TerraPower’s “traveling wave” reactor uses waste uranium as a fuel; Bill Gates and other investors say commercial operations are 15 years away. A new nickel-hydrogen “cold fusion” reactor, developed by two Italian scientists, is also attracting attention.
Until these futuristic systems arrive on the scene, nuclear plants already in the concept, design or construction stage will be better and safer than those that already help power America. However, existing reactors and those under construction are safe.
Twenty US plants now undergoing licensing or site preparation are all Generation III. They feature more “inherently safe design” elements and more “passive” safety features (such as auto response and gravity cooling systems) that rely less on human interaction with complex control systems.
The 104 commercial reactors already operating in the United States are all Generation II, enhanced over the years in response to new safety concepts and equipment, newly identified threats (such as terrorism after 9/11), and problems like Three Mile Island.
Gen II power plants consist of boiling or pressure water reactors surrounded by a steel wall, steel-reinforced concrete casing, and steel-reinforced concrete building. Nuclear engineers say US-based plants are designed, engineered and built to handle expected worst-case disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods – and analyzed for possible effects of terrorism – with multiple backup systems.
These efforts are supplemented during and after construction by exhaustive design reviews and modifications, and ongoing upgrades or replacement of equipment, instruments, controls and power lines. Further enhancements to equipment, training and procedures occur during the relicensing process and in response to natural disasters, operator errors, equipment failures, terrorist acts, and the discovery of design or manufacturing defects, in the US and around the world.
The system is designed to provide defense in depth, have appropriate equipment and procedures in place, and establish a “culture of safety.” Operators are trained continually to execute normal and emergency procedures, and emergency preparedness is drilled every two years with industry, state and local officials, under oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Fukushima apparently was insufficiently prepared for a disaster of the magnitude it experienced, in this major Pacific Ring of Fire earthquake and tsunami zone. The failure of diesel generators is already driving another look at passive safety systems; the hydrogen explosions a reassessment of ways to vent pressure buildups to special containment vessels; the overheating spent fuel rods new demands for reprocessing or safe offsite waste repositories, like Yucca Mountain.
The industry, NRC, FEMA, Congress, and state agencies are all reassessing and re-verifying the ability of nuclear plants, plans, equipment and personnel to handle events of Fukushima’s magnitude. Lessons from that near-disaster will be evaluated and employed worldwide.
Meanwhile, development of Generation III and IV nuclear reactors continues globally.
There can be no guarantees, no absolute fail-safe system. But those entrusted with nuclear power plant electricity generation and safety can and must come as close as possible.
Meanwhile, the rest of us must focus on helping northeastern Honshu recover – and offering thanks and prayers for the heroic workers who exposed themselves to dangerous radiation levels, to prevent a real disaster.
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