The Future of Nuclear Energy: Interview with a UC Berkeley Professor

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Meet the Expert: UC Berkeley’s Peter Hosemann, PhD

Peter Hosemann

Dr. Peter Hosemann is a professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California Berkeley, where he is also the department chair. He received his MS and PhD degrees in material science from Montanuniversität Leoben, Austria.

Prior to joining the Department of Nuclear Engineering at UC Berkeley, Dr. Hosemann was a graduate research assistant and a post-doc at Los Alamos National Laboratory. His research features experimental material science for nuclear applications, with a focus on the structural materials used for nuclear components.

Confronting Safety Issues in Nuclear Energy

Statistically speaking, very few people know how nuclear energy works. But practically everyone has some idea of what happens when it doesn’t. The safety failures of nuclear power plants, which have been extremely infrequent, have had disproportionately large effects: certain areas of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone may not be habitable for over 20,000 years. Disasters at Fukushima and Three Mile Island are still vividly situated in the collective public memory. Based on this, some groups which push for a greater commitment to green energy either disregard or actively denounce further investment in nuclear energy.

On the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Greenpeace released a report that documented nearly 200 ‘near misses’ that had occurred at American nuclear power plants since 1986. But a ‘near miss’ in nuclear power is merely a statistical aberration in other, less volatile fields; in the eight most significant events documented in the Greenpeace report, no event had a larger than 0.6 percent chance of resulting in core damage. Still, to nuclear watchdogs, a 0.6 percent chance of failure is far too high.

“I think the safety aspect of nuclear energy is largely a success story, at least in the United States,” Dr. Hosemann says. “It comes down to knowing how to operate, how to have a safety culture that works to address issues which pop up, and to do your due diligence, just as you're supposed to do as an engineer in any field.”

Today there are 450 nuclear power reactors across the globe, with a cumulative operating experience of nearly 18,000 reactor years (the total of all years that all reactors have been running). A 2003 study sponsored by the European Commission estimated that a severe core damage incident is likely to occur once every 20,000 reactor years; a 2008 study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimated the chance of such an event as likely once every 50,000 reactor years in the US. New regulations and improved tech continue to push the possibility of failure down even further, but the damage done to the public perception has a long half-life.

“People who work in the nuclear field are very aware of this perception,” Dr. Hosemann says. “It’s a scary subject, there's no doubt about it, and we take those concerns very seriously. At the same time, we also want to make sure that people really understand what type of risk we’re talking about. As the record in this country shows, we have demonstrated that in the years since 1979 we’ve been able to grow nuclear power and keep operating without really any issue. We do everything humanly possible to minimize risk. Once you do that, and you're truly committed to that statement, I think you can do this very safely.”

Overcoming the Cost Barrier to Nuclear Energy

A more practical challenge to the greater adoption of nuclear energy is the enormous upfront cost it requires, with the massive amounts of capital and technical expertise needed to build and operate a nuclear power plant generally excluding it as a possibility in the developing world. The associated costs of a Gen-II or Gen-III nuclear plant are seen as infeasible for a nation with a GDP of under $50 billion, and such nations might instead opt for more environmentally-harmful methods of energy production, such as coal.

“Building a plant is extremely expensive due to the size of the plants, redundant subsystems, and safety features put in place,” Dr. Hosemann says. “Now, once it's running, the fuel costs and the operational costs are relatively small in comparison. And for a small continued investment, you generate a large amount of electricity.”

Cost isn’t just a problem for developing nations, either. In 2017, the VC Summer nuclear generating station in South Carolina added its name to the list of infamous atomic disasters, but its failure was financial instead of technical. What should’ve been the first nuclear generator constructed in the US in decades was instead a total fiasco: cut corners, project mismanagement, financial malfeasance, and accusations of fraud. Westinghouse, the nuclear power concern leading the project, went into bankruptcy thanks to the $9 billion in losses it incurred along the way. Industry experts have expressed concern at the chilling effect that this could have on future nuclear power projects in the US over the next few years.

Nuclear power thinks on a longer timeframe, with the lifespan of a reactor being a 50- to a 100-year proposition. And the future of nuclear energy may look different than the past: technological innovations have the potential to reduce cost, limit waste, increase safety, and facilitate the development of nuclear power in the nations that need it most.

Thinking Big With Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)

Advanced nuclear technologies like Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) could be one way forward. With a capacity of approximately a third to a fifth that of a traditional power plant, these reactors are smaller in size, making them cheaper and capable of being designed largely off-site. Furthermore, a higher surface-to-volume ratio means that many of an SMR’s heat removal aspects are intrinsically resolved within the design, enhancing overall safety.

“Small modular reactors can address the issue of upfront cost to some degree,” Dr. Hosemann says. “These are smaller units, perhaps to the degree that they may even be transportable, and you can then add multiple units over time to increase power generation.”

Russia’s latest floating SMR, which isn’t all that far off from a nuclear submarine or nuclear aircraft carrier in theory or practice, provides a proof-of-concept: an SMR can be built elsewhere and then transported into place; it doesn’t even need to sit on land.

Detractors say that SMRs, while promising, can divert attention from more plausible and proven climate solutions. Concerns about the disposal of radioactive waste and the revival of a ‘plutonium economy’ continue to temper expectations. But a measured approach to the use of SMRs could yield tangible benefits both environmentally and economically.

A 2010 study estimated that a 100MW SMR could provide enough energy for 75,000 homes, and cost approximately $500 million to build, install, and commission. That would represent significant savings over the cost of traditional nuclear plants, and could also generate over $1.4 billion in sales annually, along with 7,200 jobs, to offset the upfront costs.

Going Next-Gen With Generation IV Nuclear Power Plants

Generation IV Nuclear Power Plants (GEN IV NPPs) are a new family of nuclear reactors, some members of which share characteristics with SMRs. They’re expected to become an important source of baseload power in the coming decades. Many GEN IV NPPs will operate for about 30 years on the same fuel source, and, since they won’t need to be recharged, they’ll ideally leave less waste. Most will be able to consume existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity, forming a closed nuclear fuel cycle.

“GEN IV typically means it’s not light water-cooled—it can have a different neutron spectrum, and it can have some other purposes besides just making electricity with higher efficiency,” Dr. Hosemann says. “You may consider a lead-cooled, lead bismuth-cooled, or a sodium-cooled fast reactor a GEN IV reactor, among other thermal spectrum reactors. The purpose there is that your neutrons maintain a high velocity. Those fast neutrons now have the ability to transmute nuclear waste in other isotopes. So you can have a way to treat your spent fuel, for example, among other benefits.”

Detractors, particularly those living Stateside, worry that open market economies (like the US, the UK, France, and Japan) cannot match the levels of funding and support seen in more top-down economies like Russia and China. Private sector investments in the nuclear arena would need to be matched with public sector support in order to mitigate financing, construction, and operational risks. The more optimistic segment of the nuclear community looks to the working prototypes of GEN IV NPPs and forecasts that new patterns of investment could bring more GEN IVs to life.

In 2010, the European Sustainable Nuclear Industrial Initiative (ESNI) supported three GEN IV fast reactor projects, as part of the EU’s plan to promote low-carbon energy (alongside initiatives that supported wind, solar, biomass, and other forms of clean energy). ESNI sought to demonstrate how GEN IV reactors could close the nuclear fuel cycle, provide long-term waste management solutions, and expand the applications of nuclear fission beyond electricity production and into areas like hydrogen production, industrial heat, and desalination. The total cost of deployment for all three reactors and supporting infrastructure totaled over €10.8 billion.

“The question always comes down to the country, the geography, the politics, the boundary conditions,” Dr. Hosemann says. “Do the benefits outweigh the costs? In some countries, the answer is yes, and in some countries, the answer is no. It really depends on what the local energy strategy is. But some GEN IV designs have been realized. They’re operating today.”

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Small but significant steps are being taken in the US to further prioritize nuclear energy.

For the fiscal year 2020, Congress approved $1.5 billion for nuclear energy programs, a 12.5 percent increase on the previous year. Former Vice-President Joe Biden’s environmental plan calls for a radical expansion of clean energy, including advanced nuclear technology. It also prioritizes clean-up efforts on the damage already done: plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, but also reclaiming uranium mines. These proposals mirror those in the 550-page plan put forward by the Democrat-led House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, but push a more aggressive timeline for implementation.

“What shouldn’t be forgotten is that there are a lot of peripheral technologies which come out of nuclear power that benefit humanity,” Dr. Hosemann says. “If you get cancer treatment today, it’s very likely you will get injected with a radioactive substance. That technology is born out of the nuclear enterprise. Without reactors, you wouldn’t have it. There are numerous examples of the benefits of nuclear engineering beyond just nuclear power.”

In the developing world, SMRs can bring clean energy to nations that once were not able to afford or operate nuclear reactors. These low-pollution power generators could revolutionize the infrastructure of a continent like Africa that still has an estimated 600 million citizens who lack access to electricity. There are currently 54 reactors under construction in 18 countries, 14 of which are emerging and middle-income nations. If entities like the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) are appropriately involved and consulted, the low risk of SMRs could be mitigated even further.

“For each energy source, there are compromises,” Dr. Hosemann says. “Each society, each country, and, to some degree, each state has to decide what compromises they're willing to accept. There is no single answer for what works globally, only for what works locally.”

Humans are inherently flawed, but nuclear power isn’t. According to the IEA, if the technology can be progressively developed, operated, and maintained efficiently, then nuclear power can be a major tool in divesting the world’s dependence on high-emission power sources. To what extent governments and businesses decide to harness that power safely, affordably, and effectively, however, remains to be seen.

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