Now that the Glasgow conference and some mighty public relations work have put nuclear energy back in the spotlight, maybe it is worth examining why nuclear dismally failed to meet expectations, which might tell us why the nuclear advocates (some of them, anyway) are moving in new directions at long last, after clinging for decades to a model that did not work. First, let’s understand that most nuclear power plants work in the sense that they produce electricity, and they have been working far better than in the past. The problems, largely, lie in how nuclear fits into the picture economically and societally. The historian Thomas Hughes chose to define a technology not just as the machinery and software (technical) but as an entire system composed of technical, economic, safety, and other components all working toward a common goal. In this case, the engineers who decided to enlarge a nuclear submarine engine into something bigger, and those who jumped on the opportunity, missed a lot of the picture.
First, there was construction cost. The builders figured that putting up a nuke was like putting up a coal-fired plant, only bigger. They were wrong. A nuclear station was a giant project and, like other giant projects that had too many teams and bosses, was too big to finance easily, was oversized for the market, and had to be planned and started far before the time when the market for the output would be evident. Cost overruns were almost inevitable. To make matters worse, most builders decided to put up custom projects (the French did not) so they never gained the advantage of experience or savings from replication. What’s more, with a nuclear plant, you could not stop halfway along when you discovered you only needed half the output. It was all or nothing. This is why there is so much interest in smaller, factory-made, modular units, that repeat the design from place to place and that might go up relatively fast. That process reduces the risk and makes it easier to stop when necessary.
Second, there is the issue of safety. One might make comparisons of all deaths and injuries attributable to nuclear operations and deaths and injuries in coal mines or oil rigs, and conclude that nuclear is safer. But nuclear accidents, while rare, can be spectacularly devastating, forcing evacuations of thousands of people and endangering the viability of the plant owner as well. The usual risk analysis concentrates on the likelihood of the event, not how bad an extremely unlikely event could be. The public looks at the worst case. As a result, a significant portion of the public is wary of nuclear. The government has to insure against disaster.
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And, third, there is the problem of nuclear waste. Whether the waste is sitting above ground in “temporary” storage, or below in rock vaults, the public worries about terror attacks above ground or leaks into underground water supplies. Again, likelihood matters little. The people of Las Vegas did not want a nuclear waste storage facility nearby. The facility is still there, but not operating. Some of the newer nuclear plant designs either do not solve the storage issue or substitute another problem, a byproduct that could be diverted to weapons. We expect the new nuke builders to ignore or fudge the waste issue because they have no control over it. But they will deal with local opposition to nuclear by putting facilities on existing sites. The locals know the issues, have accepted the risks in return for good jobs and high tax payments. Existing nuclear plant sites are extraordinarily valuable, then.
Finally, the builders did not realize that nuclear power, with all the risks attached and the vast scale of the projects, was not appropriate for commercial entities. It was a government project from beginning to end. Commercial entities might run the plants, build them under contract, sell the output, but they could not afford to undertake nuclear risk. We expect that governments will take a more active role, this time around, rather than wait to bail out the builders afterward. We would be surprised if these confident purveyors of the new nuclear act without some sort of government aid. That is another lesson.
In short, boosters for a new nuclear age plan substantial improvements over the old nuclear age but still have not shown how to make society more welcoming of nuclear or how to make nuclear self-sufficient. Then again, in light of the climate emergency, maybe we should just welcome any improvement in nuclear and go for it.
By Leonard Hyman and William Tilles for Oilprice.com
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