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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Does Nuclear Power Deserve Such A Bad Image?

Does Nuclear Power Deserve Such A Bad Image?

Nuclear power plants seem to draw a special level of animosity even beyond that of conventional power sources that emit greenhouse gases. Perhaps because of the raw capabilities of the plants, nuclear power has been a hot button issue for decades. Today, as many of the U.S. and European nuclear power plants reach the thirty-year mark, there is a growing discussion about their overall safety. Unfortunately, much of that debate is misguided.

The real issue for the viability of new nuclear power plants is whether or not it is cost effective. But given the relatively modest operational and decommissioning costs - decommissioning older nuclear power plants generally adds 0.1 to 0.2 cents per kwh, while fuel costs contribute just 0.5 cents per kwh – the economic hurdle largely boils down to the massive upfront cost of construction, which translates into high costs for financing. Related: Germany’s Nuclear Cutback Is Darkening European Skies

Nevertheless, once built, older nuclear power plants can operate safely for decades. Nuclear critics like to cite the Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima disasters as evidence that nuclear power is not safe, especially when generated by older plants. But the truth of the matter is that both disasters were caused by very special circumstances. Chernobyl was a result of a combination of human error and poor engineering brought to the public by the same regime that created perhaps the world’s least reliable automobile. Fukushima was the result of a tsunami. While these examples might support the view that earthquake prone regions and countries with weak track records of successful technological progress should not operate nuclear power plants, neither example is really relevant to the debate over the aging of nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power plant age by itself does not really matter. Nuclear power plants were given a forty-year operating license initially because that is the maximum possible length allowed by U.S. nuclear regulators, not because of any inherent time limits on engineering. Instead what actually matters in nuclear plant safety is the material condition of the plant. Related: How China Could Hold The Oil Markets To Ransom

Nuclear fission results in a process called “embrittlement,” which affects any materials inside the reactor. This is especially true of the containment vessels in nuclear reactors which deteriorate over time.

The degree of embrittlement should be the ultimate barometer for the health of the plant, and as a result, how and when plants should be shuttered. There are ways to test for embrittlement . Embrittlement is not a direct function of plant age though. It is determined by the type of materials used, the operational conditions, as well as repairs made over time. Plant age itself no more drives nuclear power plant safety than car age drives the likelihood of getting a flat tire. Instead, what matters is how the car has been driven and how recently the tires have been replaced. Related: A Spanner In The Works Of The Solar Revolution

This does not mean that nuclear power plants can be used forever, and indeed old plants are decommissioned once the cost of maintenance no longer makes sense . Nuclear power can present dangers if risks are not accounted for and mitigated, just as airplanes can be dangerous under certain circumstances. Yet, most major airlines are flying planes that are twenty to thirty years old. Why is that safe? Because industrial equipment can operate almost indefinitely if it is closely monitored and properly maintained. That should be the real determinant for how long nuclear reactors are allowed to operate.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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  • G.R.L. Cowan on May 12 2015 said:
    The "special level of animosity" Michael McDonald sees nuclear energy getting is, I think, just the same animosity any similarly effective decarbonizer would get. Government is the biggest fossil fuel rent-taker and nuclear energy has taken a much bigger bite out of that rent than anything else ever.
  • RH Bennett on May 12 2015 said:
    As a scientist, I need to have the data. I have made personal requests to other scientists and colleagues that work in the industry. One was sent to Fukushima to help evacuate the health risks. Every request for data was denied, even from my friend citing a prohibition for our Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    Animosity may not be accurate. Rather history shows that governments and the industry are simply not trust worthy, not forthright and nowadays intimidating. The technology is extremely complex in and of itself and there remain critical unresolved technologies like how to safely store the wastes and where. The industry says waste management is the governments responsibility (read contractors) and will be conducted with complete secrecy for national security reasons.
  • RH Bennett on May 12 2015 said:
    We scientists like to see the data. Data on the critical issues around nuclear power is thin at best.

    When the Fukushima Diachi reactors melted down, my family was in Tokyo. I have a scientist friend that was sent there right after the explosions and fires. I asked Dr. D. how much radioactive material, not just gamma energy was disseminated over the greater Tokyo area. He did not and could not respond to me directly and sent a message through a mutual friend, that he was prohibited by our government and could not even mention why he was in Japan.

    The information about the quantity of radioactive nuclides dispersed over Japan, including Tokyo remains unknown to the public and any one that might release it will be charged with a violation of the new Japan State Secrets Act and jailed.

    The level of animosity is appropriately high and it results from the beach of trust as secrecy is enforced here and in Japan. No amount of PR can restore trust. The more officials obfuscate we must expect that fear and animosity will increase.
  • jmdesp on May 18 2015 said:
    @RH Bennett : Your claim is surprising. It might be that in the immediate aftermath of the accident, some people have been restrained from giving their own independent estimates, as long as it could not be easily cross-verified.
    But since then, there has been many simulations of the atmospheric releases, and for example independent estimates by the French IRSN and the US Department of Energy about how much radiation was released and how it propagated, as well as scientific publications.
    http://www.irsn.fr/EN/publications/thematic-safety/fukushima/Pages/2-fukushima-understanding-environment.aspx
    http://www.energy.gov/situation-japan-updated-12513
    http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/130910/srep02520/full/srep02520.html

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