Debating the cost of nuclear safety
Alarms sounded and lights flashed as control panel dials at a nuclear power plant in upstate New York warned that the power for safety equipment was failing. The room went dark until the emergency lights kicked in. But there was no reason to worry on this frozen winter morning.
This was a simulation by Constellation Energy, the owner of the Nine Mile Point plant on Lake Ontario, for the benefit of two of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was part of an intense lobbying campaign against a proposed rule that would require utilities to spend millions of dollars on safety equipment that could reduce the effects of an accident like the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan two years ago.
In this drill, the company tried to show it could handle emergencies without new devices and, of course, everything went according to plan.
Ever since the nuclear accident in Japan released radiation into the atmosphere, regulators in the United States have been studying whether to require filters, costing as much as $45 million, on the vents of each of the country's 31 boiling water reactors.
The filters, which have been recommended by the staff of the regulatory commission, are supposed to prevent radioactive particles from escaping into the atmosphere. They are required in Japan and much of Europe, but the American utilities say they are unnecessary and expensive.
David Fuller's view Following Fukushima, the last thing any energy regulator or elected politician wants to be accused of is complacency regarding nuclear safety. Inevitably, they have overreacted, from Japan to the USA and especially in Europe.
This delays the development of new and safer generations of nuclear power; it drives energy costs higher; it hastens the implementation of inefficient and therefore costly green energy; this increases the need for backup plants which burn polluting coal, and leaves too many countries susceptible to energy shortages.
An important leading indicator for the eventual revival of the nuclear power industry is likely to come from the price of uranium. Currently, it is hovering near the 2009-2010 floors. When we next see an uptrend for uranium, defined by higher lows and higher highs, a recovery will be underway. However, it may only be a trading opportunity in spot uranium and uranium shares.
For a sustained nuclear power revival, which would be in the interests of mankind, not to mention planet Earth, scientists need to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal, not by burying it but by making it non-toxic shortly after it is removed from reactors. The second and even more daunting scientific challenge is to make the process of nuclear fission in power stations sufficiently safe so that the risk of contamination beyond the plant site is effectively minimal. Alternatively, they need to solve the scientific challenge of nuclear fusion on a commercial, industrial scale.
There is no reason why these laudable objectives cannot be achieved. However, nuclear power is currently viewed as a pariah industry at a time when there are multiple energy problem 'solutions'. Consequently, there is little evidence at present of government encouraged programmes to eliminate risks from nuclear power stations and their amassing waste problems.