New Nuclear Plants Can Operate Safely

As a result of the rapidly increasing natural gas prices, a consortium of energy companies, including Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the owner of the most nuclear plants, is laying the groundwork for building the nation’s first nuclear power plant since the Three-Mile Island accident.  Their immediate goal is to develop the application for an operating and construction license.  An Article in the Chicago Tribune (April 1, 2004), quoted a spokesman for the consortium saying, “The belief is that, if there were to be a first class of new nuclear plants, it would require a lot of development money with no near-term return for stockholders.”  In addition to Exelon, the utility operating members of the consortium include New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., the country’s second-largest nuclear plant operator; Baltimore based Constellation Energy Group; Atlanta-based Southern Co., and France’s national electric company, Electricite de France.  Rounding out the consortium are two manufacturers of advanced light water nuclear reactors: Westinghouse Electric Co., and GE Energy’s nuclear unit. 

            Each of the 103 operating nuclear plants in the United States is a one-of-a-kind design that is unique from the ground up.  The next generation of nuclear plants is expected to be standardized and based on passive safety designs that will rely on gravity, rather than motors and pumps, to operate.  Gary Taylor, Entergy Nuclear’s president and chief nuclear officer, said: “Advanced nuclear plants offer a promising potential   passive safety designs, stable fuel prices, lower production costs than other fuels used to generate electricity and a very low environmental impact.”  The Tribune article reported that the consortium would not make any commitment until the economics are very strong and they receive public support.  Unfortunately, before that happens, the US energy situation will become desperate.  In contrast, more than 70% of the electricity in France is provided by nuclear energy and the sale of power to its neighboring countries provides that nation with its greatest source of income.

A critical analysis of the DOE’s own data indicates that there well be a rapid decline in the gas supply and that the shortages of gas will come much too soon and be too steep for us to fill the energy void.  To make matters even worse, that decline in gas production will be occurring simultaneously with the decline of world oil.  Adding to the problem of increasing nuclear power is that no new nuclear plants will be approved by the National Nuclear Regulatory Agency until the $8-billion-dollar, 1000-foot-deep, 6-mile-long, Yucca Mountain nuclear depository is approved to receive used fuel from the 103 existing nuclear power plants.  (Instead of disposing of the still fissionable fuel deep under ground, it should be reprocessed for re-use.)

The Mass-Produced Pebble-Bed Nuclear Reactors 

            Even though no new US nuclear plants have been built during the past 25 years, research in other countries has continued, resulting in the development of the modular, pebble-bed, high-temperature gas reactors.  These reactors are said to be safe, efficient, and economical.  Unlike the conventional nuclear plants, they can be mass produced in factories and assembled at the sites.  Varying the number of modules in the system can vary the capacities of the plants. Pebble-bed reactors can provide one of the best answers for producing electricity where no reliable renewable energy is available to produce steady, low-cost power.


            The average amount of uranium in the earth’s crust is between 3 and 4 grams per ton of rock.  And even though in many deposits the concentration is very low, the economically workable deposits discovered thus far are large but not infinite.  I have heard estimates of the uranium reserves that have ranged anywhere from 30 years to 200 years.  I do not know if that large spread in years is caused by differences in what is considered economically extractable uranium or on differing estimates of the future demand. The United States and Canada are the biggest producers in the western world.  Shallow deposits of uranium are mined by open-pit techniques, but underground mines are more common.  Whichever way the ore is mined, because of the low uranium content it must be concentrated as “yellow cake” before it is sent to the refinery to be purified.

Reprocessing Spent Nuclear Fuel

Even though nuclear fuel may be in a reactor for several years, when it is removed, only a small percentage of it fissionable atoms will have been spent.  The nuclear fuel must be removed with much of its fissile content still unused.  This is because radiation damage to the element tends to cause physical distortion and because the fission products soak up neutrons and tend to “put out” the reaction

The spent fuel that is removed from the reactors has value because of its uranium-235 content.  In addition to the still fissionable uranium-235 in the spent fuel, some of he non-fissionable uranium-238 will have been converted into fissionable plutonium-239, most of which will remain in he spent fuel without undergoing fission.

Because only a small percentage of the fuel’s fissile atoms will have been spent in the used fuel, instead of placing that fuel in the depository, it should be reprocessed for reuse.  The downside to this reprocessing is that it will also produce plutonium, which can be used to produce nuclear weapons.  The only safe answer to this great potential danger is to have all the production and enrichment of the world’s nuclear fuels performed by a single international nuclear agency.  If the fuel is not reprocessed, the time will eventually come when there will be a peaking of the world’s extractable uranium-235 supply.  Because the workable uranium-235 deposits are not infinite, its production will eventually follow Dr. M. King Hubbert’s bell-shaped curve.   

If our energy-dependent industrial society is not to enter into an endless age of misery and starvation, it is essential that safe nuclear power rapidly becomes an increasingly important source of that energy that is now being provided by fossil fuels.  However, nuclear energy has a serious lead-time problem, partly caused by the DOE’s politically driven forecasts of an ample future gas supply.  It is largely because of the DOE’s grossly optimistic forecasts of the nation’s future supply of oil and gas that the United States is now facing an energy crisis that will be difficult to survive.