April 3rd, 2014
Three years after Fukushima is nuclear power dead in the water? Or is it poised for revival due to the world’s desperate need for carbon-free energy? Every day the Fukushima reactors dump 70,000 gallons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, and there is no end in sight. In the United States, the industry faces more systemic challenges - abundant and cheap natural gases are making new nukes uneconomic, despite the efforts of the Obama administration to jumpstart a nuclear renaissance.
Per Peterson, a professor of Nuclear Engineering at UC Berkeley and a former member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, says the Fukushima disaster has had a significant impact on how engineers design the nuclear power plants of the future, and their safety systems. He says it has led to the development of what is called “passive safety” – the ability for the plant to shut down without needing external sources of electrical power. Two new plants are currently being constructed in South Carolina and Georgia, but at a staggering cost - $10+ billion per project. Peterson says that cost is due in part to major improvements over previous designs. “One of them is the passive safety…but the other is the use of modular construction technology which now does the majority of the fabrication of the buildings and the equipment modules and factories.” Peterson says. “And the implementation of modular construction does have the potential to give you much better control over schedule and cost. This said, it’s still a puzzle why the construction prices are as high as they are…there must be some way to bring these numbers closer together.”
Dozens of old plants are receiving a new lease on life from regulators who have approved letting them run another decade or two. But what happens when plants are run beyond their expected lifetimes? “We’ve had nuclear power plants in the United States get into trouble in far shorter than their lifetimes.” says Dave Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’ve also had some nuclear power plants running longer than 40 years. So it’s not what the calendar says; it’s how well you maintain the plant and ensure that safety measures are maintained, whether it’s one year or 41 years.” Jon Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford, and author of the book “Cold Cash, Cool Climate” says it’s important to recognize that all energy technologies have risks. “We need to figure out a way to innovate not just in technology but also in our institutional structures, in our incentives, in the ways that we encourage people to report problems,” Koomey says. “And if we don’t do institutional innovation as well as technological innovation, then we’re not going to be able to count on many of these technologies that we would like to count on to reduce climate risks.”
Photos by Ed Ritger