Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
That is one of the sayings that I remember whenever I read works about energy by people like Amory Lovins or Ralph Nader and find myself agreeing with something they have written. (I rarely agree with either of them, but that does not mean that I always disagree.)
One area where I find myself in philosophical agreement is that I tend to like small-scale engineering and decentralized power. That philosophy aligns well with the underlying ideas behind one of Lovins’s books, titled Small is Profitable.
Aside: Here is a link to a July 29, 2011 missive from James Hansen about how wind and solar are ineffective replacements for fossil fuel combustion. He mentions Lovins and points out that he has been completely wrong for more than 35 years about the “soft energy path”, but Hansen likes Lovins on a personal level so he says it in a very polite way.
I will be more direct – I believe that Amory Lovins is an often quoted energy “guru” because he is paid to say what rich petroleum pushers WANT people to hear. He has not achieved his media popularity by telling the truth about what people NEED to hear. End Aside.
One of the features that I like most about nuclear fission energy is that the energy density is so many orders of magnitude larger than even the most energy dense chemical energy found in hydrocarbons. A tiny pellet the size of the tip of my pinkie contains as much potential energy as 20 large pickup trucks full of coal – if completely consumed. Energy dense fuel allows small machines that operate for a long time without any dependence on external supplies.
Though we are a long way from having a large amount of operating experience with machines that can perform that complete consumption using both U-235 and U-238, we have produced and operated hundreds of compact machines that do a pretty reasonable job of approaching 100% fuel consumption when using a more purified fuel source. Those machines can operate for decades without new fuel; that is not a statement of potential, but of reality backed up by experience. (I will leave it at that.)
Compact machines require a lot less care and feeding than enormous machines – perhaps not on a per kilowatt of capacity basis, but on a machine by machine basis. When I was in charge of an engineering department for a fully independent small reactor plant, my entire department was about 40 people and we operated and maintained that plant 24 hours per day for months at a time without any outside assistance. There was no need for fuel deliveries for incredibly long stretches of time – using 1970s vintage technology that was installed in the early 1980s, my last ship operated for about 2/3rds of every year until decommissioning in 1994 without ever have received any new fuel.
Just imagine having a similar machine in a small town of 1,000 – 20,000 people with a small portion of the town employed to operate and maintain the plant. That would be a situation of reliable, village-sized power that could operate with little dependence on the outside world.
These days, the US is building small modular reactors in just 3-4 years – in factory settings and in a confined space. There was a time when we could decide to fund and build packaged reactors for installation in remote places like Greenland or Antarctica and have the plant up and running in its designated place in less than two years. It is physically possible, though today’s regulatory environment makes it far more challenging to demonstrate that reality.
There are many reasons why I believe smaller reactors that can be operated by smaller teams in distributed power generation scenarios will solve many of the challenges faced by the very large machines built under the mantra of “economy of scale.” I am following through with that belief and investing 40-60 hours per week of my remaining professional career to make it a commercial reality. I work with some amazingly talented people in that effort, so it is not really much of a sacrifice or a burden. In fact, it is pretty darned exciting to get up for work most days.
Aside: Some antinuclear activists dismiss nuclear professionals as “shills” or as people who are engaged in merely protecting their jobs. I am proud of working in the nuclear industry and proud to be working on small modular reactor development. I do not want to brag, but if you doubt whether or not I could find a well-paying job doing something else, contact me. I will share my resume and you can judge for yourself. My experience in reviewing resumes for potential hires is that nearly every “nuke” I know can make the same claim of being smart and well-qualified for other kinds of employment. End Aside.
I guess I should get to the point. Despite the fact that many antinuclear activists have based a part of their opposition on the claim that nuclear power plants are too big, that they represent a trend towards centralization of power, and that they impose too large a burden on small communities, some people are never satisfied. At least a few of those very same people who criticized the weaknesses of very large plants are now trying to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about smaller plants. (I know, some of you will tell me that I should not be surprised.)
You can find an example of this kind of active campaigning against small reactors on Earth Island Journal in a post titled Don’t Mini-mize the Dangers of Nuclear Power. In that post, Gar Smith provides a list of all of the often repeated “major” accidents of the nuclear age – which is actually quite a reassuringly short list with few noted casualties. Here is a quote from the article:
The Fukushima disaster has severely hobbled the atomic industry’s hopes for a big-ticket nuclear renaissance. So the American Nuclear Society has proposed a mini-renaissance based on “Small Modular Reactors,” or SMRs. Cheaper, quicker to build, and small enough to fit in a garage, SMRs could power homes, factories, and military bases. South Carolina’s Savannah River National Laboratory hopes to start building SMRs at a New Mexico plant and is taking a lead role in a GE-Hitachi demonstration project.
Even as Japanese engineers were working to contain the radiation risks at Fukushima, an international SMR conference in South Carolina in April attracted representatives from Westinghouse, AREVA, GE, the International Atomic Energy Agency, China National Nuclear Corp., Iraq Energy Institute, the US Army, and many US utilities.
But SMRs still depend on designs that generate intense heat, employ dangerous materials (highly reactive sodium coolant), and generate nuclear waste. SMRs also retain all the risks associated with supplying, maintaining, safeguarding, and dismantling large nuclear reactors – only now those risks would be multiplied and decentralized.
The planet can’t afford nuclear energy – be it mega or mini. As Dave Brower observed 30 years ago: “Is the minor convenience of allowing the present generation the luxury of doubling its energy consumption every 10 years worth the major hazard of exposing the next 20,000 generations to this lethal waste?
In my opinion, the current experiences being endured in Japan due to a shortage of electrical power partially caused by stupid restrictions on restarting safe, intact nuclear power plants qualify as more than just minor inconveniences.
Modern society might be able to function without nuclear energy, but it would be a much dirtier, less safe and less prosperous world if we decided to abandon one of the best tools humans have ever developed. I do not want my children and grandchildren to live in a world where their options are so severely restricted by a lack of power. Heck – I do not want to live in such a world either. I like electricity that is available at the flip of a switch as often as I want to flip that switch.
I added the following comment:
Let’s make a deal. If you will stop trying to maximize fear of nuclear by spreading imaginary, “worst case” scenarios, perhaps us nuclear advocates will stop offending you by minimizing fears by spreading factual, real world numbers about our documented experiences in handing radiation and radioactive materials.
After all, humans have been working with radiation and radioactive materials for more than 100 years and we have done an incredible amount of study. We know pretty well what happens when humans are exposed to various levels of radiation – we know when it is very dangerous, when it is not so dangerous and when the risk sinks to levels below being worth worrying about.
Some of us also know that, like aspirin, arsenic and niacin, radiation is a natural component of our environment that is actually healthy in tiny doses because it stimulates adaptive responses.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Disclaimer – though I have a day job with The Babcock & Wilcox Company as part of the mPowerTM reactor development team, I do not speak for the company. Atomic Insights is my own creation and is separate from my employment.