New Advancements in “Safe” Nuclear Reactors

April 1, 2019

New nuclear technologies such as Small Modular Reactors, advanced fission, and nuclear fusion are currently being developed to make nuclear energy safer and more efficient. The engineers of these technologies along with many scientists concerned about climate change believe that this “new nuclear” is likely to be a huge part of a carbon-free energy future. There is growing concern that older, unprofitable nuclear plants will be replaced by natural gas plants. Many nuclear plants have Construction and Operation Licenses (COL’s) that last for 40 years and can only be extended for another 20, and many of these are approaching 60 years old. However, there are still some grave concerns if construction is to move forward with “new” nuclear reactors, including the likelihood of nuclear fallout, as seen in the Fukushima disaster, as well as the ability of these technologically advanced plants to be built in a cost-efficient and timely manner, as seen with the recent South Carolina nuclear litigation and Westinghouse bankruptcy.

In 2017, nuclear plants accounted for about 20% of electricity production in the U.S. Nuclear is touted as a “clean” source of energy when compared to coal and natural gas, both of which release greenhouse gases into the air and contribute to human-driven climate change. While nuclear produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, it comes with several other environmental and safety concerns, such as the disposal of spent fuel rods which can remain highly radioactive for decades and the possibility of a reactor core melt. Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s) are smaller, more slimmed-down versions of traditional nuclear reactors. Although they produce less power than traditional reactors, their smaller size reduces costs and makes the plants more manageable for safety workers.

Rather than using water to cool down uranium rods like traditional nuclear reactors, these new plants would use alternative coolants, such as liquid sodium or molten salts, to make sure overheating does not occur.

Another potential advancement in the nuclear field is the development of Advanced Fission. Rather than using water to cool down uranium rods like traditional reactors, these new plants would use alternative coolants, such as liquid sodium or molten salts, to make sure overheating does not occur. One such example is the “pebble bed” reactor, which would be cooled by helium gas. These systems may be safer than traditional nuclear because the alternative coolants would be able to prevent overheating even in the event of a power outage. The Canadian company Terrestrial Energy believes that their advanced fission system can be price-competitive with natural gas. Washington state-based company TerraPower would use alternative coolants and say they could use spent fuel rods, depleted uranium, or even unprocessed uranium to produce power.

Nuclear fusion, as opposed to the traditional system of fission, has been in development for decades but has yet to be implemented in an actual power plant. The process is very difficult to replicate, since it “mimic[s] the nuclear process inside the sun, smashing lighter atoms together to turn them into heavier ones and releasing vast amounts of energy along the way.” Scientists are still trying to figure out how to contain the plasma that is used in the fusion process. One technique is magnetic confinement, which traps and contains the molten plasma in a low-pressure system. There is a magnetic confinement fusion plant in France that has been under construction since 2010, but its costs have already risen to $22 billion in the 9 years since then, far above the projected numbers. Its first experiments were supposed to take place in 2018, but have been rescheduled to 2025 since the project is so far behind. This situation is eerily similar to the recent Vogtle nuclear project in South Carolina that was eventually called off.

When the new reactors were proposed to be built by nuclear engineer Westinghouse in South Carolina, the utility company S.C. Electric & Gas and its parent company SCANA thought they would provide a stable and abundant source of clean energy going forward. With encouragement from the utility, in 2007 the S.C. legislature passed the Base Load Review Act, which preemptively deemed the nuclear project “used and useful.” In ratemaking cases, this term is used to justify a utility’s action so that costs can be passed on to ratepayers rather than the shareholders of the utility. The Base Load Review Act made it so that ratepayers in S.C. would begin paying for the project upfront, before it was ever completed or producing power.                

By 2017, the project was completely abandoned, the nuclear engineer company Westinghouse was bankrupt, SCANA was bought by utility giant Dominion Energy to save it from bankruptcy and multiple lawsuits, and there was a nine-billion dollar “hole in the ground” that ratepayers are slowly paying off even though they never received any benefit from it. It is hard to say exactly where things went wrong during that decade of construction, but SCANA executives misled the public and their shareholders about the rising cost and extended timeline of the project. There was a class-action lawsuit filed by ratepayers against SCANA, but it was settled after the company was bought out by Dominion. This is one example of mismanagement of a new nuclear project, and illustrates the difficulty of designing and implementing technologically advanced nuclear reactors that have never been installed before. When future new nuclear projects begin construction, its managers must act prudently and realistically.

Caroline Martin, 4 February 2019