Can Technology Solve Nuclear's Problems? President Obama has pledged support for nuclear power, but problems including how to dispose of the waste persist. Ira Flatow and guests look at the latest nuclear technology, from microreactors to waste storage, and compare the cost of nuclear to other energy sources.
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Can Technology Solve Nuclear's Problems?

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Can Technology Solve Nuclear's Problems?

Can Technology Solve Nuclear's Problems?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, nuclear power, where do we go from here?

This week, the Department of Energy filed a withdrawal of its license application for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository, which means in plain English that Yucca Mountain is no longer under consideration as a nuclear waste storage location.

President Obama does not want it, and at the same time the president has come out in support of nuclear power and pledged loan guarantees for companies to build new nuclear facilities, something we haven't really seen here in the last 30 years since Three Mile Island.

What has happened, though, in the past three decades has been a re-thinking of nuclear power plant design, plans to make them safer and smaller.

Forget about those cooling towers we saw at TMI, you know, maybe with Homer Simpson at the control. The nuclear plant of the future, well, it might fit in your backyard, it might operate by itself, at least according to a design by one my guests. We're going to be talking about new nuclear designs and seeing what's on the drawing boards.

Will - will they become safe, viable options in the coming decades? Where do we put all of the waste from those new nuclear power plants if Yucca Mountain is no longer under consideration, if it's closed?

That's what we'll be talking about for the rest of the hour, new designs for nuclear, whether we should even go there, with some opinions from one of my guests.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be happy to take your tweets there.

Let me introduce my guests. Richard Lester is a professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. He's with us here today. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD LESTER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): You're welcome.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Lester Brown is the president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. He's back to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Welcome, Lester.

Mr. LESTER BROWN (President, Earth Policy Institute): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to have you back.

Mr. BROWN: My pleasure.

FLATOW: John R. Deal, known to Grizz as his friend, is CEO of Hyperion Power. He joins us from Denver, Colorado.

Mr. JOHN R. DEAL (Chief Executive Officer, Hyperion Power): Hello, Ira. How are you today?

FLATOW: You're welcome. Scott Burnell is a public affairs officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, Maryland. Thanks for talking with us today, Scott.

Mr. SCOTT BURNELL (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission): Good afternoon, everyone.

FLATOW: Lester, let's talk Richard, let's talk about Yucca Mountain. The DOE withdrew its license application for Yucca Mountain. Does that mean, Richard, that it's off the table?

Mr. LESTER: I think it does mean that it's off the table, at least for the time being. It's one can never really say never in this business. So maybe at some point in the future it will reemerge, but not for the foreseeable future, and in the meantime, we're basically left with storing the spent fuel either at the reactors or, as some people would advocate, in a few centralized storage facilities.

FLATOW: Grizz, do you agree with that?

Mr. DEAL: Well, I'd like to think that, you know, such a national resource as Yucca Mountain can have, you know, that we can take advantage of that at some point in the future.

I'm very anxious to see what the president's (unintelligible) you know, panel has to say about recycling and the disposition of waste that currently exists.

So I wouldn't count it out yet, but I'm counting on more science, less politics in the debate.

FLATOW: Lester Brown, where do you come down on this?

Mr. BROWN: If by this you mean nuclear power generally or small...

FLATOW: Yeah, well, let's talk about waste. Is the waste issue going to kill nuclear power if nothing else?

Mr. BROWN: Oh, it's a huge issue, and the last time I looked at the budget for Yucca Mountain, it was 96 billion, and when you realize we only have 104 nuclear power plants in the country, that's almost a billion dollars per plant.

Imagine if that billion dollar price tag had been put on the table at the beginning when they were being considered. Most of them would never have gotten off the ground.

FLATOW: And it has been it is your contention, I surmise, that nuclear power is still too when compared to other resources, it is still too expensive.

Mr. BROWN: That's not my contention. That's Wall Street. There is no private capital from Wall Street going into nuclear power.

FLATOW: But isn't that the whole point of the president loosening up money to invest in nuclear power?

Mr. BROWN: You know, we've already invested $70 billion in nuclear R&D over the last half-century. At what point does an industry become a mature industry and go ahead on its own?

FLATOW: Richard Lester?

Mr. LESTER: Yeah, I think these numbers, there's different ways to look at these cost numbers. In fact, we spend something like eight or we would spend if we were building a new reactor maybe eight or nine cents a kilowatt hour on the electricity that it produces, and only about two percent of that would go to cover the cost of nuclear waste. So the numbers that we need to think about are really driven by one very important fact about nuclear power, which is the volume of waste that is produced by these plants is very, very small.

And so just to give an example, if each of us obtained all of our electricity from nuclear power we don't, we get about 20 percent of U.S. electricity from nuclear power but if we got all of it from nuclear power, that would be equivalent, on a per-person basis, of about two ounces of nuclear fuel per year per person, and that's more or less the amount of waste that comes out the other end of the reactors.

So these are very small amounts compared with and if you want to look at the amount that we need to fuel coal plants, for example, that's 10 tons per year compared with a couple of ounces of nuclear fuel per year per person.

So we can actually afford to spend a lot of money, and we need to spend a lot of money, on safely storing this material, but the impact on the cost of nuclear electricity is actually very small.

FLATOW: What new designs were not around? What kinds of new thinking? I mentioned smaller nuclear power plants. Is that one of the innovations we're seeing right now, Richard?

Mr. LESTER: Yes, it is, but I would add to that the fact I'd add to that that we really need to be innovating in the nuclear waste area. For the last 25 years there's been very little innovation in the nuclear waste field. As a matter of fact, the Congress, when it identified Yucca Mountain as the site back in 1987, actually legislated that no research and development be done on any geology other than Yucca Mountain.

So essentially the field has been stagnant for a very long time, and I think in addition to talking about innovative nuclear power reactors, which we will today, I think we also need to talk about new ideas for managing and disposing of the nuclear waste.

FLATOW: That's interesting. Let me go the new ideas and then one new idea that's on the table. Grizz Deal's company is called, is Hyperion Power, and he has come up with a nuclear reactor that's based on a design from Los Alamos, that was tried in Los Alamos. Correct, Grizz?

Mr. DEAL: That's correct. This is the result of, you know, gee, the entire industry working and the experience we have with small reactors over the last 50 years for Navy propulsion and smaller research reactors and reactors that are used, you know, every day.

The innovation here is taking a small reactor out to the marketplace and to be able to generate electricity in a distributed fashion instead of a centralized fashion, and that really goes to, you know, some of the issues around cost.

Certainly, large nuclear reactors are really important to a highly industrialized country like, you know, like the United States, like the U.K., like Japan, but there are lots of places around the world that can make a technological leap from, you know, sort of horsepower up into something that's small, safe and secure that has no CO2 emissions, and it can be done in a very safe and secure manner. And that really starts with this idea of smaller, modular small and modular reactors.

FLATOW: And so your reactor, as you say, one of the rules of creating your reactor was to make it small enough that it could fit on the back of a flatbed truck. So you could transport it anywhere. It has no moving parts. It cannot melt down, and it can just sit underground for five to 10 years, and you call it a giant battery, in effect.

Mr. DEAL: Well, it's got the battery metaphor. The key here is that, you know, the reactor is fueled at the factory, so there's no in-field refueling, and the reactor is, you know, it's fueled close to the customer but shipped out to the customer, and then it runs actually for eight to 10 years, and it generates sufficient heat to provide electricity for 20,000 American-style homes or, as we like say, 100,000 homes anywhere else.

That battery metaphor admittedly falls apart when you start talking about electric gen. So we use it in terms of, you know, safely and securely storing, fueling and sending the reactor out so that it can be used and then taken back to the factory facilities so that the customer, whether it's a small community or a military base or an industrial power provider or, you know, an industry member or a factory or something that's providing power locally, they don't have to deal with some of those.

And this really has been spawned out of non-proliferation. You know, hundreds of countries around the world are looking at how they adopt nuclear power to provide electricity because, quite honestly, folks are you know, there's a lot of folks out there that don't even have clean water, and that's really why we started the company, was to help provide clean water in developing economies.

So we feel like it's really important that a very knowledgeable group of people in the more industrialized countries, including the United States, provide these technologies. These countries have the right to develop civilian nuclear power, and they're going to do it.

So, you know, when you speak about our reactor, you really should - it's less about North America, less about the U.S. and more about, you know, emerging economies and sort of the developing, you know, economic situations...

FLATOW: But you would like to see it adopted here in this country too.

Mr. DEAL: Well, you know, quite honestly, we think that there's lots of places in the U.S. that can benefit from distributed power of all types: solar, wind and small nuclear. And it - these are all very site specific though. If you've got access to large power production, then, you know, distributed power has less of a roll. But if you want safe, independent power and you want it to be base load power, you know, in terms of renewables, you really only have nuclear power as a choice.

FLATOW: All right. Let me ask Scott Burnell of the NRC, his take on this. Is this the kind of reactor you might approve?

Mr. BURNELL: Well, it's one of seven small or modular designs that currently are on what the NRC considers its advanced reactor program. We are looking at three basic types - one that's essentially a shrunk-down, pressurized water reactor, another type that we call a high temperature gas-cooled reactor, and then the third type is a rather advanced concept called a liquid metal-cooled reactor. So these are concepts that we'll be looking at over the next few years to determine whether or not they are safe and appropriate for use in the United States.

Hyperion is one of the designs that's been discussed at the agency.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Richard Lester, are other small reactors - let me ask you if you're familiar with the Hyperion design.

Dr. LESTER: Yeah, I'm less familiar with it than with some of the others that are out there, and it's really, you know, quite an exciting time in a field that hasn't seen a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship for a very long time. There are, as Mr. Burnell said, several actually, more than several. There are a substantial number of designs out there that are focusing on the idea of scale, smaller designs.

And I would actually think, you know, it's, in some sense, useful to divide them into two groups. One is the small versions of today's large light water reactors...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LESTER: ...which probably could be brought to market somewhat quicker, although Mr. Deal may have a different view on this, than the designs that rely on different kinds of coolant and different kinds of moderator.

FLATOW: Some of the new reactors are also reusing, recycling the old uranium pellets that are in the old reactors. Talk about that. Would that be - take care of some of the waste problems?

Dr. LESTER: It will probably reduce the volume of the waste that we would have to deal with. It won't eliminate the waste problem, because every time you have fission, whether you're recycling material or not, you're generating fission products which are highly radioactive, and they must be disposed of. So you're not going to eliminate the waste problem that way, but you might reduce the volume somewhat.

FLATOW: We're talking about nuclear power this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

And that's why you say that we're not paying enough attention to new technology and waste disposal.

Dr. LESTER: Well, I think we haven't paid enough attention. And I think clearly now that Yucca Mountain is off the table, we're going to need to look quite seriously at some alternatives, some of which have been perking along in the background for some years, but without any federal research and development support because that was prohibited by the Congress.

FLATOW: And what - and do you have an idea for some new place to put the waste?

Dr. LESTER: Well, one of the ideas that we've been working on up here at MIT for probably 10 or 15 years now is - would involve going much deeper. And instead of building a large repository, such as the Yucca Mountain repository, you know, three or 400 meters below the Earth's surface, the idea here would be to drill boreholes similar to the kind that the oil and gas industry drill when they look for oil. But in this case, several kilometers in depth. So that's an order of factor of 10 deeper below the Earth's surface than, let's say, a conventional repository of the type of Yucca Mountain and that other countries are beginning.

And basically, the motivation for doing this is that that things tend to get better with depth when it comes to storing this material. You're obviously further removed physically from the biosphere. The rock down at those kinds of depths has much lower permeability, has much less water. There are no aquifers. You don't have water flowing around those depths. And large areas of the continental U.S. seem likely to have reasonably suitable geological characteristics in the bedrock at depths of a few kilometers.

So the idea would be to drill down to that depth and fill perhaps the bottom one kilometer with spent fuel canisters or other kinds of waste, and then backfill the top two or three kilometers, mile or two miles, with sealant cement and other kinds of sealant. And that's a scheme that people have been working on for some time, a number of years, really, but at a very low level. And probably now that the Yucca Mountain repository is off the table, we're going to see a little bit more attention to more innovative ideas like this.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I imagine that with Yucca Mountain off we'll certainly be hearing from the public about where they want to keep, you know, whether the waste, they want it way down there or not in my backyard.

Dr. LESTER: Well, I think one of the things or one of the lessons that I hope we've learned from Yucca Mountain and the Yucca Mountain experience over the last 25 years is it doesnt work when the federal government unilaterally says we're going to put a repository in a particular location whether you like it or not.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LESTER: That's the, I think, the most important lesson that emerges from Yucca Mountain. And the only way that I think we're going to have success in finding a repository or finding a location for this material is if it's done in a much more consultative way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back and talk more. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking about new energy technologies. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the future of nuclear power in this country, and focusing on the waste and new smaller power-generating, new nuclear, smaller nuclear power generators, with my guests Richard Lester, professor and head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT; Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute; John Grizz Deal, CEO of Hyperion Power; and Scott Burnell, public affairs officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Lester Brown, what's going to be - let's say you could solve the waste issue here, does that make it viable?

Mr. BROWN: The term that the - excuse me - The Wall Street Journal has been using for some time now in describing the economics of nuclear power is sticker shock. Now, we do have a waste problem already, whether we build another single nuclear power plant or not. And I think Richard Lester's ideas, though I can't evaluate them, not being a geologist or an engineer - but we do need something. And that's clearly one of the possibilities to deal with the waste issue.

But the more fundamental question that we in the world are facing is - what is the future of nuclear power generally? And, you know, it's cost, cost, cost. We saw Ontario, fairly recently, which had been - put out requests for proposals for two nuclear reactors. And when the proposals started coming in, they just cancelled the process because, as someone said, they were victims of, quote, "sticker shock." They just didnt realize how costly these things were becoming.

FPL was going to build a nuclear plant in Florida, and within a year it had tripled its cost estimates. You get enough of those things happening and you begin to wonder. And then people always say, well, what about France? Well, that's a good question. What about France? France now has one nuclear power plant under construction and it is behind schedule and having problems. But they are developing 25,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. I mean, think 25 coal-powered power plants, for example, in terms of electrical output.

Then we've had - thinking of new technologies, AREVA, the big French company in which I think the French government has a stake, actually, has this new reactor called - I think it's called the evolutionary pressurized reactor. And the first of these they're building in Finland and working with the Finnish electrical utility. And what they now have is a plant that's three billion over budget.

It was originally 4.1 billion, now 7.2 billion, three years off schedule, and a standstill with nothing happening now as AREVA and the Finnish utility debate and actually go to court over who's going to bear the cost overruns. So it was to be the poster child for this new technology, but in fact it's become almost a tombstone for the technology.

And then we have in this country that's not going to help with the public image of nuclear power is the discovery that there are now 27 older plants with underground pipes that are leaking tritium. And tritium is a carcinogen. In Vermont, as I recall - I've also seen the numbers for Illinois and some other plants - but there are 27 plants altogether now leaking tritium in this country. And that's going to be a major public relations issue for the industry.

Mr. BURNELL: Ira, I can certainly speak to that.

FLATOW: Is that Scott?

Mr. BURNELL: Yes, it is.

FLATOW: Yes, Scott at the NRC, go ahead.

Mr. BURNELL: Well, there have been 27 instances where there has been groundwater contamination involving tritium. They are not all ongoing. In the case of Vermont Yankee, the situation on the ground there is that the contamination is not reaching any drinking water sources. It's not reaching the nearby Connecticut River. So it's not presenting any public health issue. And we at the NRC are closely watching how Vermont Yankee is evaluating its situation to discover where the leak is coming from.

We will make sure that they do identify it properly, that they fix it properly, and that in every instance they are doing what is necessary to operate the plant safely and in accordance with our regulations. But speaking to the new reactor issue that was raised, the NRC is looking at the EPR, the AREVA design, to determine if it can be built in the United States. And the process that we have in place there is meant to finalize the design, set it in stone, if you will, before construction begins, so that there's a great deal more certainty if a license is issued to build and operate a plant. That they know what they're going to build, they know how to build it, and that they know what sorts of measures and acceptance criteria they have to meet in order to get that plant into operation.

FLATOW: The French have settled on just a very few number of designs. Why don't we have that? You know, in this country every - it used to be every reactor -every designer could make his own reactor, every design. Why don't we just settle on one or two designs and then we can have, you know, we can - we know how each one of them will work and if something goes wrong?

Mr. BURNELL: Well, the authority that the NRC works under is such that we can only determine whether a given design is appropriate to use. We are not in a position to dictate use design A, B or C.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask Richard Lester that question then.

Dr. LESTER: Yes. Well, let me just say that Lester Brown is right about the cost issue. The - unless we can bring down the costs, unless we reduce the financial risks, and unless we can reduce the cycle times for designing and building nuclear reactors, it's going to be quite unlikely that we're going to have our companies - private companies willing to go forward with these things. And that's why the smaller reactor concepts are really quite interesting because they achieve all of those things. It's much less of an outlay for a company. It's something that can probably be built much quicker, because in large part these plants will be built in a factory environment.

And the risks associated, the financial risk associated with this sort of approach to building nuclear plants will be lower. And I think this is extraordinarily important because - and we haven't - and I'm surprised we haven't talked about this. I'm surprised Lester Brown hasn't raised the issue. It's really almost inconceivable to me that we're going to be able to address the carbon emission reduction challenge that we've been set without all of these things we've been talking about: solar wind, geothermal carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear. And if we take nuclear off the table, I think the probability of achieving those carbon emission reductions is going to be extremely low (unintelligible) matters.

FLATOW: Let me ask Lester to comment on that issue.

Mr. BROWN: Well, it seems to me that we need to look - if you have a billion dollars or a trillion dollars you want to invest in cutting carbon emissions, you ask the question, how can we do this at the, you know, with the least cost? And right now, building nuclear power plants is not a least cost option. In fact, it's pretty near the top of the list. And whether or not smaller plants will bring it down or not remains to be seen. The last independent analysis I've seen of the cost of nuclear generated electricity versus wind is 14 cents versus seven cents. That is, wind generated electricity is coming online at about half of the cost of nuclear. And that's one reason why we've brought 191 new wind farms online in this country in the last two years with a generating capacity of about 17,000 megawatts.

And that doesn't require loan guarantees from the government. It's been done mostly with private capital, with some modest incentive in terms of the production tax credits, but it's really moving on an extraordinary scale.

FLATOW: All right, we've run out of time. I want to thank - one last word to you, John. For 30 seconds, John Deal, what it would cost - what would your cost be per kilowatt hour?

Mr. DEAL: Well, our cost per kilowatt capacity is about two to 4,000 per kilowatt, and that equates just under ten cents a kilowatt hour. You know, I completely agree with Lester Brown that the complexity of any large plant is going to drive costs up, and I think that's where, you know, where the real challenge is, is how do you manage such a very large, very complex, you know, undertaking, whether it's coal or nuclear or wind or solar? Nobody has been able to put any real data out that says that something that only works 30 percent of the time, in the case of wind, is actually going to make a difference in terms of our base loads.

FLATOW: Okay. All right. We've got - we've run out of time. This is a great topic and as I say we'll - it's a continuing topic that everybody is going to be talking about. John Grizz Deal is CEO of Hyperion Power. Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute in Washington. Richard Lester, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering in MIT. And Scott Burnell of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. SCOTT: Thank you. Thanks, Ira.

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