Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Nuclear Power and Our Energy Future

After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power in the United States was nearly taboo. The not in my backyard mentality kicked into high gear with fears of accidental nuclear meltdowns. Having the most robust economy at the time (okay Japan was close), America refocused its attention on cleaner coal fired power plants.

The times are again changing. High oil prices, Global Warming fears and the threat of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) manipulating the oil market have refueled the drive for alternate fuel sources. Nuclear electrical generation plants are starting to slowly find their way back into the green energy community.

Predicting our nuclear power future is a bit difficult. The main difficultly is how much urgency is placed on developing energy independence. If the American people want to free themselves from OPEC quickly, nuclear power has a much larger role.

The typical civilian nuclear power plant is a custom build monstrosity requiring decades from the start of design to the first watt of production. Hiding behind the guise of the open bid process. These designs are often overly expensive.

The United States Navy’s nuclear program is a much more efficient approach. Proven designs are replicated and placed into use. The US Navy’s nuclear safety record is truly admirable and worthy of emulation.

Offshore Power Systems (OPS), a now dead and buried business entity, had the right idea at the wrong time and the wrong location. The not in my backyard mentality gave OPS the idea of using smaller scale proven nuclear technology located offshore in a marine environment to provide electrical power.

OPS had the go ahead from the Nuclear Regulator Commission and all was right with the world until environmental concerns came to bear. Now, with global warming concerns paramount, nuclear is being reconsidered. The OPS idea may need to be reconsidered as well.

This is not to say that nuclear power plants be located all over the ocean. It is to say that replicating proven technology to decrease construction time should be revisited. Smaller Nuclear plants on the order of 500 Mega Watts (MW) can serve a dual role in our future.

Smaller nuclear plants can be located in areas were they will have the greatest impact on optimizing the nation’s electrical grid. They would then not only provide needed power, but extend the useful life of the power grid.

The proven technology in a small footprint can enhance safety and security. Safety is enhanced due to the secure construction sites where the reactors are built. The entire reactor is built in a secure location in a factory setting where high levels of security and quality control can be maintained more efficiently.

Security of the deployed plant can be improved by constructing the reactor in a manner to make it extremely difficult to access the radioactive fuel. And redundant mechanical fail-safes to prevent meltdown of course have to be included.

One extremely valuable aspect of nuclear power is waste heat and electrical energy produced during periods of low demand can be used to produce hydrogen fuel. Maximizing the efficiency of our energy production potential.

Nuclear power is a very frightening technology for many Americans. It is not a technology to be taken lightly by anyone. It is a proven technology that can and should be utilized in a responsible manner. Smaller proven reactor designs have a prominent place in our energy future.

No comments: