March 20, 2011

The problem with nuclear

Colin Read: Everybody's Business

---- — Let me begin by stating that I will not make a categorical statement about the dangers of nuclear power.

Obviously, nuclear accidents anywhere should concern us. Our thoughts and prayers rest with the Japanese people as they face problems stemming from recent earthquakes and a tsunami.

Given the potential tragedies, I understand the urge to shy away from nuclear power. People believe it is the right thing to do for the right reasons. In reality, quite the opposite may be true.

If houses were catching fire spontaneously, we would figure out how to make them safe. If cars spontaneously fell apart at high speed, we would make them safe. What do we do when our fear, unfamiliarity and bafflement with nuclear power prevents us from creating much better nuclear power plant designs? We get Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, now, the plight facing Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan.

You see, these problem plants were, or are, based on designs from half a century ago. By the time these plants were built, they were already obsolete. Since then, few of the new designs have been built in Russia or Japan. And none of the new and much more intrinsically safe designs have gone into production in the United States.

The old designs are inherently inefficient and unstable. Their method of fission creates heat that causes even more fission. Hence, they are prone to runaway and potential meltdown, unless constantly cooled. Of course, when everything is running correctly, heat production creates steam by design to run the turbines that power 20 percent of our domestic energy needs.

If cooling pumps fail on these older designs, though, the process accelerates and meltdown can occur. In anticipation of failures, the United States mandates containment to a greater degree than was mandated in Russia or Japan in the 1970s.

However, engineers have created new designs that are 100 times more efficient than the older designs. Their efficiency allows them to keep much smaller amounts of nuclear isotopes on hand to create an equivalent amount of power. The nuclear structures can be much smaller, more robust and 3,000 times safer, too. And, the newest designs can actually consume as fuel the legacy fission byproducts that are stored in waste stockpiles at current nuclear plants.

These new designs also transform radioactive waste with half-lives of tens of thousands of years to those with half lives of dozens of years and fewer radioactive and inert byproducts. They will consume much of the stockpiled nuclear waste for which we do not yet have a solution.

Finally, these new plants are stable.

Instability in legacy designs occurs because the higher heat caused by a failing coolant system actually accelerates the fission process and generates even more heat. Cooling system integrity is essential to prevent a meltdown of the core in legacy designs.

On the other hand, new plants, called fourth generation, or Gen IV plants, actually slow down the fission process as heat rises. This feature makes their design much more efficient and safer.

However, these technological subtleties are baffling to the layperson, just as are the reasons helicopters fly, how we send people to the moon, or how we manage to have video conversations with someone on a laptop in Nepal.

Such complexity should not deter us from benefitting from science. Instead, it should encourage us to educate ourselves more about technology. If we do not do so, we are left as victims of technology and technologists, as once were the pions to the high priests.

If we relinquish our engagement, we overreact, or in some cases under-react, to address our future technological needs. Either way, we become reactionary and emotional rather that proactive and engaged.

We should insist on safe, efficient homes; demand reliable, safe airplanes; and require safe, clean, efficient energy production, including state-of-the-art nuclear power. We should expect and encourage better technologies rather than demonize obsolete technologies. And, when we talk about bad nuclear power, we have the responsibility to explore good nuclear power and other alternatives with an open mind. When we assume a reactionary posture, we are hurt for it.

I am not advocating for nuclear power. Rather, I advocate for thoughtfulness in all our human deliberations.

Colin Read is a professor of economics and finance at the School of Business and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion online at