Feeling Upbeat about Nuclear Technology’s Future
I feel better about the prospects for new nuclear technology development today (April 21) than I have for several years, based on the four conferences in four different U.S. cities I’ve attended over the past several weeks.
My travel calendar has included Washington, D.C., for the Nuclear Industry Summit / Nuclear Security Summit, New York City for the BNEF Future of Energy Summit, Atlanta for Nuclear Energy Insider’s International SMR and Advanced Reactor Summit, and Annapolis for a Technical Meeting on Nuclear Energy and Cyber Security sponsored by INMM and American Nuclear Society.
I’ve traveled from my base in south-central Virginia by train and automobile, skipping the planes that many busy journalists prefer in their continuing effort to minimize the time invested in gathering reportable information.
I view travel as an observational experience opportunity. My trips have reinforced my understanding that there is a vibrant population of interesting and interested people living outside cities. The majority of that population experiences and understands energy consumption in a way that is entirely different from those of trendy urbanites.
We live in an energetic country that is gradually, but visibly recovering from nearly a decade of economic stagnation. Construction crews are busily moving dirt, concrete, steel and lumber, even in places outside of the Washington, D.C., beltway.
Electric cars, which are a legitimate item of growing interest inside urban areas where distances are short, pollution is a problem and stop and start traffic is the norm, are virtually undetectable in suburbs, small towns and rural areas.
Pick-up trucks are both very popular and growing in size. I’ve seen increasing numbers of large SUVs, vans, RVs, boats and a dizzying array of tractors, four wheelers and large motorcycles on dealer lots, parking areas and in yards and driveways.
Awareness of those facts of American life allowed me to engage in a number of useful exchanges with people who seem to believe anointed energy gurus.
I’m referring to the people who frequently repeat the pitch that the relationship between prosperity and energy use has been permanently altered and that the wind and the sun will eventually provide all of the power we need, with “cheap, clean natural gas” as the only bridge fuel required to arrive at that future utopia.
Many of the hard-working people who have spent their careers in the traditional nuclear industry appear to have bought into the notion that the country has an overabundance of energy sources, that “the public” doesn’t like what they do, that there is no future (or financial reward) in pressing for more nuclear energy, and that it’s time to retrench and erect defensive barriers to attempt to protect as many existing assets as possible.
A few young and ambitious people are convinced that there is a bright future in renewable energy, especially in solar and wind. They often don’t have any thoughts about nuclear energy other than the “fact” that it’s “too expensive to compete.”
Their opinions are buttressed by the heavy publicity associated with the high cost of Hinkley C, the stubborn messaging from the top that the project has to move forward and succeed in order to prove that nuclear energy has a future, and the increasing drumbeat of op-eds—often from industry spokespeople—proclaiming that the value of nuclear energy isn’t recognized by the market.
That last message generally ends with a plea for more subsidies to enable nuclear plants to make a decent profit in a market skewed by generous subsidies to competitive energy sources. That plea, which might sound logical to some, grates with those who dislike taxes and fees that seem designed to benefit corporations and their stockholders.
The reason that my trips have energized me and resulted in a growing sense of optimism is that they gave me the opportunity to engage with hundreds of young and young-at-heart people who are excited by the prospects of a future enabled by increasing use of nuclear energy.
Many of them, despite the advice of energy industry stalwarts, have decided that atomic power is the best available technology to address a number of problems that they’ve been told to either ignore or accept as inevitable.
The atomic optimists that I’ve met are convinced that climate change is a real problem that needs near-term, but effective action. They believe that temporarily low fossil fuel prices are an opportunity that will enable lower cost building programs for plants that might be ready to operate just in time for the next high price cycle in the hydrocarbon market.
Some of them are proud to be part of teams—like TerraPower, NuScale, Terrestrial Energy, X-Energy, TransAtomic and mPower—that have developed technological fixes that will go far in addressing the obstacles that have slowed nuclear power plant deployment during the past several decades. Others are interested in joining or supporting those growing teams.
I’ve had lengthy conversations with current regulators like Deborah Jackson, deputy director of advanced reactors at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and deeply experienced former regulators like Dave Matthews, who headed the agency’s division of new reactor licensing, and Jeffery Merrified, a commissioner from 1998-2007, who are diligently working towards adjustments in current processes that, if adopted, will smooth and straighten the path for licensing advanced reactors.
Those changes, which are often in the form of better interpretations of existing regulations, will enable evolved versions of light water reactors or reactors using refined versions of technologies like high temperature gas reactors, liquid metal cooled reactors or molten salt reactors that have been developed and proven at demonstration scales during the seventy years since the Atomic Age began.
I’ve heard Ashley Finan from the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and Clean Energy Task Force describe the recently issued report titled Enabling Nuclear Innovation: Strategies for Licensing Advanced Reactors.
That report contains valuable recommendations including the possibility of a staged licensing process with milestones that can be decision points for investors. One aspect of the report that make it more important is that its release coincided with the bi-partisan introduction of the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Modernization Act (S.2795).
A Senate clean air and nuclear safety subcommittee will be holding a hearing on that bill later today (April 21).
There is no doubt that the timing wasn’t a coincidence, but the result of effective, coordinated legwork. My statement is supported by reading the report and the legislation side by side and by personal conversations with several of the cited contributors and advisors.
Even though few of the new and improved reactors will be operating within the next ten years, growing interest and measurable progress might have an impact on fuel cycle sales as increasingly well-financed innovation leaders begin to take action to avoid the Westinghouse uranium market assumption errors of the early 1970s.
There is still plenty of work to be done. The path will be arduous, but exciting and rewarding for those who approach it with patience, dedication, technical understanding and open-minded acceptance of the fact that it’s possible to change the status quo.
It’s not easy to believe that there is light coming when the current situation seems dark, but it sure helps to notice the clues in so many venues and coming from such a wide variety of sources.
Yes, for once, I’m optimistic.
The above article was first published in the April 21, 2016 issue of Fuel Cycle Week.
Copyright 2016 by Atomic Insights LLC, all rights reserved.
Too bad your optimism isn’t buttressed by an honest political structure. Who the heck knows which way the political winds will blow after this electoral cycle? If we had two candidates that were trustworthy, it would be different. But we have narrowed it down to two lying conniving gold diggers that will say or do anything to increase their wealth and power. It will be interesting to see which special interests are chosen to further loot the treasury and and destroy our global credibility. With these two vying for the chance to slither into the Oval Office, all bets are off. Its a shame that BS doesn’t turn the lights on and push our cars down the road, because we’d be energy independent if it did.
I wish I could share yr optimism, but what’s missing in all these tiny baby steps
is recognition of the elephant in the room: radiophobia. We are one release
away from another 10 year step backwards and yet more stifling regulation.
And that release will come with probability 1.0. It does not have to be much,
see TMI. It’s only a question of when.
Unless we have a well-funded, non-industry program to educate people
on radiation hazards, (the Breakthrough Institute comes to mind);
unless the establishment radiation health professionals (aka grant seekers)
start comparing the risks of nuclear with the alternatives a la Cohen and Hansen,
then if will all be for nought, at least in the USA.
Its all about politics. The unfortunate position that NE finds itself is but a tool for partissn politics. It is the perfect wedge issue, because it does not need a war in order to use it to strike fear into the minds of a constituency. Wartime, peace time…no matter, that nasty radiation boogie man’ll getcha anyway. Just like those nasty muslim terrists they market war with, radiation is used to market fossil fuel and renewables.
You wanna institute policy? Just put fear in the minds of the masses, and they’ll accept any disastrous policy you wanna throw their way. Give them an enemy, and they’ll turn their backs on facts, science, ethics, morality, and justice.
So, they’ve made radiation the enemy, and the wind blows, the sun glows, and the oil flows. Pretty simple, really.
Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information is a growing, increasingly well-organized, non-industry program that includes both credible scientists and several talented communicators. The next step to achieving your vision is the “well-funded” part.
Are you interested in helping us reach the right individuals to show them the value in supporting efforts to drive out fear of radiation?
As Marie Curie so presciently stated:
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
It was true when she said it; it remains true today.
I’ve made the elephant point to CATF, Third Way, several congressional staffers,
and anybody else who might listen. When I get a reaction, it’s either:
a) the new reactors are zillions times safer than the old, so we dont have too
worry about a release.
b) the much more honest, it’s too difficult.
Most of them have explicitly decided to not address the issue in anything public.
SARI is an exception, but as far as I can tell SARI is closer to a blog,
than a real organization. Each member says whatever he wants. Some push
hormesis; some dont. Some can be counter productively strident. Much
of the focus is on the latest paper from the pro-LNT camp.
There is no coherent campaign to educate the public in part because
that will take big bucks.
We need something on the same scale and
same marketing quality as the anti-smoking campaign. They went up
against the best marketers in the world and won, in large part because
they had truth on their side. But truth alone is not enough.
Our attempt to breakthrough to Breakthrough has been deflected so far.
“We are still getting organized.” My sense is they are at best ambivalent
But to answer yr question, a little busy right now, so I join everybody else
in ignoring the elephant. Dontcha hate it when somebody says we have
a problem, and you say lets work on it, and he looks at his watch and says
But the elephant is still there. Down here in the Keys elevated levels
of tritium in Biscayne Bay near Turkey Point and being called a “Fukushima”.
There is a sub-group of SARI called x-lnt with a plan under development. X-lnt.org
Thanks x-lnt.org link. Somehow did not know about this.
But IMO this is not the way to go about this.
The distinction between LNT and a non-linear response is not sellable
to even intelligent, open minded people without the requisite background.
It will only stir up pushback from the grantophiles and lead to
a politically sterile argument.
We must compare nuclear risks with coal risks, gas risks,
airplane risks, banana risks, and all the other risks
we accept on a daily basis. Risk with which people are familiar.
If we keep comparing ourselves to perfection, we will be forced
into the “dont worry. wont happen” corner where once again
we will be exposed as liars.
Bernie Cohen knew LNT was bogus. His carefully compiled radon
data made that abundantly clear. But in his book
aimed at the general public, The Nuclear Energy Option,
he accepted LNT
and did exactly what I’m (really Bernie) is suggesting.
We “just” need to put Bernie’s argument in the form of well crafted
ads. Pandora’s Promise cut up into 60 sec and 30 sec sound bites.
If we could raise the money, this is the way it should be spent.
I’ll check out the SARI and X-link sites, but I’m curious about what I can actually do to “help”. I’ve been trying to find a way to have some measurable impact for over a decade now, but am largely just spinning my wheels. Just going to some organization’s website and expressing my support isn’t going to have any impact.
It is quite ironic that our individual contributions regarding this topic are so difficult to measure………while actual effects of radiaton at really low levels is so difficult to detect as to be indistinguishable from background.
That is the whole crux of the debate, whether there is 1.) No effect 2.) A tiny negative effect or 3.) A tiny positive effect is all but impossible to distinguish without a well-crafted study exposing thousands of people to precisely-measured tiny doses. The fact that effects are so difficult to discern at such low levels should be all the evidence needed to come to the conclusion that low doses are so trivial that worrying about them is a colossal waste of “worry energy” or any resources used to combat/remediate/avoid those doses.
The world needs to come to a conclusion of what the dose is below which any concern about a 0.0001% (as a random tiny number) risk is an utter waste. This can be for whole body or organ-specific.
This would be a threshold, of course.
Join this effort to help crowdfund medical studies investigating potential radiation benefits:
There was a really interesting counter-factual argument about radiophobia given by Malcolm Grimston at CNA 2016. It admits that radiophobia is real, but that the industry (and of course the regulators) are approaching everything the wrong way. The start point is why Fukushima was treated as anything more significant than a medium level industrial accident. . .
Absolutely fascinating discussion:
But the key point is that maybe education is not the best way forward.
Wow. That’s a really good address by Malcolm Grimston. It should be required viewing for the public relations department of every nuclear-owning utility and regulator of atomic energy.
His thesis: that the public are in fact pretty rational in their response to what they see the nuclear industry actually doing about the dangers. Industry behaves as if anything nuclear-power is extremely and uniquely dangerous, which speaks far louder than their oft-repeated assurances about how safe everything is. “The old reactors never killed anybody, but don’t worry – these new reactors will be much safer!! And we’re spending $10 billion to make sure!!!” A perfectly reasonable response is could be one of three:
1) If it’s so safe anyway, why are you wasting $10 billion to make it safer? You must be nuts!
2) You’re lying to us – it’s really dangerous, or you wouldn’t be spending $10billion to try and make it safer.
3) You have the gall to stand there and say you’re wasting billions of MY MONEY on something that doesn’t need doing?? I’ve lost all confidence in you!
Another example that springs to mind – the WIPP fiasco. A fire that releases about as much toxicity as a burning tire, almost all of which is completely contained, shuts down the entire facility for two years. “Why are you doing that?? It must be REALLY DANGEROUS!!!”
And now you tell us “Safety is our Number One Priority!!!” What, more important than generating electricity? More important than reducing CO2? Tell you what then, why don’t you just stop doing your dangerous nuclear thing? Then you’ll be safe! And we’ll sleep easier in our beds!”
With such an approach, it sure seems as if the nuclear industry is machine-gunning itself in both feet. Anyway, go and watch the video!
PS: My dear wife (who enjoyed the video too) thinks what I wrote sounds as if I actually hold the above views. I don’t – I was just trying to put myself in the shoes of a regular nuclear-illiterate Joe Public and asking how I would interpret the nuclear industry’s irrational behavior.
Andre – thanks very much for the link. I agree that this is an extremely important talk. IMO the real take-away is that the industry AND the regulators AND all other pro-nuclear groupings need to tell a coherent story by both their words and their deeds. It’s not enough for NPP operators and utilities to change their message, if the regulators are still ratcheting the requirements and the politicians are panicking (as happened for Fukushima Daiichi). All parties need to be both talking the talk and walking the walk, on the same path. All pulling in the same direction, or the public will still conclude that some or all are lying or confused, and not investigate further.
On another topic – Thanks for the post, Rod. It made me want to hear some of these conversations. Would you consider taking the Atomic Show podcast ‘on the road’? With one of the little Sansa Clipp recorders for each of the participants, you’d have a microphone on each person. The separate recordings would have to be edited together, using a program like the free, open source audio program Audacity. (I’d love to see videos as well, but that’s too much to expect of a one-man expedition.) Would at least some of your conversation partners have been willing to go ‘on the record’?
Rod. I think it is fantastic that you get to visit these events and get a sense of the pulse and prevailing winds of change and report it back to us. In a significant way you make that optimism contagious. Lets hope the cynics and antis become smaller camps.
And that is with no mention of the upcoming Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp.
Will you be a mentor for that, Rod?
At the time I wrote this post (April 21) I didn’t know about the Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp.
I also did not know about it when arranging my summer vacation schedule. It turns out that the week in August in which we were able to find openings on the schedules of five families for a week on the beach is smack dab in the middle of the event. So, no, I will not be attending, but I will be doing what I can to participate and assist from the other coast.
I am encouraged by your tone and really enjoy your writing, both topically and style. You are a treasure and I hope you continue. I would add one thought to the dialogue that is a quote from former senior Westinghouse executive, Duratek Board member and Secretary of the army, Dr. Fran Harvey.. “Strategic planning without execution is Hallucination” ..
I would advise and recommend we consider a simpler and more visceral tone to our messaging, and one that I support and that even the simplest , text prone , nanosecond attentive ” Disturbed Yut’s ” can understand ……
” We have to stop Burning stuff “
The biggest risk is not radiation risk but political risk. Politicians are poll-directed chameleons. The political risk killed over 1000 people at Fukushima when politicians needlessly evacuated the region near the plant. We could use a political leader (not poll-directed chameleon) to lead the public to the truth about low level radiation — it’s safe.
Alternatively, we can get leadership from the medical profession, which is examining the benefits of radiation. The public tends to trust doctors. The benefits of better health are clear to the public. Here is information about a new book that explores the relationship between cancer and the immune system, dispelling the myth that a single radiation “hit” can alter DNA to cause cancer to spread.
I have two fundamental problems with Nuclear energy in it’s current form and I hope you can allay my fears. My concerns are twofold. Nuclear reactors themselves and the spent fuel pools which in almost all cases are right next to the reactors.
Concern #1: A catastrophic event impacts the globe or a country with a significant number of nuclear power plants (eg. US, Russia, China, France). In such an event, say a global pandemic or a major Carrington event one could reasonably assume that many if not all reactors are umanned. (99 in the US alone) At this point most would sucessfully scram the second any tolerance variations are detected including power failure. But as hopefully we all know scram only halts criticality. The ECCS winds up and backup generators run the cooling systems. It takes 2 or 3 years for a reactor to cool down. Reactors have at most a few days worth of diesel so lets reasonably assume boil off and reactor meltdown. I think we can reasonably conclude that containment breach would occur in a high percentage of reactors releasing huge amounts of radionuclides into the atmosphere and/or the water table. Effectively an extinction level event. Am I wrong (which I pray I am)? If so please explain why.
High level waste (HLW) consisting of spent fuel rods is stored in cooling pools right next to the reactors. HLW can be placed into two groups both super radioactive for up to 100,000 years (source USNRC). Group 1 is of great concern consisting of spent fuel rods still in a state of decay heat i.e. these rods will melt down or catch fire or I guess both if the cooling systems fail. As there are no Group 2 facilities virtually all HLW is a mix of both. i.e. the problem has now compounded exponentially. I’m not aware of HLW pools having any containment in the sense that a reactor does which implies that a global (or country wide) catastrophic event would be exponentially worse than reactor meltdowns. (Call it over kill.)
I would appreciate your thoughts on this because from where I’m sitting it looks like we are sitting on an extinction level time bomb and it’s just a question now of when it goes off.
In either event…..you would have much more to worry about than your friendly neighborhood Nuke Plant.
Also….”spent” fuel isnt “super” radioactive for 100,000 years. Research fission products and their associated half lives.
A Carrington event would likely affect junction devices that are under bias at the time of the event. Computers do not control nuclear plants. While things like ROM-based readout systems and displays might be affected, the safety-related components like pumps and valves and switches, are robust and would continue to function. Diesel supplies at plant sites are more in the range of 30 days. Once you reach cold shutdown where natural convection can handle the heat load, you’re okay.
The main activity after a Carrington event would be to get the distribution system back in operation so the power plants (of all types) can start delivering power. They are valuable recovery assets. Think what will happen in the big cities after extended loss of power. No water, no sanitary systems, no heat or light, no refrigeration. Those would be the primary threats to human life. Getting the electricity back on will save lives..
I remember a PBS show (Nova or Cosmos?) where a tech at a new air traffic control computer center said “any Carrington flare powerful enough to knock us out is one where planes falling out the skies and relays burning out would be the least of humanity’s problem.” He was likening such to Earth being in a microwave oven.
Terrific report, Rod! And very good comments.
Many thanks for all that you do to get out the word!
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