Is nuclear still a thing?

Millie HennickSeptember 17, 2018 1105 0

Is nuclear still a thing?

First of all, let's be clear: nuclear is not an intelligent or even cost-effective strategy for generating electricity. The reasons for this are too numerous for a 600+ word article. But some scientists continue to push nuclear energy as if Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima never happened. Observers advise caution as a commercial-scale nuclear reactor known as HTR-PM prepares to become operational in China. The reactor is a pebble-bed, high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR), a new design that is purportedly safer but that researchers in the U.S. and Germany warn does not exclude the possibility of a serious accident. Their commentary recommends continued research, additional safety measures, and an extended startup phase that would allow for better monitoring.

"There is no reason for any kind of panic, but nuclear technology has a risk in any case," says first author Rainer Moormann, a nuclear safety researcher based in Germany. "A realistic understanding of those risks is essential, especially for operators, and so we urge caution and a spirit of scientific inquiry in the operation of HTR-PM."

In addition to generating electrical power more efficiently, pebble-bed HTGRs such as HTR-PM avoid some of the safety issues that earlier reactor designs faced. They use graphite- and ceramic-coated grains of uranium fuel that can take the core's very high temperatures and passive cooling systems, which together should reduce the possibility of a core meltdown. "Pebble-bed reactors have been described by their supporters as 'free from catastrophes' and 'walk away safe,'" he says.

Alleged safeguards

What this means in action, however, is that the soon-to-be-operational HTR-PM has been built without the safeguards that nuclear reactors in operation today are usually equipped with: it does not have a high-pressure, leak-tight containment structure to assist as a backup in case of an accidental release of radioactive material. It also does not have a backup active cooling system.

The need to minimize risk as much as possible

But to reduce risk, he and his colleagues suggest several precautionary steps, including rigorous, continuous monitoring, the installation of cooling systems, and an extended startup phase to allow the reactor to be observed and monitored as it comes up to temperature. They also recommend investigating more secure long-term storage options for the fuel waste, which currently will be housed in aboveground canisters potentially vulnerable to environmental stresses and terrorism.

But we need to address the many troubling aspects of nuclear energy on a larger scale. The hype surrounding nuclear power has proven to be totally false in almost every case, much like the fossil fuel and coal industry "experts' who tell us of only inconsequential impacts from the poison they pull out of the earth. The truth about nuclear is too scary to imagine and one nuclear plant is the "poster child" for all the mistakes the industry has made over the years. Fukushima is not nearly as well known as it should be. First, who could be so foolish to construct a nuclear power plant right on the ocean in the world's most geologically violent area? That incredibly short-sighted decision caused incredible problems that will haunt the world for many, many years. The explosions and meltdowns were bad enough, but the amount of radioactive waste stored in flimsy bags at Fukushima is a disaster that will happen eventually. Every day, thousands of gallons of radioactive water are dumped into the Pacific Ocean. The result of this is ongoing and earth-changing.

The only real way to generate energy without all the dangerous emissions is to utilize clean, renewable solar power. There has never been a better time to install solar power for your home or business. Please see our solar blog for more information.

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