Nuclear Redux

For the last several decades, “no nukes” has been the mantra of environmentalists and a no-brainer for many US citizens. The generation of nuclear power involved impossible-to-ignore environmental risks, horribly obvious after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. People realized that plants could suffer meltdowns, and safe storage options for spent fuel were questionable. Plans to build new nuclear power plants ground to a halt in many countries, including the US, partially due to bad publicity and the enormous expense of plant construction.

But then something happened: global warming took center stage as the environmental issue of our time. The need to transition away from burning fossil fuels became paramount, and some environmentalists began to reconsider nuclear power as a necessary and even preferable part of the energy portfolio. Stewart Brand, founder of Whole Earth Catalog, Global Business Network, and the Long Now Foundation, is one of those people. “The situation is so much more dire with climate than almost anybody except the professional climatologists know,” says Brand. “With nuclear people, the more they know, the less worried they are. With climate people, the more they know, the more worried they are. It’s that combination that makes nuclear exceptionally green right now.”

Plenty of environmentalists disagree with Brand’s assessment, though they do admit that the landscape is shifting. Climate, the power grid, nuclear generator design, financial incentives, and public resistance are all in flux. Has enough changed to justify an enormous public investment in nuclear power? Will nuclear power help meet the goals of California’s AB 32, which mandates statewide greenhouse gas reductions by 2020?

The low- or no-carbon emission energy resources in California’s current portfolio include most of the renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric) and nuclear. According to the California Energy Commission, twelve percent of the state’s overall electricity supply is derived from nuclear generators, primarily from Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) south of San Clemente. By some estimates, nearly a quarter of California’s low-carbon electricity supply comes from nuclear plants. The Energy Commission found that a complete life-cycle analysis of nuclear power reveals that its greenhouse gas emissions are comparable to wind, solar voltaics, and geothermal technologies.

Every year, the Energy Commission compiles a comprehensive assessment of California’s nuclear power plants. In 2008’s draft report, the Commission determined that if one of the state’s two nuclear plants were to go off-line for a year, greenhouse gas emissions from power generation would increase by seven to eight percent. Replacement power would most likely come from natural gas-fired plants, with a resulting extra 7 million tons of CO2 churned into the atmosphere.

Baseload Blues

Nuclear energy has a valuable characteristic that many of the renewables presently don’t: it provides baseload electricity, or the minimum needed to meet normal customer demand. The sun might not shine, the wind might not blow, drought might strike a dam’s drainage basin, but nuclear fission can keep the electrons moving along the power grid. Baseload plants run continually, shutting down only occasionally for repairs or maintenance. “The baseload situation drives everything—you’ve got to be able to have juice that is on all the time,” says Brand, who argues that nuclear should be viewed as a low carbon emission replacement for coal, not a replacement for renewables.

The fact that most renewables cannot supply baseload today does not mean that they won’t in the near future, if energy storage technologies improve and their power network can be expanded. For instance, a 2007 Stanford study determined that wind could provide reliable baseload energy if multiple wind farms were connected with transmission lines, thus combining their separate outputs. “If interconnected wind is used on a large scale, a third or more of its energy can be used for reliable electric power, and the remaining intermittent portion can be used for transportation, allowing wind to solve energy, climate, and air pollution problems simultaneously,” says Cristina Archer, the study’s lead author and a consulting assistant professor in Stanford’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

Nuclear Waste: Curse or Opportunity?

The radioactive spent fuel left over from generating nuclear power is one of its greatest liabilities, but some argue that radioactive waste—because it is contained—is better than the byproducts of burning coal. According to the Sierra Club, coal is responsible for 59 percent of the sulfur dioxide pollution, fifty percent of the particle pollution, over forty percent of the carbon dioxide emissions, and most of the mercury pollution in the US every year. In 1993, nuclear physicist Alex Gabbard of Oak Ridge National Laboratory wrote in a seminal article, “Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material than fossil-fuel based power plants. Coal-burning plants are particularly noted for producing large amounts of toxic and mildly radioactive ash due to concentrating naturally occurring metals and radioactive material from the coal. Contrary to popular belief, coal power actually results in more radioactive waste being released into the environment than nuclear power. The population effective dose equivalent from radiation from coal plants is 100 times as much as nuclear plants.”

Admittedly, comparing anything to coal sets a pretty low bar. Moreover, nuclear waste remains semi-homeless. In 1976, California prohibited the construction of new nuclear power plants until there is a method of permanently disposing of the waste. Six years later, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act made the federal government responsible for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The US Department of Energy (DOE) was supposed to start taking possession of the spent fuel by 1998, but that never happened, because its underground permanent repository at Yucca Mountain has been mired in lawsuits and controversy. At this point, 2020 is its most optimistic opening date. By then, operating commercial reactors will have created more spent fuel than can be stored at Yucca Mountain, so new repositories will be needed.

In the meantime, California’s nuclear wastes are being stored at reactor sites. Plant owners Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are being forced to construct more dry cask storage facilities onsite and to double up on the number of spent rods in their storage pools. The more densely that spent fuel assemblies are packed, the higher the risk of radiation release from earthquakes or terrorist acts.

Brand notes that other countries do not think about nuclear waste in the same way that the US does. Canada, he says, “treat[s] the storage not as a ten-thousand-year problem but as a hundred-year problem,” by building interim facilities meant to store the waste for seven generations, after which future Canadians can decide if it should be recycled or permanently discarded. Another way we could approach waste, Brand suggests, is to sell it to the Russians, who are willing to permanently store it for the US.

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce?

The US nuclear power industry gets much of its fuel from Russia’s decommissioned nuclear weapons. “Unlike any other weapons system which turns into scrap when you get rid of it, when you dismantle a nuclear weapon, it’s quite valuable,” says Brand. “It’s one very intelligent use of a lot of the uranium that has already been mined and engineered into these horrible weapons. You get a double win on that one—you get rid of the damn weapons and get free high quality energy out of them with no carbon dioxide coming out of the process.”

The Megatons to Megawatts program is a government-to-government agreement between the US and Russia launched in 1993. According to the United States Enrichment Corporation, which administers the program, as of September, 345 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium has been recycled into 10,010 metric tons of low enriched uranium for nuclear power plants, equivalent to 13,795 nuclear warheads eliminated. Virtually the entire US fleet of nuclear reactors has used fuel from this program.

The concept of recycling warms environmentalists’ hearts, so it is no surprise that the term is being used in conjunction with nuclear power, instead of “reprocessing.” Weapons are often spoken of as being “recycled” into civilian fuel for power. Spent nuclear fuel is said to be “recycled,” meaning that portions that can be reused for fuel are reclaimed. But many of the positive connotations of “recycling” don’t really apply to nuclear fuel.

The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel has been either prohibited or unfunded in the US since the ‘70s, because the process is notoriously vulnerable to nuclear proliferation. Spent nuclear fuel that has not been reprocessed is heavy, bulky, and extremely radioactive; a terrorist or rogue state would be hard-pressed to acquire and transport it for the purpose of making weapons out of it. When spent fuel is reprocessed, however, the desired components become easier to obtain and handle. Separated plutonium becomes a concentrated powder; only twenty pounds can make a bomb. Studies by the National Academies, the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Harvard University Project on Managing the Atom, and the MIT Interdisciplinary Study have all concluded that reprocessing is unnecessary, uneconomic, and counter to nonproliferation goals. In its latest assessment, the California Energy Commission agrees.

Reprocessing costs more than storing used fuel. France reprocesses most of the world’s spent fuel. Yet a French government study in 2000 found that reprocessing spent fuel at La Hague cost approximately twice what storage would have. Moreover, reprocessing doesn’t reduce the amount of waste, although it does reduce the length of time that the waste remains dangerously radioactive, and the volume of the intensely radioactive waste is smaller. Still, a large quantity of intermediate-level waste is created, and deep repositories like Yucca Mountain are still necessary. And reprocessing is negative in that in a conventional reprocessing plant, radioactive emissions are released into the atmosphere during routine operations. Spent fuel storage has a much better safety record than reprocessing plants.

In 2006, President Bush created the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a federal R&D program meant to address nuclear energy’s Achilles’ heel. Brand calls GNEP “one of the only things President Bush did right.” One of the key objectives of GNEP is to recycle nuclear fuel using new technologies that are proliferation-resistant and can recover more energy and reduce waste. A variety of new reprocessing techniques have shown promise in the lab, but they have not yet been scaled up. The Department of Energy estimates these technologies could be available in ten to twenty years, but the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates fifty. The GNEP goals are ambitious and the costs exorbitant, but some have faith that flaws can be engineered out of the reprocessing system.

Soon, the US will be in the business of recovering plutonium from our own surplus weapons. However, controversy is already swirling around the reprocessing facility planned near Aiken, South Carolina after Daniel Tedder, an independent expert hired to review the contractor’s plans, found them shockingly inadequate and filled with safety problems. He has publicly complained that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has harrassed him about his reports and pressured him to “water them down.”

The Government Gravy Train

Nuclear power plants (and reprocessing plants) are costly to build, and they depend on government subsidies and loan guarantees to be competitive. Large reactors can cost $2.5 billion to $4 billion each; it takes decades to recoup the investment. As part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress granted approximately $10 billion in new subsidies to the nuclear industry.

Many environmentalists fear that public investment in nuclear will gobble up dollars that could be invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The National Resources Defense Council warns that the cost of nuclear power is prohibitive and makes it uncompetitive on the free market. NRDC’s position paper states “a national cap on carbon emissions would certainly help reduce nuclear’s significant current cost differential with large coal- and gas-fired power plants, but it will not ensure that nuclear stays competitive with these smaller, cheaper, cleaner, faster, and more flexible distributed sources of electric power generation.” Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has argued that, “every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar.”

They may have reason to worry: According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in its 2008 R&D budget proposal, the DOE requested funding increases of ten percent or more for hydrogen and nuclear technologies while requesting funding decreases for all other renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

Stumbling Blocks

Even if the nuclear industry got the green light to start building a fleet of new plants across the country, obstacles stand in the way. Global warming has created unpredictable precipitation patterns and drought. Current nuclear plants rely on billions of gallons of water for cooling; it’s why they are built alongside rivers, lakes, and oceans. According to the Associated Press, 24 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors are located in areas experiencing the most severe levels of drought. Plants sited on inland bodies of water may face complications related to dropping water levels. Alternately, even small rises in sea level will impact nuclear facilities that use ocean water. Future generations of nuclear power generators may rely on other means of cooling, but many of those technologies are not yet field-tested.

It also takes over a decade to plan, license and build a nuclear plant. Worse, there’s a bottleneck in the supply chain: only one factory in the world, Japan Steel Works, is able to manufacture the central part of a nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece. The handful of other manufacturers worldwide able to make large forgings are gearing up to produce parts for the nuclear industry, but even then, capacity will be three or four pressure vessels a year. Other manufacturers are researching alternative methods to make the components as well as reactor designs that don’t require single-piece vessels.

Power Grid Paradigms

Many environmentalists are content to let nuclear power fade into history because they believe that the current paradigm of the energy grid, featuring large, centralized power plants, is outdated. The evolving model involves decentralized generation, often called “the Internet for energy.” Just as in a few decades, computers went from room-filling behemoths to millions of personal electronic devices capable of communicating with millions of others, likewise, large power plants will give way to millions of small power producers that are located where the power is used. Many power consumers will also become power generators, feeding power back into the grid.

Both private and public money is chasing this vision. Recently, North Carolina State University was awarded a $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a “smart” grid that can “store and distribute alternative energy from solar panels, wind farms, and more,” allowing individual citizens to harvest their own energy and sell it back to power companies. This September, Google and General Electric announced a partnership to promote greater use of renewable energy in the US and cooperate on technology projects. According to the Financial Times, the companies’ first priority is to lobby Washington to promote an expansion of the US electricity transmission grid to reach more renewable energy sources, and to lobby for the creation of a smart grid.

A smart grid could assess energy prices in real time using “smart meters,” which would be installed in homes and businesses. Energy consumers could adjust their power devices to take advantage of best prices. This would mean a more efficient power grid and a diminished need for polluting peaker plants. In some cases, the expansion of the transmission grid would aid efficiency by shortening the distance energy must travel to the end user.

PG&E has been moving in this direction; the company’s goal is to install 10.3 million digital electric and gas meters with data communication functions for all customers by 2012. The company has already hooked up 25,000 solar-generating customers to the electric grid, and these customers can choose to sell all or some of the electricity their solar panels generate to PG&E.

New Small Nukes

Stewart Brand insists that a decentralized model does not preclude nuclear power generation. Indeed, a race is on worldwide to produce a new generation of small nuclear reactors that can live on a barge or sit in a hole in the ground for decades. “These are not the reactors that my generation went out and fulminated against,” Brand says. “These are better in all the respects that we worried about.” In an effort to wake up the hibernating US nuclear energy industry, the DOE is soliciting bids for new nuclear reactor designs. The winner gets $100 million over 5 years while seeking a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Construction of the winning design could begin by 2015.

According to Phil McKenna in The New Scientist, over sixty designs are under development around the world. Among the contenders: Berkeley’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is designing the “Small Secure Transportable Autonomous Reactor,” or SSTAR, a 20-megawatt power generator that ships fully assembled with a thirty-year fuel supply sealed in a tamper-proof cask. Instead of using water for cooling, the SSTAR is surrounded by a meter of lead that carries heat away from the core. Toshiba of Japan is working on the “Super Safe, Small and Simple,” or 4S, a unit the company is intending to install in Galena, Alaska to supply the remote town with a steady ten megawatts for thirty years. The whole unit then would be shipped to a reprocessing facility. None of these nascent designs are perfect: some engineering solutions lead to new design vulnerabilities. For coolant, the 4S uses liquid sodium metal, which reacts violently with water. Contact with moisture in the air could cause it to burst into flames.

The End of the (Power) Line

The operating licenses of California’s nuclear plants expire in fourteen to seventeen years; if extensions are granted, they will operate another twenty years before arriving at the end of their lifespans. New nuclear plants will not take their place so long as the law remains the same, and the federal nuclear waste repository remains unready. Barbara Byron of the CA Energy Commission says, “The only means for changing this requirement would be if the California Legislature repealed these laws or passed an amendment that would exempt a new nuclear plant.”

The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group, a consortium that includes Republican State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and chairman of the Fresno Utilities Commission John Hutson, is raising money to build the first new nuclear reactor in California since the early ‘80s. The group is talking openly of overturning California’s 32-year-old law, but is waiting for California opinion polls to reach sixty percent approval ratings for new nuclear energy facilities before it begins collecting signatures for a ballot initiative.

They may not need to wait long. In July, the San Francisco Chronicle, citing a Field poll, reported that for the first time since the ‘70s, half of Californians support building nuclear plants in the state. “The assumption is that California is now and forever allergic to nuclear,” says Brand. “Gavin Newsom and Nancy Pelosi are taking the same line as Barack Obama, which is that nuclear needs to be part of the mix. We may see a surprising switch in this area because there is so much need for power.”

The R&D race is on to overcome limitations of both nuclear and renewable energy sources. Whether nuclear remains part of California’s low-carbon mix fifty years from now is uncertain. For now, the issue remains…radioactive.

Comments are closed.