Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nuclear Power--all stop or full steam?

Given the events at Japan's Fukushima reactor, many folks, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said that we need to take a step back and reconsider the entire question of nuclear power.  I intend to offer a contrary view--rather than slowing things down, we need to speed things up. 

The problems at Fukushima occurred because the earthquake and tsunami knocked out the backup electrical generators needed to cool the reactors (when they can't provide their own electricity for cooling), which led to the partial meltdown.  This is because the reactors used need electricity to cool the reactor, even after it has been shut down.  Because the generators were down, the reactors could not be cooled, and hence the partial meltdown.  The reactors at Fukushima use an older design of the Boiling Water Reactor.  Newer designs use a passive cooling system, which can cool the reactor even without electric energy.  However, most plants, both in Japan and the US, use the older design.

If we decide that the current design is unsafe, we have several options.  One is to mothball the current plants and replace them with something new.  The problem is that the only thing we can replace them with, that has the same energy output and baseload capacity, is coal.  For all the hype, energy sources such as wind and solar don't have the ability to match current needs.  Much more likely what will happen is that the current plants will continue to operate, but will not be allowed to expand, and new plants will be put on hold.  The problem is that these plants will continue to use the older reactors, which are just as vulnerable as the Fukushima plant.  And as they age without being replaced, they will just become more vulnerable.

I think the smartest move, if we believe that the vulnerability to earthquakes is a problem that must be solved, is to streamline the process for getting the new designs approved, and to push plants towards upgrading to the new reactor designs while making it easier for them to do so.  This would allow the older reactors to be phased out while maintaining capacity.

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