The Future of Nuclear Power

Governments around the world are rethinking nuclear energy

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Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

Steven Cherry: Hi, This is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s "This Week in Technology."

Until Fukushima, nuclear energy was coming out of a decades-long slump. A tally in January found 65 new nuclear power plants under construction in 15 countries. Only one of these is in the United States. Most of the new construction is in Asia. Still, nuclear power represents 20 percent of U.S. electricity capacity, with 104 plants currently operating.

Europe is far more dependent on nuclear power. In France, it accounts for more than three-quarters of all electricity, and in six other countries, it’s 40 percent or more. On March 14, Germany temporarily shut down the country’s seven oldest nuclear power plants. Switzerland has suspended its plans to build and replace aging plants and says it’s going to reassess safety standards at existing ones. The UK has ordered an official investigation into nuclear power. And a meeting of the European Energy Council decided to develop a "stress test for nuclear power plants" throughout the EU.

But elsewhere, the nuclear renaissance seems to be on track. Finland, which is building its fifth reactor and has approvals for two more, plans to continue these projects. Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey all still intend to build new nuclear power plants.

Post-3/11, some governments around the world seem to be rethinking nuclear energy. Even if new plants get built, will they be built differently? Entirely passive cooling systems have been designed—will they come to be required? What about spent fuel rods? The U.S. has debated a repository in the Nevada desert for more than 20 years—will it now get built?

My guest today by phone is Frank von Hippel. He’s a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. He has a Ph.D. and worked for 10 years in the field of elementary particle physics, and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. He’s now a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University and was codirector of the Program on Science and Global Security there. Frank, welcome to the podcast.

Frank Von Hippel: Well, thank you.

Steven Cherry: Frank, Japan is about as industrialized and disaster-ready a country as exists on the planet, and they barely averted a catastrophic release of radiation—twice, once for the reactors and once for the spent fuel pools. How freaked out are nuclear regulators in the U.S. by what happened in Japan?

Frank Von Hippel: They seem to be pretty relaxed as far as I can tell. They’re saying that they don’t think there’s any big problem here but they’re going to do a check in the light of what’s happened in Japan. They don’t seem to be… There’s no sign in the government of a German-type reaction here. In Germany they did apparently cancel the life extension that they had tentatively decided on for their reactors.

Steven Cherry: What about this idea—the EU idea of a stress test for plants?

Frank Von Hippel: Hard to know what that means. I would guess what it means is that they’re going to see following through accident sequences whether—if for example they lost diesel and external power, what would happen at one of their reactors. But I don’t know, stress obviously being some kind of accident initiator and with complications. That’s a standard analytical technique in the assessment of reactor safety, and they’re called fault-tree analysis, and they might just go through that exercise again.

Steven Cherry: What about regulations? Do you think we’ll see new ones or different ones?

Frank Von Hippel: In the U.S.?

Steven Cherry: Yeah.

Frank Von Hippel: At the moment, I don’t see any move in that direction. I actually would like to see some changes myself, and I’m going to try to resurface some proposals that my colleagues and I have made over the years.

Steven Cherry: What would you change?

Frank Von Hippel: Well, one lesson that we learned after Three Mile Island was that the containments might be overpressured, as they have been in Fukushima. And so we suggested that—it wasn’t our original suggestion; it was originally made by some nuclear engineers at UCLA in 1977—we suggested that a massive filter be retrofitted into U.S. reactors. That if in fact this kind of overpressure situation happened, that it could be released through this filter that would trap most of the radioactivity before it was released into the atmosphere. And that idea was picked up in France and Germany, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t think it was necessary.

Steven Cherry: Now, does that add a great deal of expense to the plant?

Frank Von Hippel: No. The versions in France are just big barrels of sand basically, you know, very big barrels of sand with the steam coming out of the containment would go through the sand and then after being filtered go up through the plant stack.

Steven Cherry: Now, what about passive cooling? You know, I understand Westinghouse has a design and they’re building some plants in China. Water condenses and drops back down within the plant and it reduces the pressure and lowers the temperature.

Frank Von Hippel: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a very interesting approach and it does look good. I think it really has to be analyzed. One colleague of mine brought up the point that when you’re gravity feeding water, the pressure is much less than when you’re pumping it and in the ’70s there was a great concern about even pump water getting into the pressure vessel of a reactor if steam was rushing the other direction. It was called steam blending, and I don’t know whether they’ve done that—I haven’t gotten into it deeply enough to see what kind of analyses they’ve done of those problems and that the passive systems would really work.

Steven Cherry: You know, what should be done about the spent fuel pools? First, let me ask you, Do U.S. plants store them right on site the way the Japanese do?

Frank Von Hippel: They do. It’s very similar. In fact, of course this was a GE plant and we have quite a few of those over here. And you know I’ve worked on this subject as well, and one of the concerns with these pools are that they’re four stories high—four stories above the ground. The bottom is four stories above the ground, so if there was a crack or a hole in the bottom, then they would drain out. The concern, I mean, you can’t do much about that in existing plants. You could do something about it in new plants, but the suggestion that some colleagues and I made there was that these pools were originally designed to hold about five years of fuel. Today they hold about 20 years of fuel, and the result is it’s packed much more densely. If you did lose water, the air cooling would be much less effective.

Steven Cherry: Now, you know, the long-term solution, the ideal solution for the industry I guess, would be a permanent repository.

Frank Von Hippel: That’s right, and in fact that’s why the pools have been this packed and that the pools are full, that they are having to put the typically 20- to 30-year-old fuel into dry casks. And we do have to move forward on a repository, but as long as these plants are operating, in my view the fuel that’s in dry casks is the least dangerous fuel at the reactor site. The most dangerous fuel is in the reactor, you know, with loss of coolant it would melt down very quickly or release its volatile radio nucleates like what we’ve seen in Japan. And then comes the spent fuel in the pools which is, you know, some of it which can be quite hot as it was recently discharged from the reactor, and then finally this relatively cool fuel in the dry casks. So we do need to move on. We can’t leave this fuel in 65 different sites around the country indefinitely, but we do have time to work the problem and do a good job.

Steven Cherry: Let me just step back for a second and ask you a very broad question. I mean, Japan has had an earthquake, a tsunami, thousands and thousands of people have died, you know, entire towns have been destroyed and none of that was because of the nuclear problems. It seems though its occupied people’s minds front and center and there just seems to be this mind-set about nuclear power that just makes it really hard for people to get behind it. On the other hand, you know, we’re running out of oil, and there’s all this uranium we could be using. We’ll run out of it eventually, but we have quite a bit of it right now, and we’re worried about global warming and nuclear power is a carbon-free source of electricity. Which of these sort of overall mind-sets do you think is going to win out?

Frank Von Hippel: That’s hard to say. I think you’re quite right that, you know, I just wrote something in fact according to a recent study I think coal plants with fine particle solution are killing about 20 000 people a year in this country, which of course the one big action we’ve had before Fukushima was Cherynobyl where the estimates are it will, over the lives of the people who were exposed, cause 10 000 extra cancer deaths. But somehow the nuclear action is especially disruptive, I think, because of people’s fears of radiation cancer and such, there is obviously a deep psychological issue there. But with regard to the role of nuclear power in the future, I think in the U.S. at the moment, for a while we’re going to be limited to the nuclear power plants we have, because it’s so expensive, and as long as we don’t have a price on carbon here, I think we’re not going to build many of them. We’re going to build I guess in the near term, probably mostly natural-gas-fired power plants. The Department of Energy Information Administration projects that in the next 25 years the U.S. will complete five new nuclear reactors, nuclear power reactors, to add to the fleet of 104 that we have, of course some of which will probably get retired in that same period. So I think the issue, really, for the U.S. now is whether we keep the existing reactors operating, whether we make them as safe as we can. In the rest of the world it’s quite different. You talked about the nuclear renaissance—if you look at the IEA’s numbers, construction has begun on 43 new nuclear power plants in the last five years: 27 of those are in China. I think the next is six in Russia and four in South Korea. For the moment, you know the future of nuclear power, of the renaissance, is in China and the regulators in China have been very nervous about that they’re going too fast, and in fact I gather that they have put a halt to new project, to new starts. That still means that they have 27 new nuclear power plants after construction.

Steven Cherry: It seems like the countries, that the countries that are the most worried are the countries that depend on nuclear the least, so maybe necessity is the mother of expediency.

Frank Von Hippel: [laughs] I didn’t quite understand that.

Steven Cherry: [laughs] That’s okay. Maybe it’s a good place to leave it, anyway.

Frank Von Hippel: Okay.

Steven Cherry: Thank you very much.

Frank Von Hippel: My pleasure.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking today with Frank von Hippel, a professor of public and international Affairs at Princeton University, about what Japan’s nuclear crisis means for a nuclear power industry that had been on the rise. For IEEE Spectrum’s "This Week in Technology," I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 22 March 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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