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The Safety Vote

A prerequisite for sustained nuclear renaissance.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2009

timetable presented by the McCain campaign (45 new plants by 2030) now is replaced with President Obama’s energy policy. The new administration is focused on the safety of radioactive waste disposal, the approvals processes, and secure and efficient operations of both existing and new plants. Thus, this is an excellent time to recap the prerequisites for a sustained nuclear renaissance, and to make sure the trend successfully is sustained.

Mitigating Risks

As with other large-scale industrial projects, nuclear plant construction carries many risks, which are mitigated with some unique and especially safety-stringent requirements. The ability to meet these requirements is one of the chief prerequisites for the nuclear power industry to succeed.

Safety questions apply at every stage of plant development and operation:

• Strong and independent safety authorities;

• Safe plant designs;

• Build right;

• Stringent plant safety management;

• Sustained and safe solutions for radioactive waste;

• Competent human resources; and

• Transparent communications to ensure public acceptance.

In the past, such incidents as the Three Mile Island leak in the United States and the Chernobyl accident in Russia significantly impeded industry growth. The evolution of communications in the time since these accidents means that even small issues on a regional level can produce massive effects on the nuclear renaissance.

Paramount to the success and public acceptance of nuclear energy is the application of stringent safety management over the entire lifetime of nuclear power plants. Independent safety authorities are critical to establishing rigorous operations processes and to monitor and enforce policy.

In nuclear regions such as Europe or North America, the first step is to reinforce existing safety authorities to enable them to deal not only with existing plants, but also to assess and then approve the design and the construction of new plants. However, seasoned nuclear safety experts are in scarce supply today. To counter this dearth of knowledge, a holistic approach should be taken, one that includes building a strong and optimized talent pool and developing international cooperation to share knowledge and avoid duplication.

The importance of safe design and safe building is obvious: The Chernobyl plant didn’t have an intrinsically safe functioning mode—and like many Soviet-designed plants at the time—lacked a containment building. The present Western second generation reactors (PWRs and BWRs) are intrinsically safer and all have containment buildings. Third generation nuclear plant designs are the basis for most of the newly planned constructions. Plants such as Westinghouse’s AP1000, Areva’s EPR, and General Electric’s ABWR fall into this category. These new designs and models have improved safety features when compared to second generation plants.

Many countries today are funding research on the fourth generation of nuclear plant design: reactors that would be safer, use less uranium and generate less waste. In order to improve radioactive waste management, the French Atomic Energy Commission is building a prototype research facility to assess long lifetimes and highly radioactive waste’s transmutation into low-level, short lifetime elements that are much easier to handle.

Research and development funding needs to be increased in existing nuclear countries like the United Kingdom and