of the posters were more civil in suggesting encasing methods, these are things I've looked at in Popular Science but nothing is in the physics journals regarding their viability.

But yeah, go ahead, insult people at will.

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Matt

The problem with a plane crash into a cooling pond is that the pond is relatively unprotected (i.e., not surrounded by three meters of reinforced steed and concrete). A plane crash into one of those could release a non-trivial amount of nuclear waste; however, such a release would still cause some environmental issues and, likely, a widespread panic. This issue will be eliminated, though, when that radioactive waste is put into Yucca Mountain instead.

Reprocessing was banned by Jimmy Carter because of proliferation concerns, but as North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, India, and Israel have shown, that proliferation will happen regardless of what we do. Restarting reprocessing is a good idea on a number of levels--it reduces the amount of fuel needed (and thus waste produced) per kWh of electricity generated, and expands the amount of fuel available to us by orders of magnitude by allowing us to use the far more common but non-fissile isotope U-238 in power generation.

Silvanus said we should plant trees to get rid of CO2 emissions; I won't pretend to know how many millions of square miles of trees would have to be planted tomorrow to avoid the warming catastrophe that he would assure me is imminent. Yucca Mountain, though, has been the subject of countless studies, and would be one small, safe, well-guarded location where (unlike coal plants) we could easily deal with the entirety of the power generation waste problem.

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mario

I for one can't discuss technical details like radiation doses or safe storage - but this is what makes sense to me
Nuclear is today the best and cleanest technology we have to generate power(no technology yet is perfect, solar and other do not work everywhere or all the time) - France for example produces about 70% of their power this way so why can't we do same
Hypothetically if we built enough reactors we could switch to electric cars and stop using coal, gas and oil entirely (except for the petrochemical industry and others that need them as raw materials)- no smog, no acid rain, no sulfur - I am fully in favour of that
Why would any rational person say no? Reactors are not bombs, movies and TV shows exaggerate risk - even long time greens are now in favour of nuclear energy

Nacho

Mistakes happen in any human endeavor. Some guards were asleep, and that's a problem. On the other hand, they were caught, and there appears to be a
mechanism and an economic incentive in place to reduce the problem. Hopefully the security system
at the plant is robust enough to tolerate a failure of any single component (in this case, some napping guards).

Vincent

Oh well. A few years ago I remember people were scared about the thought of hydrogen powered cars - "too dangerous!!"..."remember the Hindenburg???" - even though gasoline contains far more energy per unit mass than hydrogen. But now, hydrogen fuel is touted as the latest greatest way to combat global warming and dependence on oil.

Same thing will happen with nuclear power.