Last week, the Obama administration proposed to spend a half billion dollars over the next five years to design modular nuclear power plants that would be cheaper and easier to build than the plants we have now. The idea is a good one—the question is, will it happen?
First, why is it a good idea? What about nuclear waste? What about the dangers of terrorist attacks on the plants? What about nuclear’s unparalleled horrific legacy as the direct descendant of nuclear weapons, and the danger that nuclear fuel will end up in the wrong hands, hands that turn it into a bomb?
These are all good questions. As a practical engineer, my first thought is to look around and see if anyone’s done it right, and ask how they did it. I need look no farther than France, where the centralized government agency in charge of nuclear matters had this uniform-design modular idea, or something a lot like it, around 1965. The result? To the best of my knowledge, no one has stolen French nuclear fuel to make a weapon, no one has mounted a successful terrorist attack on a French nuclear plant, France is a leader in technology that actually recycles some nuclear waste, and most French citizens have a favorable or at least neutral view of nuclear power. Today, France generates about 70% of its electricity with an array of nuclear plants that come in only three sizes: small, medium, and large. In fact, their plants make so much electricity that France is the largest net exporter of electric power in the world. And modular, standardized construction practices are a large part of why the French nuclear effort has been such a success.
In the U. S., however, the picture is more cloudy. In 2010, only 17% of our electric power was produced by nuclear energy, and all of that was from plants at least 15 years old. No nuclear plant has been completed in the U. S. since 1996. There are several reasons for this.
Up through the 1970s, nuclear power in the U. S. was a growth industry that had a bright future. Then a couple of accidents—the Three Mile Island core meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the disastrous fire in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former USSR in 1986—cast a pall over what was already becoming an increasingly controversial way of generating power. The nuclear-plant construction industry was also partly to blame in not coming up with a reliable, predictable way of building standardized plants that worked. Their task was hampered by a moving target of increasing government licensing and construction requirements, which made the last batch of nuclear plants to be built exceedingly uneconomical. Vast cost overruns and some utility bankruptcies led to a complete shutdown of construction of new nuclear plants by the mid-90s. Although there are now signs that the nuclear freeze is beginning to thaw, the deregulation of the electric-power industry in the last decade or so means that investors look even harder at the economics of nuclear power than they used to. And they should. Good engineering is always about economics at some level, and companies who hope to succeed in this business have to figure out how to make nuclear plants effective, safe, and profitable.
Politically, a hard core of opposition to nuclear power in any way, shape, or form developed and took over the conversation by the 1980s. This vociferous minority tends to attract much media attention, and has strongly colored the public perception of nuclear energy. The industry’s proponents are not nearly as concentrated, focused, or energetic, so the minority tends to get most of the attention. Engineers in favor of nuclear power have not always considered the fact that ignoring a public perception based on wrong information, will not make that public perception go away.
For example, suppose a person opposes the construction of a new nuclear plant ten miles away from his house because of fear that the radiation emitted from it in normal operation will shorten his lifetime. I’m not saying that’s the only reason people oppose nuclear power, but it is one reason some people cite. You can sit down with such a person and show them reams of statistics to the effect that if they smoke, or drive a car, or do any number of other things that people do routinely, their chances of dying from one of these other ordinary activities is vastly greater than the miniscule risk of getting cancer from the slight additional background of radiation from a nuclear plant—if indeed there is any added risk at all. But the perception is there, and too many engineers simply sweep aside such beliefs by saying they are irrational. But an irrational belief that someone holds will still affect their behavior, and their attitudes, and the way they vote.
There is one relatively new argument in favor of nuclear power: the fact that it is the most reliable and well-developed way to generate electricity without adding to the world’s carbon footprint. Whether or not you believe global warming is the worst crisis of our time, we can all agree that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels (whether domestic coal or imported oil) is a good thing, other matters being equal. And nuclear power does that in spades. I suspect this is one of the main motivations behind the Obama administration’s embrace of limited nuclear energy, which to their credit they have been fairly consistent about.
A Federally sponsored design exercise is one thing. But until Federal, state, and local governments modify the currently cumbrous and Byzantine nuclear licensing and approval process, I suspect the present deregulated electric-power industry is going to be reluctant to put a lot of money into nuclear power, despite its environmental advantages. In France, sustained and intelligent government direction led to a global success story in nuclear energy. Let us hope that something similar might happen here, although the paths we take will look very different from what happened in France.
Sources: The New York Times online edition carried a report on the Obama administration’s proposal for modular nuclear plant design on Feb. 13, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/science/earth/13nuke.html. I also consulted the Wikipedia article “Nuclear power in France” and obtained the statistic on the percentage of U. S. electricity generated by nuclear power from the U. S. Department of Energy website http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/epm_sum.html.