REGARDLESS of how one feels about nuclear power, the major factor slowly shutting down the world’s nuclear industries is economics. Only where nuclear power is pushed, controlled and heavily subsidized by a strong central government, like in most advanced countries, is development viable.
Recently, President Barack Obama announced more than $8 billion in loan guarantees that would pave the way for the first nuclear power in the United States in decades.
He has proposed accelerating nuclear development by tripling the amount of federal loan guarantees for reactor construction to $54 billion. The Philippines is not like America.
According to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hannes Alfven, “Nuclear fission energy is safe only if a number of critical devices work as they should, if a number of people in key positions follow all their instructions, if there is no sabotage, no hijacking of transport, if no reactor fuel processing plant or repository anywhere in the world is situated in a region of riots or guerilla activity, or no revolution or war, even a conventional one, takes place in these regions. No acts of God can be permitted.”
Regardless of one’s view on nuclear power, its widespread use in the United States and in many other nations appears to be a rapidly fading dream. It has since become clear that nuclear power is a very expensive way to produce electricity.
Construction cost overruns have risen sharply, largely because of delays from mismanagement, legal suits, government red tape, and new and more stringent safety requirements. These have increased the average construction time from seven to 12 years.
A new type of nuclear reactor, the size of a big tourist bus and one-tenth the cost of a big plant, is emerging as a contender to reshape the resurgent nuclear power industry.
The smaller Babcock and Wilcox reactor can generate only 125 to 140 megawatts of power and the utilities are forecasting that these smaller, simpler reactors can be manufactured quickly and installed to replace coal-fired plants that may become obsolete with looming emissions restrictions.
Indeed, the small reactors could still create major opposition. They face the same unresolved issues of waste disposal and public fear of contamination, in the event of an accident.
The threat of the reactors’ becoming terrorism targets could raise alarm among inhabitants.
For utilities, small reactors are expected to cost $750 million for one of Babcock and Wilcox’s units. Large reactors cost $5 billion to $10 billion for reactors that range from 1,100 to 1,700 megawatts of generating capacity. Since power reactors could be water-cooled or air-cooled, it wouldn’t have to be located near large sources of water, while big reactors require millions of gallons of water each day.
Experts believe that small reactors should be safe, even safer than larger ones. One reason is that they are simpler and have fewer moving parts that can fail. Small reactors also contain a smaller nuclear reaction and generate less heat. That means it’s easier to shut them down, if there is a malfunction.
Some critics are convinced that nuclear power will never be cost-effective, no matter what the size. Amory Lovins, founder of the environmental think tank The Rocky Mountain Institute, said it’s a fantasy to imagine that small reactors will be any better than big ones. He notes that nuclear energy is inherently expensive because of the special precautions that must be taken in the handling of nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, which are radioactive, not to mention the tight security at nuclear plants.
Also, there still is no permanent site for nuclear waste. In our country, such a site will be next to impossible to locate.
Our country’s extensive indigenous geothermal resources need to be thoroughly exploited instead of being exploited by the special interest groups of the nuclear industry. Less Developed Countries like the Philippines definitely do not have the financial resources to support the development of nuclear power.
If politicians insist, utilities could replace existing coal-fired power plants with small reactors to take advantage of site already served by transmission lines and, in some cases, are needed for grid support.
These small reactors could easily be hooked up to the power grid. One of the biggest attractions, however, is that utilities could start with a few reactors and add more as needed. By contrast, with big reactors, utilities could be bankrupted by a single plant. The first small reactor could come online after 2018.