About 20 years ago, a Department of Energy client sent me to an unusual conference on nuclear power because it included representatives from industry, environmental groups, academe, and federal and state governments, including regulators. I recall two things. One, the Nevada representative reviled the federal government for its heavy-handed dealings with the state in its efforts to make Yucca Mountain a national waste depository. Two, after the second day, my client wondered why I had had nothing to say. My moment arrived just before the conference was summarizing its discussion. My sardonic comment: if the country had tried to design a nuclear power regime to fail, it could not have done better than deploy the one which it had deployed in the previous 35 years.
With nothing at stake, I never had trouble either admitting that the problems of that regime are many or asserting that many are not unique, ungainly, or insoluble. Which brings me to Chip Ward’s 5 March editorial in the Los Angeles Times. Ward, founder of HEAL Utah and author of books opposing nuclear power, has a stake in the controversy about nuclear power. Unfortunately, like many opponents of nuclear power, he is a fear-monger who decries radioactive waste, mining hazards, expense, and carbon footprint; but whose standards are never clear.
His concerns are exaggerated. First, radioactive waste. America has failed to solve its radioactive waste problem for political reasons. Other countries with nuclear power regimes like France and Japan do not have such problems. So the issue of radioactive waste is not inherent in nuclear power and is solvable except for scare claims about it. By contrast, radioactivity may be a greater problem at both ends of the coal fuel cycle. Coal shafts are slightly radioactive; worse, fly ash, the spent fuel of coal use, is far more radioactive because this combustion by-product concentrates the radioactivity in coal.
Second, mining hazards. All mining is dangerous. Most uranium mines are surface or shallow-pit mines which present modest environmental problems readily solved by modest containment efforts. By contrast, coal mining has a higher ratio of deaths, disabilities, and diseases per worker from mine collapses and respiratory disorders.
Third, expense. Nuclear power regimes in other countries testify to their economic viability because they have been sensibly implemented without huge litigation costs.
Fourth, carbon footprint. The claim that the carbon footprint of constructing nuclear power plants exceeds the avoided carbon footprint of their operation is a lie which has been a staple of anti-nuclear zealots for decades. Pollution comes in many forms, and lies by environmentalists are one of them.
However, the current regime does have real problems. All of its over 120 plants are different, some more, some less, from each other. The regime never standardized its designs, so each plant required separate regulatory approval for siting, design, and operation. Probability risk assessments were simply guesses by experts, and mistakes were matters not of second-guessing but of discovering how unreliable PRAs for different, if not unique, designs were. Interventions by environmentalists and others, most amply justified, prolonged regulatory decision-making and increased costs of siting, construction, and operation. The consequences—long delays and large expense—the industry inflicted on itself, with help from often inept government agencies and often irate interveners.
The problem with screeds like Ward’s is that they pretend that the next-generation nuclear power regime has learned nothing and changed nothing in the past 30 years. But much has been learned and almost everything changed, and all for the better.
The new regime has a radically different approach to developing and deploying nuclear power plants. First, it standardizes a few designs; as a result, each plant design requires only one regulatory decision and can be “mass” produced. This standardization shortens regulatory schedules and reduces production and construction costs.
Second, the new plant designs come in scaled sizes and are modular. Scaled sizes mean economies because plants can match demand in markets, and modularity means that additional plants can be added to the grid to match market growth.
Third, the new plant designs reduce safety, health, and environmental risks by using relatively simple architectures and passive-safety devices to prevent accidents or releases. Gone are the complexity and redundancy of defense-in-depth engineering, with its great technical and managerial risks, and great costs. Instead, come passive-safety devices which eliminate the need for grid electricity, trigger safe shut-downs, and reduce the odds of operator error or radioactive releases.
Even the issues of waste and security are solvable. If nuclear power companies know that the federal government will not build a national storage facility for spent fuel, they will support other options: state permanent storage facilities or carefully designed and secure permanent on-site storage facilities capable well beyond the lifetime of the plant.
The only thing which has not changed about the new regime is the warriors waging wars against the old regime. The vanguard of nuclear power has moved on.