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Reviewing the Nuclear 21st Century

Issue 11 and Volume 111.

by: John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor

Over the past eight years I have written 66 “Nuclear Reactions” columns dealing with nearly every aspect of nuclear power and industry trends. I have covered the technical, commercial, operational, regulatory, economic, infrastructure and political aspects of nuclear energy. In addition, I have noted developments in nuclear fuel and nuclear waste disposal, radiation controversies and – after September 11, 2001 – nuclear power plants’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks. I recently put all these columns together and sorted them chronologically by topic. I thought this, my last “Nuclear Reactions” column before I retire – again – would be a good opportunity to note a few of the observations I gleaned from that process.

In general, one’s feelings about how well the industry has done in the first few years of the 21st century depend upon where one is situated within the industry.

If you began the century with an operating nuclear plant, things are going pretty well for you in a lot of ways. Plant performance has improved incredibly and now must be about as good as anybody can reasonably expect. Plant upgrades and uprates continue to enhance the value and the economic competitiveness of existing nuclear plants as well as contribute significantly to our current electricity supply. The life extension work that is being done not only contributes to the value of the investment in existing plants, but also helps ensure economical and secure electricity supplies into the future. The regulators have contributed to these successes by establishing appropriate, yet demanding review processes and carrying them out in a reasonably timely manner.

If you are a reactor manufacturer or other major hardware supplier, things haven’t gone so well here in the United States. In spite of yeoman work in redesigning plants to improve both safety and economics and in getting several of the new designs licensed for standardized plant construction, manufacturers are still looking at blank order books. Mere survival has required sell-offs and international mergers, thanks to the lousy domestic market. In spite of a much-improved process for licensing new nuclear power plants, nobody has yet stepped up to place a firm order and fully exercise that process. Even the promise of government guarantees to entice somebody to be first in line have not yet borne fruit. (An interesting sidelight is that the recently published book, The Reagan Diaries, quotes a March 26, 1984, Ronald Reagan diary entry as, “We need to get rid of excessive regulations to cut the building time on nuclear reactors now 12 to 14 years down to five to seven as it is in other countries.” That was nearly a quarter century ago.)

If you are in the nuclear fuel business, these last few years have been a roller coaster ride that would make any amusement park green with envy. For a while, the market was so bad that most U.S. uranium operations shut down. Reclaimed weapons material dampened demand for all phases of the business: yellowcake, conversion and enrichment. Then, in the past year as inventories were worked off and international demand grew, prices have spiked upward to surpass even those experienced in the go-go years of the mid-1970s. And it looks like the wild ride is far from being over.

If nuclear waste is your concern, this century so far has provided nothing but total frustration. In spite of remarkable technological breakthroughs in proliferation-resistant reprocessing, politicians refuse to reverse the idiotic 30-year-old Carter administration policy of treating spent fuel as waste. Then, in spite of many years and billions of dollars spent analyzing and designing a safe spent-fuel “waste” repository at Yucca Mountain, local Nevada politicians continue to use every legal and political trick in the book to stifle its operation. It is hard to remember that this facility was originally planned for operation in the last century.

If you deal with radiation standards, you are probably as frustrated as the nuclear waste folks. First, an activist Environmental Protection Agency ignored the governing nuclear waste legislation and imposed ridiculously stiff regulations on public radiation exposure from the Yucca Mountain site. Then an equally activist judge ignored the legislatively established timeline for such exposure. Next, the National Academy of Science advisory committee continued its ultraconservative stance on radiation exposure standards, reaffirming use of the linear non-threshold model and ignoring the mounting evidence for radiation hormesis.

The bottom line is that the engineers and technologists have done a great job. But their successes have been nullified in part by politics and false public perceptions. If it’s any comfort, such troubles appear to be part of the price we have to pay for the benefits of living in a representative democracy.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic about the long-term future of nuclear energy in the United States. Winston Churchill may have revealed great understanding when he said he could always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they had exhausted all other possibilities.

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