The Nuclear Power Resurgence: How Safe Are the New Reactors?  

Posted by Big Gav in

Yale Environment 360 has a look at safety concerns about next generation nuclear reactors - The Nuclear Power Resurgence: How Safe Are the New Reactors?. We've seen BP's oil spill exceed that of the Exxon Valdez - how long until the nuclear industry breaks the records of Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island ?

In 2007, the first application to build a new reactor in the United States in more than three decades was filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). By the end of that year, four more applications had landed at the agency. In 2008, 12 additional applications arrived, with one more filed in 2009. Nuclear backers proclaimed a “renaissance” underway.

The NRC, which over the years had lost personnel because of a shortage of work, geared up, hiring 1,000 new staffers to handle the licensing requests. ... But how safe will this new generation of nuclear power plants be in comparison to the existing fleet of 104 plants that currently generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity? ...

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, all containment structures on new nuclear plant designs in the U.S. have been re-engineered to withstand the direct impact of a jetliner. This does not mean, however, that new containment designs are foolproof. The containment structure on a popular Westinghouse design, which seven utilities are now considering building, has been upgraded, but the NRC determined it probably won’t withstand a severe earthquake.

It’s also worth noting that the NRC does not require the new plants to be any safer than existing ones. Rather, it only requires the plants to “provide the same degree of protection” as the current generation of reactors.

The new reactors remain a work in progress. Even without knowing exactly what the finished reactors will look like — or cost — some utilities have already made their choices, spurred on by promises of federal subsidies and political pressure to cut carbon emissions. In a speech to industry leaders in May, Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marvin Fertel said that the construction of nuclear reactors to provide additional power and to replace older plants — U.S. reactors are limited to 60 years of operation — means that 187 new nuclear power plants must be built by 2050.

Many outside the industry believe that figure is unrealistically high. ...

Will this new generation of reactors be safer than the current nuclear plants? Ask that of the industry’s Russ Bell and he chooses his words carefully, because to imply that the new reactors are “safer” than the old ones infers that the existing plants are less safe. “We think all our plants are safe,” he says.

The industry has performed complex mathematical analyses called probabilistic risk assessments to measure the likelihood of a serious accident, says Bell. “When you run the numbers on the newer designs, as you’d expect, the chance of a damaged core or release of radiation accident is much, much lower than the current fleet,” he says. “But the numbers are very low for all the plants.”

The analysis is limited, however. Computed risks for new reactors are lower than for current designs “when only internal events are considered,” according to a 2009 report that the Nuclear Energy Institute wrote for the NRC. (That includes fires or pipe breaks, for example.) But when risks of damage caused by external events — earthquakes, for example — are factored in, the new reactors are no safer than older reactors. In addition, because utilities have no operating experience with the new reactors, the probable risk assessments are purely theoretical and not as reliable as years of actual operating data from existing plants.


"the existing fleet of 104 plants"

They don't move anywhere and they don't react fast... I wish writers would revert to the word 'stock'.

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