The Search for a Better, Safer Nuclear Power

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There's nothing magical about nuclear power. Cloaked in the nearly mystical knowledge granted by Einstein and the other giants of 20th century atomic physics, it sometimes seems as if we tap uranium directly, plugging fissionable material right into our electrical grid without all the steps between the chain reaction and the three-pronged outlet.

energy_bug_1.pngIt's only when something goes horribly wrong, as at Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex that we're reminded of all the specifics that go into nuclear power. Suddenly, the make of the containment vessel and the specific arrangements of the cooling systems leap to the foreground. The core seethes at the center of the operation, but it's all the engineering around it that matter most. The miracle of atomic power shows its human frailty.

A very complex system stands between the between the basic chemistry of fission and the production of electrical power from that radioactive decay. Another way to think about this: not all nuclear power is the same. This is easy to grasp with other technological objects. No one thinks a Volvo is a 1965 VW Bug in terms of performance or safety or cost. But when it comes to nuclear reactors, few proponents or opponents of nuclear power have been willing to admit the extent to which the nuclear power we create doesn't have to be the nuclear power of the past. 

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Go to Google Patents and type in, "nuclear reactor." Dozens of patents for different types of nuclear reactors pop up. It feels wrong almost, as if nothing so controversial and powerful could be kept on record like a new design for a pencil sharpener. In the early years of atomic power, as recounted by Alvin Weinberg, head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his book The First Nuclear Era, there was intense competition to come up with the cheapest, safest, best nuclear reactor design.

Every variable in building an immensely complex industrial plant was up for grabs: the nature of the radioactive fuel and other substances that form the reactor's core, the safety systems, the containment buildings, the construction substances, and everything else that might go into building an immensely complex industrial plant. The light water reactor became the technological victor, but no one is quite sure whether that was a good idea.

Few of these alternatives were seriously investigated after light water reactors were selected for Navy submarines by Admiral Hyman Rickover. Once light water reactors gained government backing and the many advantages that conferred, other designs could not break into the market, even though commercial nuclear power wouldn't explode for years after Rickover's decision. "There were lots and lots of ideas floating around, and they essentially lost when light water came to dominate," University of Strasbourg professor Robin Cowan told the Boston Globe in an excellent article on "technological lock-in" in the nuclear industry.

As it turned out, there were real political and corporate imperatives to commercialize nuclear power with whatever designs were already to hand. It was geopolitically useful for the United States to show they could offer civilian nuclear facilities to its allies and the companies who built the plants (mainly GE and Westinghouse) did not want to lose the competitive advantage they'd gained as the contractors on the Manhattan Project. Those companies stood to make much more money on nuclear plants than traditional fossil fuel-based plants, and they had less competitors. The invention and use of the atomic bomb weighed heavily on the minds of nuclear scientists. Widespread nuclear power was about the only thing that could redeem their role in the creation of the first weapon with which it was possible to destroy life on earth. In other words, the most powerful interest groups surrounding the nuclear question all wanted to settle on a power plant design and start building.

In this week's excerpt from my book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, I look at the story of the Oyster Creek Power Plant, which is the oldest operating nuclear plant in the United States and the same boiling water reactor model designed by General Electric as the Fukushima plant in Japan. It was the first of many plants sold at a discount to utilities by GE and Westinghouse in the 1960s in their efforts to drive the adoption of nuclear power. They received substantial government support in a variety of ways, but especially from the Atomic Energy Commission, which was charged with both regulating and promoting atomic energy. Most importantly, Oyster Creek was used to sell the American public on the idea that the era of cheap nuclear power had arrived, when, in fact, it had not. Even American nuclear scientists were convinced that a cost "breakthrough" had been achieved, though they should have known better.

President Lyndon Johnson and his administration sent the message that we were going to use nuclear power, and it would be largely through the reactor designs that already existed, regardless of whether they had the best safety characteristics that could be imagined. We learned in later years that boiling water reactors like Fukushima are subject to certain types of failure under very unusual circumstances, but we probably would have discovered such problems if we'd explored the technical designs for longer before trying to start building large numbers of nuclear plants.

Why's this history especially important right now? No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States for 25 years. During that time, the operational record of the plants has improved tremendously and the specter of climate change has made nuclear power more popular among some greens. In Washington, a consensus appeared to have coalesced around developing more nuclear power. Meanwhile, during nuclear power's long lull, plant designers reopened the history books and began to look at new ideas for tapping the atom's energy. From the thorium reactor featured in Wired to the modular plant backed by Bill Gates to the pebble bed reactors developed in South Africa and China, a host of new ideas are on the table for the future of nuclear energy.

With the Fukushima plant's problems putting safety back at the forefront of Americans' minds, these new reactors could be the only real way forward for nuclear power, if the globe's citizens decide they want that future. Many engineers think they're safer. For example, they incorporate "passive" safety features instead of the active pumping systems that failed at Fukushima. As importantly, some new reactor designs are made to be smaller than the one-gigawatt behemoths we built for decades. That could assuage some critics' contention that nuclear power exacerbates the centralization of an energy system that's already too centralized. Because they're smaller and may be safer, the plants may cost less too. That's important considering that a new standard reactor may cost up to $10 billion, which is more than the market value of all but a handful of the largest utilities.

So, this week, we're going to be tapping experts on the future of nuclear power. We planned this series months before the events at the Japanese nuclear complex drew the world's attention back to the pros and cons of the atom. Our discussion will still focus on the role these new reactor designs will play, but obviously risk management and safety will be prominent in the series.

Over the next week, we'll be hearing from Ernie Moniz, the head of the MIT Energy Initiative; Dan Kammen, the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley; Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist of technology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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