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article imageOp-Ed: Safer reactors coming with new tech and mixed feelings

By Paul Wallis     Jul 7, 2019 in Technology
Sydney - The next generation of nuclear reactors has been a long time coming. The good news is that some of the major issues now have solutions. The mixed feelings, however, are much the same.
The new reactors have a range of anti-fire and meltdown technologies. According to Scientific American, the general move in reactor technologies is to safer fuels and passive systems which can shut down a reactor even when there’s no power. The takeaway is that these systems are considerably safer by any standards, and the safety measures are intended to cover all eventualities, including multiple redundancies, etc.
(Strongly suggest reading the Scientific American information for far more up to date information about reactors than has been published for years.)
What if nuclear power really is the future of energy supplies?
This is an extremely major deal, and it overturns a lot of the current arguments regarding energy sourcing for the future. Introducing a third option into the fossil fuels and renewables equation will have major collateral effects, both in the energy sector and the wider energy and commodities markets.
For example:
• Can nuclear power be cheaper and deliver more power than other sources? It can’t simply be assumed that it will, or can. Given the usual maniacal gouging of energy customers, that is a very important issue.
• What effect would nuclear power have on investment in the other energy sources? The dollar-crunching needs to be very convincing, particularly when so much is invested in other sources of power.
• How will nuclear power affect the markets? Don’t expect the energy markets or commodities markets to be too happy about competing with nuclear power.
• Are these new reactors really safe? From the information available, the primary risks of explosions and fires seem to have multiple solutions in place. They are definitely better designed in just about all aspects of safety. There’s also a lot of new tech available now that didn’t even exist when the current generation of US reactors were designed. Bear in mind also that the sheer scale of disinformation around the world is unlikely to help convince anyone of their safety.
• Will the new reactors actually deliver? It would be reasonable to expect that energy production and efficiencies would also be better and much more efficient. That, however, is the look from the drawing board, not the operational world.
The strange tale of the image of nuclear power
The history of nuclear energy and public perceptions is quite a tale. Unlike every other type of energy source, nuclear energy was first introduced to the world as a weapon. The nuclear arms race emphasized that point very effectively. The worry about nuclear reactors being used to produce nuclear weapons is natural logic.
The world decided it didn’t want to be blown up, and nuclear energy was seen as a threat, with good reason. The Ban the Bomb movement, and all subsequent anti-nuclear movements have been based on this view.
When nuclear power came along as a workable option in the 1950s, it was met with mixed curiosity, fear, and a pretty respectable amount of loathing. The Cold War did a lot to reinforce the loathing, also with good reason. The risk of nuclear war was real, and it’s still possible. More possible, in fact, than even the high point of the Cold War, because many more nations are now able to produce nuclear weapons.
These grim issues haven’t exactly enhanced the image of nuclear power. There have only been three major nuclear accidents, at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, but they made a huge impact on public opinion. The total inability to manage the wide areas of the fallout from Chernobyl and Fukushima hasn’t helped much, either.
The idea of reintroducing nuclear power into the infrastructure also comes with some other issues. In the Age of Terrorism and US/China confrontation, they’re seen as possible targets, and/or sources of dangerous materials for dirty bombs and other weapons. These risks are not imaginary.
Another issue, of course, is the buildup of nuclear waste. These very toxic materials are unwelcome everywhere, and managing risk seems to be very hit or miss. Even if safely stored in some mountain somewhere, the materials are dangerous, and seen as ongoing, serious dangers.
How do you sell nuclear power to the public?
Even in the most optimistic view of the use of safer nuclear reactors, these generations of negative images are major sticking points. Better regulation and security may provide safeguards, but they’re also safety issues in and of themselves. How competent and trustworthy are the regulations and security? How effective can they be? Depending on where you are in the world, it’s a guessing game.
Meanwhile - Exactly how much faith is the public supposed to have in these new reactors? Cheaper and cleaner power would be a big plus, An alternative to the irresponsible, suicidal policies of the fossil fuel companies is also a major positive.
How much political and ideological hysteria is likely to be generated (pun intended) in a challenge to fossil fuels? Will these traditional energy sources continue to obstruct clean power? The likelihood is that they will.
The trick is to overcome the very negative images the world has grown up with. It’s not going to be easy. Fossil fuels are the sacred cows of just about every political platform. That may well turn out to be an even harder problem to solve.
Whatever happens, safer nuclear power is likely to be a real game changer. It’ll be interesting to see who wins.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about Safe nuclear reactors, Chernobyl, fukushima, Three mile island, public image of nuclear energy
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