There are two key lessons of our nuclear power history that should guide our approach to this technology in the future. First, public health, safety and environmental regulations of this technology and any matter should be governed by a social cost-benefit principle that is more honored in the breach than the observance by our regulation.
Consider the problem of expected radiation leakage from a major pipe in a nuclear plant. Factors such as thickness of the pipe’s walls, its shape and length, support and restraint systems, the nature and details of its connections and the volumes, temperatures and pressures of water in the pipe will determine the probability and amount of leakage. Changing those specifications for those factors can change the maximum expectation of leakage at any time or the cumulative leakage over time.
Each such change has costs and benefits. The cost can be determined by cost engineers and the benefit by other scientists. When regulators propose a change in any of the factors, the cost-benefit principle requires that they consider the expected costs to the expected benefits. If the expected benefits exceed the expected costs, then the change should be adopted; otherwise, not.
Unfortunately, that has not been the practice. Instead, regulators have generally asked whether the proposed increase in safety engineering is technically feasible. So, in sum, nuclear safety requirements are excessive – and new proposed plants are uneconomic.
The second factor exacerbates this first one. It takes as much as a decade to design and build one of these wonders. When an energy company proposes to build one, it presents a conceptual design for regulators to approve. With that approval, it proceeds, including fleshing out the details as it proceeds.
But at the same time regulators are continuously considering and adopting more regulatory measures. A big problem arises when regulators seek to apply new standards and information to a part of the plant that has already been built. The question then becomes whether the builders must retrofit the plant to the new standards. In the first part of this column, I gave a particularly expensive example.
In short, if regulators remedy these problems by adopting the social cost-benefit principle and being very parsimonious about requiring retrofit, commercial fission power will again become economic. Then fission can again become an important part of our energy future.
There are two more important aspects that will help make it so. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter ordered an end reprocessing and recycling spent nuclear fuel. This involves separating out plutonium and other high-level waste products from the uranium. The uranium can then be reprocessed and reused. This approach could provide enough nuclear fuel to satisfy our needs for another century or more.
Right now, the standards that would be applied to reprocessing and recycle are unknown. However, if we committed to the social cost-benefit principles and few retrofit requirements, the nuclear fuel cycle would become economic. France is already proving this option in commercial use.
The other question is what type of nuclear plants would we build in the future? The answer is that other countries and energy firms have continued to develop them. So, we would have a wide variety of options, up to 2,000 megawatts-electric (MWe).
A very interesting option is the use of small and modular units, as small as 30 MWe. The modular option would reduce costs via economies of scale and shorten lead times to first operation. In addition, such units would make a good complement to solar and wind power that is being built.
The opposition to nuclear in general has been and remains ideological and based on ignorance and fear. I’m not the only former nuclear opponent who has come around over the years as we have learned more from experience and research. Our good fortune is that a nuclear future is still available.
Ron Knecht, MS, JD & PE(CA), has served Nevadans as state controller, a higher education regent, economist, college teacher and legislator. Contact him at RonKnecht@aol.com.