Good Questions About Nuclear Power Answered

by James C. Sherlock

Surrey Power Station Unit 1. Courtesy Dominion Energy

A reader asked two excellent questions:

The issues with nuclear power have been:

1. The waste generated remains radioactive and dangerous for a very long time.
2. In the case of failure, a huge risk is exposed as was the case in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima.

Do these new, small reactors bypass either of those risks?

The short answers are:

  • The new large reactors for sale now are safer than those in the field.
  • New small reactors offer to greatly improve both the safety and efficiency of even the latest versions of the large reactors with a vastly smaller footprint. That includes Westinghouse’s new small reactor announced today that uses technology already approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It expects deployment in 2027.
  • The designs of the small modular reactors (SMRs) in development under dual Department of Energy (DOE) and corporate sponsorship incorporate more revolutionary safety design features than any the designs already approved by the NRC for operational use. You will read below that the DOE has identified three revolutionary commercial vendor-backed SMR designs that it expects to be ready for NRC operating approval by 2030.
  • Some of the new SMRs actually consume nuclear waste from other sources.

Now for the longer version.

First, motivation. Nuclear plants produce energy without carbon emissions — a huge legacy advantage that also addresses climate alarm.

Every generation of nuclear power brings improvements to address safety, waste and cost competitiveness both among nuclear vendors and with other sources of power.

It is dedicated and well-funded work, not only for the public benefit, but by companies trying to keep nuclear power competitive in the market and make a profit in power and heat generation worldwide.

To do that, every improvement they make is progress to answer the two questions posed, and the third, which is cost.

Absent war, commercial viability and profit form the most reliable basis for innovation. They do here.

Currently operational technology. Only Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) (62) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) (31) are in commercial operation in the United States.

The four reactors in commercial operation in Virginia are Westinghouse 3-loop PWRs.

Westinghouse’s current flagship AP1000 reactor and the new small AP300 are advanced PWR technology.

Dominion in 2014 chose GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s Economic Simplified Boiling-Water Reactor (ESBWR) nuclear technology for the third reactor at Lake Anna if they ever build it. ESBWR includes

passive gravity-based safety features – water stored above the reactor that would flow to the reactor by gravity in the unlikely event of a significant nuclear accident and circulate naturally to maintain cooling of the nuclear fuel.

That design directly (and presciently since it was designed before Fukushima) addresses the cause of the Fukushima disaster.

Industry-wide efforts. For industry-wide safety improvements in development, see Accident Tolerant Fuel (ATF) and Advanced Manufacturing Technologies (AMTs). See who is doing that work at the same link.

Gen IV. Gen IV nuclear technologies are competing with one another under different corporate sponsorships.

For the leaders, see the federal Department of Energy’s 3 Advanced Reactor Systems to watch by 2030. It is short, easy reading and very informative.

The three are the Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor (SCR) the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) and the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). The individual links provide more detail on each design.

All three are safer than current designs and minimize waste. Two of them can consume spent fuel from other reactors. All of them offer to be far less expensive per KwH than current generation systems.

Fukushima. For want of a nail…

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster was a result not of the earthquake itself — emergency shutdown occurred as designed — but rather the tsunami flooding of some of the diesel generators that maintained coolant water flow to the reactors.

Long story short, the three diesel generators at Daiichi that were in water-tight buildings worked. The others flooded.

Nearby Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant was also struck by the tsunami. All of the diesel generators were in flood-proof buildings. They worked fine, and Daini was back online in hours.

Investigations determined, among other things, that if the flooded switching stations at Daiichi had been in flood-proof locations,

power would have been provided by these generators to the reactors’ cooling systems and thus the catastrophe would have been averted.

Then:

  • regulatory capture by the provider of its government regulator had resulted in lax inspections; and
  • the original GE plant design for the locations of the diesel generators was faulty. It put them in a basement. (We are pretty much assured that nowhere in the world is a diesel generator for a nuclear cooling system located anywhere that is not flood proof.)

Bottom line. My answers to the very good questions posed by the reader are:

  1. Nuclear power is absolutely essential to a carbon free energy future.
  2. The national labs help, but improvements have both societal and capitalist motivations. It is reassuring that the investments are at least as important to the vendors (and buyers like Dow Chemical) as they are they are to the public;
  3. the technology of nuclear power continues to drive toward both safety and the consumption of spent nuclear fuel;
  4. the operators of nuclear facilities, at least until the technology makes them safe in the very worst case, must maintain a cult-like focus on safety. Because the procedures are endlessly repetitive and boring, and thus can lead to distraction. But failure is not an option for those standing beside the reactors. The threat keeps them attentive, and their every action is recorded on video. Fukushima was not caused by operator error;
  5. their regulators must be watched for any indication of insufficient dedication and/or capture by the industry. U.S. regulators at the FRC have shown no signs of capture of which I am aware. If there was an attempt at capture, it would likely be reported because the work itself must be nearly perfect to remain viable, much less profitable, and the vendors compete with one another; and
  6. With all of that, no system designed and run by humans can be perfect. Technical improvements are targeted to take human frailty out of the equation as much as possible.

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Comments

23 responses to “Good Questions About Nuclear Power Answered”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    1) No, they still produce waste.
    2) No, a catastrophic event with a nuclear reactor is always a catastrophic event with a nuclear reactor.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Wind power froze in Texas. People died.

      California is extending the like of Diablo Canyon because of a grid weakened by intermittent wind and solar that they back up with diesel generators, and still had brownouts and blackouts in last summer’s heatwave. People died.

      Mortality from Fukishima hit by a massive earthquake and tsumani and with the errors I described: zero. Zero.

      Lack of sufficient, reliable power will kill more people than nuclear accidents that are being made less and less likely. Period.

      As for nuclear waste, either take the DOE’e position on the new technology or don’t. Nobody cares about your opinion on that subject. I’ll go with the DOE.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        It was the NG that froze. In fact, all sources had to deal with the freeze in Texas.

        We all die. Zero from Fukishima, eh? Just wait.

        It’s ionizing radiation. It’s safe level is ZERO. The X-ray backscatter scanners they planned, and tested at some airports, would have killed 12 people per year had they been fully deployed. Talk about unreasonable search and seizure.

        1. Nathan Avatar

          Nancy Naive:
          “It’s ionizing radiation. It’s safe level is ZERO.”

          That’s flat out wrong!

          “Physiological benefits from low levels of ionizing radiation”

          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6759465/

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Go for it.

            Btw, last line of the abstract. Parse it out and tell me what you think again…

            “Whether or not ionizing radiation is found to be essential for these physiologic functions, the evidence reviewed indicates that the optimal amount of this ubiquitous agent is imperceptibly above ambient levels.”

          2. Nathan Avatar

            Last line in plain English:
            Optimal levels of ionizing radiation are slightly above ambient levels.

            Ambient radiation levels measure how much radiation is in the environment around us. If ambient levels are harmful, as you suggest, how is this so?

            Nuclear facilities are normally located in places where ambient radiation levels are lower than normal, such that any increase from the facility doesn’t exceed normal ambient radiation levels.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            We evolve in a sea of ionizing radiation anything above that is potentially dangerous. Your guys proved that some, between none and ambient is necessary, but optimal is within epsilon of ambient. Funny thing that.

            Add salt to your fresh water aquarium.

          4. Nathan Avatar

            Nancy Naive:
            “It’s ionizing radiation. It’s safe level is ZERO.”

            I said the above was wrong, and in spite of reputable documented evidence to back that up, you continue to argue the point.

            Funny thing that.

      2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        “Wind power froze in Texas. People died”

        You mean natural gas supplies failed in Texas. People died. Details… details…

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          The humor is that, yes, west Texas mills froze up and stopped adding power to the Texas grid. Conversely, the east Texas mills were subjected to greater than average sustained winds, did not freeze, and produced more power to the grid.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            I am starting to reach the conclusion that renewables, while indeed intermittent, are really very reliable and predictable energy sources. Mostly fewer moving parts.

    2. Nathan Avatar

      That’s the same irrational logic used by people who are afraid of flying and drive cross country instead.

      https://res.cloudinary.com/engineering-com/image/upload/w_640,h_640,c_limit,q_auto,f_auto/Capacity_Factor_w8groi.jpg

      “Given the considerable disparity in the deaths caused by other forms of energy versus nuclear energy, one would be hard pressed not to conclude that nuclear energy is the safest and most energy-dense resource in the world. At 93.5 percent, nuclear energy has the highest capacity ratio of all energy sources in the world today, and produces negligible waste when compared to its energy output.”

      https://www.engineering.com/story/whats-the-death-toll-of-nuclear-vs-other-energy-sources

    3. Nathan Avatar

      That’s the same irrational logic used by people who are afraid of flying and drive cross country instead.

      https://res.cloudinary.com/engineering-com/image/upload/w_640,h_640,c_limit,q_auto,f_auto/Capacity_Factor_w8groi.jpg

      “Given the considerable disparity in the deaths caused by other forms of energy versus nuclear energy, one would be hard pressed not to conclude that nuclear energy is the safest and most energy-dense resource in the world. At 93.5 percent, nuclear energy has the highest capacity ratio of all energy sources in the world today, and produces negligible waste when compared to its energy output.”

      https://www.engineering.com/story/whats-the-death-toll-of-nuclear-vs-other-energy-sources

    4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      It is interesting that you (and Eric) seem a hard “never” when Jennifer Granholm’s Department of Energy is a supporter of nuclear energy. See https://www.energy.gov/nuclear

      You will see that nuclear power provides 20% of the nation’s electrical power. It provides a third of Virginia’s.

      Her DOE is of the opinion need both to retire and replace nuclear existing capacity and to increase that to reach a reliable zero carbon energy future.

      Being to the left of Ms. Granholm on energy is pretty close to the edge, don’t you think?.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        She has to compromise. She has to deal with Republicans as a party. I only have to deal with you, so no need to compromise.

        Nuclear waste is 1000s of years of dangerous material. Do you have room in your garage?

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          So the Secretary doesn’t really believe in nuclear power. I’ll send her a note to let her know. She and Bill Gates will have to retract their statement of support. https://www.nei.org/news/2021/bill-gates-jennifer-granholm-climate-change

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Do that. You’ve done similar before.

            It’s moot. Let ‘em build if they choose. I can always afford to move upwind and away.

          2. Nathan Avatar

            “I can always afford to move upwind and away.”

            Be sure to have professional radon testing on any perspective new home.

            Then compare the results with a similar test done in your current home. Unless you are careful, you could easily end up with a net gain in ionizing radiation from such a move.

            The added radiation from an SMR in the region is insignificant by comparison.

  2. Rafaelo Avatar
    Rafaelo

    I have an acquaintance involved with the largest private landowner in southwest Virginia. He shocked me, when I asked about the governor’s proposal for putting small scale nuclear reactors atop former coal mines.

    In sum, it was a vehement NO. To paraphrase:

    “They think of us as a depressed area. Empty, wasted land. Nuclear reactors at the top of the watershed for the whole region?!”

    Our well-meaning governor expects a warm welcome. Instead: anger. Resistance. With lawyers. My acquaintance is a very good lawyer.

    The governor and his people need to get down there and talk to them. Ask what they want. Ask
    what they think. Rather than tell them: you are getting nuclear reactors in your backyard, like it or not.

  3. Rafaelo Avatar
    Rafaelo

    I have an acquaintance involved with the largest private landowner in southwest Virginia. He shocked me, when I asked about the governor’s proposal for putting small scale nuclear reactors atop former coal mines.

    In sum, it was a vehement NO. To paraphrase:

    “They think of us as a depressed area. Empty, wasted land. Nuclear reactors at the top of the watershed for the whole region?!”

    Our well-meaning governor expects a warm welcome. Instead: anger. Resistance. With lawyers. My acquaintance is a very good lawyer.

    The governor and his people need to get down there and talk to them. Ask what they want. Ask
    what they think. Rather than tell them: you are getting nuclear reactors in your backyard, like it or not.

  4. Here’s a new question for you, Jim. Why are the nuclear power plants currently under construction prone to such gigantic cost overruns? Let’s assume that the new nuke designs are safe. Are they economical? Is a new $15 billion to $20 billion nuclear facility something Virginia wants in its energy portfolio?

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose (’omnibus reactor’). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

    On the other hand, a practical reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.” — Hyman Rickover

    The rest of his memo deals with the impractical pontifications of those who don’t worry about the real world with those who do, i.e., the academics, of which the short gulps at the fountain of knowledge do reporters make.

  6. William Chambliss Avatar
    William Chambliss

    Good questons and well-answered, Jim. Thanks.

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