For safer nuclear power plants, leave the '70s era behind

It's tough to take nuclear power plants out of the world's energy mix. The solution is to move ahead with newer, safer designs.

There’s much to not like about nuclear power. In an ideal world people wouldn’t rely on it. But the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan shouldn’t cloud what should be a clear-eyed view of the global energy future: The world needs nuclear in the mix.

Yes, renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal will play a growing role. The oil price shock and Fukushima Daiichi bear witness to the need to get them online more quickly. But renewables now produce only a tiny fraction of the world’s energy needs. They are far from ready to shoulder the load as a major generator of electricity.

Today’s workhorse fuel for making electricity is coal. But it’s dangerous to mine. Burning it emits particulates into the atmosphere believed to cause about 10,000 premature deaths per year in the United States alone. It’s also a significant source of carbon-dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change, including the acidification of oceans. These downsides add up to their own potential slow-motion disaster.

Nuclear power has a familiar list of concerns. Unanswered questions include how to protect plants from terrorists, how to prevent spread of nuclear materials that could be made into bombs, and how to permanently dispose of nuclear waste. These issues are likely to persist and may long defy completely satisfying solutions.

Yet nuclear power today provides about 20 percent of the electricity in the US and about 14 percent worldwide. Shutting it down would leave a void that would be difficult to fill. One country that recognizes this is China, which is moving ahead with building nuclear plants while simultaneously pushing hard to develop renewable energy and, unfortunately, also building new coal-fired power plants.

If the US and the world can’t afford to abandon nuclear power, how can it be made safer?

It starts with a safety review of the 104 US nuclear power plants by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) begun this week. Plant safety training, systems, and equipment, along with evacuation plans, need to be subjected to fresh assessments. The NRC also should welcome close outside scrutiny of itself, to see if it is adequately performing its watchdog role.

Longer term, safety means “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants,” as President Obama said in his January State of the Union address. Existing US plants, planned or built in the 1970s, before half of today’s Americans were born, are beginning to exceed their planned lifetimes. Yet they will need to stay online for many more years – as long as they can be kept safe.

New designs operate on the simple-is-better principle, with the idea of making them “walkaway safe.” That means plants shut themselves down safely in an emergency even if their power is cut and their human operators are forced to evacuate.

One new design stores cooling water above the reactor, eliminating the need to pump water to the reactors, which has proved to be a problem at Fukushima Daiichi. It is expected to be 100 times safer than today’s reactors.

Other nuclear plant technologies show promise, including small modular reactors that might be used to power a single industrial factory, gas-cooled (not water) graphite reactors, and the pebble-bed reactor, in which small balls of radioactive material are covered by a graphite coating, making a meltdown highly unlikely. Though many countries have looked at the pebble-bed design, China is leading its development.

Americans today don’t rely on 1970s technology in many aspects of their lives. They communicate on smart phones and tablet PCs, watch high-definition TV and 3D movies, and drive cars with hybrid engines and GPS guidance systems.

Why should America’s crucial nuclear power plants be trapped in the bell-bottom era of technology?

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