by Rizwan Ladha
In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, and as workers continue battling the second- and third-degree effects of the disaster, important questions are being raised about the future of nuclear energy in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been investing for a long time in alternatives to coal- and oil-based energy, including nuclear and renewables, in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Currently, there are 104 nuclear power plants in 31 states, which combined satisfy about 20% of our energy demand. There are additional plants that were slated for construction, but the Japan earthquake has changed that, and now many in the U.S. are calling for at least a temporary suspension on the development of new nuclear power plants.
One such person is Fletcher alum and former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson (F71). On Thursday March 31, when I attended a talk with Secretary Richardson at the Harvard Kennedy School, he suggested that we should be asking important questions about the designs of these new plants intended for construction, including how strong the containment vessel would be and whether the spent fuel pool would be placed at a sufficient distance from the reactor core to prevent a Fukushima-type disaster from being replicated here in the United States.
In the Q&A, I pushed back on Secretary Richardson and suggested these are perhaps the wrong questions to ask, since the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currentlyreviewing at least six new nuclear plant designs that would not have any of the design flaws and environmental security concerns that manifested themselves in Japan.
These new designs under NRC review are small modular reactors (SMRs), which — in contrast to the large, above-ground megaplants like Fukushima-Daiichi that can produce upwards of 1,000 MWe — put out less than 350 MWe and are more suitable for smaller towns and rural areas. They are manufactured in a completely encased unit, including the nuclear fuel, so there is more security in the nuclear fuel cycle and less proliferation risk. And according to preliminary studies, because these SMRs are designed to be buried at least partially underground, they would be less susceptible to damage from seismic shifts.
Secretary Richardson’s response was a positive one — that new designs should constantly be evaluated and old designs reevaluated, and that SMRs should be a part of the nuclear mix in the future.
But as George Marshall was known to ask, how could we be wrong? What are the downsides to these small modular reactor designs? What in these new designs would be cause for concern?
In other words, what are we missing?