Introduction: Nuclear Energy Post-Fukushima


Author: Dr. Burton Richter

It is my pleasure to introduce the series on nuclear energy in this inaugural issue of the Stanford Energy Journal.  When nuclear energy is discussed, there are always four issues raised: safety, cost, how to deal with highly radioactive used fuel, and risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Until March 11, 2011, it was generally assumed that there would be a “nuclear renaissance,” which would include a fleet of new and safer reactors, many countries new to nuclear power joining the movement, and a doubling of the world fraction of nuclear electricity from 16% today, to approximately 30% by 2050.

The Fukushima disaster made 2011 a tumultuous year for nuclear energy

On March 11, 2011, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami struck, destroying four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, bringing the safety issue to the forefront, and raising question in some countries about the continuation of their nuclear programs. The analysis of the accident is ongoing, and there is a pause in new plant deployment for a rethinking of safety requirements for nuclear plants.  (See www.nrc.gov and http://safetyfirst.nei.org for an analysis of the event.)

All forms of energy have both risks and benefits. Nuclear energy is controversial because all accidents are big news, even though on the average it is safer than all the fossil fuel sources of electricity. There have been only three accidents in roughly 10,000 reactor-years of operation. Three Mile Island (TMI) in the U.S. in 1979 was the first. Fortunately, due to the reactor’s containment building there was very little radiation off the site. The aftermath of TMI saw many changes in regulations and instrumentation at reactors, overall strengthening safety systems.

Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986 was the second, and because the reactor had no containment building, there was a massive release of radioactive material off the site to the extent that parts of the region are still off limits.  This type of reactor was only used for power in the old Soviet bloc because of the potential for such an accident to occur.  Today however, the majority of such power plants have been shut down.

Fukushima was the third, and the reaction to Fukushima proves the old maxim that for nuclear power, an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere. While the investigation is not yet complete, we do know that the reactors seem to have survived the earthquake in fine condition with all emergency systems functioning properly, until overwhelmed by the tsunami. The article by Dr. Michael May, Director Emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discusses how the lessons learned from accidents are used to modify safety systems and requirements, while Megan Guy, a Stanford alumna and an Investment Professional at Angeleno Group, discusses perception versus reality and the need for effective communications to sustain the nuclear renaissance movement.

It is conceivable that in Asia, the nuclear renaissance will restart soon. A secure energy supply is important to national economies and national security.  Since relatively little uranium is required to produce a great deal of electricity, specifically 400,000 tons of coal for the same electricity generation as one ton of enriched uranium, nuclear power has its attractions. Japan has said it will reduce its dependence on nuclear power, but since it gets 35% of its electricity from nuclear plants, it will be interesting to see if they really do so. Both China and India have very aggressive nuclear development programs. George Frampton, former head of the Council on Environmental Quality, discusses China’s nuclear plans, while Stanford student Brenda Ou discusses Taiwan’s nuclear situation.

In the U.S., electricity generation is carried out mostly by privately-owned utilities; so the cost of the plant and the price of electricity from that plant are important. The price has to be high enough to make a profit, but not so high that competing sources of electricity will produce power at significantly lower costs.  Nuclear power plants are large and expensive.  The cost of a plant is usually given as “overnight” cost (the overnight cost for a house would be the price you are asked to pay without including the interest on the mortgage). The average of the last seven plants built in Japan and South Korea, corrected for inflation, is about an overnight cost of $2,800 per kilowatt (KW), but the expected price in the U.S. is about $4,000 to $5,000 per KW. It is much more costly here because no new reactors have been built here in decades. Thus a typical U.S. 1,000 megawatt (MW) plant would have an overnight cost of $4 billion to $5 billion. The cost of electricity would be something between 6 cents and 10 cents per KW-hour depending on interest rates on loans for construction.

Jim Rogers, Chairman, President and CEO of Duke Energy, gives a perspective from one of the larger utilities owning several nuclear plants. Kassia Yanosek, a Stanford alumna, and Founder of Tana Energy Capital LLC, looks at how nuclear plant financing can be carried out in the U.S. going forward.

The problem delaying a solution to the disposal of used nuclear fuel is entirely political, which makes it much harder to solve than if it were technical. Congress, in 1987, forced the choice of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s first nuclear waste repository on the state of Nevada. At the time, Nevada had the least power in Congress. However, now that it has considerable power in the U.S. Senate, the administration has abandoned that choice and is proposing starting over.  It is not a question of money, because the utilities have been prepaying the cost of the disposal facility, through a 0.1 cent per KW-hour charge on electricity from nuclear plants. This fund already has accumulated $20 billion, and over the lifetime of our existing reactors will accumulate a total of approximately $50 billion.  It is not a question of technology, because we already have a disposal facility operating at Carlsbad, New Mexico that handles nuclear military waste.

The Administration has appointed a group known as the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) to recommend how to proceed with spent fuel. We have three Stanford students addressing this issue from different angles. Ahmed Sharif compares and contrasts spent fuel programs in the U.S., France, and Finland; Charles Dunn looks at how we will warn people in the distant future if a nuclear hazard exists; while Firas Abuzaid writes on how fusion reactors, if they can be made to work, can provide a potential solution to long-lived fission products.

Several articles look toward new types of nuclear energy technologies. Dr. William Madia, former Vice-President of Battelle and current Vice-President of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, writes about small modular reactors, which are designed to be safe even with no source of power, so that a Fukushima-type meltdown doesn’t occur. They also cost less per unit so utilities can buy a lot of power a small bite at a time. Dr. Stephen Dean, President of Fusion Power Associates, writes about the potential of fusion to produce energy with less risk than fission reactors. Nils Engelson, a Stanford Physics Ph.D student, opens up the possibility of the Energy Amplifier proposed by Nobel Laureate Charles Rubbia, and Koyel Battacharyya, also a Stanford student, describes India’s plans around developing abundantly available thorium as a nuclear fuel.

The last major issue is limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is no way to do this without a concerted international effort. Going into all the details is too much for a short paper, but we are fortunate to have a discussion of current issues and activities by Daniel Poneman, Deputy Secretary of Energy.

Dr. Burton Richter is Stanford’s Pigott Professor in the Physical Sciences Emeritus, Director Emeritus of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1976.