Sunday, June 13, 2004

Should We Go Ahead With Nuclear Power?

There has been a fair amount of blogbuzz lately, about the subject of nuclear power: not the type of power that comes from having really big bombs, but the type of power that is used to generate electricity.  There are posts on the subject at Crooked Timber, Tapped, Mark A. R. Kleinman, Washington Monthly, and Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal.  These posts generated a lot of comments, but not a lot of technical information is present in the original posts or in the comments.  Several comments included requests for more information.  On the weblog Too Many Worlds, William Kaminsky (a PhD student in the Physics Department of MIT) responds to some of the requests for more information on the subject. 

As it happens, I used to work at a nuclear research reactor.  This alone does not make me qualified to provide technical information, but the experience did make me a little more receptive to the idea of nuclear power.  At least I don't dismiss the idea automatically.

In this post, I provide links to some additional sources of information about nuclear power, add my own thoughts on the subject, and attempt to sharpen the focus of public discussion. 

It is important to recognize the fact that there are two main areas of discussion: the technical aspects of nuclear power, and the public policy aspects. 

Regarding the technology, a good set of links to technical information is at IDEA Nuclear Science Information.  The journal, Nature, has a good review  of the latest technical developments; unfortunately, a subscription is required to view it.  Much of the information in the Nature paper can be found elsewhere.  The key phrase to search for is "Generation IV International Forum" known by the acronym, GIF.  Generation IV is the fourth generation of nuclear power plant designs.  The GIF is a consortium of ten countries that has been meeting to reach consensus on the most promising new designs.  An understandable summary of these designs can be found here.  Some may find the design details to be boring, but people who like reading about technology will be interested.   For reference, there is a concise explanation of some key concepts is here

The basic idea is that future plants will have to operate at high temperatures in order to increase efficiency.  The increased efficiency is necessary to reduce waste generation and to decrease the cost of the energy produced.  Note that, as a side benefit, some of the designs produce heat that could be used in industrial processes; and some could be adapted to produce hydrogen.  They also can be used for desalination of ocean water.  All of the new designs include planning for management of the nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. 

The last point mentioned is a critical one.  It seems to me that in the early history of nuclear power generation, there was not sufficient planning for the production, transportation, and disposal of radioactive fuel.  Most of the Generation IV designs have incorporated a capacity for recycling of fuel.  This helps minimize the need for transportation of radioactive material.  Whether it would be cost-effective depends upon the price and availability of uranium ore, as well as the cost of disposing of spent fuel.  

The ability to produce hydrogen could turn out to be an important benefit.  The themochemical reaction made possible by high-temperature operation produces hydrogen and oxygen, without producing carbon dioxide.  SInce the hydrogen is a good energy source, the production of hydrogen results in an increase in the net efficiency of the operation.  It also avoids the environmental problems associated with producing hydrogen from fossil fuels. 

Turning now from the technical to the policy issues, there is a short, freely-available review of the public policy issues pertaining to nuclear power is a paper that is on-line at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  The author states that he is not advocating for or against nuclear power; rather, his intent is to clarify the reasons for nuclear power to be a significant issue, and to highlight some important safety issues. 

Enabling A Significant Future For Nuclear Power:
Avoiding Catastrophes, Developing New Technologies, Democratizing Decisions -- And Staying Away From Separated Plutonium
Matthew Bunn

For nuclear power to meet more than a few percent of the world's greenhouse-constrained energy needs in the 21st century would require a world of thousands of gigawatts of nuclear capacity, rather than hundreds. For such a broad expansion of fission-generated power to become broadly acceptable would require: (a) avoiding any further catastrophes, such as major reactor accidents or theft of weapons-usable nuclear material for use by proliferating states or terrorists; (b) development of new technologies that would address the complexity, cost, safety, waste management, and proliferation concerns that have so far limited utility, government, and public acceptance of nuclear power; and (c) profound transparency and democratization in nuclear decision-making, putting a better-informed public in a position to ensure that its concerns are fully addressed.

Dr. Bunn's paper was written in 1999, which, obviously, was before 9/11/2001.  Even so, terrorism and nuclear proliferation are prominent themes in his paper.  Indeed, all the the Generation IV designs include consideration of antiterorrist hardening.  That is, even though the paper is old (by standards of modern technology) the policy issues still are current.  Read the whole thing if you want, but his main point is that, in order to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, reprocessing of nuclear fuel should be avoided.  He advocates what he calls a "once-through" fuel cycle. 

Another point Bunn makes is this:

Unfortunately, as Fetter has pointed out,7 the structure of the nuclear debate has inhibited technical re-thinking in these areas. Nuclear supporters generally believe that these issues are political, not technical, as current reactors are already extremely safe, waste management poses negligible risks, proliferation risks are theoretical at best and countries will get nuclear weapons if they want them regardless of what fuel cycle technologies are pursued, and the high cost of nuclear power is driven by unjustified regulatory delays and requirements. Nuclear critics, by contrast, believe that nuclear power is so fundamentally flawed that no amount of R&D will fix it.

I believe that both of these views leave out critical parts of the picture.

The implication is that careful, unbiased study is needed prior to making any major policy decisions.  The Belfer Center has a more recent report, The Future of Nuclear Power, (dated July 2003) that is available as a PDF download.  The whole thing is over 29 Megabytes, though.  The summary (350Kb) is here.

IAEA flagThe authors share Dr. Bunn's view that a once-though fuel cycle is desirable.  They also suggest that limited government subsidies may be appropriate.  The notion of government subsidies is a point of contention used by antinuclear activists, and it is not popular with those who tend to advocate pure free-market economic policies.  They also recommend streamlining regulatory functions: sure to be popular with the industry; sure to meet with skepticism from the public.  They raise some important safety questions.  They advocate for an expanded role for the IAEA (website link), including giving them the authority to inspect all "suspect" sites. This could include inspections within the USA.    They favor the development of only one of the Generation IV designs: the very-high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR).  In short, everyone will find at least some recommendations that they dislike. 

The authors of The Future of Nuclear Power  do not necessarily advocate expansion of nuclear power generation:

At least for the next few decades, there are only a few realistic options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation:
  • increase efficiency in electricity generation and use;
  • expand use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal;
  • capture carbon dioxide emissions at fossil-fueled (especially coal) electric generating plants and permanently sequester the carbon; and
  • increase use of nuclear power.
The goal of this interdisciplinary MIT study is not to predict which of these options will prevail or to argue for their comparative advantages. In our view, it is likely that we shall need all of these options and accordingly it would be a mistake at this time to exclude any of these four options from an overall carbon emissions management strategy. Rather we seek to explore and evaluate actions that could be taken to maintain nuclear power as one of the significant options for meeting future world energy needs at low cost and in an environmentally acceptable manner.

[...] To preserve the nuclear option for the future requires overcoming the four challenges described above -- costs, safety, proliferation, and wastes. These challenges will escalate if a significant number of new nuclear generating plants are built in a growing number of countries. The effort to overcome these challenges, however, is justified only if nuclear power can potentially contribute significantly to reducing global warming, which entails major expansion of nuclear power. In effect, preserving the nuclear option for the future means planning for growth, as well as for a future in which nuclear energy is a competitive, safer, and more secure source of power.

To explore these issues, our study postulates a global growth scenario  that by mid-century would see 1000 to 1500 reactors of 1000 megawatt-electric (Mwe) capacity each deployed worldwide, compared to a capacity equivalent to 366 such reactors now in service. Nuclear power expansion on this scale requires U.S. Leadership, continued commitment by Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, a renewal of European activity, and wider deployment of nuclear power around the world.

Adding 1000 nuclear power plants would require a massive effort and equally massive investment.  The need for this many reactors is based upon the premise that one of the goals is to reduce CO2 emissions.  The authors of the report think that we should try to preserve the option of using nuclear power, specifically because of the importance of carbon dioxide in the genesis of climate change:

Today, nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice. Moreover, unlike other energy technologies, nuclear power requires significant government involvement because of safety, proliferation, and waste concerns. If in the future carbon dioxide emissions carry a significant “price,” however, nuclear energy could be an important -- indeed vital -- option for generating electricity. We do not know whether this will occur. But we believe the nuclear option should be retained, precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power that can potentially make a significant contribution to future electricity supply.

In my view, this raises an important question, one that they do not address: is it already too late for us to make good use of nuclear power?  It is my opinion that the nuclear power industry, in the last half of the twentieth century, was overly complacent about the ability to technological advances to solve serious problems with nuclear power.  They raced ahead to build power plants even though there had not been adequate research into materials science and fuel cycle technology.  They assumed that any problems that emerged could be solved later.  They found out -- after many reactors already were in operation -- that some of the materials they were using could not withstand the torturous environment of a nuclear reactor.  They also found out that there are enormous political and technical problems with short-term and long-term waste storage.  In retrospect, they would have been better advised to go at a slower pace. 

If a slow pace is necessary for safety reasons, how feasible is it going to be to build 1,000 nuclear power plants by mid-century?  A smaller number will not have sufficient effect on climate change.  Yet, the worth of the entire endeavor is predicated upon the potential for nuclear power to reduce the risk of climate change. 

The implication of this argument is that it may already be too late for us to make good use of nuclear energy.  If climate change is not a concern, then nuclear energy is not economically viable.  If it is a concern, then we need to build a lot of reactors quickly in order to make a difference.  But if we build a lot of reactors quickly, we may run into serious safety problems.

I will accept their main recommendation at face value: we should try to preserve the option of nuclear power.  They state that this would entail increased R&D spending of about $400 million per year for the next five years, and $460 million per year for five years after that.  The Nature  article indicates that actual construction of a Generation IV facility would be about one billion dollars.  This would mean spending $4.3 billion on R&D, then another billion to build the first reactor. 

USS Ronald ReaganTo put that into perspective, we have already spent that much on the construction and operation of our newest aircraft carrier -- the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  The benefits of nuclear power R&D would be much greater than the benefit of a new aircraft carrier.  Just decreasing the risk of nuclear proliferation will do more to ensure our safety than one of those boats ever will. 

Keep in mind that other countries, especially China and France, are going ahead with nuclear power regardless of what US policymakers have to say.  Even if we never build our share of those 1,000 reactors, other countries are going to build theirs.  This being the case, it is in our interest to be sure that there is adequate research into the various safety issues.

I think, though, to get the most out of the R&D effort, it should be conducted in a way that maximizes the likelihood of finding new materials and new technologies that could have uses outside of the nuclear industry.  Furthermore, the research efforts should be designed to increase international cooperation and provide mutual benefit to all countries that participate. 

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