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Small reactors may save us yet.
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So why isn’t there more coordination between the civilian and military efforts? In fact there is some. The first commercial reactor built at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957 was actually a submarine reactor “beached” by Admiral Rickover’s Navy. Since then hundreds of nuclear technicians trained in the Navy have gone on to find jobs in the nuclear industry. One reason most new reactors are now being planned in the South is the large presence of Navy veterans. But beyond that, the Navy’s long experience with nuclear does not seem to build anyone’s confidence that the technology can be handled in the civilian field.
Instead, the great impediment to all this is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the gargantuan Washington bureaucracy that regularly wins awards as the “best place to work in the federal government” yet seems unable to deliver on its main purpose, which is to issue licenses for nuclear reactors. The NRC last issued a license for a nuclear reactor in 1976. No one knows if it will ever issue one again. One utility, Southern Electric, has received permission to begin site clearance at the Vogtle plants 3 and 4 in Georgia. But the Vogtle plants will be Westinghouse AP1000s, a model for which the NRC has not yet issued design approval, let alone permission to build particular projects. Four AP1000s are already well under construction in China, with the first scheduled to begin operation in 2013. Yet here the NRC is still trying to figure out how to protect the reactor from airplanes. Even though the containment structure is strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a commercial jet, the NRC asked Westinghouse to put up a concrete shield to protect adjacent buildings. Then after Westinghouse had completed the revision, the NRC decided the shield might fall down in an earthquake. Further revisions are still pending.
When Hyperion first approached the NRC about design approval for its small modular reactor in 2006, the NRC essentially told it to go away — it didn’t have time for such small potatoes. Since then the NRC has relented and sat down for discussions with Hyperion last fall. Whether the approval process can be accelerated is still up for grabs, but at least there has been a response from the bureaucracy.
OR COURSE, the NRC is only responding to the lamentations and lawsuits from environmentalists and nuclear opponents who have never reconciled themselves to the technology, even though nuclear’s carbon-free electricity is the only reliable source of power that promises to reduce carbon emissions. If a new reactor project does ever make it out of the NRC, it will be contested in court for years, with environmental groups challenging the dotting of every i and crossing of every t in the decision-making. It will be a miracle if any proposal ever makes it through the process.
However, we should not imagine the rest of the world is standing still waiting for America to come up with the latest innovation. Japan, Korea, and Russia already have small reactors and France is preparing to enter the field. Toshiba has a 75-MW reactor it has been offering to the Alaskan village of Galena, which now generates its electricity by importing vast quantities of diesel fuel. The Russians have already built a 125-MW reactor and mounted it on a barge to float to an isolated Siberian village. Last year Rosatom started offering its small reactor to India. Korea is working on an SMR and France recently decided it was relying too heavily on its giant EPR1700 and will try to design a small reactor as well. If China ever enters the game — which is likely by mid-decade — it may be over for the competition. Areva’s CEO Anne Lauvergeon recently expressed alarm at how quickly and efficiently China is constructing Areva’s own reactors — much faster and cheaper than the French are able to do it themselves.
So even though American ingenuity and inventiveness are still operating, there is no certainty that it will bring us any benefit. We have developed a bureaucracy that would make the Byzantine Empire envious. Most helpful, though, would be widespread public recognition that nuclear energy is not the devil’s work but simply the practical fruition of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Just as we led the world into the Computer Revolution — and just about every other technological revolution since the 18th century — America could still lead the world into the Nuclear Age. But it is going to be a much closer call this time.
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