THE nuclear-power industry in the United States is currently in a hiatus. The primary reason for this is rooted in the industry itself. The nuclear industry has had the technical capability to make reactors that can't melt down. But it has not done so.
Why has the nuclear industry not pushed more vigorously in the direction of the low power density technology that makes this possible? Mostly because of the lack of public and institutional support, and the huge existing investment in first-generation reactor technology. There has also been concern that the cost of meltdown-proof safety characteristics could not be justified.
These factors have made the industry and the government reluctant to pursue quantum improvements in reactor designs. As a result, the world is struggling with acceptance of 30-year-old technology and, at the same time, proceeding along two dangerous paths: excess reliance on Middle East oil and on currently inexpensive natural gas.
Like all energy sources throughout history, first-generation nuclear reactors have had problems. The most obvious are those of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. There are also the problems of cost and schedule caused by systems that are too big, too complicated, and too onerous. High operating costs, aggravated by spiraling regulatory requirements and the need for premature replacement of major systems, such as steam generators, have undermined public confidence and nuclear power's competitiveness. Finally, there are concerns about radioactive wastes with half-lives of thousands of years and nuclear proliferation questions.
In the face of this history and many justifiable concerns, some people have suggested we should simply abandon nuclear power. I believe it would be shortsighted and foolish to do so.
With the best second-generation reactor design we have the ability to address virtually all of the concerns about nuclear power. In meltdown-proof reactors, the power density is low and the reactor size is such that there is not enough heat available to fail - even during an accident involving complete loss of coolant. The tiny high temperature-tolerant ceramic fuel particles encapsulate and contain the products of fission. In case of an unplanned increase of temperature, the reactor shuts itself down.
Siting the reactors underground enhances security and containment features. These factors also effectively eliminate the risk to the public from potential sabotage, terrorist activity, or even overt military attack. Modularizing the reactors and building them in factories with factory cost- and quality-controls makes their cost and schedules predictable and minimal.
The leading work on one such design, helium reactor technology, is currently being done by General Atomics of San Diego. The first work on the technology began in Russia in 1949 and substantial advances were made in Germany through the '60s, '70s, and '80s.
Improvements of this kind should help the public acceptance of nuclear reactors. Indeed, they are needed to offset the consumption and emissions of millions of barrels of imported oil and billions of cubic feet of natural gas.
There is another reason why the world cannot turn its back on nuclear power. Hundreds of tons of uranium and plutonium exist in weapons and they are becoming surplus. The arms agreements, calling for the destruction of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, create this situation, and an incredible opportunity.
The opportunity is to destroy uranium and plutonium from the weapons while providing much-needed electricity. The best way to destroy this plutonium is to burn (fission) it in new, safe meltdown-proof reactors.
Some people advocate putting the plutonium in glass logs and burying it. While this is a relatively inexpensive way of dealing with the plutonium, it is insufficient because it only gets the plutonium out of sight. It does not destroy it. We should not be happy with any plan in Russia that leaves plutonium where it can be dug up and reconstituted into weapons. Likewise, the Russians should not be satisfied with a plan that does not destroy US plutonium.
And no one should be satisfied with any plan that does not take advantage of the huge energy potential of the plutonium, which can be captured even as the plutonium is destroyed for all time. This destruction should not rely on constant reprocessing. It should be destroyed as totally as possible in one cycle. This is the most decisive way of dealing with surplus plutonium. If it is not dealt with in such a manner, this material can fall into the wrong hands.
Growing world-energy requirements, particularly in the third world, must also be dealt with, lest the third world be relegated to consuming huge amounts of irreplaceable fossil fuels, ripping down its forests, or fighting for resources that are fundamental to civilized progress.
In my opinion the best alternative, the key to accomplishing these essential synergistic objectives, is completing the development of a truly modern, inherently safe reactor. I believe the public would look differently at reactors that could not melt down - compared to present reactors, which cannot be without their coolant for more than a few seconds or minutes. I believe the public would prefer reactors that are sited underground and are less subject to terrorists and seismic events.
I believe the public would like to see reactors for the future that are built substantially in factories with factory cost- and quality-control. Such reactors would be more economical than and can ultimately replace present reactors, which use 50 percent more nuclear fuel resources, create 50 percent more waste, and exhaust 100 percent more thermal energy to the environment.
The nuclear-power industry has made great contributions worldwide to reduced reliance on Middle East oil and reduced toxic emissions to the environment. The public must be brought to appreciate this and recognize the importance of energy to productivity and improved living standards.
Even the Club of Rome now believes the world is headed for serious energy problems because of its reliance on fossil fuels. I believe we must rally our intellectual and technical resources and deliver the best nuclear power possible to ease this problem.
The nuclear industry's current fixation on reactors that represent the technical status quo, and the Department of Energy's lack of support of research and development of inherently safe meltdown-free reactors is unworthy of the great American tradition of creating a better future through progress in technology. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.