“Advanced” Isn’t Always Better. Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors
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“Advanced” Isn’t Always Better Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists March 2021 Executive Summary The future of nuclear power is uncertain. Because nuclear power is a low-carbon way to generate electricity, there is considerable interest in expanding its role to help mitigate the threat of climate change. However, the technology has fundamental safety and security disadvantages compared with other low-carbon sources. Nuclear reactors and their associated facilities for fuel production and waste handling are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents and sabotage, and they can be misused to produce materials for nuclear weapons. The nuclear industry, policymakers, and regulators must address these shortcomings fully if the global use of nuclear power is to increase without posing unacceptable risks to public health, the environment, and international peace and security. Despite renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power in many quarters, its recent growth has been far slower than anticipated 10 years ago. No doubt, the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, which resulted in three reactor meltdowns and widespread radiological contamination of the environment, has contributed to nuclear power’s stagnation. Even more significant has been the high cost of building new reactors relative to other sources of electricity—primarily natural gas but also, increasingly, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The current rate of construction of new nuclear plants around the world barely outpaces the retirements of operating plants that reach the ends of their lifetimes or are no longer economic. In the United States, new nuclear plants have proven prohibitively expensive and slow to build, discouraging private investment and contributing to public skepticism. In the 2000s, amid industry hopes of a nuclear renaissance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) received applications to build more than two dozen new reactors. All were evolutionary versions of the light-water reactor (LWR), the type that comprises almost all operating reactors in the United States and most other countries with nuclear power. Companies such as Westinghouse, which developed the AP1000, promised these LWR variants could be built more quickly and cheaply while enhancing safety. But prospective purchasers cancelled nearly all of those proposals even before ground was broken, and the utilities that started building two AP1000 reactors at the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina abandoned the project after it experienced significant cost overruns and delays. Only one project remains—two AP1000 units at the Alvin W. Vogtle plant in Georgia—but its cost has doubled, and construction is taking more than twice as long as originally estimated. Almost all nuclear power reactors operating and under construction today are LWRs, so called because they use ordinary water (H2O) to cool their hot, highly radioactive cores. Some observers believe that the LWR, the industry workhorse, has inherent flaws that are inhibiting nuclear power’s growth. In addition to its high cost and long construction time, critics point to—among other things— the LWR’s susceptibility to severe accidents (such as the meltdowns at Fukushima), their inefficient use of uranium, and the long-lived nuclear wastes they generate.