Although this article is about safety, I want to first explain why few nuclear power reactors will be built in the future. Although safety and disposal of nuclear waste ought to be the main reasons why no more plants should be built, what will really stop them is their high cost and the time it takes to build them:
New reactors are not being built because it takes years to get permits and $8.5–$20 billion in capital must be raised for a new 3400 MW nuclear power plant (O’Grady 2008). This is almost impossible when a much cheaper and much safer 3400 MW natural gas plant can be built for $2.5 billion in half the time.
U.S. nuclear power plants are old and in decline. By 2030, U.S. nuclear power generation might be the source of just 10 % of electricity, half of production now, because 38 reactors producing a third of nuclear power are past their 40-year life span, and another 33 reactors producing a third of nuclear power are over 30 years old. Although some will have their licenses extended, 37 reactors that produce half of nuclear power are at risk of closing because of economics, breakdowns, unreliability, long outages, safety, and expensive post-Fukushima retrofits (Cooper 2013).
If you’ve read the nuclear reactor hazards paper or my summary of it, then you understand why there will continually be accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl. That will make investors and governments fearful of spending billions of dollars to build nuclear plants.
Nor will people be willing to use precious oil as it declines to build a nuclear power plant that could take up to 10 years to build, when that oil will be more needed for tractors to plant and harvest food and trucks to deliver the food to cities (electric power can’t do that, tractors and trucks have to run on oil).
Nuclear Safety in the news
The International Atomic Energy Agency is supposed to keep track of all the nuclear incidents in the world, but if you go to their incident report page, you’ll notice that the Turkey Point reactor issues in the March 22, 2016 article aren’t mentioned, and British newspaper “The Guardian” also says that their list is incomplete. Wikipedia is very much out of date, but has some fairly long lists of nuclear problems. The NRDC has a good deal of information, for instance, their article called “What if the Fukushima nuclear fallout crisis had happened here?” where you can see how hit your home would be if the nearest nuclear reactor had a similar level of disaster.
Alvarez, L. March 22, 2016. Nuclear Plant Leak Threatens Drinking Water Wells in Florida. New York Times.
Turkey point, in Florida is the culprit, also mentioned as one of 37 plants at risk of closing in Cooper’s article.
April 2014 ASPO newsletter
“Nuclear power is probably the biggest asset we have in the fight against climate change…But I’m a business guy and I’m a pragmatist, and there’s no future for nuclear in the United States. There’s certainly no future for new nuclear… [Very few know] how close the system came to collapsing in January because everyone wants to go to natural gas and there wasn’t enough natural gas in the system. The purpose of having old coal plants, to be frank, is keeping the lights on for the next three, five, 10 years…I’m not anti-utilities, I’m not anti-nuclear, I’m not anti-coal, I’m just anti-bullshit.” — David Crane, CEO of NRG Inc., the U.S.’ largest independent power generator
Matthew Wald. 8 Jun 2012. Court Forces a Rethinking of Nuclear Fuel. New York Times.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted hastily in concluding that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants for the next century or so in the absence of a permanent repository, and it must consider what will happen if none are ever established, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday. The commission’s wrong decision was made so that the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors (and 4 new ones) could be extended.
The three judge panel unanimously decided that the commission was wrong to assume nuclear fuel would be safe for many decades without analyzing actual reactor storage pools individually across the nation. Nor did they adequately analyze the risk that cooling water might leak from the pools or that the fuel could ignite.
22 May 2012. Severe Nuclear Reactor Accidents Likely Every 10 to 20 Years, European Study Suggests. ScienceDaily
Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed. Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years — some 200 times more often than estimated in the past. The researchers also determined that 50% of the radioactive caesium-137 would be spread over an area of more than 1,000 kilometres away from the nuclear reactor, and 25% would go more than 2,000 kilometres. Their results show that Western Europe is likely to be contaminated about once in 50 years by more than 40 kilobecquerel of caesium-137 per square meter. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, an area is defined as being contaminated with radiation from this amount onwards. In view of their findings, the researchers call for an in-depth analysis and reassessment of the risks associated with nuclear power plants. Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors in operation, and 60 more are planned.
Citizens in the densely populated southwestern part of Germany run the worldwide highest risk of radioactive contamination. If a single nuclear meltdown were to occur in Western Europe, around 28 million people on average would be affected by contamination of more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter. This figure is even higher in southern Asia, due to the dense populations. A major nuclear accident there would affect around 34 million people, while in the eastern USA and in East Asia this would be 14 to 21 million people.
Reference: J. Lelieveld, et al. Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 2012; 12 (9): 4245
Smith, Rebecca. 4 Feb 2012. Worn Pipes Shut California Reactors. Wall Street Journal. The two reactors at the San Onofre nuclear-power station near San Clemente, Calif., will remain shut down this weekend while federal safety officials investigate why critical—and relatively new—equipment is showing signs of premature wear. Components in nuclear plants are subjected to extreme heat, pressure, radiation and chemical exposure, all of which can take a toll on materials. Commission inspectors say they also have found problems with hundreds of steam tubes at the plant’s other reactor. Experts say the closures may signal a broader problem for the nuclear industry, which has been trying to reassure Americans that its aging reactors are safe in the wake of last year’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. Mr. Dricks said. Two pipes had lost 35% of their wall thickness in just two years of service. Most—about 800—had lost 10% to 20% of wall thickness. The pipes are about three-quarters of an inch in diameter.
Munson, R. 2008. From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity. Praeger.
Cost overruns on reactors nearly drove some power companies into bankruptcy. In 1984 the Department of Energy calculated more than 75% of reactors cost at least double the estimated price.
Utility WPPSS in Washington state defaulted, scaring investors, who once thought there’d be over a thousand reactors running by 2000 with electricity too cheap to meter. In fact, only 82 plants existed in 2000 and power prices soared 60% between 1969 and 1984 due to the cost overruns.
Nuclear executives tried to blame their problems on too much regulation and environmentalists, but regulations only came after reactors began to break down. Intense radiation and high temperatures caused pipes, valves, tubes, fuel rods, and cooling systems to crack, corrode, bend, and malfunction. Only then did the public create the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to regulate nuclear power facilities.
Munson lists quite a few problems, but you should search on “Nuclear Reactor Hazards Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century” to get a real good understanding of the magnitude of failures despite regulation. Indeed, even the Wall Street Journal was forced to admit at one point that reactor troubles “tell the story of projects crippled by too little regulation, rather than too much.”
Some of this stemmed from nuclear engineers seeing uranium as just a complicated way to boil water. But a reactor is not simple, there are over 40,000 valves, the fuel rods reach temperatures over 4,800 F, and it isn’t easy to contain the nuclear reactions.
Management was poor as well, with Forbes magazine calling the U.S. nuclear program “the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale.”
Cooper, M. 2013. Renaissance in reverse: Competition pushes aging U.S. Nuclear reactors to the brink of economic abandonment. South Royalton: Vermont Law School.
O’Grady, E. 2008. Luminant seeks new reactor. London: Reuters.