What Next for Nuclear?
IEEE Spectrum asked the experts how to build a safer and stronger nuclear industry
Editor's Note: This is part of the IEEE Spectrum special report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power.
Q: Can the nuclear industry regain the public trust after the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident?
A: Our June 2011 survey found that support from people who live closest to U.S. reactors is still very strong: Eighty percent favor the use of nuclear energy. These people typically have a stronger knowledge base, and the trend we've always seen in our industry is that the more people know about nuclear energy, the more they support it.
The polling data show that we have lost some support for nuclear power, but it hasn't gone to the opposition—it's gone to neutral. Many people are doing a reassessment of nuclear energy. So the industry has to be as forthcoming and transparent as possible in providing information that will help people with that assessment.
Q: Are sweeping new regulations required to keep nuclear plants safe?
A: The more urgent need is for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to strictly enforce existing safety regulations. Two examples are rules governing fire protection and releases of radioactively contaminated liquids. The NRC has a list of 47 nuclear power reactors in the United States that do not meet fire protection regulations. The agency doesn't care. The NRC has a list of even more nuclear power reactors that have illegally leaked radioactively contaminated liquids. The agency has done nothing about it. The NRC cannot watch plant owners limbo beneath its safety bar until Americans die. The NRC must enforce regulations now to prevent that future disaster.
Q: What are nuclear regulators' top priorities following Fukushima?
A: We're focusing on things we can do in the near term to make physical improvements at the plants. We're likely to upgrade seismic and flood protections. And there may also be new requirements in response to the issue that was at the heart of what happened at Fukushima: There was a very long time period without any on-site or off-site electrical power. You need to have an electrical power system that's designed to withstand a very large event caused by natural forces. All U.S. plants are now capable of operating between 4 and 8 hours without any off-site power supply, but we want to be sure they're capable of operating for much longer periods of time.
Q: If governments demand safety upgrades for new nuclear plants, will utilities still find it economically viable to build them?
A: I don't think regulatory requirements are going to have an impact on new nuclear construction—I think it depends more on the price of natural gas. A lot of utilities that were eager to enter the nuclear field five years ago are now looking at natural gas prices and asking, "Is nuclear the right way to go at this point in time?" Those decisions really depend on the economics around other alternatives for generating power.
—Martin Virgilio, deputy executive director for reactor preparedness programs at the NRC
Q: Is there one action governments can take now to make new reactors financially viable?
A: If we want to limit CO2 emissions in this country, then the government should introduce a price for carbon. That would drive up the cost of burning natural gas and might end up stimulating demand for nuclear power plants, because they're the largest source of carbon-free electricity we have. The United States should do away with all the Department of Energy loan guarantees for nuclear, provide a very clear policy regarding the price of carbon, and then let the utility industry decide how to adapt.
—Chris Gadomski, analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Q: How can international entities ensure safety in countries that plan to join the nuclear power club soon?
A: For operators that are moving toward fuel loading in their first reactor, the World Association of Nuclear Operators offers pre-start-up peer reviews. This effort is focused particularly on countries without previous nuclear power experience. The transition between construction and operation at a nuclear power plant is a delicate period, and many incidents (most notably, Three Mile Island) occur during the early months of plant operation.
Q: What about ensuring nuclear safety in China, which is building reactors at a rapid rate?
A: It would be a mistake to assume that China is less concerned about nuclear safety than are other nations. China's emphasis on safety was illustrated by the government's immediate response to Fukushima: Five days after the Fukushima accident began, the State Council of the People's Republic of China announced that it would suspend approvals for new nuclear power stations and conduct comprehensive safety checks of all nuclear projects.
Last year the International Atomic Energy Agency carried out a two-week review of China's regulatory framework for nuclear safety. The IAEA made a number of recommendations but concluded that the review had provided "confidence in the effectiveness of the Chinese safety regulatory system and the future safety of the vast expanding nuclear industry."
—John Ritch, director general of the WNA
Q: How have the industry's R&D priorities changed after Fukushima?
A: One area that clearly needs attention involves the industry's understanding of external events that impact more than one reactor on a site, and the consequences of those events. Fukushima was a clear demonstration that you can't always rely on equipment and functionality from a neighboring unit to support the unit in trouble.
Q: Will the Fukushima accident cause companies to reevaluate their newest reactor designs? Is there a new urgency to develop advanced, Generation IV reactors?
A: The entire nuclear industry is evaluating the impact of the Fukushima event on reactor designs. Westinghouse will incorporate lessons learned into its AP1000 design (a Generation III+ reactor design) when an industry consensus is achieved. There will be no significant change in our direction and no new urgency to pursue development of Generation IV designs. These Generation IV designs are typically considered to be advanced reactors that use either gas or liquid metals as reactor coolant instead of water. The commercialization of these Generation IV reactors is not feasible in the near term, as many technical challenges need to be addressed.
—Ed Cummins, vice president of new plant technology for Westinghouse Electric Co.
Q: In the United States, there's already talk of extending plants' operating licenses to 80 years. What are the challenges in renewing the licenses of aging plants?
A: There are many technical issues to examine in determining whether a second license extension is safe and economically feasible. Decisions will have to made, for example, on which pieces of equipment have to be replaced, which can be upgraded, and which can continue operating. You can replace many things in a nuclear power station—pumps, motors, valves, pipe work. The concrete containment, however, is pretty tough to replace. So we're working to understand the aging mechanisms of concrete and what the degradation process may be, and then, if necessary, we can develop inspection techniques. So far, we haven't found anything that would be a technical showstopper.
—Neil Wilmshurst, vice president of the nuclear sector at the EPRI
Q: What's the best solution to the nuclear waste problem?
A: Compared to keeping waste on the surface indefinitely, putting it 500 meters underground is much more safe. Establishing a permanent repository is more a political than a technical problem. Congress tried to force a spent-fuel repository on Nevada, but forcing a host community has not worked in any democracy. As the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future has observed in its draft report, "a new consent-based approach to siting" is required. This approach has been adopted successfully by Sweden and Finland and is quickly becoming the standard approach.