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30 Years After Chernobyl, Where Does Nuclear Energy Stand?

Exactly 30 years ago, Chernobyl happened. The damage done in the Ukraine that day was unimaginable. And the damage done to the nuclear sector also seemed insurmountable. This area of the world will long suffer. But nuclear energy is coming back.

Despite the uncertain political and economic environments, most of the national research laboratories have dedicated themselves to making nuclear technologies safer and better. The roughly 100 nuclear reactors running in the United States are second-generation light-water facilities, all of which operate near capacity. So-called third-generation light-water reactors have been built overseas and particularly in Asia.

Fourth-generation reactors will follow, or those that are “Very High Temperature Reactors.” The national labs are spearheading this effort and by 2021, they must have a final design. Construction could begin soon after.

“Third generation” and “fourth generation” high temperature reactors differ in that the latter may operate at about three times the temperature of today’s light water reactors. That results in higher thermal efficiency and the potential for use in industrial applications and hydrogen production — making them economically appealing. Advocates furthermore say that the odds of any leaks are near zero.

“They can prevent a Fukushima-type disaster,” says Mitch Farmer, a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Labs in Chicago, in a prior talk with this writer.

Chernobyl was awful. But the world saw Fukushima unfold on TV. The Japanese nuclear accident, which happened in March 2011, was triggered by tsunami, which then took out the facility’s reactors. The massive wave killed backup power that cools the radioactive fuel rods. Without such power, the reactor’s core suffers a meltdown and deadly radiation can escape.

Aerial surveillance later determined that water was in the spent fuel pools, preventing a complete catastrophe in which the Japanese government had feared would lead to a massive flight out of Tokyo. The fuel rods stayed cool because the prime minister there had ordered the utility TEPCO to remain staffed to avert a total meltdown — something that 50 brave workers in hazmat suits did by using seawater.

“The Fukushima Daiichi accident produced radioactive gaseous, liquid and solid waste,” writes the American Nuclear Society, which formed a special committee to examine the crisis. “The gaseous emissions were released in the early days of the accident and have dispersed and decayed to small levels and are no longer a health threat.” Now those damaged units are being decommissioned in a process that is expected to take four decades.

Safety is one issue. And the cost of building nuclear plants is another. They are hugely expensive, running well into the billions. Southern Co. and its partners are building two units in Georgia at a cost of about $18 billion. To afford it, they had to get a federal loan guarantee. But they expect the investment to pay off. Can others do the same?

To be sure, skeptics say that the next-generation “Very High Temperature Reactors” are unproven outside of the lab. Moreover, private nuclear developers still have hurdles to overcome – namely, how to attract financing and where to bury their radioactive waste.

But the national labs are tasked with finding solutions. As such, they are working with industry and specifically the likes of General Electric, Areva and Westinghouse to build better and safer reactor.

“Companies that know how to run nuclear efficiently will succeed,” says Marvin Fertel, chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nuclear plants have lots of protections. There is an enormous amount of information that will help fine-tune these designs. It will be the cheapest power we have for our nation.”

In the early going, the developing countries will be the ones to usher in new reactors in en masse: China and India, for example. As for China, it has 20 nuclear plants today and 28 more under construction — 40 percent of all projected new nuclear units, says the World Nuclear Association.

All this is happening after the release of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change latest findings, which have concluded with 95 percent certainty that humans are mostly responsible for global warming. In 2007, it made the same assertion but with 90 percent assurance.

And that’s why nuclear energy will remain a staple in the developed world while it will continue to grow among certain developing nations.

Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.

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9 thoughts on “30 Years After Chernobyl, Where Does Nuclear Energy Stand?

  1. no to nuclear energy! there is no way i would trust this greed oriented industry in saying that they can make it safe. nuclear energy is unsafe, unhealthy and unjust ‘we the people’ want clean, renewable, safe energy, energy conservation and energy efficiency to replace all the dirty corporations that are trying to survive in this new and awakened world.

  2. This article does not address two key issues in the debate. 1. What is the current plan for long term waste storage? 2. Are the long term operational, storage and decommissioning costs included in the life cycle cost analysis, and how do those costs compare with other forms of generation?

  3. “Southern Co. and its partners are building two units in Georgia at a cost of about $18 billion.” That’s $18 billion for a mere two generating stations. No matter how much energy those two stations may be capable of generating, that’s a WHOPPING sum of money. Imagine how much wind or solar could be installed for $18 billion! And don’t forget all the fuel costs, and radioactive waste disposal costs that would have to be added on to the $18 billion construction costs of this nuclear ‘option’ (and I use that term guardedly – nuclear may be an ‘option’ but it is far from a practical or cost-effective one).

  4. Dave, the long term waste issue is an issue for another day and not in the scope of this piece. Addressing it in a sentence here, there is Yucca Mountain and the potential of the one in NM/Texas. But neither is likely to happen and so I think the utilities are okay with onsite storage for the foreseeable future.

  5. With all due respect, the national labs have been working on high temperature gas reactors for over 50 years with no commercial success. Seems to me we ought to be looking for solutions from the private sector, not the government.

  6. There are also new reactors being designed that will either produce little to no waste or that actually run off of used nuclear fuel. Miriam, renewables simply aren’t ready to be a baseload power source. Nuclear energy provides a low-carbon alternative to coal, which has more adverse effects on public health than nuclear ever has. Fact: zero deaths resulted from radiation exposure in the well-publicized Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011 when the typhoon hit Japan.

    As far as waste storage goes, even as a liberal myself I find the argument disingenuous. After all, some of the same people asking, “Where does the waste go?” have also actively blocked the establishment of used nuclear fuel repositories where the waste *could* have gone.

  7. The problem with waste disposal is not a scientific, technical or engineering issue, it is strictly political. There is no solution for politics issues.

  8. CECR the controlled version of LENR will really clean up nuclear waist issues as it starts with mas 1/2/3 ending in helium vs really big nuclei splitting into toxic radioactive bits.

  9. So much BS around this article and the ensuing comments. Whether people opposed waste storage facilities is beside the point, Just because there might be somewhere to put the waste, doesn’t mean it should be produced or stored.
    We hear so much about how ‘safe’ they are but this is all within the bounds of ‘business as usual’ management, things we can predict and control but the worst accidents have happened outside of things that were predicted. And whwn they happen they are a TOTAL disaster. We can predict eruptions, earth quakes and tsunamis. Someone said their were no human deaths after Fukashima? So how many living with terrible sickness and generations of dibilitating diseases? What about animal life. What about the ocean?
    All this rubbish about ‘Baseload’ power. The only reason renewables can’t cover it is because it has been starved of development and research for so long, thanks to dinosaur thinking and the FF industry. Also alot of baseload power could be reduced by energy efficiency methods. The fossil fuel industry also uses alot of the power it creates to run the massive coal shovels to extract it.
    It is ridiculous we are still arguing about this. Its the equivalent of someone persiting with a square block on a cart axle after the wheel has already been invented

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