Nuclear power ought to have everything going for it. It has worked extremely well for more than 60 years — a fact that will be celebrated at the Nuclear Energy Institute’s annual meeting in Washington this week.
Yet there is a somber sense about civil nuclear power in the United States that its race is run; that, as in other things, the United States has lost control of a technology it invented.
Consider: There are more than 70 reactors under construction worldwide, but only five of those are in the United States. They are in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Even so, costs are rising and the rest of the electric utility industry is resolutely committed to natural gas, which is cheap these days.
Once nuclear power plants are up and running, they tend do so seamlessly for decades, often operating above their original design output. It is clean power, unaffected by fuel prices, doing no damage to the air and very little to the earth, except in the mining of uranium or in immediate contact with the used radioactive fuel, when it is finally disposed of — an issue made thorny by two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Carter banned nuclear reprocessing just as it was about to be commercialized, and Obama nixed the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada. The trigger for his devastating decision was the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., thought to be acting on behalf of the gaming interests of Las Vegas. Talk about wheels of fortune — a great technology endangered by legions of slot machines.
Overlooked when the nuclear titans gather in Washington will be two of nuclear’s greatest achievements: the nuclear Navy and the transformation of medicine. The Navy is largest maritime war machine in history with its aircraft carriers that can stay on station for more than a year and submarines that can go under the icecaps and stay submerged for months.
The utility industry seeks stability in all things, ergo it is not scientifically entrepreneurial. It embraces risk reluctantly. It accepts new technology when it is delivered with limited or shared risk.
It was that way with nuclear power, where the risk was shared with the government and sometimes the vendors. Likewise, with the development of today’s aero-derivative gas turbines, the military did the work and took the risk.
In this atmosphere it is easy to forget that nuclear is not a mature technology, but that it belongs at the frontiers of science. Today’s nuclear power plant is analogous to the black rotary phone — there is room for improvement.
But as there is no competition between electricity supplying entities, the impetus must come from elsewhere: government and incentivized private companies. Some like the General Atomics Corp. in San Diego, Calif., have reaped huge benefits by exploring the scientific frontier. While they are known mostly for the Predator drone, General Atomics’ work on nuclear fusion has provided the building blocks for magnetic resonance imaging and tissue welding among dozens of medical advances and has enabled the company to use fusion science to develop the electromagnetic catapults for launching aircraft from carriers. If you get to ride a levitating train, it may be because it is suspended by electromagnetic forces pioneered in nuclear research by General Atomics.
Nuclear waste — the industry hates that term because of potential energy left in spent fuel — is the sad story of nuclear: too much yesterday (ideas codified and frozen 60 years ago), not enough tomorrow.
When aviation science has been stuck in the past, it has leaped forward by offering prizes to unleash invention: The first flight across the English Channel, the first Atlantic crossing, and now the first commercial foray into space, were inspired by prizes.
The good burghers of the nuclear industry might with their government allies think of cobbling together a really big prize that will change the thinking about how we deal with used nuclear fuel. At present, there are only two options: reducing the volume by cutting it up, leaching the useful stuff out and making glass out of the rest, and burying that or everything in a place like Yucca Mountain.
Generally in life and science, when there are only two options, there is a deficit of thinking.