Backers think nuclear energy vital to fight global warming - GulfToday

Backers think nuclear energy vital to fight global warming


An aerial view of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant which sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County, California. Tribune News Service

Michael Hiltzik, Tribune news Service

No one would have believed this possible only a few years ago, but nuclear energy has been creeping up in public estimation, despite its long record of unfulfilled promise and cataclysmic missteps.

The impetus has come from government and big business, among other sources.

Billions of dollars in incentives to keep existing nuclear plants operating and to get new nuclear technologies off the drawing board were enacted as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed late last year by President Joe Biden.

Byron Wein, vice chairman of the big institutional investor Blackstone, listed among his predictions for 2022 that “the nuclear alternative for power generation enters the arena ... and the viability of nuclear power is widely acknowledged.”

Some celebrity entrepreneurs have weighed in, without demonstrating that they have given the issue the thorough consideration it deserves. Elon Musk last month tweeted that “unless susceptible to extreme natural disasters, nuclear power plants should not be shut down.”

Musk didn’t, however, define “extreme natural disasters” or mention the myriad other reasons that a plant might need to be shuttered, such as advanced age, upside-down economics or dangers in its own design or operation.

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey followed with his own endorsement of nuclear power last week, tweeting that “generating more energy, not less, increases quality of life for all.” But that’s only true if you set aside the question of how that electricity is generated — precisely the issue at the heart of the global warming crisis.

The explicit rationale for the repositioning of nuclear power as a “green technology” is concern about global warming. Nuclear proponents argue that as a non-carbon source of energy, nuclear fission is an indispensable alternative to the burning of oil, gas and coal and a transitional technology, on the path to fully renewable resources such as the sun and wind.

That was the argument voiced in a Nov. 21 op-ed in The Times by former Energy Secretaries Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz: “Reconsidering the future of Diablo Canyon is now urgently needed in advancing the public good,” they wrote, referring to the Pacific Gas & Electric nuclear plant scheduled to be shut down starting in 2024.

Yet the enthusiasm overlooks some inescapable truths about nuclear power.

The history of nuclear power in America is one of rushed and slipshod engineering, unwarranted assurances of public safety, political influence and financial chicanery, inept and duplicitous regulators, and mismanagement on a grand scale.

Many of the problems originated in the government’s decision to place the technology in the hands of the utility industry, which was ill-equipped to handle anything so complicated.

This record accounts for the technology’s deplorable public reputation, which has made it almost impossible to build a new nuclear plant in the US for decades. Forgetting the history threatens to stage the same drama over again.

The debate over the nuclear power future is really two separate debates.

First, there are the optimistic expectations raised by alternatives to the design of the 93 reactors currently in operation in the US — reactors in which a radioactive core heats water, producing steam to drive electricity-generating turbines.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the existing reactors, many of which have lasted well beyond their design lives. Only 28 of these have remained “competitive” — that is, economically viable — according to energy expert Amory Lovins.

That existing fleet includes Diablo Canyon, whose owner, PG&E, said the plant was facing an unprofitable future when it made the decision to abandon plans to seek a permit renewal from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Many alternative reactor designs are pitched as if they’re novel. They’re not. A good example is the Natrium reactor, which is cooled not by water but liquid sodium and is being promoted by TerraPower, a firm founded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates.

Far from an advanced new technology, sodium-cooled reactors date from the very dawn of the nuclear power age. They were considered as an alternative to water-cooled reactors for submarine power plants, for example, by Adm. Hyman Rickover, the founder of America’s nuclear navy.

Rickover, whose rigorous standards for technology and crew training made the nuclear navy a success, ordered a prototype sodium reactor for the submarine Seawolf. Almost instantly, the technology demonstrated its flaws.

While the Seawolf was still at the dock, the reactor sprung a leak. “It took us three months, working 24 hours a day, to locate and correct” the leak, Rickover told a congressional committee in 1957.

Rickover abandoned any thought of using the reactors in his submarines, finding them “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shut down as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair,” as he advised his Navy superiors and technical experts at the Atomic Energy Commission in late 1956 and early 1957.

The drawbacks of sodium technology should resonate especially loudly for Californians.

The 1959 explosion of a sodium-cooled test reactor at the government’s secretive Santa Susana Field Laboratory outside Simi Valley remains the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, venting an immense amount of radioactivity into the air and creating what former California EPA Director Jared Blumenfeld called “one of the most toxic sites in the United States by any kind of definition.”

The three entities controlling portions of the site — Boeing Co., the US Department of Energy and NASA — reached agreements with the state in 2007 and 2010 binding them to restore the site to “background” standards. Much of the work still hasn’t begun.

“There’s been a kind of cult that’s been trying to keep this technology alive for decades” despite persistent evidence of its inadequate reliability or sustainability, says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the author of a report challenging safety and efficiency claims made for Natrium, among other alternative technologies.

“Pretty effective lobbyists” push the idea that “this is somehow a breakthrough technology that’s going to transform nuclear power,” Lyman said of sodium-cooled reactors.

“History tells us that it’s not a very reliable source of power and has a number of safety and security disadvantages that make one wonder why there’s such enthusiasm for it,” he said. None of the other alternatives, he adds, solve the most pressing problem of nuclear power: what to do with the radioactive waste produced by every plant.

TerraPower says it settled on liquid sodium technology because experimental testing had shown that it could be managed safely.

“The US has decades  and decades of experience in operating sodium reactors,” including the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which was operated in Idaho by the Argonne National Laboratory from 1964 to 1994, says Jeff Navin, a former Energy Department official under Chu and Moniz who is now TerraPower’s spokesman.  “We’re not starting from square one.”

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