Nuclear Power Makes a Very Slow and Quiet Comeback
Did you know that United Arab Emirates is building its first nuclear power plant? We didn’t either. Did you know that the United States has approved the construction of what will be its first new nuclear power plant in a generation? Same here.
And it’s probably little known that nuclear energy still accounts for as much as 20 percent of all U.S. electricity generated.
In fact, here are the top five stories you’ve heard about nuclear energy this past year: Fukushima, Fukushima, Fukushima, Fukushima, Germany is cutting back on nuclear power due to Fukushima.
There is an albeit muted resurgence of interest in nuclear power, which is applaudable, and in some perverse way, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan may claim some of the credit for it.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, due to a combination of effects from an earthquake and tsunami in early 2011, lost power to the pumps that circulate the reactor’s coolant water. The pumps overheated, and three of the six reactors experienced “full meltdown.”
Sixty people were killed, but how does a terrible tragedy like this help the cause of nuclear power advocates? None of those people died as a result of any radiation exposure.
Two employees at the plant died from external injuries as a result of the disaster conditions — much as people die at construction sites, in cars, in homes and other places due to an earthquake and tsunami.
News sources reported that “45 patients were reported dead after the evacuation of a hospital in Futaba due to lack of food, water and medical care, as it happened three days late. Fourteen senior citizens in a nearby hospital also died from effects associated with being evacuated.
A full meltdown, and not a single death due to the meltdown itself. Maybe nuclear energy isn’t as dangerous as we suspected?
Is Fear of Nuclear Power an Overreaction?
There were no deaths in the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979, which nevertheless scared America into not approving the construction of any new nuclear plants for over 30 years. There were plenty that could have been built, but in reaction to the non-event at Three Mile Island, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), via regulatory means, jacked up costs so high that it made sense for nobody to continue with nuclear projects that were already underway.
For that matter, there were no deaths associated with radiation levels from the far more disastrous Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, either. Thirty-one workers at the plant tragically died as a result of the explosion, but no demonstrated cases from radiation were ever confirmed.
Yet, the chant “Not another Three Mile Island!” was screamed ad infinitum, ad nauseam by anti-nuclear protesters until 1986, when they switched to “Not another Chernobyl!” The current chant is “Not another Fukushima!”
Here’s hazarding a guess that the next nuclear “incident” somewhere in the world will generate reams and reams of scary headlines lurid with unsubstantiated fearmongering.
Even an Oil Sheikdom Goes Nuclear
As Middle East countries go, the United Arab Emirates has been on the more progressive side of things for years; Abu Dhabi is highly livable for Westerners as Arab cities go. The UAE decided to give the go-ahead for building its first nuclear reactor, Fox News reported in July, becoming the first country in a little over two decades to build a nuclear power plant (for non-military means).
There were no accusations of nuclear weaponry, no problems with the International Atomic Energy Agency, no saber-rattling from Western powers. Only a lot of wonderment about why a place with oil coming out of its ears needs a fairly expensive nuclear power plant.
These things aren’t cheap to build. As a rough comparison, according to a recent Reuters report, in America, “a 1,000-megawatt natural gas plant takes a few years to permit and build and costs up to $1 billion for the most efficient, combined-cycle model. A similar-sized nuclear reactor however could take 5 to 10 years to develop and build and cost more than $5 billion.”
Evidently, having the world’s oil reserves is not all it’s cracked up to be. “Despite its oil wealth, the OPEC member has to import natural gas to run many of its existing power plants and has struggled to keep up with demand,” Fox News reported.
With the high price of oil exports now and for the foreseeable future, the math works for the UAE to export the oil and spend the money building the nuclear reactor for power.
And, again, thank Fukushima. According Fox News, William Travers, director general of the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, and a veteran of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the nuclear plant’s proposal will incorporate lessons learned from Fukushima.
“We had an opportunity … to take account of Fukushima and do something on paper before it was already constructed,” Travers told Fox News. The news outlet also quoted Travers as saying that the review prompted Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. to propose some design changes, such as adding watertight doors in certain areas, though no major adjustments were needed.
So Fukushima proved that the plant’s basic design is basically fine.
And in the United States, according to the Reuters report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4 to 1 to allow Atlanta-based Southern Co. to build and operate two new nuclear power reactors at its existing Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga. The units will cost Southern Co. and partners about $14 billion and enter service as soon as 2016 and 2017, according to Reuters.
As I said, these plants are not inexpensive investments.
Don’t hold your breath for a full-fledged renaissance of nuclear power in America, though, as the numbers don’t work with natural gas being as cheap as it is. Check the costs of a natural-gas-powered plant versus a nuclear reactor; it’s five times as expensive and twice as long to get up and working. It’s a different scenario than about 10 years ago, when natural gas was much more expensive and nuclear was viewed as a way to generate cheap power.
And the NRC’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, actually cast what Reuters called “an extraordinary dissenting vote” against the project. It’s almost as if he was put in charge of the NRC specifically to spike nuclear projects.
Thomas Fanning, Southern Co.’s chief executive officer, told Reuters that approval of the license was a “monumental accomplishment,” since the plants “would provide cheap, reliable power to Southeast residents for years to come.”
Slowly, slowly, nuclear comes back.