1661899545564 Rich Merritt

Nuclear power makes sense

May 8, 2006
Whether you believe in global warming, the Kyoto Protocol or hugging trees, building nuclear power plants will create thousands of jobs for control engineers, operators and technicians.
By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

WE'VE COVERED this topic before, but recent events make it more important than ever. We need to build hundreds of new nuclear power plants. This is true, whether or not you believe we can do something about global warming, or whether or not you think the world’s oil and gas reserves are running out, or whether or not you believe we need to start using electric-powered cars.

Most of our oil is imported, which makes us vulnerable to terrorists, who can overthrow governments, blow up pipelines, and otherwise cut off our supplies. In Germany, where the Green movement made politicians cave in and start closing nuclear plants, this is a real problem. Germany relies heavily on Russian oil and gas, and Russia is not exactly stable, so the planned phase-out of nuclear reactors that supply one-third of Germany’s electricity is being reconsidered.

Global warming enters into the decision to go nuclear, especially in Europe. Paris-based Technology Review writer, Peter Fairley, recently discussed the thinking about nuclear power in Europe with Lars Josefsson, CEO of Vattenfall AB, a leading producer of electricity and operator of nine reactors in Sweden and Germany.

“Finland is building a nuclear power plant, and France looks set to follow suit with one of its own,” says Fairley. “Do you expect other countries in Europe to join the trend?”

“It's quite a process to decide to build new nuclear,” says Josefsson, “and one that will take several years. But the fact that there is a trend shift in Europe is, to me, obvious. Take Britain. It’s moving in that direction very clearly. And I think the replacement market for aging plants in Europe will be sizable.”

European countries are under pressure to live up to their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for a decrease in emissions. To many Europeans, nuclear power is the only way to accomplish this.

In the U.S., most new power plants built in the last 25 years have been gas-fired. Natural gas is getting to be downright expensive, so power plants are looking to coal as an alternate power source. The McIlvaine Co., a market research firm, says $48 billion per year will be invested in new coal-fired boilers over the next 10 years.

But coal has its problems, too, including acid rain, damage to land from mining, medical costs, and, according to writer Bruce Sterling, “coal spews more weather-wrecking pollutants into the air per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel.” (MIT Technology Review, Oct. 2003).

Ethanol shows promise, especially as a fuel for motor vehicles, but it cannot replace all the imported oil. Therefore, many people are calling for increased use of electric cars. Problem is, charging up all those vehicle batteries every night will require more electric power generation.

Nuclear power makes more sense than anything else. A new nuclear plant costs as much as a new coal plant (about $1 billion dollars, more or less). It produces no global warming-type emissions. It requires no imported hydrocarbon fuel. Siting and licensing problems are easily solved.

Put them on abandoned military bases, for example. Those bases have plenty of security, are owned by the government, so there are no (not in my backyard) NIMBY problems, and the surrounding populace would probably welcome them as a source of construction jobs.

As for licensing, I’ve said this before: get rid of the old fogies running the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), put in some of CONTROL’s readers, and adopt a universal design for the instrumentation and controls. If Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox build ‘em the same way Europe does, nukes won’t take 20 years to get approval.

Because of the NRC’s stifling rules, most control and instrumentation vendors in the U.S. abandoned the nuclear business years ago. Josefsson says, “There’s a real risk that the nuclear technology supply industry will become a bottleneck in the near future.” If the NRC adopted more reasonable rules, it could give our control equipment vendors a tremendous shot in the arm, especially if the U.S. was to build 50 new nuke plants per year for the next 20 years.

Building nuclear plants will also create thousands of jobs for control engineers, operators, and technicians. The best part is the $1 trillion dollars that will be spent on building 1,000 nukes will stay here, in the U.S., where it will benefit us, not some third-world country.

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