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The world is going nuclear while we’re going nowhere.
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It is easy to see where this is going. If the NRC ever issues a construction license, the builder will be second-guessed on every rivet until the project is years behind schedule and $5 billion over budget. That will prove, once again, that nuclear is “too expensive to be built in this country.” Meanwhile, China and Japan are building their reactors in less than four years for $5 billion. To the swift goes the race.
SIX MONTHS AGO, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu electrified the industry by suggesting in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the U.S. might find a niche in building small modular reactors — something about the size of a gazebo — that can be buried in the ground and power a town of 20,000 while running for 20 years without refueling. Both Babcock & Wilcox and a California company named Hyperion have designs. Moving in this direction could break the logjam at the NRC and offer utilities bite-sized projects that would not require them to risk their entire net worth.
Yet Hyperion already enquired about a license application at the NRC in 2006 and was told to go away — the Commission didn’t have time for such small potatoes. (License applicants must pay the entire cost of the process, which means an investment of tens of millions.) Meanwhile, the dream that the U.S. might regain some technological lead is already fading. Toshiba has a mini-reactor it has been trying for years to sell to Galena, Alaska, an isolated village entirely dependent on diesel imports. The Russians are outfitting small reactors on barges and floating them into Siberian coastal villages. Then three months after Chu’s op-ed, the Koreans announced they would also enter the field with their own mini-reactor. The idea that American companies, lumbering along under supervision of the NRC, can compete in this vigorous international market is already evaporating.
So the world is going nuclear without our help.
This will be the first time since the days of the American Revolution that the U.S. has not led a technological revolution. Railroads, central electricity, the automobile, the airplane, the Internet — all propelled us to the forefront of international competition while securing our economic dominance. Now we are lagging far behind in what will certainly be the prime energy source of the 21st century. The consequences may not show up in our economy for another two to three decades. When they do, however, they will be significant.
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