Last week, the United States approved the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. The reactors will be the first new plants built in the U.S. in over three decades. I’m lucky enough to know an expert in the field, so I called Jennifer Henning, who works as a design engineer for an engineering consulting firm in the nuclear energy industry in Atlanta, to ask her a few questions about the new plants and what they mean.
Interview below the fold!
Why has it taken so long for nuclear power plants to be approved in the U.S.?
There are several reasons for the delay. After Three Mile Island in ’79 and Chernobyl in ’86, the nuclear industry understandably felt a considerable backlash about the safety of nuclear plants, public support for nuclear power waned, and no new nuclear plants started construction after that. A few of the ones in construction were completed in the following years, but many of the plants under construction during that time period simply weren’t finished.
Since then, the lessons learned from those two accidents were applied to increase the safety of the existing plants in the US and around the world. Fast forward to the last decade, when our concerns over fossil fuel power plants have increased due to the carbon dioxide emissions that are increasing global temperatures, and power companies have started to return to nuclear as one of the many sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. However, due to the increased safety regulations imposed over the last twenty years, it has become much more expensive to build a nuclear power plant than it used to be. Back in the ’60s and ’70s a company could build a nuclear plant for around $1 billion.
Today the cost is something like ten times that amount. That kind of money takes time to secure, even for large utility companies. There are of course also political and public interest concerns when you’re talking about a facility that could potentially affect the safety of so many people. Public hearings need to be scheduled and held, meetings with policy makers, etc. But even without those factors, a nuclear plant is a complicated system, and these things simply take time to design. The utilities and engineering firms designing the plants work closely with the NRC to establish a licensing schedule, and there are milestones that must be met along the way to final approval of the design.
How different are these plants from the plants that are in use today? Are they more efficient/safer etc? How are the new designs an improvement?
Simply put, the biggest difference between the new plants and the existing plants is newer technology. The plants that are in operation today were designed and built around 40 years ago, and so much of the technology in them is 40 years old. They have received numerous upgrades since then, parts are replaced as they age with newer and better parts, but the fundamental design is old. So when we apply upgrades to the existing plants, we have certain restrictions simply to make new technology work with the old. While this doesn’t mean the plants are inherently unsafe; they are in fact, very safe, it does leave out certain options simply because they won’t work with what’s in place.
The newer plants are able to take advantage of all the new technology developed over the last 40 years. That means that they are much more efficient: they are able to produce more power with the same amount of nuclear fuel, thereby reducing the amount of radioactive waste produced. The new plants are also able to employ more passive safety features. A safety feature is passive when nothing needs to be done for it to work.
For example, the new plants use natural convection instead of forced convection in more areas, reducing the number of pumps required to operate the plant. By using fewer pumps, there are fewer pieces of mechanical equipment to maintain in good working order, reducing the number of possible equipment failures.
Is the fact that the U.S. is so behind with nuclear plants a danger in any way, as plants get older?
As the nuclear plants currently operating in the US age, they must seek licensing extensions from the NRC. Each plant is issued a 40-year operating license when it is built. As long as they comply with NRC regulations and maintain the plant in safe working order, they can continue to operate for 40 years. At the end of those 40 years, they must either renew their license or shut down. There are several plants in the country that have received a 20 year extension on their licenses. Of course, they must still maintain the plant in a safe condition for those 20 years in order to continue to operate. As long as that licensing process is in place, and the NRC maintains independent oversight of the plants to ensure that they are complying with the conditions of those licenses, they will be safe to operate.
However, these plants won’t last forever. At some point, they will be too old to be able to get a license renewal. Some plants may not be able to get extensions past the 60-year mark; we’ll have to wait and see what they look like as that time approaches. The good thing is that the plants are maintained extremely well. But, as those plants age beyond the point of being safe to run, we’ll need something else to take their place. Nuclear power provides about 20% of our electricity today, and if that were to suddenly disappear the US wouldn’t have enough power to satisfy our needs.
Wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power are all great alternatives as well since they’re zero-emission and renewable, but they aren’t able to provide a reliable, steady foundation for our power grid the way nuclear can. They can be extremely expensive as in the case of solar, require vast amounts of land as wind and solar do, and aren’t practical in all areas of the country. So really, building new nuclear plants is so important because it is a big part of our domestic energy supply going forward because at some point the existing plants will need to be replaced, and nuclear power at this point can’t feasibly be replaced with any other power source.
I don’t think the fact that we haven’t built new plants puts us in any sort of danger, though. There is a worldwide collaboration within the nuclear industry, and organizations such as the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), American Nuclear Society (ANS), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) work with organizations around the world to share operating experience information with each other to make nuclear power safe everywhere.
What does this mean for Georgia as a state in terms of energy – is this something we were in dire need of or is it just an additional source?
I’m not aware of any energy deficits in Georgia or the surrounding states, so this is really just a plus for Georgia. It provides us an additional energy source that once completed will provide steady, reliable power for many decades to come.
There have been concerns raised about this approval coming without first getting all the findings of the Fukushima disaster. Are those concerns valid? Are there any lessons from Fukushima that have been put in place for these plants?
Of course, we want to learn as much as we can about the whys and hows of the Fukushima disaster. We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I’m certain that over the coming decade the NRC will require several new safety features to mitigate the chances of a similar disaster happening here. Some likely upgrades to existing plants will include longer backup battery life and better protection of emergency diesel generators, but any possible new requirements are still being developed by the NRC. However the NRC’s initial investigation into the causes of the Fukushima disaster, in order to determine if any immediate changes needed to be made to the plants in the US, found that no immediate changes were necessary.
The NRC feels that the plants currently operating in the US are operating safely and the chances of the same type of disaster happening here are extremely remote. As the long-term investigation continues, if there are any new requirements for US nuclear reactors, the new plants will be subject to them just like the existing plants, and they’ll need to make design changes to comply with new requirements if they don’t meet them already.
Do the anti-nuclear lobbyists have valid concerns or are they a bunch of squishy hippies?
When I tell people what I do for a living, and what industry I work in, I get a variety of reactions. Some people think it’s really cool, other people just give me a deer-in-the-headlights stare and aren’t really sure what to say next, some people ask me if I glow in the dark, and every once in a while I meet someone who tells me they think we need to get rid of nuclear power. The last response is the one I get the least, but I do get it. Nuclear energy is powerful stuff (pun intended), and we need to treat it with the respect it deserves. The nuclear industry takes safety extremely seriously. Our clients have daily, weekly, and monthly safety topics. Safety is incorporated into every task that takes place, whether it’s engineering design, operations, maintenance, even routine everyday tasks.
The NRC acts as an independent watchdog organization to make sure that the plants are following safe practices, and if they don’t they’ll get fined or can even lose their operating license. While the energy provided by nuclear plants is important, nothing is more important than the safety of the people living near these plants. Keep in mind, too, that the people responsible for keeping the plants operating safely would be the first to be harmed if something goes wrong. Their families live in the nearby towns as well, so they have a very personal interest in keeping their plants operating as safely as possible.
Another thing to consider is: what would happen if we shut down all the nuclear reactors in the U.S.? That’s 20% of the country’s power gone. We’d have rolling blackouts until we could replace that energy. Energy prices would probably go up considerably as well. Currently, there is no feasible replacement for nuclear power. I mentioned all the major forms of renewable energy earlier, and they could help to bridge the gap, but they simply can’t replace nuclear power. Solar only works when the sun is out; solar and wind both take up vast areas of land; hydroelectric is only feasible in areas where there are large, reliable amounts of moving water; and geothermal just can’t provide enough energy to make up the difference. If we build more coal plants, we’re speeding up climate change by the increased emissions. So while using these other forms of energy helps us to diversify our energy sources, cutting nuclear out altogether is not a viable option.
Assuming the plant will be on a river and will need a steady supply of water, are there concerns if we were to have another drought?
Things like the frequency and severity of droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural events are taken into account when determining the licensing basis for plants. Plants built near oceans are designed to withstand hurricanes and floods. Plants built in earthquake zones are designed to withstand more seismic activity. Though I can’t speak to the specifics of these new plants planned to be built in Georgia, I would expect their design to take into account that another drought is likely to occur at some point in the future and they must be able to continue to operate safely when it occurs.
Do we have to be worried about nuclear waste in Georgia? How will we guard against the irradiated mutant monsters that will stalk o’er the land? is there an ointment or something? :)
Nuclear waste is currently stored at the site of each nuclear reactor in the country. The storage facilities for nuclear fuel are designed with similar requirements to the nuclear plants themselves. They must be able to withstand natural disasters and be protected against sabotage for extremely long periods of time. Even if a plant stops operating, the utility that owns it must continue to store the nuclear fuel located on its site. As long as the fuel continues to be stored in a safe manner, we have no concerns of three-eyed fish showing up in our rivers and lakes. My personal opinion is that a centralized national storage site for nuclear waste would be good to have to allow some of these sites, particularly plants that are no longer operating, to relocate the waste to a single, consolidated facility. However the fuel is stored in a manner that is safe.
When you take control and hold the eastern seaboard hostage, will you have any openings for minions and/or henchmen?
My takeover plans are top-secret and I can’t share them with you. However, the nuclear industry is going strong, and several companies in the industry have continued to hire through the recession. A person with an engineering degree, a strong technical background, and the ability to pass fairly rigorous background checks could have a pretty good career working in nuclear power.
Any other interesting things about these plants or about nuclear power in general you’d like to mention?
As an engineering geek, I get pretty excited when I hear about new innovations in technology, and these plants fascinate me. I look forward to the day when I get an opportunity to work on an upgrade to the new plants, though it’s likely pretty far down the road.
Jennifer Henning has a BSE in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She works as a design engineer for an engineering consulting firm in the nuclear energy industry in Atlanta, GA. She performs engineering design modifications to nuclear plants around the country. She is also a member of North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN), U.S. Women in Nuclear (USWIN), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the Atlanta Skeptics. Many thanks to her for putting up with my questions! :)
Featured image via David Goldman, AP