Yesterday, the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of the first two nuclear reactors to be built in this country since 1978. They're both part of the same power plant complex, near Augusta, Georgia.
As David Biello points out in an excellent analysis of this news over at Scientific American, these reactors are not part of a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. That's simply not happening. But they represent some important shifts in technology. These reactors employ passive cooling systems. Basically, in the event of an emergency, you don't need to rely external pumps or generators to keep the reactor cores cool.
You'll recall, of course, that this was the key problem at Fukushima. The tsunami damaged the generators that powered the pumps, so when the reactors began to heat up, there was no way to get cooling water into them. In Georgia, the new reactors will, instead, rely on gravity. If one of these reactors gets too hot, a heat-sensitive valve will automatically open, releasing cooling water that's stored directly above the reactor core.
Obviously, this doesn't make the reactors fail-proof. If you support nuclear energy, you're going to see this (and the fact that the NRC approval is conditional on utility Southern Company demonstrating that they have learned from the lessons of Fukushima) as a step in the right direction. If you're absolutely against nuclear energy, you're going to be deeply disturbed by this project no matter what happens.
I sit somewhere in the middle. I'm uncomfortable with nuclear energy—as it currently exists—being presented as a long-term energy solution. It can't serve that role as long "bury it" is our only means of dealing with nuclear waste. And whether it's a good idea at all depends on how stringent regulatory oversight is willing to be.
At the same time, though, we are dependent on steady, ever-increasing supplies of electricity. Right now, we get 20% of that electricity from nuclear reactors, most of which are reaching the end of their functional lives. The question of what will replace them is a serious one. There are steps we can take to reduce our energy consumption. We can, and should be, adding more wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable resources to our electric generation mix. But there are some very good reasons why we can't, right now, shut down all the coal, all the nuclear, and all the natural gas power plants. All three of those sources of generation come with big safety and health problems. But we are going to continue to use one or more of them for decades to come. Renewables should be our long-term solution. In the short-term, though, we have some nasty and subjective decisions to make about what risks we're willing to live with. I'm not enthusiastic about nuclear. But a new nuclear power plant, in my mind, is better than a new coal power plant. The trouble with making these kind of decisions, though, is that there's lots of room for reasonable people to disagree.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.