1 August 2011: Report of America’s nuclear commission is disappointing

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s nuclear future, set up by President Obama, has now issued a draft report (see Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future Draft Report to the Secretary of Energy). The main focus of this Commission has been on waste management, and the report notes – correctly – that whatever technologies are developed in future, the existing stockpile of used fuel, nuclear waste and plutonium needs to be dealt with. The Commission does not give an opinion on the suitability of the proposed (and subsequently withdrawn) licence for a waste store at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. It seems rather over-cautious for a Commission set up by the President to consider the issue for a year and then not give an opinion on the most controversial question. Instead, the draft report outlines organisational  and financial measures needed to draw up and implement a waste management strategy.

The Commission also says that it has not:

… offered a judgment about the appropriate role of nuclear power in the nation’s (or the world’s) future energy supply mix.

This reads like another disappointing piece of fence-sitting. But the report says later that:

We owe it to future generations to avoid foreclosing options wherever  possible so that they can make choices—about the use of nuclear energy as a low-carbon  energy resource and about the management of the nuclear fuel cycle—based on emerging technologies  and developments and their own best interests

and that:

Advances in nuclear energy technology have the potential to deliver an array of benefits across a wide range of energy policy goals. The Commission believes these benefits—in light of the environmental and energy security challenges the United States and the world will confront this century—justify sustained public- and private-sector support for RD&D on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies. In the near term, opportunities exist to improve the safety and performance of existing light-water reactors and spent fuel and high-level waste storage, transport, and disposal systems. Longer term, the possibility exists to advance “game-changing” innovations that offer  potentially large advantages over current technologies and systems.

This sounds more encouraging.  However, the draft report considers only three alternatives to the current most common form of nuclear power station, a light water reactor. The three alternatives considered are:

  • Light water reactor using mixed-oxide (MOx) fuel;
  • Fast reactors
  • High temperature reactors.

These are assessed against the baseline of existing light waterreactors. The Commission concludes that there are no major differences insafety or waste management implications; that the high temperature reactors would have larger climate change mitigation and energy security advantages because the heat could be used in industrial facilities and used to provide hydrogen for transport; that the fast reactors would use the uranium much more efficiently; that the MOx and fast reactors would increase the proliferation and terrorist risk.

So, the alternatives looked at don’t increase safety – which will clearly be the major public policy challenge post-Fukushima – and either do nothing for or worsen the threats of proliferation and terrorist attack. Sadly, and surprisingly, the Commission didn’t look at thorium molten salt reactors, despite energy secretary Steven Chu being on record as seeing this as the way forward for nuclear power (see YouTube: Planet Forward Exclusive: Energy Secretary Steven Chu Answers Our Energy Question).

The Blue Ribbon Commission dismisses thorium molten salt reactors on the grounds that they “have not received systematic study and the component technologies for these types of systems are less well developed.” It then says that molten salt reactors “could potentially offer many of the combined benefits of the alternatives listed “. The benefits of the alternatives they consider aren’t very obvious  (with the exception of the use of heat from high temperature reactors – and heat can also be used from light water reactors), and the disbenefits in terms of proliferation and terrorist attack risk are very obvious and very serious.

Thorium  molten salt reactors remove the risk of meltdown and reduce, though do not eliminate, the risk of weapons proliferation (see http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/pb_thorium_june11.pdf). If they have been insufficiently studies, surely a helpful role of the Blue  Ribbon Commission would have been to do some study. And if the technologies aren’t well developed, the US (and other countries) should get  on with developing them.


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