Though I sometimes suffer from the blues, I am not crazy — I swear. Even though I am just a guy who often blogs in my PJs, I’m also pretty sure that I am not a nobody. In fact, none of us are nobodies, we are all somebody to our friends, families and ourselves.
Therefore, my stomach tightens when someone like Van Jones asserts that “no body wants a nuclear plant in their backyard.” Perhaps it is because I have lived for several months at a time — 11 times — with a nuclear propulsion plant sealed up in the same 425 foot long steel tube that I occasionally called “home”. Maybe is because I have lived in or visited a number of towns that already have a nuclear plant in their figurative backyard.
I also just returned from a meeting in another town — Idaho Falls, ID — where nearly every resident would vote to host a new nuclear power plant. The state’s Lieutenant Governor spoke at that meeting and essentially told the assembled audience full of vendors, suppliers, academics, and operators to “come to Idaho” and build.
The residents of Idaho Falls, a town that is on the border of a place that was once known as the National Reactor Testing Station, are comfortable with nuclear energy because they know nuclear energy. The Idaho National Laboratory proudly reminds visitors that it has been the site of 52 nuclear reactors during its 60 year history.
Idaho Falls residents have personally experienced many of nuclear energy’s positives and negatives. Some of them have been around long enough to have first hand memories of the response and investigation of the only fatal nuclear reactor accident that ever took place in the United States. That accident at the SL-1 occurred when a marginally trained operator on a reactor built and operated with a politically constrained budget pulled too hard on a sticky control rod and caused a steam explosion. Some of them are involved in the current clean up effort and recognize that many past practices were not well thought out. Some recall early experiments like the very first production of electricity from a nuclear fission reactor, lighting up ARCO, Idaho in June 1955 or purposely ejecting control rods at BORAX to find out how much damage a destroyed reactor might cause.
Too few of the residents have experienced one of the biggest positives about nuclear energy, its ability to provide as much or as little emission-free energy as anyone could need or want. Idaho Falls itself has never been powered by a fission power plant, though EBR-II used to provide about half of the electricity used by the entire Idaho National Lab complex.
However, when a substantial number of the town’s residents gathered at their historic Colonial Theater on October 30 to watch Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise, they cheered with pride when the film turned its attention to their home territory. They paid close attention as the film told the story of Chuck Till and the effort that he led for a decade to develop the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), a sodium cooled fast reactor that was intelligently designed with several evolutionary features worth a brief mention.
- It used a large pool of sodium rather than a piping system to move coolant.
- It used double walled tubes in the steam generator.
- It used a metal alloy fuel.
- The project also included development of a fuel recycling method that, while still not perfect, addressed many of the issues associated with the first generation aqueous reprocessing method first developed to isolate virtually pure Pu-239 for explosive uses.
Those features combined to form a complete system that demonstrated — by physical testing — that it could withstand a complete loss of all power without any damage. That was the initiating event that led to the memorable core melts and hydrogen explosions at some of the units at Fukushima Daiichi.
EBR-II, the power plant part of the Integral Fast Reactor project, produced reliable electricity for 30 years; it was a demonstration plant, not a “bread-board” prototype. The IFR project also came close to showing that the system could recycle material that other reactors discharged as “waste” and that it could perform that task without producing any material that would be even as useful for weapons as the low grade uranium ore that is distributed throughout the world.
Of course, the Idaho Falls audience for Pandora’s Promise also knew enough of their history to be saddened by the politically driven decision, announced by President Clinton in 1994, to remove funding from all nuclear reactor research, including the IFR. I was sitting close enough to Chuck Till in the audience that I heard several people come up to him after the film’s showing to console him about the tragedy of having his program halted just when it was getting close to final success.
Aside: During the Wolf Blitzer discussion above, Robert Stone mentioned the recent letter signed by four climate scientists admonishing the leaders of the environmental community for their steadfast opposition to nuclear energy. Van Jones defensively states that it is not the environmental community’s fault that nuclear energy is not succeeding and that he thought all of them would welcome the kind of advanced reactor technology that Stone has described, if it existed.
Like Joe Romm, Jones seems to be forgetting that it was focused political action — driven partially by the leadership of major groups claiming the “environmental” title — that led President Clinton to declare that nuclear energy research and development was so unnecessary that it should be zeroed out in the federal budget. It is impossible to perform ground-breaking, paradigm-changing, business-disrupting, fundamental research with no money. It can take decades to recover from that kind of budget decision. End Aside.
Getting back to my assertion that many of the people who know the most about nuclear energy would be happy to host new facilities in their virtual backyard, I would also like to point Mr. Jones to 2013 survey results from Bisconti Research, Inc. conclusively demonstrating that the people who live the closest to nuclear energy facilities remain the people who are the most supportive of the technology.
Some people whose thinking seems to align with Mr. Jones will immediately dismiss those survey results by stating that obviously the people who live closest to the facilities have a vested interest in the continued success of the facilities, but I’ll respond by reminding detractors that people who raise their families closest to the facilities are also the people who bear the most “risk” and who have the most detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the technology. Nuclear professionals and their families are generally pretty bright, risk-averse people that understand the concept that all decisions must be made by balancing risk and reward. The survey results show that they have decided the rewards substantially outweigh any risks.
Now, I’ll bring it home, literally. I live in one of the most nuclear friendly areas in the United States, greater Lynchburg, VA. This very pleasant town, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has been the home of world-class nuclear power plant designers and builders for more than 50 years. It hosts the largest North American offices for Areva and it’s one of several technical centers for The Babcock & Wilcox Company.
A few miles west of downtown Lynchburg, B&W recently built an Integral System Test (IST) facility to test its latest power plant design, the B&W mPowerTM Reactor. The Center for Advanced Engineering Research (CAER) that hosts the IST is currently the only building — other than a fire station — in a fully developed commercial park that was initially constructed at least a half a decade ago.
I recently drove around that park and saw that at least one of the numerous vacant parcels is a little more than 40 acres in size. That number caught my attention; it is almost exactly the right size to support a two unit B&W mPower station that could provide 360 MW of emission free electricity. The project would be at least a quintuple play win for the local area.
- It would help Virginia reduce its need to import electricity from neighboring states. Currently, my home state produces about 50% of the electricity that we use.
- It would provide good jobs in an area where traditional employment power houses like tobacco farming, furniture manufacturing and textile production have been decimated.
- It would demonstrate a wonderful principle taken from the high tech industry and allow B&W to show that it is willing to “eat its own dog food”. That would help convince others that they are ready to stand behind their new mPower reactor technology.
- It would help fill up a beautiful, fully developed commercial park with supplier companies that could see their products in use, allowing them the opportunity for rapid refinements.
- It would allow the plant designers to have easy, routine access to the site where their ideas are turning into physical structures, systems and components. It is hard to describe how important that could be for ensuring that the design is evolved to maturity as quickly as possible.
One of the many reasons that I decided to leave my former employment with the B&W mPower reactor design team is that my suggestions to pursue this possibility were not taken very seriously by the company leadership. They are smart people working on a great idea, but most of them are very conservative thinkers who are constrained by having been beat up too many times by vocal minorities that claim that no one likes nuclear energy.
I think they might have been afraid to take the time to ask their neighbors if they would be excited to host the construction of the very first B&W mPower right here in greater Lynchburg. Well, I am not afraid because I am pretty sure that the answer will be, sure, build our machine in our back yard.
By the way, not only do I live less than 20 minutes away from the site I am talking about, I happen to know that the primary reactor designer lives within a couple of miles of the CAER facility. Maybe he will visit this post and testify about his acceptance of my suggested course of action.
Correction: (November 6, 2013 0831) Based on a comment from a well-informed reader, the post has been modified to indicate that Lynchburg is the home to Areva’s largest North American offices. Areva’s headquarters are now located in Charlotte, NC.