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[cdn-nucl-l] New life for nuclear power, Weinberg article
Interesting article. Wienberg's Faustian Deal?
----- Original Message -----
From: Michael C. Baker
To: ANS Member Exchange
Sent: Friday, September 05, 2003 1:59 PM
Subject: [MbrExchange] weinberg article
The Summer 2003 issue of Issues in Science and Technology has an
article titled "New Life for Nuclear Power" by Alvin Weinberg. The
link to the article is
Environment & Energy
ALVIN M. WEINBERG
New Life for Nuclear Power
Most of what I wrote in "Engineering in an Age of Anxiety" and "Energy
Policy in an Age of Uncertainty" I still believe: Inherently safe nuclear
energy technologies will continue to evolve; total U.S. energy output will
rise more slowly than it has hitherto; and incrementalism will, at least in
the short run, dominate our energy supply. However, my perspective has
changed in some ways as the result of an emerging development in electricity
generation: the remarkable extension of the lifetimes of many generating
facilities, particularly nuclear reactors. If this trend continues, it could
significantly alter the long-term prospect for nuclear energy.
This trend toward nuclear reactor "immortality" has become apparent in the
past 20 years, and it has become clear that the projected lifetime of a
reactor is far longer than we had estimated when we licensed these reactors
for 30 to 40 years. Some 14 U.S. reactors have been relicensed, 16 others
have applied for relicensing, and 18 more applications are expected by 2004.
According to former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve,
essentially all 103 U.S. power reactors will be relicensed for at least
another 20 years.
Making a significant contribution to C02 control would require a roughly
10-fold increase in the world's nuclear capacity.
If nuclear reactors receive normal maintenance, they will "never" wear out,
and this will profoundly affect the economic performance of the reactors.
Time annihilates capital costs. The economic Achilles' heel of nuclear
energy has been its high capital cost. In this respect, nuclear energy
resembles renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, hydroelectric
facilities, and photovoltaic cells, which have high capital costs but low
operating expenses. If a reactor lasts beyond its amortization time, the
burden of debt falls drastically. Indeed, according to one estimate, fully
amortized nuclear reactors with total electricity production costs
(operation and maintenance, fuel, and capital costs) below 2 cents per
kilowatt hour are possible.
Electricity that inexpensive would make it economically feasible to power
operations such as seawater desalinization, fulfilling a dream that was
common in the early days of nuclear power. President Eisenhower proposed
building nuclear-powered industrial complexes in the West Bank as a solution
to the Middle East's water problem, and Sen. Howard Baker promulgated a
"sense of the U.S. Senate" resolution authorizing a study of such complexes
as part of a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
If power reactors are virtually immortal, we have in principle achieved
nuclear electricity "too cheap to meter." But there is a major catch. The
very inexpensive electricity does not kick in until the reactor is fully
amortized, which means that the generation that pays for the reactor is
giving a gift of cheap electricity to the next generation. Because such
altruism is not likely to drive investment, the task becomes to develop
accounting or funding methods that will make it possible to build the
generation capacity that will eventually be a virtually permanent part of
If the only benefit of these reactors is to produce less expensive
electricity and the market is the only force driving investment, then we
will not see a massive investment in nuclear power. But if immortal reactors
by their very nature serve purposes that fall outside of the market economy,
their original capital cost can be handled in the way that society pays for
Such a purpose has emerged in recent years: the need to limit CO2 emissions
to protect against climate change. To a remarkable degree, the incentive to
go nuclear has shifted from meeting future energy demand to controlling CO2.
At an extremely low price, electricity uses could expand to include
activities such as electrolysis to produce hydrogen. If the purpose of
building reactors is CO2 control rather than producing electricity, then the
issue of going nuclear is no longer a matter of simple economics. Just as
the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA's) system of dams is justified by the
public good of flood control, the system of reactors would be justified by
the public good of CO2 control. And just as TVA is underwritten by the
government, the future expansion of nuclear energy could, at the very least,
be financed by federally guaranteed loans. Larry Foulke, president of the
American Nuclear Society, has proposed the creation of an Energy
Independence Security Agency, which would underwrite the construction of
nuclear reactors whose primary purpose is to control CO2.
Making a significant contribution to CO2 control would require a roughly
10-fold increase in the world's nuclear capacity. Providing fissile material
to fuel these thousands of reactors for an indefinite period would require
the use of breeder reactors, a technology that is already available; or the
extraction of uranium from seawater, a technology yet to be developed.
Is the vision of a worldwide system of as many as 4,000 reactors to be taken
seriously? In 1944, Enrico Fermi himself warned that the future of nuclear
energy depended on the public's acceptance of an energy source encumbered by
radioactivity and closely linked to the production of nuclear weapons. Aware
of these concerns, the early advocates of nuclear power formulated the
Acheson-Lilienthal plan, which called for rigorous control of all nuclear
activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But is this
enough to make the public willing to accept 4,000 large reactors? Princeton
University's Harold Feiveson has already said that he would rather forego
nuclear energy than accept the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in a
I cannot concede that our ingenuity is unequal to living in a 4,000-reactor
world. With thoughtful planning, we could manage the risks. I imagine having
about 500 nuclear parks, each of which would have up to 10 reactors plus
reprocessing facilities. The parks would be regulated and guarded by a
What about the possibility of another Chernobyl? Certainly today's reactors
are safer than yesterday's, but the possibility of an accident is real. Last
year, alarming corrosion was found at Ohio's Davis Besse plant, apparently
the result of a breakdown in the management and operating practices at the
plant. Chernobyl and Davis Besse illustrate the point of Fermi's warning:
Although nuclear energy has been a successful technology that now provides
20 percent of U.S. electricity, it is a demanding technology.
In addition to the risk of accidents, we face a growing possibility that
nuclear material could fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorist
groups and be used to create nuclear weapons. I disagree with Feiveson's
conclusion that this risk is too great to bear. I believe that we can
provide adequate security for 500 nuclear parks.
Is all this the fantasy of an aging nuclear pioneer? Possibly so. In any
case, I won't be around to see how the 21st century deals with CO2 and
nuclear energy. Nevertheless, this much seems clear: If we are to establish
a proliferation-proof fleet of 500 nuclear parks, we will have to expand on
the Acheson-Lillienthal plan in ways that will--as George Schultz observed
in 1989--require all nations to relinquish some national sovereignty.
Alvin M. Weinberg is a former director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.