Monday, May 17, 2010

Was the Advent of the Power Reactor Premature?

The Light Water Reactor has never been an unqualified success. It is perceived as dangerous by many people, the disposition of its spent fuel remains a matter of political controversy, and it is often alleged, quite wrongly, to be a useful nuclear proliferation tool. In addition the light water reactor has taken much criticism because building it in the size deemed most effective is extremely expensive, and takes a long time.

Many of the charges against the light water reactor are exaggerated or simply untrue. No one is his or her right mind would base a nuclear arms program on light water nuclear technology, and while light water reactor safety may be expensive, they are safe.

The once through fuel nuclear cycle leads to the supposed problem of nuclear waste. The anti-nuclear fanatics love to play games over the issue, charging that disposing of used nuclear fuel would lead to all forts of future hazards for the environment and the future of humanity, and then opposing any attempt to solve the issue. The basic problem with used nuclear fuel, is that over 99% of the energy in mined uranium is not tapped. The most common proposal to solve that problem involves the development of expensive fast breeders, that also posse potential safety issues, and are sure to draw the fire of the anti-proliferation crowd.

The Light Water Reactors have proven by now that they can be safely managed. This has been proven by the safety record of the American nuclear fleet, and by the post Three Mile Island record of the American Nuclear Industry. But was the American nuclear power industry safe enough between 1960's and 1980's? This is not an inconsiderable question because we have seen that reactor scientists in Oak Ridge ands Idaho were dissatisfied with the safety of American power reactors at that time. Although leadership of the Washington nuclear establishment discounted the scientists concerns, they did so for reasons that were in no way valid. Their argument's against the scientists complaints assumed conditions in the American Nuclear Industry which the political insiders knew to not be the case.

Thus AEC reactor czar Milton Shaw, AEC Commissioners Ramsey and Seaborg, and Powerful Congressman Chet Holifield all favored a rapid push toward nuclear power, arguing that its safety was assured and no further nuclear safety research was needed. They were wrong. The Navy had solved the safety problem of its Light Water Reactors, but the Much larger Civilian Light Water Reactors were in no wise as safe. The concerns of the reactor scientists were justified by the Three Mile Island accident. The Three Mile Island accident revealed serious safety issues including:
* No automatic reactor shut down when the reactor was unsafe to operate.
* No system to notify operators that important nuclear safety systems were off line.
* Operators could override safety systems when they started to operate.
* System instrumentation was so poorly designed and confusing that it failed to provide reactor staff with assistance in diagnosing the reactor problem.
* Reactor staff was poorly trained and mistakenly shut down back up safety system when it came on line.
The existence of these problems suggests that serious systematic problems existed in the nuclear power industry and the the NRC. Many of the problems were not immediately cured as an aftermath of the Three Mile Island Incident, and by 1985 the problems with the TVA reactor fleet and its management were so bad that the entire fleet was ordered shut down. TVA reactors required major repairs and revisions, and the last of the shut down reactor was not brought back into service until 2007.

The truth is that both the reactor designer/builders, and the reactor managers were not prepared for their tasks, and the NRC did not set rigorous safe reactor design and operation standards and begin to demand that they be meet until after Three Mile Island. Once it did, and signaled to the Nuclear Industry that it intended to enforce its standards, the Nuclear Industry responded and nuclear power became significantly more safe.

Given the history of nuclear power up to Three Mile Island, it would appear that the emergence of the American Nuclear power industry in the 1960's and 1970's was premature. in several respects.
The civilian reactor manufactures had not mastered safe reactor design.
* The NRC regulation of nuclear safety issues was inadequate.
* Reactor owners lacked nuclear management skills.
* Reactor operators were poorly trained.
Eventually, after Three Mile Island the reactor builders began to develop safer designs, the NRC set a strong system of safety standards, and strongly enforced them. Nuclear management gained understanding of its takes, and the skills to perform them, and nuclear operators were better trained.

There are two fundamental problems with this history. The first is that no one acknowledge the trajectory of nuclear safety history. That is the historical movement toward safer nuclear power plants. The apologists for nuclear power frequently ignore the immaturity of the nuclear power industry prior to Three Mile Island. The critics of the nuclear power industry consistently refuse to acknowledge how far the industry has come since Three Mile Island.

The second fundamental problem is that no one recognizes the deep relationship between nuclear safety and nuclear costs. This relationship was built into the light water reactor. The Navy adopted the light water reactor, not because it was cheap, but because it was useful. In fact the high cost of the Navy's reactor design has proven a long term impediment to the emergence of an al nuclear powered fleet. The Navy cannot afford to power all of its ships with reactors. Nuclear powered submarines are so much more useful that nuclear power on them is cost effective, and Aircraft Carriers are very expensive anyway.

No one realized it at the time, but the choice of the light water reactor wedded the world's nuclear power industry to an expensive technology. In 1960 there were no other options, but then the first nuclear era did not have to be rushed either.

In retrospective it seems clear that the emergence of the American Nuclear Power Industry should have occurred at a far slower pace. In addition the choice of the light water reactor as the primary electrical generation technology was also a mistake. More research could and should have been devoted to finding safer, lower cost nuclear options.


PaulC said...

Excellent article, I was just getting ready to get into the heart of it, when it ended. :(

Whats the alternative? Why is it better? What are its short comings? Why don't we use it?

Links would do. :D

Charles Barton said...

PaulC, Stay tuned, your questions will shortly be answered.

donb said...

Likely Charles Barton will cover this later, but we learned a lot from (perhaps) starting too early with nuclear reactors, using the light water design. We learned a lot about designs, materials, safety, operation, etc. While the start of nuclear power could have been delayed, there is something to be said for "shooting the designers and build something". Anything can be studied to death. Tremendous amounts of knowledge can be generated by "getting on with it" by building and operating something, even if it is less than perfect.

Fortunately, there was enough safety designed in to save the general public from disaster at Three Mile Island. Just about everything that could have been done wrong was done, and while the result was an economic disaster, it was a non-event regarding public safety. In a way, this is really a best-case scenario, as it forces the industry to carefully refine their designs and operating procedures (to avoid economic loss) while protecting the public.

Unfortunately, this same accident provided the antinuclear forces with a lot of fodder, and was yet one more force that caused work on advanced reactors to be delayed or halted.

The real mistake was shutting down the development of advanced reactors. Development should have proceeded while continuing to operate the existing fleet and even building more LWRs.

Fortunately, more and more of the general public is recognizing that we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels for the majority of energy. This has led to a renaissance of nuclear power, though with expensive (and safe) light water reactors. It has also led to a rise in renewables, which in large part are distracting us from a real need to concentrate on nuclear energy sources.


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