Meltdown or Mother Lode: The New Truth About Nuclear Power

03 Nov 2011, Posted by Steven Kotler in

In the past four decades, there’s been a nuclear revolution brewing. Most likely you haven’t heard about it. Most likely, if you’re reading this on an environmental website like, you tow the green “no nukes” party line. The problem with that is actually simple: overpopulation, global warming, resource scarcity and energy shortages are real. Many very smart scientists are saying that nuclear energy is the only way to deal with these issues. Perhaps you think they have their facts wrong. Unfortunately, the inverse is often true: those of us who firmly oppose nuclear power often don’t know all the facts.

Or worse—the facts we know are actually 40 years out of date.

What follows is a seven-part investigation into nuclear power, an attempt to put all those facts on the table so at least we can start having a reasonable discussion. After all, the clock is ticking.

Part One: The Atom and Its Eve

First there was the atom. The idea of a fundamental particle from which all things are made came from India, dating to Sixth-century BCE Hindu philosopher Kanada. A hundred years later the notion emigrated to Greece, where Leuccipus of Miletus popularized it. His pupil, Democritus, gave us a word to describe the particle, taking atom from atomos, Greek for “indivisible.” This concept held fast until the late nineteenth century, then crumbled within four decades of the twentieth.

In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays. Next, Marie Curie found radium and polonium—the first two radioactive elements, while Ernest Rutherford gave us the mechanics of radioactive decay. In 1905, Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity suggested that a large amount of energy could be stored in a very small amount of matter. Twenty-seven years later Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft verified this suspicion and proved Democritus wrong. Turns out, the atom is divisible.

In 1935, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard leveraged this knowledge to build the Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor. It went—and you’ve got to love this word—“critical” on December 2, 1942. (“Critical” refers to having the minimum amount of nuclear material necessary to create a sustained nuclear reaction.)

In 1951, an experiment in Idaho, dubbed EBR-1, became the first reactor to produce electricity. EBR-1 melted down in 1955—also another first—though not many people outside of Idaho noticed. Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech and US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss’s promise of a nuclear future with electricity “too cheap to meter” had us dazzled. The nuclear age was upon us.

In 1956, Calder Hall, in Sellafield, England, started pumping out an annual 50 megawatts (MW) and the world had its first commercial nuclear power station. The following year, the US got reactors in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, and Santa Susana, California, and not coincidentally the Price-Anderson Act passed, limiting the financial risk of nuclear-plant owners in the event of a catastrophe.

1957 marked the appearance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), its 18 member countries committed to promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy while curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons (and, um, good luck with that one, fellows). Many feel that the real future of the industry arrived on November 9, 1965, when a blackout left the Northeastern united States without electricity for about twelve hours. Add in the brownouts of the early 1970s and it’s no surprise that 1973 was a banner year for the industry: 41 new plants ordered and no end in sight. But then…

“China Syndrome” is shorthand hyperbole for what happens when an American nuclear reactor melts down—it melts straight through to China. The disaster movie of the same name came out on March 16, 1979, twelve days before unit 2 at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island partially melted down; this wasn’t a winning combination. Not long after, when Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman posed in front of the cooling towers and said, “Yes, me worry,” he spoke for much of the country. In 1984, a Forbes magazine cover story called the nuclear industry “the largest managerial disaster in business history.” In 1986, Ukraine’s Chernobyl became a bigger disaster and, as Allan Winkler points out in his excellent book, Life under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom, “Some Americans masked their concerns with black humor: ‘What’s the weather report from Kiev? Overcast and 10,000 degrees.’”

Popular wisdom holds that Three Mile Island slowed the industry down, while Chernobyl ground it to a halt, but nuclear experts feel that cost overruns were a much worse problem. In the end it didn’t matter. Dozens of new plants were cancelled. One became a coal factory. The last reactor to come online in the US was unit 1 of Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar. The original order was placed in 1973. It was completed in 1996. Construction on unit 2 was halted in 1988. No new plants have been ordered in the US in over thirty years. As far as most were concerned, that was the end of the story.

Part Two: Atomic Phoenix Rising

This might have stayed the end of that story except, in the early 2000s, we started hearing a number of other tales. Global warming, peak oil, resource wars, a current species extinction rate 1000 times greater than ever before in history, to name a few. A year ago, Rajendra Pachuari, head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine the future.” And determining that future has put the nuclear option back on the table, a process well summed by Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss in a recent Wired magazine story: “Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with six billion energy-hungry souls can’t afford. There is only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.”
Of course, back in 2001, when Dick Cheney’s energy task force reached similar conclusions, many dismissed those outright. By then, cases of cronyism were already dogging the Vice President and Bechtel, a company whose board of directors once included a significant portion of both Reagan and Bush Sr.’s cabinet and which had built more commercial nuclear plants than any other in the world. But after that task-force report, the VP got support from some strange places. Environmentalists like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and early Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore (often, though mistakenly, referred to as a co-founder) all came out in favor of the technology.
In late 2007, Congress gave the nuclear industry $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for up to 80% of the cost of new units. The IAEA says there are 31 new nuclear power plants under construction in 13 different countries and even more promised. China has plans for 26. In the US, power companies are currently in the process of submitting applications for 30. All of this, experts say, might signal the end of our energy woes or may signal the end of the world. The problem is that no one is quite sure which.

Disagreements are everywhere. Even something as seemingly straightforward as what happened at Three Mile Island remains in contention. In 2004, Patrick Moore wrote a now-famous article in the IAEA Bulletin entitled “Nuclear Re-think,” claiming: “Three Mile Island was a success story. The concrete containment structure did what it was designed to do: it prevented radiation from escaping into the environment.” Though, as Greenpeace Nuclear Analyst Jim Ricco points out, “It appears that Moore didn’t bother to check his facts. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) fact sheet acknowledges that the meltdown resulted in ‘a significant release of radiation (10 million curies according to the NRC).’ Even the IAEA, which published Moore’s article, acknowledges that the TMI meltdown released radiation into the surrounding community. As a result, they rank the accident as Level 5 on a scale of 7—an ‘Accident with Wider Consequences.’ Only Chernobyl and the Soviet nuclear-waste-tank explosion in 1957 rank worse.”

Among other things at stake in this debate are our fears about industry safety and security, and the boatload of regulations meant to allay those fears. Since the cost of licensing a new reactor in America is roughly $1 billion, “those regulations,” as pointed out by Heritage Foundation nuclear energy analyst Jack Spenser, “amount to an industry killer.” The debate is ongoing, but some believe it’s misdirected. “When most people argue about nuclear energy,” says Tom Blees, author of Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crisis, “they’re arguing about TMI and 1970s technology—which is about when the US nuclear industry ground to a halt. But research didn’t die off, just new construction. We’re two generations beyond that earlier tech and the changes have been massive.” In light of all this, the better question might be: What do we mean by safe?

Part Three: Outside the Nuclear Family

We use a lot of energy. There is an ongoing debate as to whether renewables like solar and wind can even satisfy America’s electricity needs. Folks like retired Argonne National Laboratory nuclear physicist turned nuclear spokesperson, George Stanford, claim that “renewables can’t handle our base load” (the term describes the amount of electricity demand that exists 24-7), and this idea has lately been getting more national attention. Still, not everyone agrees. Critics like Greenpeace’s Jim Riccio call this “the base-load fallacy,” and see it as a deceitful ploy by the pro-nuke camp. In truth, there’s a ton of data showing each side is right; until we scale up renewables, it’s almost impossible to know for sure.

Either way, most nuclear advocates currently frame the debate as coal versus nukes. “Nukes win every time,” says Stanford. “56 people died outright at Chernobyl. We could have three or four of those a year and not do the damage coal does.” Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Power, explains further: “If an American got all his or her lifetime electricity solely from nuclear power, that person’s share of the waste would fit into one soda can. If an American got all his or her electricity from coal over a lifespan of 77 years, that person’s mountain of solid waste would weigh 68.5 tons and would fit into six 12-ton railroad cars. That person’s share of carbon dioxide coal emissions would come to 77 tons.”

Nukes, Cravens also says, have virtually no carbon footprint. She further points out that coal is a horrible pollutant, contains arsenic, mercury, lead and a host of radioactive materials—uranium, thorium and radium at levels 100 to 400 times the level of nuclear plants—but is exempt from hazardous-waste regulations. 24,000 people die coal-related deaths in the US each year. In China, it’s 400,000. “Worldwide,” says Cravens, “nuclear power is responsible for the fewest deaths of all large-scale energy production.”

While settling this debate may take some time—and since time is the one luxury both sides agree we don’t have—there are heated arguments about the best way forward. Greens feel that any energy dollar not directed toward renewables is a dollar wasted, while the pro-nuke camp thinks the same about new reactors. The Future of Nuclear Power, a recent report by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology interdisciplinary study group, which included everyone from Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff John Podesta and George H. W. Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu to President Obama’s science advisor Dr. John Holdren, concluded: “We believe that all options should be preserved as nations develop strategies that provide energy while meeting important environmental challenges.” The report does go on to mention that the nuclear-power option should only be exercised “if the technology demonstrates better economics,” and this last part might not be as easy as it sounds.

“The first 75 reactors in the United States had a hundred billion dollars in cost overruns,” says Riccio. “The nuclear industry has received over 100 billion in government subsidies (roughly 13 billion a plant, or, actually, the cost of a new plant) and still can’t find a way to make money.” The industry counters this by arguing that every new business goes through growing pains and the 103 reactors currently operating in the US all do so at 90% capacity—up from 60% since the days of Three Mile Island. This doesn’t seem to impress would-be backers. In a recent article on the topic, Time magazine pointed out: “The red-hot renewable industry—including wind and solar—last year attracted $71 billion in private investment, the nuclear industry attracted nothing,” then goes on to quote Rocky Mountain Institute chairman Amory Lovins on the subject: “Wall Street has spoken—nuclear power isn’t worth it.”

This is again not the whole story.

Obviously, a carbon tax or more government handouts change this picture significantly, though the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has computed that we would have to tax carbon at $40-$60 per ton for nuclear power to be competitive; however, there’s plenty that says they’re overstating their case. These numbers are based on the idea that nuclear power plants take ten years to build and cost $6-10 billion per gigawatt (GW). General Electric (GE) just completed building two nuclear plants in Japan, the first in 36 months, the second in 39. Both came in with a final cost of just $1.4 billion per GW.

But this too might be the wrong way to explore the debate. In truth, whether or not you think that subsidizing the rebirth of nuclear power is the right way to go comes down to your answers to a few key questions: How long until the oil runs out? How long until our supplies of natural gas are gone? Is Pachuari right—do we have only five years to stabilize the climate? Or do we have fifty? “Because,” says Riccio, “if we only have five, forget the economics, there’s no way to build enough new nuclear power plants in time (the nuclear power industry agrees, saying as much when John McCain started hollering for 45 new US plants by 2030).” But even if we have fifty years, what the hell should we do then?

In 2004, in trying to answer this very question, Princeton university’s Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, co-directors of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative—a joint project between Princeton university, British Petroleum and the Ford Motor Company—created the concept of “stabilization wedges.” Essentially, these are the 25-billion-ton “wedges” that must be cut from predicted emissions in the next fifty years to avoid doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide to pre-industrial-revolution levels.

Socolow and Pacala explore 15 different approaches, from wind power to increasing transportation efficiency to reducing deforestation. Nuclear power is also on their list. They point out that fission currently produces, with zero carbon emissions, 17% of the world’s electricity and that by doubling that, we could cut emissions by one wedge (out of seven total) if coal plants were displaced. But, because of concerns over waste and proliferation, they argue that nukes are the only technology out of their 15 that we might want to skip. However, the better question might be: Exactly which nuclear technologies do we want to skip?

Part Four: New Nukes Is Good Nukes

When nuclear scientists talk about reactors, they denote them by generation. Generation I reactors were those built in the 1950s and 60s. Generation II are all the reactors currently supplying power in the US, predominantly light-water thermal reactors (also known as light-water reactors or LWR) that burn a combination of 3% fissile Uranium-235 (U-235) and 97% fertile U-238.

The difference is one of stability. All nuclear reactors work by bombarding heavy metals with neutrons. When a neutron hits the unstable isotope U-235, the nuclei split—thus fissile—releasing both energy and a few more neutrons. U-238 is fertile because sometimes, if hit by a fast-moving neutron, it splits but can be stable enough to absorb that neutron and transmutate into plutonium (P-239), which later fissions when struck by other erring neutrons.
These days, the fuel cycle for our reactors lasts three years. By the end of it, less than 1% of the U-235 remains, and more than half of its power generation comes from splitting plutonium. The results are a three-part waste product. About 5% of which is composed of a bunch of lighter elements that remain radioactive for around 300 years (this has been called the “true ash from the nuclear fire”). Another 94% is uranium, not all that different from the version we mine from the ground. But the remaining 1% is mostly a blend of plutonium elements, augmented by americium; such is the real issue as this stuff stays “hot” for tens of thousands of years and requires secure storage sites like Yucca Mountain.

For this reason, in 1976, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution declared it “morally wrong” to make a major commitment to nuclear power without demonstrating a way to safely isolate radioactive waste. Attitudes haven’t changed much since then. But waste, at least according to folks like Cravens, is not all that it’s been made out to be. “All the spent fuel from power plants and other sources since the beginning of nuclear power in the US 50 years ago is so small in volume that it could all fit in Wal-Mart stacked to a depth of nine feet. All the spent fuel generated in the annual operation of a single power-plant reactor would fit in the bed of a standard pickup truck.”

To deal with this detritus, many including ex-Presidential hopeful John McCain suggest that the right way to go is to follow France’s lead and recycle our spent fuel. America (and Sweden, Finland, Canada, Spain and South Africa) utilize a process called “open, once-through fuel cycle,” in which nuclear fuel, as the name suggests, is processed only once. But the French then take that resulting plutonium, purify and oxidize it, then mix the results with fresh uranium to make MOX—essentially fresh fuel—to re-start the whole cycle. This is known as the PUREX (Plutonium, Uranium Extraction) process; America was firmly committed to this path as well, but in 1976 India developed nuclear weapons from a version of reprocessing technology and a lot of people got very scared, including then-President Jimmy Carter.

By executive order, Carter cancelled development of any domestic reprocessing in 1977. His goal was to set a non-proliferation example for the world, which the world pretty much ignored. So Reagan lifted the ban in 1981, but didn’t provide money to restart research. Nothing resumed until 1999 when the DOE finally reversed their policy and signed on with a business consortium to build a reprocessing plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Who knows when it’ll be open. until then, there are 55,000 tons of nuclear waste in storage in the US.

Since the PUREX process—by separating the plutonium—raises proliferation concerns, perhaps this form of reprocessing isn’t the best solution. But the other problem is one of inefficiency. When uranium finishes a once-through process, only 5% of its potential energy is used. When reprocessing plutonium, that ticks up to 6%. This still leaves 94% of that fuel’s potential energy and, since uranium is neither an infinite resource nor environmentally-friendly to mine, we would do well to tap these remains. This is where newer technology comes into play.

Part Five: Generation Next

There are currently two Generation III reactors deployed in the world and two more under construction. These third-generation versions are streamlined light-water reactors with significantly better safety systems built modularly so they can be manufactured in factories. (One of the reasons our reactors are so expensive is because US regulations make it difficult for modular construction to be employed.) But it’s really the generation after Generation III that has people so excited. When folks say we’re still arguing about 1970s technology, what they actually mean is that not many people have even heard of Generation IV (Gen IV) reactors and they’re really the ones we should be debating.

Conventional nuclear reactors are called “thermal” reactors, because the speed of the neutrons flying around within them has been slowed down to produce thermal energy. This happens by using a “moderator”—usually water (thus the light-water reactors employed here in the US). Fast reactors, which are what we’re talking about with Gen IV, don’t have moderators, thus the neutrons bounce around at a much faster rate. This produces a number of benefits. Faster neutrons allow more energy to be extracted from the fuel. Also, because water slows down neutrons, fast reactors use liquid metal—mostly sodium, though a number of others also work—as a coolant. The advantage here is that water-cooled systems need to run at very high pressure, so a small leak can quickly become a large problem. Liquid-metal systems run at atmospheric pressure and don’t have that trouble; instead, they have other concerns.

Liquid sodium is not the stablest of substances. Expose it to water or air and the result is fire. And the reason most people haven’t heard about this technology is because some of its earlier iterations did catch fire. The EBR-I that melted down in Idaho was an experimental fast reactor, as was Japan’s prototype Monju reactor, which had a sodium coolant leak and fire in 1995, and has remained shutdown ever since (although they’re currently thinking about restarting it). Beyond EBR-I, the US made a few other attempts at the technology. The first of those, called Fermi 1, operated from 1963-72, but suffered a partial meltdown in 1966 and a sodium explosion in 1970. The second also operated within a similar time frame, but was built as a companion reactor to the partially built Clinch River reactor, which the DOE shut down completely in 2001 due to massive cost overruns. In 2008, Thomas Cochrane, a nuclear scientist with the NRDC, testified before the House of Representatives on this technology, telling Congress:

Despite decades of research costing many tens of billions of dollars, the effort to develop fast breeder reactors has been a failure in the united States, France, united Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet union. The flagship fast reactors in each of these countries have been failures. The effort to develop fast reactors for naval propulsion was a failure in the united States and the Soviet union, the only two navies that tried to introduce fast reactors into their respective submarine fleets. After investing tens of billions and decades of effort in fast breeder R&D, the Congress should ask itself why there is only one commercial-size fast reactor operating in the world today—one out of approximately 440 reactors. NRDC knows why. Fast reactors are uneconomical and unreliable.

But this isn’t the end of the story. The original nuclear dream was to take the spent fuel from thermal reactors and use it to power fast reactors. These were then called “breeders,” as they bred more plutonium than they consumed. “In the early days,” says Cravens, “before we discovered the uranium on the Colorado Plateau, there was a real concern that we would run out. Breeders were the solution to that problem.”

Work began on that solution with the EBR-I in 1951 and progressed into the EBR-II in 1964. “Sure, EBR-I partially melted down,” says Dave Rossin, former president of the American Nuclear Society and Assistant Secretary of Energy under Reagan, “but this was in the day when being intelligent was still allowed. People studied what went wrong and made changes and the results were EBR-II, which started up in 1964 and ran perfectly until the 1980s. unfortunately, by then, anything called a ‘breeder’ was frowned upon in Washington and the project was shut down for political reasons.”

In 1984, trying to avoid that fate, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory renamed their breeder reactor the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). By 1992, the IFR designs were complete, but that was also the same year that Bill Clinton decided to save money by shutting down nuclear projects he deemed unnecessary. “It’s a crime,” says George Stanford. “We set out to build a reactor that addresses all the nuclear concerns: safety, efficiency, proliferation and waste. It worked perfectly. IFR solves all our problems. And it’s just sitting on a shelf.”

Among the other problems “solved” by the IFR is one of safety. The difference is that the liquid metal fuel expands and contracts when heated. As the metal expands, its density decreases. This changes the geometric trajectory of the neutrons bouncing around inside of it and the laws of physics (and chemistry) don’t allow for it to sustain a chain reaction. “It can’t melt down,” says Stanford. “We know this for certain because in public demonstrations using the EBR-II, Argonne duplicated the exact conditions that led to both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters and nothing happened.” This, alongside a few other key features, is known as “passive safety” and every Gen IV reactor works this way.

Proliferation is not a problem with the IFR. It is built so that whatever fuel enters, always leaves as electricity. What’s actually inside the reactor—if terrorists, say, seize a facility—is far too hot to handle, so the main result of such an attempt would be dead terrorists. And the waste is only a fraction of what’s produced by thermal reactors (a 1000-MW thermal reactor produces slightly more than 25 tons of spent fuel annually; a fast reactor generating the same power produces one ton). Moreover, this waste doesn’t contain weapons-usable material, only stays “hot” for several hundred years and remains as an inert solid—essentially stored as glass bricks—so even if the containment facility were to breach, it can’t leach into the ground water.

For all of these reasons, IFR technology has spawned something of a cult following. India is currently developing three 500-MW fast reactors and, in December of 2008, China announced that their Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) had entered the final stage of installation, and will be online and generating electricity by 2010. This movement includes authors like Blees, Cravens and Joe Schuster (Beyond Fossil Fools: Roadmap to Energy Independence by 2040), and environmental heavyweights like Columbia university professor and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, James Hansen, who is often credited with being the first person to sound the alarm bells about global warming. He has recently made the IFR central to his solution. Blees himself has briefed folks like Al Gore about the technology. “The truth of the matter,” he says, “is once most anti-nuke people hear about IFR they tend to switch sides pretty quickly.”

Part Six: The Model T of Future Nuclear Reactors

The Integral Fast Reactor is one of several advanced nuclear technologies that have people really excited. Another belongs in a category called “fluid-fueled reactors” that, exactly as they sound, replace the solid fuel of other designs with a liquid-nuclear version. Among the possibilities out there, the one that gets the most attention is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR but pronounced “lifter”).
LFTR began its life as a solution to a peculiar 1940s Air Force question: Could you use nuclear power to fly a bomber indefinitely? The basic answer was yes, but intercontinental ballistic missiles turned out to be a better way to fight the Cold War. Before that happened, research on the project was spread out among a number of different centers, though Oak Ridge National Laboratory took the lead throughout the 1960s, even building a prototype “molten salt reactor” that went critical in 1954 and ran for 100 hours non-stop before being shut down.

Like everything else in nuclear energy, there are a lot of politics surrounding the shut down and later cancellation of the program, but let’s just say that the fluid-fueled idea never quite went away. A small cadre of Oak Ridge scientists kept it alive; that cadre has lately been rapidly expanding, primarily because LFTR has some benefits over other nuclear technologies. “It’s what’s called ‘strongly self-regulating,’” says Kirk Sorensen, author of the Energy from Thorium blog. “Meaning it’s able to safely shut itself down without human intervention, even if it’s been severely damaged. Because liquid salts (which include the fluoride used here) are chemically stable, fuel and coolant leaks do not lead to fire or explosion.”

But to some proponents, the most enticing part is that the other component of the fuel, a mildly radioactive element called thorium, is found in significantly more quantities than uranium. This is no small advantage. It takes 250 tons of natural uranium (mostly U-238, with a little U-235) to create a gigawatt-year of electricity in a standard thermal reactor, but LFTR requires only one ton of thorium for the same output. And currently we have concerns about “peak uranium,” with some scientists predicting that we could be running out of uranium within 100 years if nothing changes. (Others say there’s more than enough around—uranium can actually be harvested from seawater—but not enough to supply a nuclear-technology build-up.)

Less fuel means less waste. In December of 2008, James Hansen posted an open letter on his Columbia university website, entitled “Tell Barack Obama the Truth—The Whole Truth,” supporting the technology. He writes “thorium can be used in ways that practically eliminate buildup of long-lived nuclear waste,” he writes. In other words, thorium produces less than 1% of what a light-water reactor produces—and most of that “waste” isn’t waste at all, but includes valuable elements like rhodium.

Because LFTR allows for continuous refueling, the reactor never stops operating, making it both incredibly efficient and a lousy target for terrorists intent on theft of nuclear materials. Sorensen believes this safety and efficiency could lead to assembly-line production, “like the Model T of future nuclear reactors.” He also points out that to stop global warming, “it would take thousands of new reactors worldwide; currently we have hundreds. It took three years from when they invented the fluoride reactor until they built the first one. That was 50 years ago and we know a lot more about how to do it now.”

To this end, in October of 2008, Senators Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Harry Reid, D-Nevada, co-sponsored legislation that would provide $250 million over five years to spur thorium-reactor development. One of the companies buoyed by this is Virginia-based Thorium Power, which has slightly different plans than the LFTR. Thorium Power is attempting to create a new kind of thorium-based fuel capable of being burned in the once-through process used by today’s LWRs. This design has been tried before. The Shippingport Atomic Power Station ran for six years on a thorium-based fuel without problems. This design also circumvents the need to build new reactors from scratch, but without the reprocessing of spent fuel, a lot of usable energy goes down the toilet.

Part Seven: Backyard Nukes

Another recent growth category is so-called backyard nukes. These are small- and medium-scale nuclear reactors (SMRs), occasionally—and erroneously—called nuclear batteries (real nuclear batteries run on radioactive decay and thermal couplers, and can power a satellite but not much more). A number of familiar faces (like Toshiba and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories) and several nuclear newcomers (like New Mexico-based Hyperion Power Generation and Oregon-based NuScale Power) have lately gone into this area because of a growing consensus that SMRs fill a niche.
In places where water shortages are a problem, SMRs could be used to run desalination plants; in places too remote for other options, SMRs could be the best alternative to trucking in barrels of diesel. Much of the interest is centered around providing power for remote mining operations (like extracting oil from tar sands, which currently uses more oil than it produces), backing up intermittently plagued solar or wind facilities, or even—in the very long term—serving as hydrogen generators.

While the aforementioned companies use different nuclear fuels, their designs share a few commonalities: they’re all self-contained devices built in factories (for modular, thus cheaper, construction), sealed completely and built to run for years without maintenance. Over the past five years, Toshiba has been struggling to give one of these reactors—known as the 4S for “super safe, small and simple”—to the remote town of Galena, Alaska, as a pilot project of sorts, but, as Greenpeace’s Jim Riccio points out: “How good do you think the technology really is if they can’t even give it away?”

Paul Gunther, from the watchdog organization Beyond Nuclear, recognizes other points of contention: “SMRs are designed to run in very remote locations in a world that’s already rife with proliferation concerns. They raise some very serious issues about how you’re going to keep them secure.” Those issues are everything from handling emergencies (since these are designed for remote locations and meant to be minimally staffed) to hijacking or sabotage vulnerability. In a article about SMRS, union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist Ed Lyman pointed out that since many of these backyard nukes will arrive via ship, the recent rise of pirating off the coast of Somalia is a good example of the cause for alarm.
There are enough of these SMR ideas floating around that the NRC has said it’s unwilling to review applications until each of the companies involved has found a domestic utility partner and, so far at least, none have. Whether that provision will hold up is another question people have been asking.

While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama was alone among Democratic nominees in saying that he wants to see “a safe and secure nuclear energy,” but also pointed out that the NRC is a “moribund agency that needs to be revamped and has become a captive of the industries it regulates.” This is significantly problematic for new nuclear technologies since all must first be approved in a multi-year process by the NRC before deployment. And if Obama plans on revamping an agency that already claims to be severely understaffed, then once again we run into the wall of time. Which raises the final question worth asking—what does all this excitement really mean? Not much as yet. But whether it’s new nukes or a Manhattan-style project to bring renewables up to speed, everyone agrees that if something doesn’t happen soon, we may very well be designing our future technologies in the dark.

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