Another Perspective on Nuclear Power

Last week's Environmental Orthodoxy post sparked an interesting discussion on science and science journalism. One of the orthodoxies that wasn't discussed much was environmentalists' continued opposition to nuclear power, so I've been on the lookout for a good overview of the current state of nuclear power.

Jonathan Golub is a MD/PhD student at the University of Washington, and the science columnist at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. On his blog, he's recently posted a multi-part series on the physics of nuclear power plants, the parts needed to build a reactor, the biological effects of radiation, nuclear waste, the two biggest fiascoes in commercial nuclear power and what a new nuclear power plant should look like.

If you know the physics of nuclear reactions, you might want to skip his comparison of a nuclear reaction to a cocktail party. But his discussion of new technology for reactors is very interesting, as is his conclusion about the latest nuclear technology (fourth-generation plants), which are far more advanced that our current nukes, and which also have the potential to reprocess high-level nuclear waste:

If we were smart, we would throw resources at these fourth generation technologies, pushing to have the pilot reactors and designs finalized within ten years. None of these are perfect. No source of power is without risk or environmental injury. None. Our planet hosts nearly seven billion people. Fossil fuel reserves are dwindling. The atmosphere and oceans are buckling under the carbon strain. Nuclear power, particularly responsibly applied with standardized plant designs and a real plan for dealing with the waste, remains are best hope. The physics and technology is available.


"fast neutron plants, that eat their own waste and potentially the waste of others,"

If true, what an exciting idea - a plant that can burn its own waste and perhaps some of the waste we already have stored.

If everything he says is true, let's get building.

We definitely need to be building R&D reactors with the new coolants and fuel matrix arrangements that he described, so we can understand this technology and prove that it works.

Even the old, dirtier, nuclear power plants are a better option than fossil fuels in many ways. It's pitiful that this country didn't get more serious about nuclear. We let superstition about radiation get the better of us.

WRT old plants: another good point that Golub made was that we went after nuclear in this country with low-bid contracts, so each plant was a one-off. That's an engineering, safety and reliability nightmare, because plant operators have to work the bugs out of each plant one at a time. So plants were more like the space shuttle instead of a 747, more expensive and less safe.

In France, they have three design generations. During the time that each generation was current technology, all plants used the same design. This allowed utilities to become more familiar with the quirks and problems of each design, and distribute fixes to design issues at one plant to the other plants in the same generation.