WILLIAM TUCKER: Why I’m Feeling Optimistic about Nuclear Again

By William Tucker

Men go mad in herds.  They recover their senses only slowly, and one by one.  

-Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular        

Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

I don’t know why, but somehow it’s getting easier to feel optimistic about nuclear again these days.  Maybe it’s only because the fanatics are all being distracted by fracking and the Keystone Pipeline.  Maybe it’s from reading that the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity are opposing a wind farm in Kern County, California, which only goes to show those people are opposed to everything.  But somehow it feels as if the panic from Fukushima is subsiding and we may be able to get back to business.  

To wit:

  1. The Chinese are on the verge of opening the world’s first Westinghouse AP1000, the “advanced passive” reactor from Generation III.  If nothing else, it will show that such things can be done.  Of course we may complete our own AP1000 at Vogtle someday.  But the realization that China has implemented the new technology may awaken the American people to the realization that we no longer lead in this technology.  
  2. India is about to start up its own Russian-built 1000-MW reactor at Kudankulam.  There was a big backlash after Fukushima and Indian holy men were chanting mantras to make the plant go away, but the government has held firm and it looks like the project is going through.  India actually has an advanced nuclear program.  They’ve been operating a fast breeder for twenty years.  If they can bring on more nuclear, they may be able to avoid passing China as the world’s biggest burner of coal over the next decade.  
  3. Bulgaria!  Ah, Bulgaria.  True only 20 percent of the electorate turned out for that referendum so the results weren’t validated.  But those who did show up voted 61 percent in favor of nuclear.  It just goes to show that the opposition is always loud but small.  Interestingly, in Bulgaria it’s the conservatives who are opposing nuclear and the socialists who are supporting it.  Nuclear was once, and still could be, a “progressive” effort.
  4. China is going ahead with thorium.  The US is now in the same situation as those old East Coast companies such as Fairchild Camera and Xerox that were once the cutting edge of the computer age.  Those companies soon found themselves so hogtied in bureaucracy that newcomers such as Intel and Apple ran way with the technology.  That’s where we are now with nuclear.  For decades American scientists have been arguing that we should go with thorium instead of uranium.  But the situation is pretty much hopeless.  It would take ten years for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to find thorium on the map.  Now at least we can say:  “Good luck to you, China!  And while you’re at it, could you lend us some more money?”  
  5. Japan.  Liberal Democratic Party leader Shinzo Abe won election campaigning openly for nuclear energy. He’s also in favor of a big government stimulus program and inflating Japan out of its 20-year doldrums.  But that only shows that, politically, nuclear is always a mixed bag.  The good news is Japan probably isn’t going to commit national suicide by throwing away one-third of its electrical generation.  Too bad the same thing can’t be said about Germany.
  6. Robert Stone’s “Pandora’s Promise,” the nation’s first independent pro-nuclear documentary, has been a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival and will hit the theaters this spring.  More important, the ice-breaking effort seems to be bringing nuclear supporters out of the closet.  Slate and Yahoo have both run articles welcoming Stone’s contribution.  If this keeps up, nuclear energy may even be a subject of polite cocktail party conversation some day. 

Of course it’s easy to be discouraged as well.  Duke has decided to close its Crystal River reactor.  Britain is vacillating and France is beginning to talk as if all that clean air and cheap electricity are just one big mistake.  Bulgaria isn’t going to build its reactor after all and the Olkiluoto project drags on from decade to decade.  (Latest postponement date: 2016.)  San Onofre is looking vulnerable and Exelon is talking about closing down reactors because they are being undercut by cheap wind.  (Systems operators aren’t allowed to charge for wind’s intermittency.)  By the time the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gets around to licensing a small modular reactor, China will be selling them at Wal-Mart.  

Still, in the end the physics is on our side.  About a year ago, I debated Tyson Slocum, Ralph Nader’s nuclear expert, at the University of Vermont in Burlington.  After explaining the dimensional differences between generating electricity from wind and uranium I asked the student audience if they would really be happy to see the Green Mountains covered with windmills as the price of closing Vermont Yankee.  Only about one-third said yes.  Of course the public feels even stronger and I was happy to see that the Vermont Legislature is already talking about putting a moratorium on windmills even before a few of those god-awful structures desecrate the landscape.    

As people wake up to the realities of “renewable energy,” they will realize it is anything but green and unobtrusive.  Slowly they will recover their senses about nuclear.  There really isn’t any other way. 

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  • http://twitter.com/SimonFili Simon Filiatrault

    That was a good read… Can I place an order now for a small modular reactor at wallmart ;-) I only need 500KW for my small project! Thanks

  • Ben

    Good brave writing taking a whole-of-world view. Nice one.

  • stevek9

    The tipping point is to build enough of the ‘standard’ designs to get the costs down, and give people confidence in placing an order … Right now that looks like Westinghouse AP1000, Areva EPR, and Rosatom VVER 1200. Maybe GE will get interested again someday and get serious about the ESBWR.

    • Bill_Woods

      The two European EPR projects aren’t exactly confidence builders. Maybe GE will get permission to build a PRISM in the UK?