The future of US nuclear power after Japan

Posted by: Phineas on March 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm

**Posted by Phineas

Reason Magazine has a good article online looking at the the implications for the just-reviving nuclear power industry in the wake of the Sendai earthquake and tidal wave. After reviewing the damage at the Fukushima plants (they actually withstood the temblor surprisingly well, but the tidal wave that killed power to the cooling systems was the back-breaker) and the situations of nuclear plants in the seismically active American West (including California’s San Onofre), Ron Bailey examines newer technology that would make for safer reactors, even in the event of a huge natural disaster:

One hopeful possibility is that the Japanese crisis will spark the development and deployment of new and even safer nuclear power plants. Already, the Westinghouse division of Toshiba has developed and sold its passively safe AP1000 pressurized water reactor. The reactor is designed with safety systems that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for human intervention and operate using natural forces like gravity instead of relying on diesel generators and electric pumps. Until the recent events in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was expected to give final approval to the design by this fall despite opposition by some anti-nuclear groups.

One innovative approach to using nuclear energy to produce electricity safely is to develop thorium reactors. Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive element, which, unlike certain isotopes of uranium, cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction. However, thorium can be doped with enough uranium or plutonium to sustain such a reaction. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) have a lot to recommend them with regard to safety. Fueled by a molten mixture of thorium and uranium dissolved in fluoride salts of lithium and beryllium at atmospheric pressure, LFTRs cannot melt down (strictly speaking the fuel is already melted).

Because LFTRs operate at atmospheric pressure, they are less likely than conventional pressurized reactors to spew radioactive elements if an accident occurs. In addition, an increase in operating temperature slows down the nuclear chain reaction, inherently stabilizing the reactor. And LFTRs are designed with a salt plug at the bottom that melts if reactor temperatures somehow do rise too high, draining reactor fluid into a containment vessel where it essentially freezes.

While recent research shows that the United States has far greater reserves of coal, oil, and gas than previously thought, nuclear is still the cleanest economical alternative energy source around and has to be a crucial part of any coherent* national energy strategy. Rather than react in panic (as we did after Three mile Island) and again cripple the development of nuclear power, we must recognize that there is no risk-free magic solution and should instead draw the appropriate technological, engineering, and disaster-planning lessons from Japan’s trauma, apply them to our own situation, and keep on a rational path toward energy self-sufficiency.

Our future prosperity and national security depend on it.

*While I give Obama props for sticking by nuclear power, his energy policy is anything but coherent or rational.

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

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6 Responses to “The future of US nuclear power after Japan”


  1. david foster says:

    Unfortunately, there are so many people who view anything having to do with nuclear energy as a form of black magic that rational discussion is very difficult.

    It would be interesting to look at why France has been able to implement a rational nuclear strategy without it being derailed by superstitious fears by the US has not.

    Certainly, whatever countries are able to achieve and maintain lower-cost electricity, by whatever means, are going to have a huge competitive advantage, not only in manufacturing but also in other fields (data centers, for example)

  2. david foster says:

    That second paragraph was supposed to be:

    It would be interesting to look at why France has been able to implement a rational nuclear strategy without it being derailed by superstitious fears WHILE the US has not.

  3. Old Goat says:

    There was an article I had read a while back about “backyard” nuclear stations. The idea, which actually has already been developed, is to decentralize the national grid set up in favor of neighborhood nuclear plants. These are small nuclear run generators that would provide power to a small community.

    Cost would be fairly low, due to the size, and regulation of the small plants wouldn’t require many workers to over see it. It would reduce costs for electrical energy to less than half of what people currently pay for their electric, would eliminate large area black outs, make it almost impossible for terrorists or other enemies of the states to shut down the power grid for nefarious reasons. The nuclear plants costs would also go down over time as they are paid for.

    Unfortunately, due to Japan’s problems, which are sounding worse than originally thought, mainly due to spent nuclear rods, the anti-nuclear crowd will grow.

    Far too many are fearful of nuclear energy of any type. The problem probably stems from them equating anything nuclear to the bombs and weapons. The Japanese disaster has increased fears, and the media is playing its role as well.

  4. Carlos says:

    I’m just a po’ ole country boy, and it was a while before I could understand what nuclear energy was all about, but that was back in the 70s.

    I may not have the understanding that the engineers who design that stuff have, but I think I have an adequate understanding. I just can’t help but think, though, that the anti-nuclear crowd is either willfully ignorant or just using that as an excuse to cover another agenda.

    Gosh, could that be? That would mean that they are lying to us po’ dumb folk, and that’s never, ever happened in history.

    Has it?

  5. Glenn Bergen says:

    Well, it is an emotional issue. We’ve already got anti-nuke protestors in southern Colorado demonstrating against the proposed construction of a nuclear plant. I don’t know how to generate a factual, rational discussion with people overreacting to the “China Syndrome”.

  6. Glenn Bergen says:

    My BAD, I forgot, Carl Sagan once made the observation in one of his books, that 95% of Americans are scientifically illiterate.