The nearly calamitous nuclear crisis in Japan has hardened public skepticism about the safety of atomic power. Yet, several countries, including the United States, are forging ahead to subsidize the construction of new reactors.
Germany reacted by planning to decommission its nuclear power plants in favor of wind; the United States government instituted safety reviews (uncovering some glaring oversights), but its commitment to finance new facilities and extend the lifespan of existing reactors is unchanged.
President Obama’s FY 2012 budget requests $36 billion in new loan guarantees for the construction of reactors, and key senators have expressed support. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is also relicensing old reactors to remain in operation for a few more decades.
Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was equipped with a containment system that was commercialized over 40 years ago by General Electric. The same system is deployed at 23 nuclear facilities across the United States.
Exactly what transpired in the aftermath of the Mar. 11 earthquake remains unknown, but the damaging effects of the natural disasters coupled with alleged operator error and suspected faults in GE’s engineering contributed to three total core meltdowns.
There are a total of 104 nuclear plants in the U.S today, according to NRC data. 61 were recently given another 20 years to operation, and most of the remaining plants should be relicensed with NRC reviews and upgrades, nuclear reactor designer AREVA’s CTO Dr. Finis Southworth said.
America’s nuclear future
Despite renewed public concern over nuclear safety, it is clear that atomic power will continue to be a vital part of the U.S. energy mix for the foreseeable future. It accounts for nearly 20 percent of electricity generated nationwide, and household electricity consumption is projected to steadily increase with economic growth and broader consumer electronics adoption and use.
The U.S. nuclear industry is steadfast in its position that nuclear power is safe today, and that it will become even safer in the future, also helping to address climate change. AREVA's Southworth told SmartPlanet that NRC safety procedures could have prevented a Fukushima Daiichi like meltdown in the U.S., and General Electric is vigorously defending its decades old design.
“The NRC will make sure that the industry in the U.S. learns from every lesson available over past 30 years,” Southworth said.
AREVA stands to benefit handsomely from the nuclear construction boom that could happen when existing leases expire during the 2030’s. It estimates that 30-35 new reactors must be built by 2030 to replace 30000MW of power in the U.S. grid.
“Ultimately, all of them should be replaced. All [leases] will run out close to 2050 that go past that,” Southworth added.
A safer generation of nuclear reactors is just surfacing
Southworth noted that Areva’s newest design, the EPR, or Evolutionary Power Reactor, has more redundant systems than the Fukushima Daiichi facilities had. It meets stringent 1990’s European safety standards, and the company spent 15 years on its design, he said.
The EPR features both active and passive safety systems, Southworth explained. Those include four independent emergency cooling systems, a “leak tight” double containment system, and an “ashtray like” cooling area to capture molten fuel in the event of a meltdown.
In comparison to Fukushima Daiichi, the EPR design is protected against tsunamis, and fuel is stored in a separate building from the reactor, Southworth said.
Additionally, a hardened layer of concrete surrounds EPR facilities to withstand the impact of an aircraft collision. The Union of Concerned Scientists praised the design as being more protected against potential terror attacks than today’s reactors, in a 2008 report, but stated that plant owners had no financial incentive for building to that standard without an NRC mandate.
“Every vendor including us has been on generation 3+ [reactor designs] since 1990-2005, arriving at a design much more advanced in safety,” Southworth said. The generation III designs incorporate evolutionary upgrades over previous designs, and has new passive safety features.
Human intervention is still necessary in the event of an accident. Under the most optimistic conditions the EPR design can keep cores cool for up to two weeks before water must be added from an external source, Southworth said.
“The concrete heat sink can absorb heat for many days and not threaten the reactor,” Southworth said. “It can go a couple of weeks on diesel fuel before filling up the [reserve water] tanks again.”
An EPR facility holds out for 8 days under the worst-case scenario when pumping systems are not operational. In Japan, the fire trucks took nine days to reach the power plants.
Southworth was confident that better industry practices in the U.S. would preempt a similar crisis. “In the U.S, we have procedures for accidents well worked out. We know what we need. They didn’t appear to be ready in Japan.” Recent reports cast some doubt on that claim.
There are currently no facilities based on the EPR design in operation - any place in the world. But plants in Finland and France are currently under construction. Those reactors will go online in 2013 and 2014, respectively. New plants take up to a decade to build.
Dramatically safer reactor designs are further down the horizon
Designs for forth generation reactor designs that will not require active cooling systems to be safe will not be available under the 2030’s, and will take a few more years to build after plans are ready, according to Southworth.
However, he noted that no design is entirely foolproof. “All passive doesn’t mean inherently safer. All together passive and active [cooling] is what we look at for safety.” And there's a catch: increased safety comes at a price.
The 4th generation design is more costly to build, and could make nuclear power appreciably more expensive than renewable sources.
GE, the company behind the Fukushima Daiichi reactor design, recently projected that solar power is rapidly becoming more economical than fossil fuels and nuclear technology. That being said, nuclear technology is still advancing.
The pebble bed reactor concept that AREVA created during the 1980’s isn’t going to be promoted as its next generation design, Southworth revealed. That design is the basis for facilities being built in China and South Africa.
Areva is instead preparing a derivative 4th generation design based on a project called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). Its NGNP implementation will be know as the HTR reactor. HTR design introduces a new fuel rod technology that unlike pebble fuel, “doesn’t move around,” Southworth said.
Other new reactor designs are being constructed in China where a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor project was announced in February. Thorium is considered to be clearer, safer, and more abundant fuel source than uranium.
National pride could further compel U.S. politicians to back nuclear subsidies - it's a nuclear "Sputnik moment." If the subsidies survive Washington's newfound austerity, new plants will eventually be built.
Existing nuclear plants have an extended lifespan of around 60 years; plants built in the 2030's and beyond will likely be operational into the next century. Unless renewable energy technologies displace nuclear power, it will be around long after you and I are gone from this Earth.