CGEP Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy

On April 10, 2015 the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a “Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy.” The CGEP panel:

Tom Blees, President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives;
Travis Bradford, Associate Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Energy and Environment Concentration, Columbia SIPA;
Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and,
Robert Stone, Director, Pandora’s Promise.

There is a lot of well-informed discussion – I recommend the 90 minute video. Around 1:04 Robert Stone was asked to comment on current public attitudes towards nuclear power. He replied that of the screenings where he was present “the response overwhelming support, over 90% in favor of what I’m saying in the film.” At 1:06 Robert goes in to the exceptions to this positive outlook. Following is a loose partial transcript:

Surprisingly, audiences in Europe are still infused with this idea that Chernobyl killed 100s of thousands of people. There are continual documentaries on television about that.

(…snip…) Probably the most controversial and shocking aspect of the film was what the World Health Organization has reported after years and years of study. WHO has published that substantially less than 100 people have had their lives shortened by the Chernobyl accident.

The mayor of the town of where 50,000 people were relocated from Chernobyl asked me to bring the film. They were so grateful for the film because there is this perception that we all have two headed babies, we are all dying of cancer. They said no documentary film maker has ever talked to them or visited them.

Europe: there have been so many EU TV documentaries claiming great damage/death caused by Chernobyl – and more that talked about Fukushima in the same way. No European broadcaster has shown Pandora’s Promise. 

They said we can’t show your film because it contradicts all the films that we have produced. They can’t both be true. It will undermine our credibility with our audience.

New nuclear designs have a severe first-mover DIS-advantage


More from the Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Prof. Per Peterson first discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because it competes directly with coal and gas.

Next Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

Why are SMR (Small Modular Reactors) so important?

Just a quick note on the captioned topic. I am completely confident that SMR's are the future, though the range of power production will not always be limited to “small”, and the nuclear design will certainly not be limited to today's PWR (pressurized-water-reactor) technology. I wrote this note today in reply to the following comment:

It would not solve the waste problem which the IFR and LFTR probably would solve.

There isn't a “waste problem” because there is no technical issue with unburnt fuel, there is a political problem. If uranium wasn't so cheap the economics would have driven greater reprocessing.

It's important not to confuse the IFR or LFTR contributions with the concept of “mass manufacturing”. Remove the “S” and you have “MR” or Manufactured Reactor which is what is significant.

It isn't SMR-PWR vs. IFR/LFTR, it is volume manufacturing and the safety, quality and cost control that goes with the process-control that is important. When affordable, reliable power becomes a hot political issue – then I think that both fast reactors and thorium reactors will have their opportunities to compete. And both will be manufactured in quantity, where safety will be inherent in both the engineering and the process, not in ridiculously costly inspections.

So when you think of SMR don't think narrowly of current technology – which is constrained by what can be shoved through sclerotic regulators like NRC. Think instead a range of sizes of fast, high-temperature or thermal reactors.

It's also important to keep in mind that what the OECD countries do does not really matter that much w/r/t global warming. It is what the fast-developing countries like China, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, or Uganda do. Those countries need cheap, reliable electricity that they can deploy without first creating a safety/technical culture and the associated infrastructure. One or two gigawatt mega-reactors are not appropriate and will not be adopted in those markets. At the right price 25 to 250 MW reactors that can be buried and refueled in 10 or 30 years – these just might be adopted by countries that don't give a damn about global warming. Let us hope…

We can also hope for a new politics where Bill Gates would have been able to build Terrapower in the USA instead of being forced to go to China. Frankly I think that will not happen – England's reforms would not have happened without the New World to generate the innovation. We don't know where the new models for US/EU will come from or what they will be like. But they might originate in Chile, Shanghai or Estonia.