Ray Rothrock

Nuclear Power after Fukushima Daiichi

In Energy on April 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm

The nuclear power plant crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi in Japan is certainly devastating.  A major public health disaster seems to have been avoided, but the disruption to the citizens living in the surrounding area is severe, and will continue for a very long time.

The effects of the nuclear crisis pale when compared to the loss of life and property from the earthquake and tsunami. And, by any and all measures, the affected plants performed better than expected, and the other nuclear power stations in the area of the earthquake reached cold shutdown states without incident.  Nevertheless, these nuclear crises, like the ones in the past, have badly scared people – and have the potential to derail the construction of new nuclear power plants at a time when we need them to meet the world’s growing energy demand.

Nuclear power has always been a polarizing topic for the public.  For decades nuclear power has enjoyed a majority of public support, but the anti-nuclear movement has been loud, sustained and effective. At times nuclear power is a national political issue, sometimes a local political issue, but always an issue based on the fear of what might happen if a nuclear plant had a core meltdown. We’ve seen the images of the effects of radiation on the populations of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl. The health and safety aspects of the debate will likely never end.

At the same time, the need for non-carbon sources of electricity continues to mount all over the world.  Emerging economies can’t get enough electricity and are constructing nuclear plants as quickly and as practically as they can.  Why? Because the scale and concentration of electricity from nuclear power is unsurpassed compared to any alternative.  Nuclear power, even with the handful of incidents of the last 33 years, continues to produce 13-14% of the world’s electricity in an economical, safe and reliable way.  It has a capacity factor approaching 85%, far greater than any other source of electricity, and produces no green houses gases.  By every measure – land use, pollution, fuel cycle impact, human life – nuclear power remains an important source for electricity.

So, while the fear of nuclear power remains in the minds of a minority of the populace, its benefits are measured daily and shared by all – and its presence in our global energy mix is inevitable, at least for the near term.

The lessons from Fukushima are still being learned.  It stands to reason that there will be rethinking about fission as a source of electrical power.  Nations such as Germany, Switzerland and Italy have already drawn a conclusion regarding nuclear power and concluded to ban it going forward. But these bans were already a foregone conclusion – Fukushima only cemented them.

In contrast, just a few days after Fukushima, President Obama reaffirmed that the United States remains committed to nuclear power and that nuclear power must play a role in meeting the future energy needs of the United States along with all the other viable alternatives.  China also quickly reaffirmed its commitment to press ahead with nuclear power – post Fukushima China reaffirmed its Five Year Plan of building 400 GWe nuclear over the next 40 years.  That would be four times the nuclear power output of the United States today.

The United States and China are pressing ahead with their nuclear plans for one simple reason: electricity is essential for growing industrialized economies. As people seek better standards of living, they consume more energy. That energy today can only come in sufficient quantities from electricity or oil.  Those governments have little choice but to proceed with new electric plant construction with the best available technology – nuclear or other.

Consider China. Its economy has been growing 10% per year for a decade, and it can barely keep up with the demand for electric power.  It brings a gigawatt scale coal plant online every week and continues to expand it nuclear fleet now with 26 plants under construction.

The U.S. economy is five times larger than China.  However, the U.S. is faced with the need to replace and upgrade its electric infrastructure.  Though the U.S. GDP is modestly growing at less than 3%, it is central policy of the United States to expand this growth rate.  Taken together, the replacement and the incremental demand for growth puts a demand to the electric base load of the United States, which is projected to increase 50% in the next 40 years.   This is a huge increase.  No single source of base load will provide the answer.  Nuclear must play a role in filling this gap or the U.S. will fall behind.

While there have been no new nuclear plants in the United States for 30 years, the U.S. has continued its leadership in nuclear power research.  New designs continue to emerge, each one better than the last.  Certainly this is significantly based on the belief that someday the United States would begin to build plants again.

Today the state of the art in nuclear power plant designs is known as Generation IV+.  [Fukushima was Gen I.]  Design concepts of walk-away shutdown and passive safety are front and center. The Nuclear Energy Section of DOE budgets approximately $900 million per year and continues its important research on nuclear fission power.  The growth of the undergraduate and graduate programs in nuclear engineering at American colleges and universities has been increasing for years after a nadir in the 1990s.  The apparent belief that nuclear power has a future is clearly evidenced in the priorities of the U.S. government, the research establishment and even the young citizens in our nation’s engineering schools.  Even recent surveys by MIT show a majority support for expansion of nuclear power in the United States.  Similar surveys do indicate increasing concern over the lack of a solution for nuclear waste.

Today there are 438 operating plants in 31 countries with 60 under construction in 13 countries.   Leading the way with 26 under construction is China.  These 438 plants are generating spent fuel waste.  This waste is a growing concern for all nations and must be dealt with.  The production of spent fuel waste products from a potential world fleet of 1000s of nuclear power plants is not sustainable, nor practical without a solution to this problem.  It would be better not to create the waste in the first place but the practical demands of the world economy simply will not allow this to be the case.

Fukushima demonstrated the risk to keeping this spent fuel in bundles in the plants.  Policies regarding what to do with the waste have varied over the decades and Administrations.  Methods for handling of spent fuel waste are often criticized as not practical for the long-term and a political debate with no end ensues.  New methods for removing the long-term dangers of this spent fuel and reducing it to much shorter lives are under development, more in the scope of a nation’s lifetime and capabilities.  There is ongoing research at premier American universities where spent fuel would be reused to produce power and in that process render it impotent at the end of its extended use.  What is clear is that even with a viable method of managing the waste from nuclear fission, it too must also be replaced with a new source of electric power with no long-term transnational impact.

There is no doubt the Japanese will bring a good and proper closure to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear stations.  Further, there is no doubt the Japanese will clean up the affected areas and bring life back to normal even if it takes a decade and costs upwards of $300 billion as some estimates project.  For an island nation with practically no natural fossil fuel resources and concentrated population centers, nuclear is the only option at Japan’s disposal for base load electric power.  The Japanese have 49 remaining nuclear power plants running after losing the six Daiichi plants, with two more under construction.   Nuclear power generation represented 30% of the base load for the Japanese grid before Fukushima.   Losing Daiichi is significant to the Japanese economy and the world economy because Japan is the source of much of the modern world’s supply chain.  As that nation recovers, it will be challenged to meet the demand for power in the short term.

Like the rest of the developing world, Japan has no choice but to pursue nuclear power in the near-term.  And if the world is going to pursue it, then the United States, a leader in nuclear energy, must again step up to this challenge. The United States must assure itself and the world, through its own example and its own R&D and its own investment, that nuclear power can be deployed in a reliable, economical and most importantly, safe manner.  It is an obligation to ourselves, to our children and to the world that cannot be shirked or compromised.

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