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    Categories: Skepticism

New Nuclear Power: A Glowing Review

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.

Image courtesy AP

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?

Photograph from Tokyo Electric Power Company via Kyodo/AP

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.

Koji Sasahara/AP

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

Masala Skeptic: Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

View Comments

  • These "new" reactors, which are pressurized water reactors (PWR), are already an out-dated design that will produce more spent fuel in a time when we (as a country) haven't figured out what to do with the already massive stockpile of spent nuclear fuel.

    As mentioned by haydenmuhl in the first comment, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is quite promising. So too the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Both are very efficient, using nearly 100 percent of nuclear fuel, and can burn existing stockpiles of nuclear "waste" and plutonium, converting them to energy production.

    Both utilize passive safety systems, no pressurized water, no need for massive containment buildings (which are there to withstand pressure from a breached cooling system, not contain radioactivity).

    More on the IFR here: http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/

    • There are also ABWRs - Advanced Boiling Water Reactions, not just the PWRs.

      Are either of those plants potentially able to be built within the next ten years?

  • I would like to see more discussion about thorium reactors as well. They would avoid the problem of spent fuel rods and other nuclear waste. Frankly, I'd rather we were building thorium plants or spending more money on their research than building another uranium-based plant.

  • I'm dissapointed in this article. Are we to expect an interview next on global warming with an expert who is in the employ of the oil industry? Maybe an interview exploring the importance of promoting GM foods worldwide, with an expert who works for a big biotech firm? Or even an interview investigating the benefits of having thousands more wind turbines with someone who works for Vesta? I don't expect "fair and balanced", but a more neutral perspective and maybe some rational enquiry would be good.

    • That's quite the list of bogeymen you have there. Let's see, you don't like nuclear, or oil, or wind turbines; is the future of energy production a row of students on stationary bikes?

      And GM crops? one of these things is not like the others. Jeesh.

  • mrmisconception - Exactly where do I state that I don't like nuclear, oil, wind turbines or anything else? Point it out to me please, because I'm baffled.

    I am very much pro-nuclear energy and I'm part of a lobby group that's pushing hard for the Irish government to reverse the country's daft and uninformed "no nuclear ever ever ever" position. I also have a share in a small wind farm in Co. Galway, and my electricity at work and in my home is supplied by Airtricity.

    What I don't like, apart from your ignorant supercilious comment and people putting words into other people's mouths (and Brussels sprouts), is a usually skeptic website providing a slanted viewpoint without any rational criticism. There's not much difference in a biased interview with a nuclear expert who is paid by the nuclear industry and any of the examples I have given, few of which would be accepted at face value.

    When a climate change denialist website uncritically holds up the viewpoint of someone on the payroll of the Heartland Institute, Exxon Mobil or the American Petroleum Institute, we are rightly skeptical. That same standard we expect elsewhere should be clearly displayed here.

    • @MudPuddles

      I have incorrectly inferred the meaning of your statements, and I am sorry for this.

      I took your first comment, about this being an advert, to mean you were against nuclear rather than as the criticism of this article that it was. I then incorrectly assumed that you were therefore against the things you mentioned in your second comment instead of it being a list of examples of other articles that “wouldn’t fly” here. My bad, really.

      As for being supercilious, I can lapse into that on occasion but here I was only being snarky. I probably wouldn’t have left the comment at all if you hadn’t added GM foods to your list (so I guess I was being a little supercilious about that) as I feel the jury is pretty much in on that despite what some of our friends in Europe get hot and bothered over. (cue the long list of proof [read opinion] that GM will cause the downfall of all that is holy)

      Power generation (and use for that matter) is a messy business no matter which form it takes and every form has its up sides and down sides and the question is really which balance you are willing to live with, that was really my only point.

      I agree this could have been a much more balanced piece but this is a blog not a news site, we have intelligent readers here who can point out the ups and downs of nuclear and its alternatives. I feel that pointing out a bias is one thing but calling into question a person’s expertise because you disagree or gaslighting (I thought this was a skeptical site!) was unnecessary and, while you did none of that, that was where I was come from when I made my assumptions about your comments.

      tl:dr

      Sorry, you got caught in the “smoke from a distant fire” as the old song said.

  • Hey all

    Apologies for not responding to all these comments earlier; work got a little crazy (and still is) for me. It seems like we've settled into a great discussion and I'm really enjoying all the perspectives. For those of you who are concerned that I'm a shill for nuclear power; I had hoped it was clear I was coming at this interview from a somewhat layman perspective.

    I am definitely interested in doing further interviews with other experts in this arena so if anyone knows anyone who you'd like to suggest, please let me know. I'd be happy to interview any Squishy Hippies you'd like :)

    I KID I KID!

    I'm not interviewing hippies :)

    • People to interview:

      Elliott Negin from Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elliott-negin/the-unclear-nuclear-reviv_b_1284561.html

      Someone from one of the 12 groups in Georgia that is filing suit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/industries/groups-file-lawsuit-to-block-georgia-nuclear-reactors/2012/02/16/gIQApbA9HR_story.html

      In short there are plenty of extremely knowledgeable individuals on this issue that are a simple Google News search away. This is not some wonky esoteric cause. Nuclear power is a very public and controversial issue for decades and there are tons of folks who could address the issue thoroughly (on both sides).

      • Unfortunately, a lot of the people filing suits are doing so on the "basis" of 40 year old technologies, and the "past" problems. They flat out discount the possibility that anything can be improved.

        As for huffpo... A lot of the skeptical community has started to disregard them as a source on *anything* other than politics. Why? Because they have a horrifying tendency to run semi-rational stuff right next to articles on quantum woo, chiropractic, and what ever the latest flavor of total BS happens to be. I.e., there is no grounds to trust anyone that writes for them on "any" subject that involves science, unless its confirmed from some place else, and that "someplace else" isn't the nearest advocate for the position.

        • Note, also have a similar problem with some of the petition sites I am tied into. About 80% of the time they have reasonable things they are having issues about, then the other 20% of the time they want me to sign petitions about GM foods, or not giving sactuary to space aliens, or some completely bullshit, non-science based BS. I seriously wish, sometimes, that I could sign a second, parallel, petition, along side the one they want my help with, which states simply, "In this specific case, I do not endorse the nonsense in the petition being presenting by this organization." :(

    • hydrogen is a power storage device, not a power source, and it even says so in the first line of the wikipedia article you link to. It removes none of the need for a new power source.

      Saying "hydrogen economy" in a discussion about nuclear power is like saying "spoons" in a debate about chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Okay, you have expressed a preference for the delivery device for your ice cream, but you're not adding anything to the discussion at hand.

      Just had to throw that out there in case there are any politicians reading this.

      • Thanks for the reply. And obviously, I know all that.

        No power source can be debated in isolation and that is the case here. We have @Israelwalker calling for a national electricity grid and solar power. We have @Ooolon calling for nuclear on the basis that it supplies baseload.

        I call for a hydrogen economy on the basis that it is the final solution to CO2 pollution and global warming.

        The loss of energy through I(squared) R heating when electricity is transmitted over long distances is huge. That is partially overcome by stepping voltage up then down again, but that in itself wastes energy.

        The technology for piping and storing hydrogen gas already exists. There is no loss of energy in the process.

        Granted there are problems in handling liquid hydrogen because of the low molecular weight but hydrogen can be stored in salt domes at ambient temperature and pressure.

        The electricity for making the hydrogen can come initially from any source, fossil, renewable or nuclear.

        I would call for at least a town to be set up with a hydrogen economy as a pilot project and for a national gas pipeline grid before an electrical one.

        • Mostly I'm just talking about a paper that was done which lays out the case for a renewable based grid, which uses both forms of solar, hydro, wind, geothermal, tidal. I'm not against nuclear, actually, I just find that it's somewhat misrepresented.

          • Sure, and I spent a lot of time reading that paper, and find myself in general agreement with it and you, except perhaps over some of the details.

            With electrolytic hydrogen, recyclable energy is storable, which overcomes the baseload argument for nuclear.

            I note Jacobsen assumes a great deal of electrolytic hydrogen use, for industrial heating and for transport, but not for domestic heating ( a huge amount of energy) and that is partly what I was addressing here.

            Then the nuclear vs renewable argument comes down to which is cheaper and easier to handle and store: nuclear waste or hydrogen?

            (ZOMG Hiroshima, 3 Mile Island, Cherobyl, Fukushima vs ZOMG Hindenberg)

            Y'all may want to check with your insurance company before giving an answer.

  • @ mrmisconception - thanks, and no worries man, sorry I got snappy! It had been a particularly trying day...

    @ Masala Skeptic - I suggest an interview with Dr. Allison Macfarlane (Chair of the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, and Associate at the Harvard Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs).

    Another good interviewee would be Anne Starz, Head of the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Group at the IAEA's Department of Nuclear Energy.

    For a slightly different perspective, I would also have suggested Dr. Paul Epstein at Harvard Medical School's Centre for Health and the Global Environment, but he passed away recently - perhaps speaking to their press office to identify someone who worked with him on nuclear energy issues might be worthwhile.