APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The long drought is over; a new energy future for America.

Today's announcement by the NRC that the vote to approve COL's (combined Construction and Operating Licenses) for Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 has brought literally a firestorm of blog posts on all of the pro-nuclear blogs that this author follows - these are included in the link list at the right of APR. There have of course already been some anti-nuclear posts in other quarters. There is no worry concerning exaggeration when I say that today's event, while already predicted, is a monumental step. Indeed, this step essentially is the official (that is to say, regulatory) restart of the construction of nuclear power plants in the United States.

This author had the good fortune to purchase (at a regular book store, no less) a copy of the work entitled "The Second Nuclear Era - A New Start for Nuclear Power" which was published in 1985, and authored by Alvin M. Weinberg, Irving Spiewak, Jack N. Barkenbus, Robert S. Livingston, and Doan L. Phung. This work essentially takes the nuclear energy industry and field at the immediate post-TMI phase, with a number of issues from the Presidential Commission still to be resolved, and tries to find a way to move nuclear energy forward. Alternate technologies are discussed, as well as the most advanced commercial PWR and BWR plants of the day. Many reactor safety aspects were also studied in this book, as well as some condensed nuclear energy history, some examinations of incidents and accidents, and a whole lot more.

The essential points that this volume made to me back then (and of course anyone else who read it) were that in order for nuclear power plants to resume construction, there would have to be almost concrete proof to the public that they were safe; to that end, the authors selected the PIUS (Process Inherent Ultimately Safe) reactor as a prime example of the type of design that the public would approve of having built; that the public, once assured, would approve of further construction having never swung seriously anti-nuclear for long, even after the TMI accident; that safety was far more complex an issue than could be addressed simply by DBA approach, or defense in depth approach, or fault tree approach.

We now find ourselves in essentially that exact world. Sentiment in the United States has continued to become more and more pro-nuclear in the years since TMI, and the continued rise in the number of those concerned with AGW (anthropogenic global warming) has coupled with a new rise in energy demand to fuel a new nuclear renaissance. (It was this renaissance which caused the launch of Atomic Power Review in April, 2010.) The Westinghouse AP1000 has passed the most serious and rigorous safety reviews imaginable, and has even endured having the Chairman of the NRC attempt to publicly detract from the integrity either of the design or the people responsible (or both) in an unprecedented display of lack of decorum, all to naught.

Some people are certainly startled (and some appalled) that we are at this point less than one year after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. One of those is the Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, who is the only one of the five NRC Commissioners that voted against approving the COL's for Vogtle. Jaczko has indicated that he feels that all of the post-Fukushima recommendations and changes should be implemented to the AP1000 design before it is built.

Those persons everywhere with nuclear plant knowledge are quite well aware that the AP1000 is the most advanced design ever built in the United States in terms of nuclear safety. It is still unclear to this writer, even with his extensive knowledge of the Fukushima Daiichi accident (having covered it continuously since its onset) what possible additions could be made to the AP1000 that would further increase safety in LOOP and SBO scenarios.

Today's decision by four of the five NRC Commissioners is the right call. Moving forward with nuclear energy that reliably provides base load generating capacity without worry about climactic conditions (solar energy requires daylight; wind energy requires wind sustained above a certain velocity) and without worry about greenhouse gas emissions is the sensible move at this point in our nation's still developing and still modernizing energy system.

TOMORROW: APR will present some historical perspective on nuclear energy in the United States to bring today's development into sharper focus. You won't want to miss that!

8:40 PM Eastern Thursday February 9, 2012

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