Nuclear advocates should treat the crisis as an opportunity to launch innovation programs and make the sector safer and more cost-effective, Lester writes. “This is not the time for the nuclear industry to circle the wagons: The need for intellectual vitality, flexibility and creativity has never been greater,” he adds.
In the U.S., the most urgent need in the wake of the accident is to assess the safety of existing nuclear power plants. Plans to extend the operating life of some 40-year-old reactors for another two decades should be reviewed, and costly upgrades may be required. We must also revisit the longstanding issue of how and where to store spent nuclear fuel. The sensible solution would be to store it in dry concrete casks at one or two central locations. Instead, decades of political dithering have produced only gridlock, so spent fuel remains in increasingly densely-packed storage pools at dozens of sites around the country.
Still, the overall impact of the accident will be fairly small here. The so-called nuclear renaissance wasn’t really going anywhere in the U.S. even before the Japanese earthquake. For most utilities, new nuclear plants are simply too big and expensive to contemplate. Only a few such plants would have been built over the next decade. Now some of those may be scrapped.
In the aftermath of Fukushima, some new technologies already in the pipeline look more promising. New fuel “cladding” materials are being developed that don’t react with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen—the cause of the shocking explosions in Japan. Other new plant designs rely on natural heat conduction and convection rather than electric-powered pumps and valves and human intervention to cool the fuel in reactors that have shut down.
Today’s most advanced designs go even further toward the goal of “walkaway safety,” that is, reactors that can shut themselves down and cool themselves off without electric power or any human intervention at all. Longer-term possibilities include lifetime fueling, which would allow a single charge of fuel to power a reactor for its entire life—making it, in effect, a nuclear battery. Integrated power plant/waste disposal systems are another promising concept. Here, used fuel never leaves the site and is disposed of directly in stable, dry bedrock several kilometers below the earth’s surface (more than 10 times as deep as the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.)
Huge gains in computing power already enable far more precise simulations of nuclear-reactor behavior than ever before. Computational advances will also make it possible to design radiation-resistant materials literally atom by atom and, perhaps, specially tailored nanostructures that could store long-lived nuclear waste safely for tens of thousands of years. All of this can be foreseen today, and much greater advances surely lie over the horizon.
An already safe technology must be made demonstrably safer—and less expensive, more secure against the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and more compatible with the capabilities of electric power systems and the utilities that run them. The advantages of nuclear power in displacing fossil fuels are simply too great to ignore.
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Problems with the Union of Concerned Scientists position on nuclear power. The reasons that they give for not using nuclear power apply to the other power sources. Other power sources are vulnerable to terrorists and other power sources also will take many years to scale up.