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Power Technology

NRC Approves New Nuclear Reactor Design 299

Posted by samzenpus
from the minimal-leakage dept.
hrvatska writes "The NY Times has an article about the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval of the design of Westinghouse's AP1000 reactor for the U.S., clearing the way for two American utilities to continue the construction of projects in South Carolina and Georgia. The last time a nuclear power plant in the U.S. entered service was 1996. The AP1000 was discussed on Slashdot a few years ago."
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NRC Approves New Nuclear Reactor Design

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  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CnlPepper (140772) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @08:19PM (#38467224)

    Ignoring the massive earthquake, tsunami and the ancient reactor design of course...

  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by 0WaitState (231806) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @08:25PM (#38467284)

    In other words, ignoring things that happen in the real world, and that even a first-world country like Japan can't get around human nature (laziness) and business imperatives to cut corners and defer upgrades.

    Nuclear power would be great, if we didn't have to depend on humans to run it.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @08:27PM (#38467304) Journal

    Or the U.S. could just let them spend the money and take all the risks in terms of designing and testing the new reactors, then steal the designs and build the reactors themselves, forcing the Chinese firms to eat the R&D costs....

    Wait, something about this sounds familiar. I sense a pot and a kettle are involved.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CnlPepper (140772) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @08:31PM (#38467338)

    Nuclear power would be great if humans didn't have irrational fear about things there don't bother to understand. If reactor construction had not stopped after the Chernobyl disaster, very few of these old, crappy designs would still be in use. Most of the problems in the modern nuclear industry are related to ancient systems that have had their lives extended due to the lack of replacement plant.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 22, 2011 @09:01PM (#38467506)

    Funny, when they built those "ancient" systems they promised us those were safe too.
    But then, concentrating material that will remain highly radioactive for longer than any empire in history has stood, and for longer than any region of the world has gone without war, could never be safe when you stop and think about it.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 22, 2011 @09:07PM (#38467532)

    The real problem with nuclear power is something everyone understands -- namely, people's ability for sloth and cheapness. A properly constructed and maintained nuclear reactor can be exceedingly safe. The problem is, those that run said plants will cut corners everywhere -- construction, maintenance, etc. -- and when they do, the consequences can be huge.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by a_hanso (1891616) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @09:40PM (#38467734) Journal
    +1. If a building collapses due to an earthquake, it's not a civil engineering disaster, it's a NATURAL DISASTER. But somehow, no matter what hits a nuclear plant (be it an earthquake or an asteroid), its still a nuclear disaster.
  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jeremi (14640) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @10:09PM (#38467882) Homepage

    But somehow, no matter what hits a nuclear plant (be it an earthquake or an asteroid), its still a nuclear disaster.

    There's no "somehow" about it. If radioactivity escapes from the plant and causes health problems (or evacuations to avoid health problems) then it is a nuclear disaster because of the problems caused by the escaped nuclear material.

    If an earthquake damages a nuclear plant but no radioactivity is released, it is not called a nuclear disaster because it isn't one.

  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by antifoidulus (807088) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @10:11PM (#38467890) Homepage Journal
    If reactor construction had not stopped after the Chernobyl disaster, very few of these old, crappy designs would still be in use

    Except for reactor construction did not stop after Chernobyl, a significant amount of reactors were built in Japan, but that didn't stop them from using the much older Fukushima plant.... One of the key issues with nuclear power that very few people seem to address is essentially the concentration of power generation that nuclear entails. For example the Fukushima plants provided almost 10% of the electricity consumed in the entire Tohoku region. Before the earthquake there was significant resistance towards transitioning away from the plant because of potential disruptions to factories, businesses, and homes. This dependence on one facility makes it incredibly difficult to shut down nuclear power plants, even if there may be valid safety concerns.

    Now compare this to say coal fired plants. In the USA, there are 1436 plants providing 42% of the power, i.e. each plant provides an average of .03% of the country's total electricity use. On the other hand, there are 65 nuclear power plants providing 19.6% of the total electric power generation, or .287% of total electricity generation per plant, roughly 10x that of coal, and if you look at the regions that have nuclear power, I'm sure the % of total output for the region per plant is much, much higher.

    In order for nuclear power to be practical, we have to come up with ways of seamlessly making up for this lost output in case a plant has to undergo an emergency shutdown. In Japan, the transition was not seamless, in Ibaraki prefecture where I live there were rolling blackouts, coupled with severe power rationing measures(it ironically helped that the earthquake put a lot of the factories out of commission for a while, significantly reducing power demand), and a mad dash to get coal and oil into the region ASAP so those plants could increase production. There has to be a better way.
  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 22, 2011 @10:35PM (#38467988)

    But they *have* proven *relatively* safe. It depends on the benchmark you judge "relative" to.

    Fossil fuels kill people all the time. Coal miners, for example. The men on the Deep Water Horizons drilling platform. They sicken and kill people every single day through pollution. And if you believe in the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, it is likely they damage ecosystems on a global scale and (statistically speaking) kill people through extreme weather events.

    The problem is that the killing, sickening and destroying fossil fuels do aren't visibly tied to fossil fuel use. We know these things happen in an intellectual way, but we don't viscerally associate them with flicking on the power switch and burning a little more coal in a plant twenty miles away.

    The problem with nuclear power is that its risks are at the opposite extreme. Nuclear disasters are exceedingly rare, so our assessment of risks is based on assumptions built on very little practical experience with nuclear disasters. We don't really have a good basis for judging the risks of having, say, ten times as many nuclear power plants as we do now. The nuclear economy scenario is full of situations where an error in some assumption has non-linear effects on the probability of outcome. For example if you assume the height of a once-in-a-century tsunami is six meters, but in fact it is twelve, you don't *double* the probability of an accident. You transform what is for practical purposes a statistical impossibility into a near-certain disaster.

    So what's the rational thing to do? I think it is to move away from a fossil fuel economy and *toward* more diverse energy sources in which nuclear power will be a key part. But I wouldn't go on a crash course to try to solve all our problems in a decade by building as many nuclear plants as we can. The almost certain result of that will be ending up with lots of white elephant designs which proved to be more problematic than we'd hoped. A measured increase allows us to gain experience with designs, and to develop approaches to problems like decommissioning, nuclear waste and, for certain designs, nuclear proliferation. It also provides space for other technologies to take larger roles in the energy economy, spreading our risk over many sources and thus limiting our exposure to problems with any one. Getting ten percent of our energy needs from biomass might be very helpful to us as oil becomes more costly; trying to get 20% might have disastrous effects.

  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by a_hanso (1891616) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @10:48PM (#38468054) Journal

    Agreed. But what we should have taken away from the recent disaster is not how inherently unsafe nuclear power is, but how destructive the double-whammy tsunami was and that nuclear plants built in areas at risk of such disasters should have more fault tolerant designs.

    If a disaster causes a technology to fail, the rational course of action is to make it disaster-tolerant; not to abandon it outright.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by joeboomer628 (869162) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @11:12PM (#38468162)

    The real problem with nuclear power is something everyone understands -- namely, people's ability for sloth and cheapness. A properly constructed and maintained nuclear reactor can be exceedingly safe. The problem is, those that run said plants will cut corners everywhere -- construction, maintenance, etc. -- and when they do, the consequences can be huge.

    I totally agree, having spent most of my 25 year US Navy career serving aboard nuclear powered submarines I have no problem living in the same ship as those 60's design reactors. The training and quality assurance programs that were required when I was on active duty insured safe operation.

  • Re:Sour grapes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Amouth (879122) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @11:26PM (#38468222)

    if a hurricane was a threat to a reactor design then it never should have been built.. hurricanes really are not that damaging..

  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AK Marc (707885) on Thursday December 22, 2011 @11:27PM (#38468224)
    Not being an nuclear engineer, the problem may be that I'm using dictionary definitions of words, as opposed to technical terms.

    Radioactive decay, not fission.

    The decay was an atom splitting into two smaller atoms and energy, which is fission. From the three dictionaries I looked up, "decay, not fission" is a contradiction, as the decay in question was necessarily *also* fission.

    I am by no means a nuclear expert, but my understanding is that: (a) the passive cooling is for when the reactor is shut down but cooling off (think Fukushima), not while operating

    The question was of why would fukishima need active cooling when passive cooling is so "easy" to do.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MJMullinII (1232636) on Friday December 23, 2011 @12:17AM (#38468430)

    The question was of why would fukishima need active cooling when passive cooling is so "easy" to do.

    That's like asking why the Ford Model-T couldn't do 200mph since a modern Ford Mustang can.

    The answer is because the Fukishima Reactor wasn't designed to be passively cooled, the AP1000 is.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Amyntas (1774358) on Friday December 23, 2011 @12:22AM (#38468446)

    "I dare you to name just a single nuclear accident in the last few years"
    "Fukushima Daiichi?"

    I wouldn't call that an accident. One must keep in mind that it was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. What else would you expect?

    If it were an error due to an operator or faulty equipment, then that would be a different story.

  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Surt (22457) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:44AM (#38468876) Homepage Journal

    "I dare you to name just a single nuclear accident in the last few years"
    "Fukushima Daiichi?"

    I wouldn't call that an accident. One must keep in mind that it was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. What else would you expect?

    If it were an error due to an operator or faulty equipment, then that would be a different story.

    If it wasn't an accident, who caused it on purpose?

  • by arglebargle_xiv (2212710) on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:36AM (#38469060)

    Almost all of the post 1970s technology in the AP1000 came directly from the nuclear division of Toshiba in Japan after merging with Westinghouse. It's technology bought off Japan instead of China but still looks like what you are worried about.

    Beat me to the punch. The AP1000 is not a "new" design, it's a slightly warmed-over 1970s design that got NRC approval because it was close enough to the antiques currently in operation that no bureaucrat had to risk his pension by sticking his neck out and approving something that would be a genuine improvement (I'm lumping the Gen IIIs in with the Gen IIs here because they're mostly incremental improvements obtained from experience in running Gen IIs) . When the NRC approves anything Gen IV like a PBR or, heaven forbid, something genuinely modern like a TWR, then it's time to celebrate.

  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by msevior (145103) on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:41AM (#38469078)

    The decay was an atom splitting into two smaller atoms and energy, which is fission. From the three dictionaries I looked up, "decay, not fission" is a contradiction, as the decay in question was necessarily *also* fission.

    No. The decays in question occur when a neutron within fission product (the nuclei created after the U235) converts into proton together with an electron and a neutrino. Each decay releases around 1 MeV of energy (order of magnitude) as opposed the 200 MeV from the fission process. The processes reduces in intensity in time. Right after a scram the "decay heat" is 7% of the full power of the reactor. After 3 days it reduces to around 0.2% of the original power.

    The question was of why would fukishima need active cooling when passive cooling is so "easy" to do.

    It was by no means easy to design an economical reactor with the kind of passive safety cooling provided by the AP1000. I can imagine why you think it was.

  • Re:Progress (Score:4, Insightful)

    by siddesu (698447) on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:44AM (#38469092)
    The accident in Fukushima I wasn't caused by the earthquake or the tsunami. It was caused by the inadequate reactor/plant design and by the abysmal handling by TEPCO of the problems that developed as a result of the design inadequacies.
  • Re:Progress (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 23, 2011 @05:42AM (#38469742)

    It is easy to criticize the event in the aftermath of three meltdowns and say that the design was flawed and that the response was mismanaged. You might even go as far as to say that the accidents weren't caused by the earthquake and tsunami, but by the failure of humans to properly design and operate the nuclear power plant (which in fact you did).

    There is a point where you can't design for the most improbable events. A meteor landing in the ocean or North Korea bombing the plant aren't items you can design for. You also need to make a cutoff for earthquakes and tsunamis. An earthquake 10 times larger than any earthquake previously recorded in Japan's extensive seismic record might qualify. Add in the fact that seismologists didn't think the nature of the fault lines could even theoretically allow that powerful of an earthquake to occur.

    You would have needed to build a 15m (45 ft) seawall to protect the plant from an event that experts didn't think could theoretically occur. The country that coined the term 'tsunami' didn't forget to design for it. They got hit by an extremely improbable occurrence that may not happen again for another 10,000 years. The probability of this type of massive tsunami destroying nuclear plants has not increased just because it happened recently. Nuclear plants are no less safe now than before the accidents. It is just more apparent that they have their limits, like any piece of technology.

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