Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Obama is funding the wrong kind of nuclear plant

Posted by butalidnl on 19 February 2010

President Obama announced on 13 February 2010, that the government is going to provide $18.5 Billion in federal loan guarantees to the Southern Company which plans to build two nuclear reactors in Burke, Georgia. This will be the first time in 30 years that the US is going ahead with the building of a nuclear plant. Obama said that nuclear plants are a good way of producing energy without generating greenhouse gases, and that the country needed to restart the building of nuclear plants in order to keep the expertise alive within the US.  The US now has a total of 103 nuclear plants, which supplies 20% of the country’s electricity needs.

I can see the logic of Obama, especially about keeping the expertise alive. After all, most of the 103 plants are old, and the technicians and scientists that run them are also getting old. They are nearing the end of their 40 year lifespans, and are busy getting extensions for 20 more years. And this means that if no new plants are built, the US may be required to import nuclear plant operators if it does not build new plants soon.

Even the greenhouse gas argument may have some point. Solar and wind energy are not yet cheap enough to really replace coal and nuclear, at least as long as the US refuses to take painful political steps such as a carbon tax.

However, my objection to Obama’s plans is that he is authorizing the wrong kind of nuclear plant. While Russia and China are going ahead with the building of Generation IV nuclear plants, the plants that Obama has authorized are of the older, Generation III type.

What’s  the Difference?
There is a whole lot of difference between the Generation III and Generation IV nuclear plants. Generation IV is made up of “fast neutron breeder” reactors, and Generation III is the most modern thermal reactor (or “slow neutron reactor”). Fast neutron reactors advantages are: it uses up more than 90% of the uranium (instead of the present 5%), thus there is very little nuclear waste; then, the nuclear material does not need to be constantly reprocessed (thus, less danger of proliferation); and, the process does not allow for nuclear meltdown.

The only problem is that Generation IV is still rather experimental. Russia has an operational Gen IV plant that generates 600 MW electricity. It is building a 880 MW plant to go operational in 2012, and is selling two 880 MW plants to China.  The reactors are safe, but are not yet fully matured, although the 600 MW plant that Russia has has been operating since 1980.
So, if the US wants to set up a Gen IV nuclear plant fast, it would be a good idea to also buy one from Russia. Or, the US would need to set up its own Gen IV experimental plant. I think the US is not eager to buy Russian technology, even if it is the fastest way to leapfrog France and most others in term of technology.

If President Obama was really serious about developing ang preserving a cadre of specialist nuclear scientists and engineers, it would be best for the US to simply acquire the technology from Russia, and then improve on it. His present course of funding the construction of Gen III nuclear plants will be counterproductive. The fact that the existing plants are old and up for retirement is actually an excellent opportunity to gear up with the new type of nuclear plant, which is safer and more economical. And his cadre of nuclear specialists would be trained in using the newest type of nuclear plant.

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