An article I saw on a new process for creating hydrogen via nuclear power (courtesy of the Commons) got me to thinking about what a screw-up our first (and really only) generation of nuclear power plant building was. Learning curve problems with a new technology, combined with an insane regulatory regime and uninformed panicky public response to nuclear power issues led to a shut down in the construction of nuclear power plants, and made the last ones built into memorable financial disasters.
Coming from the aerospace industry, I am used to a strong regime of government safety regulation. The differences in how aircraft construction and nuclear power construction are regulated are very informative, so I want to focus on them in this post.
First, however, its instructive to list some of the reasons why nuclear power is attractive:
- Excepting the radioactive waste issue, which we will discuss below, nuclear power is essentially emissions free, and is totally devoid of any greenhouse gas emissions that may contribute to global warming. There are also no particulate emissions or sulfur dioxide emissions, which are blamed for various woes.
- Nuclear fuel, ie uranium and potentially thorium, is incredibly abundant and currently inexpensive. Also, much of the world's reserves are located in free democracies rather than Islamic dictatorships
Nuclear Plant Regulation
Nuclear plants in the U.S. were mainly designed as one-offs. In other words, each one was a relatively unique design. Each design therefore required regulatory review and approval in depth, processes that could take years. Since the process took so long, changes in personnel or public attitudes often resulted in revisiting certain already approved design decisions, sometimes even after that part of the plant was built, resulting in expensive modifications.
In addition, uninformed public hysteria was allowed to take precedence in the permitting process ahead of fact-based scientific analysis. That is not to say that there are not potential dangers - Chernobyl proved that, but one can pretty easily argue that Chernobyl was more consistent with Soviet era mega-industrial disasters that occurred in many industries than the general experience with nuclear power.
In most cases, the public has no real idea of the risks of nuclear plants, especially vs. other risks they might face. People who might never live in the vicinity of a nuclear plant live downwind of plants using hydrogen cyanide or hydrogen sulfide as process gasses; or near plants with the potential for runaway exothermic reactions, leading to explosions and/or toxic gas releases (Bhopal anyone?) Far more people were killed by the explosion of a shipful of fertilizer in Texas City than have been injured by nuclear power in the United States.
If aircraft construction was regulated like nuclear power plants, there would be no aviation industry. In the aircraft industry, aircraft makers go through an extensive approval and testing process to get a basic design (e.g. the 737-300) approved by the government as safe. Then, as long as they keep producing to this design, they can keep making copies with minimal additional design scrutiny. Instead, the manufacturing process is carefully checked to make sure that it is reliably producing aircraft to the design already deemed safe. If aircraft makers want to make a change to the aircraft, that change must be approved with a fairly in-depth process.
Beyond the reduction in design cost for the 2nd airplane of a series (and 3rd, etc.), this approach also yields strong regulatory benefits. For example, if the actuation screw for the horizontal stabilizer is deemed to be of poor or unsafe design in a particular aircraft, then the government can issue a bulletin to require a new approved design be retrofitted in all other aircraft of this series. This happens all the time in commercial aviation.
One can see how this might make nuclear power plant construction viable again. Urging major construction companies to come up with a design that could be reused would greatly reduce the cost of design and construction of plants. There might still be several designs, since competing companies would likely have their own designs, but this same is true in aerospace with Boeing, Airbus and smaller jet manufacturers Embraer and Bombardier.
I would argue that the issue of nuclear waste is a red herring anyway -- waste from nuclear power is not necesarily worse than from other processes, its just more visible and scary sounding. Current power plants generate millions of tons of waste a year. However, since they spread this waste evenly throughout the atmosphere, it doesn't always call attention to itself. Radioactive waste, though small in volume, tends to be concentrated and admittedly tricky to handle. It can't be just dumped in the air or in the water and forgotten about - it has to be actively tended for years.
Increasingly, many environmentalists are starting to revisit their opposition to nuclear power as the environmental costs are better understood (even technologies formally much-loved by environmentalists are coming under scrutiny for their costs -- do we really want all of our wilderness to look like this and this?) Such articles include this and this. Other roundups about the benefits of revisiting nuclear power are here and here.
My gut feel is that nuclear power, if intelligently regulated, could be economically competitive with many other energy sources today, but I don't know for sure. Jerry Taylor and Co. at Cato think otherwise, and they have certainly put a lot more research into it than I have. I am certainly loathe to start US energy policy, complete with massive subsidies, down yet another uneconomic blind alley.