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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