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The Nuclear Litmus Test

As the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster unfolds, here is the emerging litmus test:

Who is rooting for the success of those who are working to contain this disaster, averting the worst from happening, and who is rooting for failure?

Beware those in the second category, the ones who are secretly rooting for failure, who are hoping that the Japanese experience will drive a stake through the heart of the “nuclear power menace” once and for all.

The real question is whether we are willing and ready to enter an era of energy abundance – with all the benefits that brings, or whether a combination of fear and naiveté will lead us into an era of serious energy deprivation.   Without question, a period of serious energy deprivation virtually guarantees poverty, social chaos and war.

Consider a thought experiment:

The year is 2041.  In the developed world, fossil fuels have been retired from routine use in electricity generation, transportation, even heating.  These developments were driven by a combination of political instability in Middle Eastern oil producing areas and a general concern about the environmental impact of burning hydrocarbons. All in all, the age is one of energy abundance.  Crops are being harvested and delivered.  The world living standard has improved from the dark days of 2011.  Nuclear mishaps are rare, leaks of radioactivity almost unheard of, and repairs and emergencies are handled by robots.

Assume that this optimistic sketch actually takes place.  Can anyone realistically imagine that any of the weather-dependent energy technologies of 2011, solar panels and collectors and wind turbines among them, could ever adequately replace the retired “fossil” fuels by 2041? There is only one “clean burning” technology that could fill the “fossil” fuel gap in the next thirty years.

It is nuclear power.

A footnote to the 2041 scenario:

The electric powered transportation economy is made possible without fossil fuels, by using hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen supplies are routinely generated by Generation 4 nuclear reactors using water as the raw material. Nuclear mishaps are rare, leaks of radioactivity almost unheard of, and repairs and emergencies are handled by robots. Cancer deaths from exposure to petro-chemicals and combustion byproducts have been reduced dramatically over 2011 rates.

But can we get there from here?

Not a pound of uranium or plutonium need be mined for the next several centuries.  The nuclear weapons stockpiles in the USA alone could power the world’s energy needs for centuries to come.

No radical or unproven technologies need to be developed.  The working models and detailed designs for safe nuclear power and waste disposal have already been developed.  They are simply awaiting deployment.  The reactors that failed in Japan (under an extraordinary perfect storm of calamitous circumstances) were an obsolete technology that should have been retired a few years ago, and – as a result of the events in Japan – will soon be retired or radically upgraded.

The water cooled reactors built in the 1970’s with 1960’s technologies that require elaborate and fragile processes to achieve a safe reactor shutdown in an emergency are effectively obsolete.  The cheaper, Mark 1 version of this technology, marketed by GE to Japan and other customers in early 70’s cut corners on containment structures.  As a result of a biblical scale natural disaster, we are seeing the consequences of neglect.

New York times, March 16, 2011

General Electric Mark I Reactor’s Design flaws

“In the United States, 23 reactors at 16 locations use the Mark 1 design, including the Oyster Creek plant in central New Jersey, the Dresden plant near Chicago and the Monticello plant near Minneapolis.

“G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.

“American regulators began identifying weaknesses very early on.”


Unlike the primitive reactors that the Soviet’s used at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, the Japanese reactors did not depend on a human operator to initiate the core shutdown by inserting the damping rods that quell the fission reaction.  Even in the 1970’s technology, the damping rods are designed to drop into place in an emergency, initiating a full reactor shutdown.   But curtailing active nuclear fission isn’t quite enough.  The fuel rods are still very hot.  In this design, they still need active cooling by the circulating water for many days before the spent rods can be safely stored.  When the power went out on the Mark 1 reactors, the primary water pumps went down and a heat build up began….

Science News 3-14-11

Link –

“As planned, backup diesel generators kicked in after the monster earthquake and continued to pump water in to cool the reactor cores. But when a tsunami swept across the Japanese coast about an hour later, the wave disabled the backup generators. The next backup system then kicked in: battery-powered pumps.

“But the battery pumps could not keep up with the residual heat still coming from the cores of several Daiichi reactors. Excess heat caused steam to build up in the system, which operators eventually vented into the environment along with low levels of radioactive elements like cesium and iodine.”


These failures were of 1970’s reactor technology, essentially obsolete.  Generation 3 reactor designs do a much better job of shutting themselves down and bypassing this sort of cooling pump failure scenario.

In the opinion of responsible experts, the currently working 1970’s generation nuclear reactors should be retired from use as soon as practicable, unless additional layers of redundant emergency shutdown and cooling shutdown procedures are installed.  Not coincidently, the German government has just shut down its old model (pre-1980) reactors.

Meantime the Chinese and Indian governments are still committed to the deployment of the next generation nuclear reactors.  The logic is simple and rational.  Given the problematic future of petroleum and natural gas energy supplies, there is no other realistic choice for growing economies at present.  Both governments are faced with the necessity of sustaining economic growth against the alternative of stagnation, starvation and civil war.

The USA has a significant opportunity here:  If we press forward with the aggressive development of Generation 3 and 4 nuclear technologies, we are part of the future.  The future belongs to smaller, passive-failsafe, more efficient reactors with a common platform allowing technicians to seamlessly move from one reactor to the next without retraining.

Among the pending generation 3 and 4 designs:

“Another, more innovative US advanced reactor is smaller – 600 MWe – and has passive safety features (its projected core damage frequency is more than 100 times less than today’s NRC requirements).  The Westinghouse AP600 gained NRC final design certification in 1999 (AP = Advanced Passive).”

“South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) was being developed …with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries … [and] draws on German expertise.  It aims for a step change in safety, economics and proliferation resistance.  Production units would be 165 MWe. …. “helium is passed through a water-cooled pre-cooler and intercooler before being returned to the reactor vessel.”

“Performance includes great flexibility in loads (40-100%), with rapid change in power settings.  Power density in the core is about one tenth of that in a light water reactor, and if coolant circulation ceases the fuel will survive initial high temperatures while the reactor shuts itself down – giving inherent safety.”


I should note that helium in unique among reactor coolants because, as a simple element, it cannot be made radioactive.

Given these and other options, we are entitled to ask:  Why the delay in modernization?

  • The first level answer obvious – people are afraid of nuclear power and the Japanese disaster has only made matters worse.
  • The second level answer is a lack of intelligent, candid, credible leadership.
  • The third level answer is that these things require long lead times and the electorate has little appetite for long term planning.  [See the leadership gap problem above.]

But none of these considerations have deterred the Chinese and the Indians, not to mention the South Africans and others.

The US is an acute state of political paralysis on the subject.  There are fervently irrational environmentalists whose opposition to nuclear power represents at most 15% of the electorate, but whose strident voices account for 67% of all the noise.  Their stance has distinct flavor of a fundamentalist religious rant.  A recent email exchange will illustrate:

Me to my environmentalist correspondent:

You seem obviously unalterably convinced that the whole nuclear energy exercise is a dangerously deadly dead end.  But, if you are so inclined, I’d invite you to do your own research on the Generation 3 and 4 designs, especially the “pebble bed” reactor models under development.

I suspect that you and I would have no real argument about the dangers of radiation exposure.  But all risks are balanced against other risks, no? Solar panels are toxic.  Coal is toxic.  Dams are damaging to the environment.  Natural gas causes pollution.

Coal health hazards

Natural gas health hazards

Solar panel toxins

Gasoline toxins

The Huffington Post is not a terribly reliable source for nuclear policy analysis.

By the way, starvation is toxic.

There is no completely safe source of large scale energy production, and no relatively safe energy technology that cannot be mishandled to the point that it produces unacceptable consequences.

The environmentalist’s reply to me”

No, I have heard all I need to hear about the new generation nukes. Feeble, pointless, and will never happen. The only ones promoting it are the ones who would get jobs or grants from it. And I have heard the same arguments about risks and have answered these many times in debates and articles. They aren’t worth the time of day.


The deeper roots of our policy paralysis are in the republican – democrat standoff.

The republicans have avoided being infected with excessive nuclear-phobia (many pointing out the US Navy’s long standing successful reliance on atomic reactors to power its ships), but remain are split on the core policy issues because of the necessarily heavy government financial and regulatory involvement that the industry requires.

It is no coincidence that France, having adopted nuclear power technologies developed in the USA (not far from where I grew up), was able to quickly implement the conversion because it had a socialist government.

The democrats, for the moment, are completely in the thrall of the extremist environmental wing of their party.

One might think that the time is ripe for a national security-driven consensus, the energy-independence conservatives allying with the global warming avoidance liberals on a generation 3 nuclear option.

But that requires public education and knowledgeable, courageous leadership.  Need I say more?


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