Nuclear energy is currently the largest generator of low-carbon electricity in the United States. It could play an important role in mitigating climate change, but fears about safety impede its spread.
These fears aren’t always grounded in reality. The US nuclear energy industry is overseen by two industry groups—the World Association of Nuclear Operators and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators—and multiple government regulators dedicated to passing on lessons learned from nuclear accidents. It is one of the safest industries around in terms of occupational hazards. Severe accidents are rare, and nuclear professionals embrace a strong culture of safety. But is a culture of safety enough? And if it’s not, what can be done to improve? The answer may be found in some of the many US nuclear power plants in danger of closing their doors.
The nuclear power industry could take a lesson from the history of car safety. The automobile industry saw a dramatic reduction in fatalities in recent years: From 1995 to 2009, the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles driven fell by 26 percent, with much of the decrease taking place from 2005 onward. What contributed to this large improvement in driver safety over such a short period? Certainly, there were big changes in cultural attitudes toward car safety. From 2006 to 2010, seat belt use by drivers increased from 81 to 85 percent. Calculations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggest a change of this magnitude would save around 800 to 900 lives per year. In fact, though, by 2010, fatalities were down by nearly 10,000 lives per year, as shown in Figure 1. So while the change in safety culture was significant, another factor must have also contributed to improved driver safety.
During the 2000s, car manufacturers implemented many technical improvements to increase safety. These measures were aimed at both improving the odds of surviving a crash and avoiding accidents in the first place. Airbag technology and better passenger restraint systems are now the norm in automobiles. Advanced technology such as lane-change warnings and front collision avoidance systems were also deployed during this time.
It took both improved safety culture and technological advances to significantly reduce car fatalities. There is a strong culture of safety in the nuclear power industry, but as the auto industry shows, you need technological improvement as well.
That’s where those old power plants come in. It still remains difficult to implement new technology in the nuclear industry. One reason is that US nuclear plants are producing electricity at more than 90 percent of capacity. It is hard to justify experimenting with commercial reactors running so reliably. That makes it hard to test new technology, such as new fuels or claddings designed to improve safety on a commercial scale.
A number of US commercial nuclear reactors are either likely to close or have already. The James M. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in New York is among those on the shutdown list. As it is a significant source of low-carbon electricity for the region, the state is trying to save it, in part by providing $100 million for fuel purchase. For the moment, though, that doesn’t seem to have reversed plant operator Entergy’s decision to close in less than a year. (Entergy has said it is closing for financial reasons, but some of us remain skeptical.)
It may be, though, that struggling nuclear facilities offer a way to improve safety across the industry. The sector needs to be able to test new technology. In order to do that, the US Energy Department could take over soon-to-close reactors and run them as commercial-scale test facilities that also continue to produce clean electricity.
One useful test, for example, would involve new claddings. Claddings are the materials around the radioactive fuel pellets that prevent the coolant from being contaminated. During the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Zircaloy cladding reacted with steam at high temperature, which produced hydrogen that exploded. The industry would like to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. As a test, a plant operator could rotate fuels with new, non-hydrogen-producing claddings into different bundles in the reactor. By monitoring the process, researchers could see how the new claddings performed under normal operating conditions, and use the process to develop and test new sensors.
In short, an Energy Department takeover of this kind would enable researchers to test new safety technologies on a commercial scale, while still allowing states to meet their clean energy goals. For the inconvenience of dealing with a test site, electricity for those living with 15 miles of the reactor could be provided for free or at reduced cost, as has been suggested in relation to a proposed public-private nuclear project in South Australia. This would be a novel use of a reactor that would otherwise just be closed and allowed to sit and decay for decades. Outgoing nuclear power plant operators would still be financially responsible for decommissioning, as laid out by US law, but they would benefit from the arrangement: While the Energy Department used the reactor as a testbed, the previous operator’s decommissioning fund would grow, so that by the time of final decommissioning, the original owner would have more funds and newer technology available for the task.
In fact, the Energy Department could bring commercial-scale testing to other industries, too. Recent reports put California’s Ivanpah concentrated solar power plant in danger of closing. It would be a tremendous waste to allow the $2.2 billion dollar facility to close without giving researchers the ability to study what problems occurred. The ability to data mine Ivanpah’s weather and production information would be invaluable for improving future facilities. The site could also be used to test methods for preventing bird deaths and mitigating visual impact on pilots. Instead of wasting away in the desert, Ivanpah would be of valuable service to society.
The Energy Department should not pass up the opportunity to take over closing facilities as commercial-scale testbeds to improve current energy technology. Having seen how new technology has improved safety in other industries, we need to make sure there is a method for testing new methods and materials in the energy sector as well. Resources like the FitzPatrick nuclear plant and the Ivanpah solar plant are too valuable to let fade away. It is in our best interest to allow researchers to collect data using these facilities. Subjecting that trove of information to new experimental techniques and computational data mining will allow scientists and engineers to make other facilities more efficient and safe. The Energy Department should take a lead role in keeping these no-longer-competitive commercial facilities alive. The data they provide can be used to improve our future.
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