Asia’s Push for Nuclear Power — a Wise Bet?

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Listen to a story by Rhitu Chatterjee about India’s nuclear energy plans. That’s followed by an interview with physicist M.V. Ramana of Princeton University.

Ramana is our guest in this Science Forum discussion, and he’s joined by Princeton colleague Alexander Glaser. Both scholars analyze the nuclear industry. They’ll be taking your comments and questions through November 19th.

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India’s economy is booming, its people are hungry for energy, and the country wants to move away from its heavy reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. So India is eyeing other sources of energy — including nuclear. It’s planning a ten-fold increase in its nuclear power generation capacity in the next 20 years.

The same is true for many Asian countries. China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and neighboring countries plan to build new nuclear power plants. But is nuclear energy a wise solution to these countries’ energy needs?

Ramana says that many Asian countries aren’t prepared to understand and manage the risks from nuclear power plants. For example, he says Vietnam and Bangladesh don’t even have an agency to regulate the nuclear industry. Does this mean Asia’s investment in nuclear power is a risky bet?

Join the conversation with Ramana and Glaser. It’s just to the right.

  • How do you view the trade-offs of nuclear energy? Do you support nuclear power as a way to combat climate change?
  • The United States is encouraging India’s nuclear power expansion. Should it be doing so?
  • If Asia’s rising economic powers are investing in new nuclear plants, will other nations follow suit?

Watch this video of local protests to a proposed nuclear power plant in India.

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  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

    Welcome to this discussion about the current status and future prospects for nuclear power. This is an interesting period to be discussing this, There is now much talk about a revival of nuclear power, and many countries are considering constructing reactors, even though many of the old problems that afflicted nuclear power have not gone away.

    We look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions. M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

    • David A

      Of course the multi-billion dollar industry claims that nuclear is ‘arguably part of the solution to global warming’, but what is the objective evidence for such a statement? Does the argument hold when the complete carbon footprint is measured?

      If so, by how much? Please consider energy for mining of all inputs; manufacturing the steel and concrete that make up the power station, ‘spent’ fuel pools, transport vaults, the repository; milling, enrichment, and fabrication of the nuclear fuel; the full-term energy costs of associated inputs for security, monitoring and maintenance of waste and infrastructure; and whatever I’ve omitted.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Nuclear power will have to compete against other low-carbon energy sources: if it remains more expensive (or if it is considered too dangerous), then nuclear power will not be “part of the solution” to climate change.

        With regard to the carbon footprint of nuclear power: there is rather broad consensus that the life-cycle emissions are much lower than those of coal or other fossil fuels; estimates vary, but are typically on the order of 100 g(CO2)/kWh compared to 1000 g(CO2)/kWh for coal. By comparison, wind is still lower: about 10 g(CO2)/kWh. For further details, see Table 8 in this article by Benjamin Sovacool. — Alex

    • It makes me crazy in the discussion of nuclear power that no one is talking about thorium fueled nuclear reactors that are much smaller and much safer than the uranium fueled reactors, producing no plutonium by-product, and whose fuel degrades in a couple of hundred years. The technology was developed by the Atoms for Peace program back in the 1950s. India has plentiful supplies of thorium. The other great plus is these reactors are closed loop with no water used for cooling purposes. Why is no one talking about this technology?

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Thorium fueled nuclear reactors do have their advantages and their disadvantages, but as Alex mentioned (see below) the nuclear industry isn’t really interested in them. The abundance of thorium is sort of irrelevant at this point because, as the recent MIT study on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle concludes, “There is no shortage of uranium resources that might constrain future commitments to build new nuclear plants for much of this century at least.”

        Ramana

    • Duncan

      Most people who are commenting here against new nuclear power seem to be against “old” nuclear. I agree, we shouldn’t build another Chernobyl, but that is like saying we should not build new trains because the ones built in the 1800′s often exploded.
      What about reactors that are actually designed in the computer age with modern materials science and nuclear science behind them? What do you think of Bill Gates’ “TerraPower”, using spent or un-enriched Uranium as the fuel in a sealed unit while not requiring bomb grade material? What about using small sealed generators (“Nuclear Batteries”) to replace expensive and dirty fossil fuels in remote locations like Galena in Alaska or Asia away from the cities?
      It seems that we should discuss current designs rather then 40 year old relics

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Duncan: We have a comment on Small Modular Reactors (SMR) further below; personally, I think it is worth looking into them, but so far they only exist on paper. The same is true for the Terrapower or “candle-type” reactor: the discussion started with a simple and “beautiful” idea … but every iteration of the design seems to get more complicated — for essentially the same reason current reactors are as complex as they are. There is a bitter quote by Admiral Rickover from 1953 on paper/academic vs real reactors, which comes to mind. BUT, I agree: we need fresh ideas. — Alex

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        I have not seen any detailed design of the travelling wave reactor to be able to comment on it confidently. At least some of what is being said about it in the public domain just doesn’t make sense to me. There are others who have looked at this in somewhat greater detail and they are quite skeptical about the claims we have heard (including the non use of any enriched uranium). See Traveling Wave Reactors: Wave Goodbye and this discussion in a Physics Forum for example.

        On small modular reactors, I think the big challenge will be economics.

        Finally, as for your last comment, practically none of the designs that are being built (or being planned) in Asia are 40 year old relics. For example, China is mainly focusing on the AP-1000 and the CPR-1000, both of which are being constructed for the first time.

        Ramana

      • Duncan

        My main point is that the opposition voiced in the US often points at troubles with very old designs, and ignore design improvements made in the last 30 years.
        Alex- Sure, new designs only exist on paper until someone builds them. This was also true of coal fired power (which also had significant hazards and emission problems originally).
        Ramana – The Jury is definitely out on TWR, but it is such a good idea that I would rather fully explore it before it dies. The economics of SMR work better where the price of diesel can reach $10/gal or higher, like Galena Alaska or remote Asia or Africa, and would get better with scale. About the new AP-1000 and CPR-1000 reactors, do you feel the concerns about Chernobyl like hazards or security are justified with these new designs?

        When discussing reactor safety, we should also include discussions of the US Navy’s many reactors on submarines and aircraft carriers. There are many of these, and they have been running for decades without even an hint of “Chernobyl” like hazards. Do you really feel that Chernobyl is the best model for understanding and discussing the hazards associated with current reactor design?

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Chernobyl is a word that means many different things to many different people. I assume you mean it to denote a major accident with a large and energetic radioactive release to the atmosphere. That sort of accident is not limited to the RBMK reactor and both the AP1000 and CPR1000 are susceptible to such an accident, even though they are, in my opinion, “safer” designs than the RBMK one. I put safer within quotes because it is hard to have confidence in numerical values for accident probabilities. (For more on this, see the discussion on safety in my review article in the Annual Reviews of Environment and Resources.)

        Ramana

      • Patrick

        Ramana,

        Could you elaborate on what characteristics exactly lend the AP1000 to a catastrophic failure? I was under the impression that he crucial elements of the Chernobyl disaster (aside from errors in human judgement and action) were the absence of any sort of containment (either a pressure vessel or containment building), the void coefficient and the flawed control rod design.

        Obviously, AP1000 uses the US-style dual-containment design. I have not been able to find any hard data relating to void coefficient and control rod design – but given that the design is post-Chernobyl I would be shocked to find that it was ignorant of these issues.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Patrick,

        I didn’t mean to imply that the AP1000 had a positive void coefficient or that it didn’t have a containment. The point is a more general one. When it is operating, any of these reactors has a large radioactive inventory and a large amount of energy stored in it. Is it at all possible that through some sequence of events these two factors will combine to produce some kind of a large energy and radioactive release? For the AP1000, according to Westinghouse, this could occur 420 times in a billion reactor years (4.2e-7). That is very small, but not zero. The reason it is not zero is that there are conceivable pathways through which a large radioactive release can occur. There are reasons to question the reliability of such probabilistic risk assessment calculations.

        Ramana

    • Anonymous

      It’s biased to have the arms control community talk about the nuclear industry and nuclear safety. Of course, countries should go nuclear. It’s much better than doing absolutely nothing but talking about climate change. Non-proliferation is not really those countries’ priority. Wake up! It’s just USA’s concern.

      Talking about nuclear safety, pressurized water reactors are mature enough to be considered safe. You should know driving poses greater risks to us as individuals than do nuclear reactors!

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Whether countries should go nuclear or not is something that should be left to them and their populaces. But there are numerous considerations that come into play. Non-proliferation is one, though, as you point out, it is more a Western (USA, Western Europe) concern than in other countries. At the same time, many in developing countries also feel that the USA and other industrialized countries are the ones that should be taking action on climate mitigation and that developing countries should be focused on generating cheap power for development. So nuclear power has, at best, a marginal role in their future plans.

        The lesson from years of psychometric studies on public perceptions is that risk comparison between reactors and driving is a comparison of apples with oranges.

        Ramana

  2. Danielle

    I think for a country the size of India, nuclear power is the most reasonable approach. Noting the point that some countries don’t have gov’t regulation in place. Wouldn’t it be better for developing countries to have gov’t owned nuclear power funded by foreign investment, rather than owned and run by private companies? SUrely countries like India and China have the expertise within their ranks?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      Let me answer this with respect to India since I have looked at its nuclear program in great detail. India set up its atomic energy commission in 1948 and has pursued an ambitious nuclear power program since then. Despite ample government funding and high level political support for decades, nuclear power constitutes barely 3% of the total electricity generation capacity. That should be cause for questioning the assumption that nuclear power is the most reasonable approach. As for the second question, most of these countries do follow the model of having nuclear reactors owned and operated by government companies.

      Ramana

      • Grace

        So, what then is the issue with the nuclear industry in India? Do you think corruption, incompetence or just not enough will? Why is it the nuclear industry still lags?

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        There is no simple answer to why India hasn’t succeeded. Some of the factors responsible are unrealistic plans, high costs (like everywhere else), inadequate industrial capability (at least during the earlier decades), a flawed emphasis on fast breeder reactors, opting to stay out of the NPT and therefore not being allowed to import nuclear reactors and other technologies (prior to September 2008), and, in a small way, public opposition.

        Ramana

  3. Nathan

    Hasn’t the problem with nuclear power always been how to safely preserve for millennia the spent fuel and other by-products of fission? Shouldn’t we be thinking about options that do not create more problems than they solve?

    Around 1980 the American inventor Buckminister Fuller calculated that an interconnected, global, electric grid he called the “global energy network international,” or GENI, could share power and limit, if not eliminate, the need for building more non-green power generation of any kind.

    Shouldn’t Indians and Americans — all citizens of Earth — finally get serious about doing something right for the planet instead of just for the multinational companies who seek to build these toxic waste generators? GENI.org is still around — is it an idea whose time has come?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      I agree with both your points. Yes, we need more renewable energy generation and better ways of connecting those locations where renewable energy is generated to locations where energy demands arise. The question that many are grappling with is whether the rate at which we can build up renewable energy is sufficient to meet the demands of climate mitigation. As for nuclear waste, your concern is indeed one that is widely shared and one reason why many, despite being terribly worried about climate change, are not supportive of nuclear power.

      Ramana

  4. Dr. Thomas Taaffe

    I am utterly opposed to this direction in energy development. Its incredibly expensive, economically unsustainable without extensive government subsidy and extraordinarily dangerous. And the private sector’s record for safety is dysmal and its reputation for honesty is virtually nonexistent.

    I live down-river from Yankee Nuclear. They have a particularly dysmal safety record, they can’t make a profit and they actually hid structural piping from regulators, that leached toxins into the ground and – ultimately – the water table.

    I would never trust a nuclear project left to the private sector and the government’s record for sweeping the industries failings under the carpet denies them my trust as well. I am utterly opposed to this reckless, expensive and dangerous idea.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      I am somewhat familiar with the history of Yankee Nuclear and do share your concern about the trade offs that may be made between profitability and safety. At the same time, I wonder if the record of government owned nuclear reactors is much better. To the extent that we see poor safety culture in a wide variety of settings, we must ask whether this is something inherent to organizations that run nuclear power plants or if there are better organizations and worse organizations. As I mentioned during the interview, research on nuclear safety, especially on the role of operators and what they can do to enhance or lower safety, doesn’t seem to give us any answers that are really reassuring.

      Ramana

    • Patrick

      Dr. Taaffe,
      I must ask to what reality you have been paying attention. Every industrial process comes with its drawbacks; even so, I am completely sympathetic towards your outrage towards the apathetic management of VYN. However, I find your attitude bizzare when compared with the ongoing environmental catastrophe that is coal power generation. It’s ultimately a question of priorities. Do we want a planet free from climate change, the crushing weight of fossil fuels and the opressive poverty caused by energy shortage or unavailability? Or should we proceed with the status quo? Why is India any less deserving of energy and economic security than you in New England?

      As for relative safety: I really have to question your priorities, when coal kills tens of thousands every year.

      • Dr. Thomas Taaffe

        I lived most of my life, downwind from the NJ oil refineries and on the same island as the world’s largest garbage dump. I currently live downwind of a coal plant, grandfathered out of many EPA regulations. And I live downriver from Yankee Nuclear. So I know the cost and who pays. I am the only one in my family without lung illness.

        But nuclear power is simply swapping one disaster for another. Cherynobyl will be with us for 10,000 years. Even if the plant doesn’t break down or is corruptly managed (and Yankee is an example of both), the only way to get rid of most toxic waste man has ever created is to pack it in a Tow missile and kill somebody with it.

        Where are your priorities? I’m not here to pay the bill for your waste.

  5. Will

    I’ve recently been researching the Chernobyl nuclear accident for a class of mine. It’s been more than 30 years since the worst nuclear disaster in world history occured and the radioactive fallout is still not completely contained. The area around Chernobyl will remain radioactive for 100,000 + years, so the containment structure built there will have to outlast the pyramids. Modern nuclear power plants have containment structures around their reactors, but how long do these structure last When we find a more efficient source of power what do we do with all this radioactive cement and steal and discarded fuel Studying Chernobyl has given me a new respect and fear for nuclear power. Granted accidents are fairly rare, but when they occure the ecological reprocusions can be staggering. With this in mind, why are we so willing to advance this resource

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      Another accident of the scale of Chernobyl would most likely end the debate on a potential “nuclear renaissance” in many countries. This is certainly true in some Western European countries and the United States, probably also in India, and possibly even in China or Russia. The Chernobyl reactor, of course, had serious design flaws and no reactor containment–even though such a containment may not have helped much (in preventing the release of radioactivity) given the violence of the explosion. The number of fatalities due to Chernobyl is disputed, but the economic impact of the accident is not. Still, the possibility of a catastrophic accident looms over the future of nuclear power. — Alex

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      I think there is no unitary “we” in this matter. Lots of people are fearful of and opposed to nuclear power because of the potential for Chernobyl. But these people are not the ones who are making the decision to advance nuclear power. The question is why those in power in many different countries are so willing to construct reactors, and what that says about how much they value democratic sentiment. The second factor to be remember while discussing this question is one of who bear the risks and who receive the bulk of the benefits. Most reactors are constructed in areas far from the cities where decisions are made.

      Ramana

      • Duncan

        What about Communities like Galena, Alaska, who are willing to bear the risk, and would personally receive the benefits. Galena wants the generator, Toshiba wants to build the reactor, and only the Federal Government regulators are preventing forward motion.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      I am not familiar with the example of Galena you offer but if the locals do want something of that sort there is definitely a strong case to build one. However, inasmuch as one is dealing with a hazardous technology, there is as strong a case for regulation. Ultimately it is the government which will be liable for cleanup in the event of a catastrophic accident. So it is only fair that they get to examine if the design of the reactor and the plans for the specific project are adequately safe.

      Ramana

  6. michael korte

    2 Parts:
    Have any reliable studies been done on the historical Radiological Exposure incurred when extracting and refining Uranium Ore ?

    In the past India has used Thorium Powered Nuclear Reactors, unique in the World, why the change to Uranium? Will the design be US/French design of lightwater PWR or BWR or Candos?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      On Part 2: The reactors that the West will offer for sale over the next years will be light-water reactors, i.e., pressurized-water reactors (PWR) or boiling water-reactors (BWR). In principle, these could be fueled with uranium-based or thorium-based fuels. The question about why thorium never seems to take off is a fascinating one, not only in the context of India. Most importantly, uranium has so far always trumped thorium because the nuclear industry has been perfectly happy with uranium: everything from mining, milling, and fuel fabrication is set up for uranium. A new thorium-based fuel for use in a light-water reactor would have to go through a lengthy re-licensing and qualification process. — Alex

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      On Part 1, there have been a number of studies on radiological exposure from uranium mining and milling. These epidemiological studies are based on workers from different countries, especially the United States (Colorado in particular), Czechoslovakia, and Canada. Such studies are the basis of our understanding not just of the health impacts of uranium mining and milling, but also indoor radon exposure. For an overview of such studies, see this book on the Health Effects of Exposure to Radon by the National Research Council’s BEIR Committee.

      On Part 2, India’s Department of Atomic Energy has only operated small research reactors using Thorium. It does have plans for deploying thorium based breeder reactors that would produce electricity at a utility level, but these are likely to be deployed only some decades from now due to various technical problems, in particular dealing with the contamination of the fissile isotope uranium-233 with the hard gamma emitting uranium-232.

      Ramana

  7. Grace

    As with American society, no one talks about conservation. I mean, India being a rapidly growing society needs all the energy it can create. But is there any chance that along with the growth someone is trying to teach conservation?
    Americans do not think they to conserve in general. I see this every day. Is there anything to approaching their needs with a little conservation education?
    Green building, energy efficiency, alternative energy where available.
    All the reasons listed above is enough to question more growth in nuclear technology.
    What else is being done to address energy needs and usage?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      There has always been a strand of wise and economic use of resources in India, sort of like what one saw in the United States during, say, the depression era or earlier. That still continues amongst large sections of society. There has also been a more modern emphasis on efficiency, and in recent years both the energy intensity of the economy and the carbon intensity have been declining. In part this is also because India has one of the highest industrial electricity rates. See this report by Prayas, a non-profit research group,
      for details.
      Of course, a lot more can be done.

      Ramana

  8. It depends on the value placed on having a reliable source of electricity that works 24 hours a day vs renewable resources that vary throughout the day and, for solar, that doesn’t work at night. Energy storage is expensive and has its own environmental problems. If reliability is important, as required by all advanced electronic equipment, only nuclear power and fossil fuels are currently available. If you think climate change is less important than nuclear power issues, then go with fossil fuels. Choices on reliability and climate change will determine the outcome.

    • David A

      @Edward – you wrote “if reliability is important, as required by all advanced electronic equipment, only nuclear power and fossil fuels are currently available.” I think I see your point, but that’s not true. Yes batteries have their “own environmental problems”, but compare those to nuclear waste! And on a large scale (which is what nuclear is) solar can heat salt during the day which then heats water at night to turn a turbine.

      And no mention has been made of wave and tidal energy – undeveloped, but imagine if it had had 65 years of taxpayer subsidies.

      • In fact, wave and tidal energy have had taxpayer subsidies for decades, although not at the high levels of some other technologies. I don’t think the nuclear waste problem is really that serious at all. The volumes are quite small and it has been stored safely, although temporarily, for decades. Sweden and Finland are moving forward on storage of waste with public support and no problems.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      The problem is not simply one of reliability or providing baseload power but one of matching supply to an electricity demand pattern that fluctuates all the time. That is a problem for a 100% nuclear powered system as well. In terms of how renewable energy systems can deal with this issue, I don’t think there is going to be one silver bullet – it will have to be through a combination of storage technology, diversity of geography and renewable sources (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal,…), and demand side solutions (some of what is pursued under the rubric of smart grid). The factors to be considered in deciding between different sources should also include technical factors (reliability, for one), public perception, environmental impacts, and risk.

      Ramana

      • Patrick

        Ramana,

        I agree that a mixture of solutions is an important part of any stable energy system, but I think what is missed that there is a technological cycle as well. By foolishly supressing deployment of safe, efficient and dense nuclear power we have created a massive climatological problem and created a technological void in generation technology. I hope that solar and wind will be shepherded along quickly enough to minimize the accumulating damage…but it’s important to recognize the blind stupidity of the political movements that stopped the proliferation (that’s right the ‘p’ word) of commercial nuclear power. Hopefully when it comes time to deploy large scale wind projects we won’t face the same kind of nonsense.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Patrick,

        If what we have seen in Cape Cod is any indication, there will be opposition to large scale wind projects. In a democracy, there is no choice but to deal with those.

        Ramana

  9. In the US, unlike France, nuclear plants have only been used to provide baseload power. Power peaking from industrial demand or weather conditions are covered by peaking units, usually natural gas. I support research funding for various storage technologies that could be economical and sustainable for both solar and wind, but it doesn’t exist now for large scale use, and to me, personally, the cost as of now isn’t worth it when I can get my non-emitting reliable electricity from nuclear power plants.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      Of course, no one *wants* to use nuclear reactors for load-following for various reasons: high capital and low fuel costs favor baseload operation, and there are also some technical constraints inherent to the technology. That being said, I find this report (prepared for an important utility, E.on) on the German situation fascinating: the authors conclude that load-following with the 17 existing reactors can be handled even when baseload demand drops to zero (on certain days in 2030); about 10 GW would then be used for pump storage as shown in Figure 4b. — Alex

      • Thank you for that reference. However, it is for a theoretical study, and, to my knowledge, actual experience is based on power changes from 50% power to 100%. Of course, the French have 78% of their power from nuclear so they must load follow. As you note, the economics favor running nuclear plants all the time.
        Pumped storage is probably the most cost effective approach to storing electricity for future use. At least if the terrain is suitable. I don’t know about the economics to build such facilities in unfavorable terrain.

        The responsibility for safe operation rests with the generator and the government regulatory organization. The IAEA provides guidance on safe practices in operations, as well as how to create an effective regulatory agency, but they do not provide direct oversight themselves. The other organization that conducts independent inspections and promotes a strong safety culture is the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). They were formed after the Chernobyl http://www.world-science.org/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-formaccident to promote safe operations world wide.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

        Edward, The French also import substantial amounts of power at peak times and export a larger quantity of power during periods of low demand.

        Ramana

  10. Steven Sidman

    Why no mention of German pebble bed reactors? Designed to be safe, or at least much safer than other types. Isn’t this the design that the Chinese favor?

    No mention of intrinsically safe reactors, though they are much lower power, implying a different business model – neighborhood reactors. I think some Japanese companies are working on this – sealed units, good for 20 years.

    No mention of burning up the really bad waste in special reactors. The physics is there.

    It seems the US strategy is to sell 30 year old technology that can’t be sold at home to developing countries who are running out of energy choices. This isn’t science, it’s politics. It’s selling what you have, rather than real development.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      Dear Steven: On the German Pebble-Bed Reactor: definitely, an interesting technology. I would note, however, that it doesn’t seem quite ready for deployment. South Africa recently pulled the plug on their project; and the experience in Germany hasn’t been flawless either as more recent documents suggest. See for example, this report (beware: 12 MB) released by the original developers in 2008 — Alex

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      On the Small Modular Reactors (SMR) — again, there are some new and interesting ideas: lower power levels facilitate grid integration, and underground construction could make a serious difference WRT safety and security. Ultimately, the economics of SMR will determine their fate; they only exist on paper so far. I agree with your general comment that, today, “it’s selling what you have, rather than real development.” — Alex

    • David A

      Part of why these ideas seem so hopelessly bad to me is the nuclear industry’s record – in France, the US, Japan, Russia and elsewhere – of consistent lying. After every accident they say “there is no risk to the public because the release was so small” although there is no amount of radiation so small as to be safe. And they generally lie about the number of curies released as well.

      @ Edward – “non-emitting reliable electricity”? nuclear outages are often long and expensive not only in dollars but also health effects from daily radionuclide emissions.

      @ Steven – pebble bed reactors… the highly-touted new design which, after around a $100 billion or so of taxpayer subsidy failed completely upon startup! And neighborhood plutonium… ahhh, the security industry and terrorists will love

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      The Chinese does have a small High Temperature gas cooled reactor program, primarily at Tsinghua University, but it is still in the relatively early stages. The bulk of the capacity they are either constructing or planning to construct are all Pressurized Water Reactors.

      The Chinese design might be somewhat different and it might use a steam cycle rather than helium gas for at least its first pebble bed units. (For more details on this see this report on the South African PBMR program in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

      Ramana

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      The term inherently safe is problematic because, although one can design a reactor to be safe against specific accident modes, safety for specific modes cannot guarantee
      safety against all possible accident modes. In 1987, an IAEA committee argued, “Potential inherent hazards in a nuclear power plant include radioactive
      fission products and their associated decay heat, excess reactivity and its associated
      potential for power excursions, and energy releases due to high temperatures, high pressures
      and energetic chemical reactions. Elimination of all these hazards is required to make a nuclear
      power plant inherently safe. For practical power reactor sizes this appears to be impossible.
      Therefore the unqualified use of ‘inherently safe’ should be avoided for an entire nuclear
      power plant or its reactor”

      Ramana

  11. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Some more news about a proposed nuclear park to be built by the French company Areva in coastal India. Turns out hundreds of peaceful protesters, including a retired Supreme Court judge were arrested.

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Nuke-power-project-3000-villagers-court-arrest-in-Ratnagiri/articleshow/6836138.cms

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      This is not a new development per se. Practically all new nuclear facilities constructed in India since the late 1970s have been opposed. There were even a couple of attempts at setting up nuclear power plants that had to be abandoned. What is somewhat new about what has been happening around Jaitapur has been the intensity of these protests.

      Ramana

  12. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi Alex and Ramana,

    Now, as part of its plans to expand its civilian nuclear power production India has agreed to bring these plants under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. And some people think this will improve safety practices within the Indian nuclear industry, and reduce risks of accidents.

    Is that true? And what does IAEA supervision really mean?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      A small correction – India agreed, as part of the US-India nuclear deal, to put eight reactors under IAEA safeguards, not IAEA supervision. Safeguards are basically measures to ensure that no fissile material (plutonium, enriched uranium) is diverted from a nuclear facility to potential use in nuclear weapons. In other words, the IAEA tries to ensure that civilian facilities are not used for military purposes. As such, it has no significant implications for safety practices.

      Putting reactors under safeguards does eliminate India’s ability to produce fissile materials for its weapons program at these reactors (should it choose to). However, as discussed in this report published by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, there is still a substantial residual capacity.

      Ramana

  13. Steve Rowe

    Hi,

    I hear debate about “nuclear power” generically, but I don’t hear much discussion about alternative nuclear power plant designs. My understanding is that the nuclear reactors currently built in the U.S. are based on designs from the Cold War era that were intended to produce weapons-grade fissiles as a by-product.

    Aren’t there safer reactor designs out there? Designs that produce less radioactive waste, can’t have run-away fission reactions, and don’t require as much fuel to be shipped have been tested by the U.S. Navy in the past. Is anybody revisiting these designs?

    Thanks for your time and consideration.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      Steve,

      There is actually lots of discussion about alternative nuclear reactor designs at the theoretical level. But utilities don’t seem to be interested in putting down money on them.

      There are certainly reactor designs that produce less radioactive waste, safer (though, see my comments earlier about how trying to order reactors on a safety scale is problematic), and require less fuel. However, all these desirable qualities are not usually found in one reactor design. And then there are economic and non-economic barriers to their construction with the result that almost none have been built at a commercial scale.

      Ramana

  14. Patrick

    I’m really amazed out how effective the fossil fuel industry in concert with the radical environmental movement have been able to smear the good name of the optimal energy source in the world.

    Let me first disabuse you of the notion that there is a mass-market energy solution safer than nuclear power. In the history of commercial nuclear power, there has been but a single major accident that caused hundreds of fatalities (in 50 years of usage). Compare that with the tens of thousands killed every year by respiratory illness caused by fossil fuels. Are there global protests when a new coal plant is erected? No. Do people who oppose nuclear power understand that there is no practical alternative; and when they stop a nuke plant, a coal plant is built? It’s cutting off your nose.

    • David A

      Yes, burning fossil fuels is a big killer and should be cleaned up or phased out. But I think you’re low-balling the damage of Chernobyl. The best estimate (Gofman) is one million cancers, half of which will be fatal. It wasn’t a worst-case scenario (it was a fire, not an explosion). And consider the accident rate given the number of reactors versus fossil-fuel generators in existence. Meanwhile the nuclear industry won’t give up on the idea of breeder reactors. I want to stop new reactors and build wind turbines while vigorously pursuing conservation.

  15. David Abuin

    How much does it cost to build a plant? I’m all for having more if it protects the environment.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      There is much uncertainty about how much it costs to build a nuclear reactor. A rough estimate of the overnight construction cost, i.e., not including interest, is about $4 billion for a 1000 MW (1 GW) reactor. Interest payments would depend on how long the reactor takes co construct.

      Ramana

  16. Lakshmi Ramaswamy

    Hi Ramana, Alex,

    India has an agreement on the reprocessing of U.S.-obligated spent nuclear fuel in India, but are there sufficient benefits and controls on this sensitive technology transfer? Also, per NSG guidelines, supplier involvement is expected to be encouraged in such facilities – what is the implication on liability?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      I am not sure I understand your questions fully, but let me try to answer them anyhow. If India imports a reprocessing plant, then it would be safeguarded to ensure that no fissile material is diverted to weapons purposes. These safeguards are never perfect and a small fraction of material may never be adequately accounted for.

      If by benefit you mean economic benefit, the answer is that reprocessing is uneconomical when compared to the alternative of direct disposal unless the uranium price goes up many times over. See this paper on the economics of reprocessing in India.

      Liability for accidents is unclear at this moment because it is not clear how the recently passed Indian civil nuclear liability law will be implemented.

      Ramana

  17. Steven Sidman

    You said,”The question is why those in power in many different countries are so willing to construct reactors”

    The obvious answer is, because it’s profitable to do so, both for the (usually foreign) constructors and for political & business interests in the host country. The real need for electrical power leads to this question: has anyone done a complete life cycle economic analysis of various types of power generation? Costs include design, construction, maintenance, fuel cost, fuel disposal (carbon sequestering for fossil fuels), and eventual plant decommissioning, applied to all types of generating plants. Neutrons from the fission reaction make steel brittle, so maximum nuclear plant life is about 40 years. We might have to keep building them just to replace the old ones.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

      Apologies for not replying earlier. There are a number of studies of life cycle economics of various sources of power generation. In fact, most standard costing methodologies do include all these different components. (Design is usually not treated as a separate component – one assumes it is incorporated in the construction cost.) There are, of course, uncertainties. In the case of nuclear power, the dominant uncertainty is the construction cost. Decommissioning is also uncertain, but it occurs many decades hence, and so its contribution, when discounted using some non-zero rate, tends to be small.

      The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted life extensions to 50 reactors or more for operations up to 60 years. This may become standard.

      Ramana

  18. Sarah

    Dear Alex, and Ramana,

    I was wondering why fast burner reactors don’t come into conversation. A lot of transutanic waste can be easily transmuted to produce nucleides that have much less half-lives in fast burner reactors. Also the 95% of nuclear waste, depleted uranium, can be used as well in burner reactor. I am just surprised that a reactors that can help reduce nuclear waste isn’t in conversations at all.

    Sarah

  19. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? M.V. Ramana & Alex Glaser

    It has been an interesting experience to participate in this forum and be faced with all these challenging and interesting questions. We would like to thank all of you who participated and giving us this opportunity to share our thoughts.

    Best wishes,
    Ramana and Alex

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