Meet the Anti-Nuclear Pro-Nuclear Crowd
The anti-nuclear movement focuses primarily on its familiar battle with the nuclear infrastructure that was built in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The traditional foe, however, is dying a slow, natural death due to financial constraints. The real battle shaping up is being fought over the question of whether it is wise to invest now in a new generation of nuclear technology (now referred to in PR campaign as “Nuclear Power 2.0”) based on fast breeder technology and/or small modular reactors.
What few people realize is that the proponents of the new technology are, in the traditional sense, passionately anti-nuclear. The promotion of their plans requires them to admit that Nuclear Power 1.0 was just as dirty and dangerous as opponents always said it was. For their marketing pitch, the proponents of the new reactors claim exactly what anti-nukers have been saying for decades. They now claim that the new reactors will solve all the existing problems. The old reactors haven’t changed at all, so it’s ironic that this transformation in perceptions of the safety of Nuclear Power 1.0 came about only when there was an alternative on the horizon.
So it turns out that that uranium supplies are in fact limited, and mining uranium is dangerous, so we have to invest in the closed fuel cycle technology that will give us a perpetual supply of energy from nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is a weapons proliferation hazard, so we need the close the fuel cycle to “burn up” the plutonium that we have failed to dispose of below ground. The new designs have passive safety features, and they reduce the need to transfer and transport hazardous nuclear materials. When they shut down, they cool off safely without need of human intervention. It all sounds too good to be true, and indeed it probably is.
Detroit, the city that once represented the preeminence of American industry, is bankrupt. As the news about this sad state of affairs had the world’s attention recently, the city attracted an interesting offer of rescue. Like a pimp on the prowl for hungry young girls with self-esteem issues, a little-known company named American Atomics hit on Detroit, not prosperous Seattle or San Jose, with a stunning offer of 100,000 jobs, cheap energy, and billions of dollars of manufacturing investment. Highlights of the press release published by PRWeb:
American Atomics is presenting a plan to community leaders in Detroit, Michigan, offering to locate the company's new factory and other operations in that economically strapped city. The plan, claimed to generate between 500,000 and 1 million new jobs in Detroit over the next 10 years, includes building the world's largest factory, as well as guaranteeing to supply Detroit with electricity at a flat rate of 2¢ per kilowatt-hour for both businesses and residences, beginning in 5 years.
· zero to 100,000 manufacturing workers within a 24 month period
· job training programs beginning the summer of 2017
· August 1, 2018 factory opening
· our ideal site is one that's surrounded by that many unemployed or underemployed workers
Detroit's vast, semi-vacant condition is a near-ideal fit for our unusual requirements.
high points include:
· an 8 million square-foot factory
· a 600,000 square-foot headquarters campus
· a 1,600 acre or larger industrial park for suppliers
Accommodations sought by the company:
· help in identifying appropriate sites to purchase
· delivery of city services without undue administrative burdens
· cooperation from Detroit Edison in replacing the local electricity supply with that from new HOPE 40 power plants
· American Atomics has stated that it will pay all costs involved, including all infrastructure improvement costs and the costs of increased city services, and that it expects to pay its fair business taxes.
"The price of electricity is an under-appreciated input cost to virtually all human activities," says Tom Blees, president of the non-profit SCGI group of nuclear reactor scientists.
The level of cost reduction being discussed here would have an extraordinary impact on business choices where electricity is a proportionately high input cost.
Chief Reactor Engineer says, "The technology we are implementing in the HOPE 40 power plant is derived from over fifty years of development in the Department of Energy laboratories. HOPE 40 combines safety and simplicity in a low cost, truly mass-produceable commercial product for the world market. Nothing could make a clearer statement about the future of advanced nuclear power than to apply it to rejuvenating such a great, historic city as Detroit."
"We demonstrated the safety of the fast reactor with our IFR project at Argonne in 1986," says Dr. George Stanford, a retired nuclear reactor physicist, and a member of the team that developed the fast reactor at Argonne National Laboratory. Commercialization of fast-reactor technology is long overdue. To see it put to such good use will be a real pleasure."
American Atomics seeks to discuss the specifics of its proposed commitment to Detroit with the city's government and business leaders, and to get the process of implementation underway as quickly as possible.
"Our timetable is already in motion around a different site location," says Campbell. "So, to make this work, we'll need swift cooperation with Detroit's leaders."
The city government and business leaders must have been skeptical about an offer that promised so much because within a short time their rejection was tersely noted on the American Atomics blog, without any mention of Detroit’s reasons, other than space limitations.
We have been in discussions this past week with Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Management group regarding locating our factory and headquarters in Detroit, per our recent public offer to do so — starting with identifying appropriate sites within the Detroit city limits. Unfortunately for all parties it seems that there simply isn’t a site near the size we require anywhere in the city. Nothing even close.
It is easy to imagine some of the concerns the city might have had. The promise of thousands of jobs and economic revitalization is by no means a sure thing. In order for this rosy projection to come true, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have to approve a massive expansion of this new technology, and municipal, state and national voting constituencies would have to fall in love with this new promise of nuclear energy. But the promise of cheap electricity has been made before, and it never came true. More importantly, the proposal from American Atomics pretended that Detroit hadn’t already had experience with a nearly catastrophic accident at the Fermi 1 fast breeder reactor in 1966.
The comical aspect of the proposal is that the wonks who put it together were rather clueless in the art of seduction. If you’re trying to convince the purported object of your faithful affection of your “commitment to Detroit,” that she’s special and unique, you don’t try to close the deal by saying you need to “… get the process of implementation underway as quickly as possible… timetable is already in motion around a different site location.” Such charm.
The “demonstrated safety” of the IFR project mentioned above refers to the fast breeder reactor program that was shut down in the 1990s during the Clinton administration. People involved with the program have protested ever since that this was a tragic decision driven, apparently, by poorly informed politics and an obsession with budget-cutting. According to this narrative, it deprived the nation of a technology that could have solved the energy crisis and dependence on foreign oil.
Now that global warming is acknowledged as a more urgent problem, there are several private investment initiatives working to bring the technology back. They seem to prefer a stealthy PR campaign, deliberately avoiding being a front page news item. They can be seen establishing a beachhead at places like the TED Conference where they have announced their ambitions among the technocratic elite. Web searches for “Argonne Laboratory” or “Integral Fast Breeder Reactor” will produce dozens of blogs and journal articles lamenting the US government's tragic rejection of fast breeder technology.
These articles describe the advantages and successes of the IFR program, but they mysteriously omit discussion of the reasons that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, the Department of Energy and Congress all agreed to close it down. Rather than addressing these reasons and providing a counter-argument, these proponents would like readers to believe that the program was canceled for no good reason at all – supposedly just because of short-sighted, scientifically illiterate politics. One has to search more persistently to find analyses that explain the legitimate reasons for ending the program.
The Integral Fast Breeder Reactor did prove itself to be safer in some respects than first generation “once-through” (no re-use of fuel) reactor technology. It has better passive safety features and requires less handling of radioactive materials. It is less of a weapons proliferation risk, but the risk is not nearly eliminated. It withdraws energy from existing nuclear waste or decommissioned weapons, but there would still be a socially and technically complex waste management problem to deal with after this initial “burn-up.”
In spite of some advantages, there is a terrible record of failures in fast breeder technology that its proponents don't like to discuss. Fast breeder reactors failed in three different projects in the US (EBR 1 in Idaho in 1955, Santa Susana in suburban Los Angeles in 1959, and Fermi 1 near Detroit in 1966 all had partial meltdowns), at the Superphénix reactor in France, and at the Monju reactor in Japan. The Santa Susana accident is notable because it was a meltdown that released more radiation than Three Mile Island. It was covered up until the 1970s, and the contamination in the area is still being dealt with. The accident in Detroit was a fire in the sodium coolant that nearly caused a catastrophic meltdown. It was the subject of a book and a soul song both entitled We Almost Lost Detroit.
These failures are what make fast breeder technology politically toxic. An informed public would never support the expenditures necessary, and private investors will not put their money down if they cannot be sure of public, regulatory and political support. The only type of person willing to invest in this dream is a person like Bill Gates (investor in Terra Power), someone with an enormous personal fortune that he is not particularly attached to. He is willing to part with it in the pursuit of a world-changing vision. History shows that such people on a mission, the true believers, can be more dangerous than the pragmatic realists who care most about holding onto their power and fortunes.
In addition to the record of expensive and dangerous failures, there are more serious problems with the long-term management of the proposed infrastructure. For there to be any hope at all of “burning up,” rather than burying, existing nuclear waste, a large fleet of fast breeder reactors would have to operate for over a century. In contrast, permanent burial of waste could be achieved in the short-term, by the generation that produced it, but proponents of fast breeder technology prefer to believe that their complex technology and the social organizations needed to manage it can be established and maintained long into the future. If the vision falters or is abandoned in a few decades, we will have lost an opportunity take responsibility for permanent disposal of nuclear waste created in our time.
More detailed discussion of these problems is cited below in two reports, one by The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the other by The Union of Concerned Scientists.
From a fact sheet published jointly by The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility:
Of the various types of proposed SMRs, liquid metal fast reactor designs pose particular safety concerns. Sodium leaks and fires have been a central problem — sodium explodes on contact with water and burns on contact with air. Sodium-potassium coolant, while it has the advantage of a lower melting point than sodium, presents even greater safety issues, because it is even more flammable than molten sodium alone. Sodium-cooled fast reactors have shown essentially no positive learning curve (i.e., experience has not made them more reliable, safer, or cheaper). The world’s first nuclear reactor to generate electricity, the EBR I in Idaho, was a sodium-potassium-cooled reactor that suffered a partial meltdown. EBR II, which was sodium-cooled reactor, operated reasonably well, but the first US commercial prototype, Fermi I in Michigan had a meltdown of two fuel assemblies and, after four years of repair, a sodium explosion. The most recent commercial prototype, Monju in Japan, had a sodium fire 18 months after its commissioning in 1994, which resulted in it being shut down for over 14 years. The French Superphénix, the largest sodium-cooled reactor ever built, was designed to demonstrate commercialization. Instead, it operated at an average of less than 7 percent capacity factor over 14 years before being permanently shut.
The cost picture for sodium-cooled reactors is also rather grim. They have typically been much more expensive to build than light water reactors, which are currently estimated to cost between $6,000 and $10,000 per kilowatt in the US. The costs of the last three large breeder reactors have varied wildly. In 2008 dollars, the cost of the Japanese Monju reactor (the most recent) was $27,600 per kilowatt (electrical); French Superphénix (start up in 1985) was $6,300; and the Fast Flux Test Facility (startup in 1980) at Hanford was $13,800. This gives an average cost per kilowatt in 2008 dollars of about $16,000, without taking into account the fact that cost escalation for nuclear reactors has been much faster than inflation. In other words, while there is no recent US experience with construction of sodium-cooled reactors, one can infer that (i) they are likely to be far more expensive than light water reactors, (ii) the financial risk of building them will be much greater than with light water reactors due to high variation in cost from one project to another and the high variation in capacity factors that might be expected. Even at the lower end of the capital costs, for Superphénix, the cost of power generation was extremely high — well over a dollar per kWh since it operated so little. Monju, despite being the most expensive has generated essentially no electricity since it was commissioned in 1994.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has just published another report on various light water (not fast breeder) small modular reactors now seeking investors and government approval. This report lists many of the same shortcomings that are found in the fast breeder SMR proposals: proliferation risks, the difficulty of inspecting and managing a larger number of reactors over a wider area, waste management problems, and the lack of interest from investors who would be willing to establish the technology at the necessary economies of scale.
… the DOE study… charges the direct-disposal scenario with the full cost of 12 large geologic repositories, but does not charge the GNEP [Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, an initiative of the Bush administration which was “intended to support a safe, secure and sustainable expansion of nuclear energy”] scenario with the cost of disposing of the 51 percent of the actinide inventory that remains in the fuel cycle. The DOE also assumes that 100 years from now, institutions will be in place to ensure that the GNEP system will remain fully functional. Without that guarantee, there can be no assurance that the remaining heat-bearing actinides could be managed safely. And the only way to provide such assurance would be to dispose of those elements in six geologic repositories. This would cost another several hundred billion dollars—for a total cost of more than $1 trillion (undiscounted) for the GNEP option, compared with direct disposal. This last challenge underscores the fact that the GNEP proposal does not satisfy a fundamental ethical principle for the disposal of nuclear waste: intergenerational equity. This principle can be summarized as follows:
· The liabilities of waste management should be considered when undertaking new projects.
· Those who generate the wastes should take responsibility, and provide the resources, for managing these materials in a way that will not impose undue burdens on future generations.
· Wastes should be managed in a way that secures an acceptable level of protection for human health and the environment, and affords to future generations at least the level of safety acceptable today.
· A waste management strategy should not assume a stable social structure in the indefinite future, nor technological advances. Rather, it should aim to bequeath a passively safe situation: that is, one that does not rely on active institutional controls to maintain safety and security.
Direct disposal of spent fuel in a geologic repository that can contain the waste without active intervention is the epitome of a system that meets the principle of intergenerational equity. Although such a repository has not yet been licensed, the scientific consensus is that it is feasible. In contrast, GNEP requires a complex system of dangerous facilities that must be operated and repeatedly rebuilt for centuries. These facilities include those that allow aboveground “decay storage” of short-lived fission products, and a host of added facilities needed to reprocess and fission highly radioactive actinides. [Emphasis added]. This system clearly fails to meet fundamental criteria for responsible waste management.
The United States should eliminate its programs to develop and deploy fast reactors.
This report, published in 2007, may have had some influence in the subsequent decision, reported by World Nuclear News, that the US Department of Energy planned to halt the GNEP programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) because “it is no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing.” The GNEP budget was cut to zero in 2009, but still the DoE wanted to “continue to study proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and waste management strategies” with other sources of funding. The WNN report cited a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences which concluded “commercial-scale reprocessing facilities envisaged under GNEP were not economically justifiable.” With this history of unfavorable government decisions, it is hard to comprehend why organizations like American Atomics are speaking of a large-scale rebirth of American industry based on an imagined renaissance called Nuclear Power 2.0.
Fuller, John G. We Almost Lost Detroit. Ballantyne, 1976.
Gronlund, Lisbeth, Lochbaum, David and Lyman, Edwin. “Evaluating New Nuclear Reactor Designs,” in Nuclear Power in a Warming World. Union of Concerned Scientists, 53-79, 2007.
Makhijani, Arjun and Boyd, Michelle. “Small Modular Reactors: No Solution for the Cost, Safety and Waste Problems of Nuclear Power.” Fact sheet published jointly by The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility, September 2010.
Makhijani, Arjun. Light Water Designs of Small Modular Reactors: Facts and Analysis. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, August 2013.
Mangano, Joseph, Sherman, Janette D. “The Legacy of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” Counterpunch, August 5, 2013.
PRWeb. “Tennessee Nuclear Power Plant Manufacturer Offers Economic Boost To Detroit.” July 23, 2013.
World Nuclear News. Fatal Blow to GNEP? June 29, 2009.
More information about American Atomics: