Nuclear Power Debate

Posted in State and Federal Politics at 1:57 am by Moorcat

Over a Electric City Weblog, Travis put up a post about Britain raising Carbon Taxes to provide an incentive for Nuclear Power Development. This post once again spurred a bunch of comments about Nuclear Power in the US. Given my background in Nuclear Power, I thought I would present a some of my thoughts on the subject and I decided to do it here – on my own dime.

My son, who currently serves on a Naval Nuclear Submarine, was once asked to explain how a nuclear reactor works to a new shipmate and he gave probably the best low level explanation of a nuclear reactor I have ever heard …

Hot Rock make pressurized water hot. Pressurized hot water make other water steam. Steam turns turbine roundy roundy.

It really is that simple. Nuclear material is allowed to fission at a controlled rate, making pressurized water hot. This pressurized hot water is then used to make unpressurized water steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine. There is a lot of physics involved as well as a lot of other disciplines, but it really can be simplified to that simple statement.

Where it gets complicated is when money and political influence is involved. The Civilian Nuclear Industry doesn’t work – and it doesn’t work, but it is designed to make a small handful of people rich and politicians get re-elected instead of the mission which should be to provide cheap, clean power.

In 1954, the first Naval Nuclear Powered Submarine was launched and since then, the US Navy has logged over 5,400 “reactor years” of accident free operation – that is more than all the civilian reactor in the world combined. This can be solely attributed to a single individual -Admiral Hymie Rickover.

Admiral Rickover was able to establish a seperate regulatory body (Naval Reactors) seperate from the politically volatile Nuclear Regulatory Commision. By doing so, he was able to institute policies, regulations and a training program that resulted in a nuclear operation force so efficent that it has the record it has. Safety design requirements are not bypassed, training and development is always mission based and the results speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, the Civilian Nuclear industry can’t make the claims that the Naval Nuclear Industry does. They are fraught with accidents ranging from safety violations causing accidents to things as simple as operators not believing thier readings – leading to the worst nuclear accident in American Civilian Nuclear Power history. The accidents that have occurred in the civilian world simply cannot occur in the Naval Nuclear world – by design, by construction and by training.

So what can we do to make Nuclear Power Viable as an alternative to Fossil Fuels? –

The answer to that is very simple but unlikely to happen. In short, the Government has to take over the Nuclear Power Program and run it like the Navy. Remove the political and financial vagarities of the current system by operating it like the current naval program. Disband the Nuclear Regulatory Commision (or rework it) by adopting the same structure and job as Naval Reactors. You can even go so far as to make Nuclear Power Generation a branch of the Service (like the Coast Guard), providing for National Security by providing power that is “home grown” rather than bought from oil producing countries.

The reason this is unlikely to happen is that there is too much money in maintaing the status quo (reliance on Big Energy Companies) and there is too much political capital involved with Big Energy. This kind of bold, public sector move would also raise the ire of every hardcore wingnut. The screams of “Socialism” would dwarf the screams that followed the passage of the HCR bill. Further, the Environmental Wingnuts would also come out of the closet with all their tales of “China Syndrom” and “Chernobyl”.

Sadly, the means, technology and materials exist for the US to produce 90% of it’s electrical needs by means of nuclear power well into the next century. Further, it would give incentives and time for us to work on reliable, safer and cheaper forms of energy without the side effects of burning fossil fuels. If the damn environmentalists would actually learn something about nuclear power, they would see that nuclear power is thier ticket to killing the dependance on fossil fuels – but that would require them to actually stop screaming long enough to actually crack a book (or do a websearch).

What are the downsides to using Nuclear Power?

No method of energy production is perfect and nuclear power is not exception. The byproduct of fission is some rather nasty and long lived isotopes that are highly dangerous. To date, we don’t have an effective way to nuetralizing those isotopes so the only option is to store/bury them where they won’t do any harm. While some rather unique methods have been discussed on how to get rid of them, it still remains the largest downside to using nuclear power.

I will briefly touch of on TMI/Chernobyl to say that, if nuclear power generation is run on a Naval model, neither of these accident could occur. It is as simple as that. A power plant can be designed and run is such a way that a nuclear accident (especially a big one like Chernobyl or TMI) can not only be prevented, it can be an effectively designed impossibility. Without going into the details of exactly what happened at TMI (many of which are still classified), that accident simply can’t happen on a properly designed, maintained and operated reactor.

Everytime nuclear power is brought up, some wingnut brings up a scenario of a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility. My answer is simple.. Have you ever been to the Naval Nuclear Prototype site in Idaho? I have. Those guys guarding that facility are Marines and they don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to security. I would stake my bets on the Marines anyday.

Unfortunately, the largest single factor in the way of developing a workable nuclear program is the financial and political machine in place to prevent it. It would take a complete reworking of how we operate our energy production in the US and that simply isn’t going to happen. As long as profit is king and political influence can be bought, a public nuclear program simply won’t happen.

What are the upsides? –

First and foremost – jobs.. lots and lots of jobs. Besides the operators that this kind of endevour would require, you need machinists, welders, chemists, metalergists, physists, electricians, construction workers, hydrologists.. the list goes on. Further, these would all be higher paying jobs (even if they were for the government). The beauty of the system is that it would pay for itself. You sell the power, just like we are now, and the money collected pays for the construction and operation of the plants.

Second, and just as important, a release on our dependancy on foriegn (and domestic) fossil fuels. Nuclear Power Generation is cheap, effective, efficient and materials exist right here at home.

Could this work? Certainly. The Navy has proven it can work and continues to prove it everyday. The only thing stopping us from developing a program like this is the will to do so.


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