Safer Nuclear Reactors Impeded By Marketplace, Expert Says

University of Chicago Panel Doubts Future of Nuclear Power in U.S.
Safer nuclear reactors have been available for years, but the energy market prefers less expensive conventional designs, a nuclear energy expert from Argonne National Laboratory said Thursday.
"There is a tremendous incentive to develop new reactors that have more inherent, intrinsic safety features, and we’ve been doing this for some time at ANR and at other research organizations," said Hussein Khalil, director of Argonne's Nuclear Energy Division.
"They’ve been developed to a fairly high degree of technical maturity, but none of them have been successfully commercialized yet because it appears they can’t yet compete on an economic basis with the existing technology."
Khalil was one of four speakers Thursday at "Lessons from Fukushima," a University of Chicago panel that convened around the corner from the site of the first man-made sustained nuclear chain reaction in 1942—an event that gave rise to nuclear power, to nuclear weapons, and to the man-made radioisotopes that have been visited upon the world since the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.
Liquid-metal and sodium cooled reactors are examples of safer reactor designs, Khalil said, that have not been embraced by power companies proposing new plants in the U.S. and overseas.
"It’s clearly true that Nth-of-a-kind plants will cost less than first-of-a-kind plants, and there’s a benefit from learning and repeating the construction of these [older] plants, but it’s also true that the cost estimates for building new plants have gone up," Khalil said, pointing to the "regulatory uncertainty" faced by power companies that risk new designs.
"There's a market answer to this question," added Robert Topel, a University of Chicago economist on the panel:
Absent that impediment of learning by doing—where nobody wants to take the first step because it benefits everybody else—absent that, the fact that private investors are not putting up the money tells you that right now, based on their expectations of the near future, it’s not all that happening."
Khalil's comments came in response to a call for safer plants from Kennette Benedict, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—a publication founded in 1945 by the same scientists who founded nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and the Argonne National Laboratory. Famous for its Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin's mission is to warn humanity about the dangers of nuclear technology.
"This is the most dangerous technology on earth," Benedict said. "The bombs that were created during the Cold War—the number was extraordinary. We still could demolish the world with bombs. And peaceful nuclear reactions are in a sense trying to control the bomb."
The discussion sizzled from the start with chain reactions between Benedict, who challenged the nuclear industry, and Khalil, who defended it:
"Fortunately," Khalil said, "based on the current data and analysis, it appears that there will be no widespread health consequences" from the Fukushima accident:
It's too early to know for sure, but there's a good possibility this will be the case. The local population was evacuated in time and does not seem to have received radiation in doses liable to induce health effects. In fact the consequences of the reactor accident, at least so far, pale in comparison to the enormous death and injury toll, the human suffering, and the devastating physical and economic damage from the earthquake and the tsunami.
"Because of differences in natural phenomenon hazards, reactor design features, and accident response capabilities, it's very unlikely that a Fukushima-like event could occur at a nuclear power plant in the U.S…. Nuclear fission is a major energy source today and it has proven its value in the U.S., in Japan and elsewhere."
But Benedict blamed the nuclear-power industry for putting profit before safety and failing to take measures that could make reactors safer:
We need to ask why safety measures which have already been suggested are not in place right now."
Khalil countered that some nuclear accidents—such as the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979—have been more disastrous for reactor owners than anyone else:
Taking Three Mile Island as an example, that accident was first and foremost a financial disaster for the utility which owned the reactor. The release of radioactivity was very minor, the health effects were very minor. And today the same is true: all owners of these incredibly expensive facilities have a termendous incentive to keep them operating safely.”
Safety concerns were deemphasized at the beginning of the industry, Benedict replied, noting that issues of The Bulletin from the 1950s contain safer reactor designs. The U.S. opted for more dangerous reactors, she charged, that could produce plutonium for weapons. She asked why we don't shut down reactors like the ones at Fukushima that are 40 or 50 years old, when we know there are better designs.
Benedict: "I believe that this would be a very good time to take a very deep breath and a very big pause. We haven't built a new plant in what, 20, 25 years—
Khalil: "Thirty-two years. So there's not a strong need to put the brakes on anything related to nuclear energy."
Benedict: "Terrific. So let's really sit down and think about this."
Despite her challenges to the industry, Benedict does not oppose nuclear energy: "Nuclear power is a technology that does not emit carbon so I think it is probably a part of the mix that we will need."
But when Argonne Deputy Director Mark Peters asked each panelist to describe—in two or three sentences—the future of nuclear power in the U.S., the prognosis ranged from uncertain to grave. The economist spoke first:
Topel: "I can answer in two or three words: I don't know."
Benedict: "Well, I'm going to do better than Bob in terms of brevity: It depends."
Khalil: "In the U.S. we have a lot of energy options. Not the same is true in other countries. We also have less government determination of energy policy, and so I think the prospects for new plants are very limited. But I think we'll try to keep our existing plants going and try to get the most out of them. As long as we can safely do that."
Disclosure: Like the panelists, I work at the University of Chicago, but I work with split infinitives, not split atoms, in the Humanities Division.

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