United States Commercial Nuclear Power Today

By Richard McPherson

November 12, 2017, the issue United States commercial nuclear power faces are economic and emotional, because of natural gas prices, along with subsidies for solar and wind – and in my view, a result of short-sightedness.  Commercial nuclear power since 1953, has a record of achieving higher operating capacity factors, lower cost electricity that is far more secure and reliable than other sources.  Commercial nuclear power is a strategic national asset not to be squandered - it will keep America a free nation. 

Political decisions since the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident prevented commercial nuclear power from achieving the objective of energy and economic security envisioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, when he announced America’s “Atoms for Peace” program.  Chernobyl in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986, and tsunami that struck Japan resulting from a 9.0 earthquake in the Pacific Ocean damaging the 6-unit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility on March 11, 2011, have been used as continuing pretexts for politicos stopping commercial nuclear power development in the United States.  While bad public policy increased the cost of commercial nuclear power, they have not removed the fact that commercial nuclear power is safe, carbon emission free, and our most reliable source of generating electricity. 

Facts back up the safety story for existing commercial nuclear plants that are receiving 20-years more extension to be operational for up to 80-years.  No other electricity source is regarded as reliable and safe as United States commercial nuclear power.  Nor has any electricity source been subject to the progressive burden added to its costs, while policy distortions favored other electricity options. 

Increasingly the United States Congress and Obama administration economic and policies adversely affecting long-term investment in the United States have also affected commercial nuclear power.  There are a few reactors under construction.  Because of lagging long-term interest in financing, these large capital projects and bad public policy artificially escalating costs of constructing commercial nuclear power plants.  The United States commercial nuclear industry is continually doing everything it can to reduce costs, while steadily increasing safety and reliability. 

Commercial nuclear power needs to be recognized for what it is: one of America’s top critical infrastructures.  It is in a category with electricity, water, communications, transportation and national security.

The recent national election provides Americans the opportunity to shift away from a path towards becoming a welfare-state to being energy and economically secure.  By developing new advanced commercial nuclear plants like the General Electric PRISM reactor, and Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) that can use alternative fuels presently stored in fuel pools and dry casks instead of sending them to some place like Yucca Mountain.  Consuming the used fuel and other byproducts of the existing reactors can provide power for more than a century, where their value to Americans would not be squandered because of continuing bad public policy.

For our new Administration and Congress, here are thoughts about “Water – Agriculture – Power” to help connect the dots:

  • Fresh water (we have plenty of salt water) is the fundamental issue for North America.  Stop the effects of flooding and deal with the climate changes (however they are generated) in a unified and rational way.  The Civil Engineers will love building a network of flood control stuff, I can see the Army Corps of Engineers here.  Think aqueducts and Tunnel Boring Machines here. It can be done.
  • Agriculture is one of the North American continents real economic engines.  Manufacturing is important, but food is central, just like water (I know, keen grasp of the obvious, right?)  The California Central Valley is dying and northern Georgia and Alabama are dryer than California (who knew).
  • Power is the key to unlocking and solving the above puzzle; all forms of power (this gets you out of political jail) should be rationally and carefully implemented to deal with the water/agriculture connection.  This also puts jobs into play here in the Heartland, which just voted Donald J. Trump into office.
  • Nuclear power and 'waste' are a Political Logjam right now; interim step which deals with the present economic reality is to go NuScale, full tilt; put them underground where Not in my Backyard (NIMBY) is not a political issue.  This can't be overstated.
  • Next, just go with natural gas along with the above; this helps avoid the Rice Bowl effect on the States with oil/gas interest, being mindful of emissions from natural gas.  
  • Next, Small Modular Reactors/Molten Salt Reactors (SMR/MSR) Trash Burners which are built, after proof testing, on the NuScale sites to take “All” nuclear waste (think of Hanford, etc. here) and make power and money.
  • Everything in Nuclear should be scaled to semi-truck components which are bought off by all the Regulators/Code folks “at the Manufacturing Facility”, leaving only 'Lego Plug and Play' regulation.
  • Air condensers (this is important) in the MSRs and future NuScale SMR plants so everything is below ground, doesn't kill anything, uses water essentially for the operators and landscaping.

Politics drives this who thing and politics is driven by the real people who live here, whatever political stripe they may wear now.  Making waste into power and money and jobs will appeal to everyone.  All that is needed is solid, Rickover-grade Engineering.  We can do that.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower was influenced by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s including his success nuclear submarine prototype in Idaho.  Here is an Admiral Rickover statement in 1953:

Admiral Rickover 1953 Designing Reactors

  • An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics:
  1. It is simple.
  2. It is small.
  3. It is cheap.
  4. t is light.
  5. It can be built very quickly.
  6. It is very flexible in purpose.
  7. Very little development will be required.  It will use off-the-shelf components.
  8. The reactor is in the study phase.  It is not being built now.
  • On the other hand, a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics:
  1. It is being built now.
  2. It is behind schedule.
  3. It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items.
  4. It is very expensive.
  5. It takes a long time to build because of its 'engineering' development problems.
  6. It is large.
  7. It is heavy.
  8. It is complicated.
  • The tools of the academic designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser.  If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.
  • If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone sees it.
  • The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante.  He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects.  He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of "mere technical details."
  • The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details.  Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow.  Their solution requires manpower, time and money.
  • Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decision without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology, and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side.
  • For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen.  Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.
  • Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed.  It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forthrightly as possible.

America is blessed with several hundred thousand people educated by Admiral Rickover, and under the continuing watchful eye of those as head of Naval Reactors upon his retirement in 1982.   It’s time to use more of their experience in helping create an energy and economically secure America.  It is also time to re-evaluate our high schools, colleges and universities.  They are not educating the workforce America needs.  Look closely at how effective the US Navy Nuclear Power School has been over six decades.      

The words above are as true today as they were 63-years ago.  As here were 53-years ago, some people coming from academia believe they have some new formula for success.  Here is a hint - they don’t.  However, they have an advantage of well experienced people with many decades in nuclear power and all its associated industries to help guide them in ways to minimize precious resource expenditures. There is a paucity of funds; too many people are chasing them. Cooperation and coordination of resources is what will allow some to see the results they only imagine.           

People ask me, “Why do you focus on energy?”

Because American energy technologies used here to set America free, have the added opportunity to be in 37,000 current projects valued at $6.3 trillion in a world market of 48,000 current operational or pre-commissioning stage projects.  Without energy, no other industrial sectors could exist; energy is the world's largest in the number and value of companies, projects and facilities.  As developing economies continue to expand energy to meet the growing demand, the number of projects across the world is constantly increasing.  In developed economies, aging infrastructure and increased legislation regarding emissions and the use of renewable energy drive capital spending.  Nuclear is renewable for at least 1,000 years.  Think about that – 1000-years.  As you do, marvel at our advancement in just the past 100-years. 

Today, in America we are tolerating 200,000 deaths annually from emissions?  Why?  Nuclear power is a zero-emission reliable and efficient energy source.  America must seize the opportunity to deploy commercial nuclear power around the globe.  We can lead in changing the world for the betterment of all mankind – it can provide energy, clean water and jobs to stop people from fighting over scarce resources.

There is no magic.  Concerns with climate change, resulted the 2050 objectives of the Paris COP21/22 Agreement - Commitments to reduce carbon emissions, over the next several years is only going to be met by significant use of nuclear power to produce emission free electricity.  This is paramount for the United States to achieve the 2050 objectives.  Ponder Canada agreeing to phase out all coal-based electricity by 2030; China, India Japan and Southeast Asia alone need USD $7.7 trillion to meet their goals.
The United States creating a national policy implementing the use of nuclear power to speed up advancing commercial nuclear energy technology will re-establish us as the undisputable world leader well within a decade.  Failing to take advantage of this new opportunity will shortly place Americans at the mercy of countries wishing to dominate us.  If you believe I am wrong, just read the history of the Westinghouse AP600 starting 40-years ago to becoming the AP-1000 30-years ago to today.  Or, the General Electric (GE) sodium moderated PRISM reactor from 1981 until today the GE Hitachi PRISM reactor.  While we have been dithering, other countries took advantage of what we started in 1953.             

We Americans have a great opportunity right here at home to become energy and economically secure, while selling our safe and efficient commercial nuclear plants for the betterment of people around the world.

To start, all we must do is tell the new Congress and Trump administration what we collectively, by working together, can do with their help.  Americans must exploit every energy resource and technology for its highest economical and best use for our national security.            

President-elect Donald Trump is clear about helping Americans go back to work - it’s our choice.  

Richard McPherson has been involved in energy for 53-years since starting in the US Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program in 1963.  Because of the Chernobyl accident, Richard served as the United States Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the combined subjects of “Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities, the Environment and public Opinion during 1989-1993.  He frequently talks about energy and security.  He is a longtime advocate of “Agriculture, Energy & Water” as one subject.  That position caused the United Nations (UN) organizing committee for the “Decade of Water” (2005-2015), to invite Mr. McPherson to address them at their last organizing meeting in 2004.  Richard McPherson lives in Idaho.  You can reach him by telephone at (949) 292-9104 or by email: rmcphe8888@aol.com