Two new nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia

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.


    1. For some reason it just isn’t getting the backing. The US should have just helped Iran build a thorium reactor (no thorium bomb).

      1.  I would bet it would be cheaper to help the develop the Thorium reactor than to run half the military operations that we have going related to them.

        Heck, from what the thorium advocates say it seems like the price of 3 or 4 stealth drones would create substantial progress.

  1. Certainly relying on some nuclear power is the least bad choice – at least among any realistic choices. 

    It’s true that relying on nuclear power *could* cause a *local* disaster. But the only realistic alternative is to rely more on fossil fuels, which we *know* is currently causing a *worldwide* disaster. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

    As Maggie points out, it’s simply not realistic to rely *only* on environmentally-friendly energy sources and/or using less power. So it makes sense to use more of the least-bad alternative.

    1. As Maggie points out, it’s simply not realistic to rely *only* on environmentally-friendly energy sources and/or using less power. So it makes sense to use more of the least-bad alternative.

      The only time I hear that is usually when some oil/nuclear, right wing nut is trying to grossly distort, or misrepresent somebody’s opinion who’s suggesting we could stand to increase our efforts at expanding renewable/alternative sources of energy.

      1.  To be fair, the only time I hear that particular viewpoint is when somebody who has given a fair amount of time to thinking about our current energy crisis, rather than merely having a knee-jerk (“omg nukes!”) response to nuclear energy, speaks about viable alternatives.

        If you’ve got a viable alternative to nuclear energy that would be possible to implement within the next hundred years, I (and basically every world government on the planet) would love to hear from you…

        1. If you’ve got a viable alternative to nuclear energy that would be possible to implement within the next hundred years, I (and basically every world government on the planet) would love to hear from you…

          lol.  You did exactly what I mentioned above.  False choices.  What about my post suggests that there’s some ‘magic bullet’ solution to our problems?   As I mentioned, when somebody says that we should be cautious with nuclear energy, while exploring and working on other safer forms of energy, they are often met with with a pro-nuclear ideologue distorting their opinion:  “We can’t rely *only* on renewable energy”.  Yeah, no duh.  *We didn’t say that*.  Who does say that we can just turn some switch and fix it today?  Nobody does.  That was my point, it’s a common straw man tactic.

          In case you are confused, I fall under that same “middle” that Maggie refers to in her post.

          1.  If nukes are supplying 20% of the electric power then lets break it down:
             It is widely accepted that electronics and appliances in standby mode waste 5% or more of generated power. Stop that by requiring all appliances to meet standards.

             Switching to more efficient lighting (going from 9% total power usage to 4%) should be very easy since the new bulbs are more than 4 times as efficient.

            Air conditioning uses 15% of power generated in the US. Painting roofs white reduces the cost of air conditioning by 20%.

            That brings us up to 13%.
            I figure we can count on solar, wind, biomass and insulation and more efficient motors to pick up the slack.

            BTW I figure all of those things could be done fairly cheaply within 5 years.

        2.  The next hundred years? Jesus, you could probably count on fusion before 2113.

          Are you honestly under the assumption that efficiency, renewables and a smart grid will take centuries to build?

          1. Fusion’s been “ten years away” for the last 50 years, and if you’re talking about completely removing the world’s dependency on fossil fuels with our current patterns of investment in R+D, a century seems like a conservative estimate.

            Bear in mind I don’t mean just the relatively simple switch to renewable energy sources for the developed world, but also the complete rethink  of our current socio-economic system that will be necessary for the huge investment of capital needed to switch the developing world to renewable energy sources.

            Industrialisation was a long and brutal process in the West, and now that the rest of the world is following suit it will take huge leaps in terms of both education and fuel efficiency before renewable energy sources (which overwhelmingly depend on foreign r+d) become cheaper and more attractive than locally sourced fossil fuels.

  2. The NRC has to do this. It’s almost the one-year anniversary of Fukushima, and if there isn’t movement on new reactors sooner than later, public opinion may just ossify against them in general.

    1.  What, seriously?  Public opinion is already against them.  They’re more acceptable in places where the population has to live next to coal plants but in California, for example, you may as well say we should burn kittens alive for power as suggest nuclear might be our best bet at present.

  3. Even as a member of the solar PV industry where any support of nuclear is considered taboo, I’m of a similar mind to you – not comfortable with it, but acknowledging that we can’t just drop all the power sources we don’t like all at once (without completely altering our way of life beyond what 99% of the developed world would consider acceptable).

    Keep bringing the nuanced view – it takes more research and writing than the extreme views that fit on bumper stickers, but it is worth the effort!

  4. You talk about the short-term, but these reactors won’t be online for 5 years in the best possible scenario.  Realistically, we’re looking at a decade from now before we see any benefits.
    We can’t talk about how urgent it is to replace coal right now, with no time to figure out better alternatives, and then promote the technology which is slower than any other to start working.
    When we need energy “now”, we build coal plants.  Or windmills, or solar.  Because all those technologies can start providing the power we need and recovering their investment cost rapidly.  We don’t build nuclear plants to address short-term needs, we build them with the expectation they will be part of our long-term energy infrastructure well beyond the foreseeable future.
    Some people want our energy infrastructure to be nuclear for good.  Some people don’t.  But It’s misleading to characterize the building of new reactors as a temporary stop-gap while we work on our real plan of centering our energy grid around renewables.  If we really wanted to center on renewables, we wouldn’t be building nuclear reactors, we’d be building renewables.

    1. You’re thinking in far shorter term than is in any way realistic for power generation. When we say “short term” we’re talking about decades.

      Even if we build solar or wind plants, we still need a backstop generator for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. If that’s not nuclear, it has to be fossil fuels if hydro isn’t locally available.

      1.  I’ll tell you what: once all (or hell, even most) peak energy is being provided by renewables, and we’re not using coal plants to provide the energy that could very easily be provided by renewables, then I’ll join you in demanding that we figure out some solution – nuclear if necessary – to replace the remaining “backstop” coal plants that are left over and simply cannot be replaced by renewables.

        But we’re not in that situation right now.  We’re not even close to it.  Coal and natural gas plants provide huge amounts of peak energy which could easily be replaced by renewables.  This is the low-hanging fruit.  What could be better than replacing current dirty coal capacity with renewables?

        Instead, for some reason we’re all fixated on those base load generators, and what to do about them.  We’re spending huge amounts of resources to address this problem, while ignoring how we generate the rest of our electricity – the part that isn’t a toss up between fossil fuels and nuclear.

        Why are we so focused on providing clean base load power, when we can’t even provide clean peak power yet?  There are influential government and energy industry interests which are heavily biased towards building nuclear power plants.  It’s a massive government giveaway at the expense of tax payers.  These interests aren’t particularly concerned with whether nuclear is the best solution energy-wise, or the best approach for addressing carbon emissions.  They’re concerned with building nuclear power plants.  So energy strategies which involve building renewables are thumbs-down, but strategies which focus on this “crisis” of base load power and prescribe nuclear power are thumbs-up.

        1. I am very pro-renewables (I self installed solar last summer and have built many systems), and I’ll be happy to say that this is correct. As I’ve pointed out to some folks before, we don’t pick the worst valleys to build wind turbines in first. As we get above 35% penetration, finding enough wind and getting it to where it needs to be gets increasingly difficult. If you average wind over a large enough area you get close to a 27% of rating steady source, but that area needs to be large (lots of new power lines and control infrastructure). You definitely need very large storage sources. They take a long time to build (I’m an engineer at a pump hydro plant.)

          Similarly, with solar the difference between summer max and winter minimum for energy production can be say 6:2 times the nameplate power of the solar, given solar oriented at latitude angle. So here again, you need storage – and not 12 hours worth. You either need to have your full load covered for a long winter night by your solar or you need something we don’t currently have like fuel cells to farm power for winter months in the summer to make up the deficit. This technology is not ready yet (and I say this as I’m working on a LiIon battery to replace sealed lead acid.)

          Hydro can balance some of these deficits, and this is being done between Norway and Denmark right now. But there are still technical challenges to solve, and enormous amounts of infrastructure to build, before you can begin to say we don’t need say the other 90-95% of our current power infrastructure. We’ll need if for at least another 20 years, best case, unless there is incredible levels of demand destruction…

          Pointing this out is not being anti-renewables. It’s trying to orient people towards what the
          transition strategy is going to be, because the transition is not going to be short or easy… either nukes or gas (with a lot of hydrofracking.) It’s not a straw man. It’s a fact that needs to be dealt with. If we don’t, the default is coal – more radioactives (end to end) than nukes, more carbon released than gas.

        2. What you’re arguing for is the status quo. Wind and solar are maybe, someday technologies. We have and can build nuclear right now.

          Build lots of experimental wind and solar plants too, but let’s take real action where we can.

        3. ZikZak: You seem to be saying that, since nuclear takes 10-15 years from start to finish to implement, we need to be converting to renewables in the short term because 10-15 years is too long.

          Do you know how long it takes to build wind farms?

          Cape Wind first applied for a permit in 2001. The project may come online in 2015-2016. That’s 15 years to build a wind farm. And guess what: it’s legally mandated to exist for only 25 years, after which it will be torn down.

          Cape Wind may be a bit of an outlier, but 10 years start-to-finish for a big wind farm is almost certainly very normal.

    2. 5-10 years IS short term when you are talking about national energy strategies. Even large coal plants take years to go from planning to actual power generation.

  5. Thorium is great, and I sincerely hope that someone dusts off the old research and comes up with a modern full-scale reactor design, but realistically, if you started today and committed serious funds, it’d be at least 15 years before you produced power from one of these things.

    Everything to do with nuclear power moves slooooooooowly.

    Right now the best thing we can do is build AP1000s and other type-certified Gen III+ reactors as quickly as possible, getting good at them so that we benefit from economies of scale and develop a working knowledge of how to construct these things.

  6. The only reason Thorium was not originally considered as a nuclear fuel was due to the fact that you cannot make a bomb out of Thorium, but you absolutely can out of Uranium and Plutonium.  It is time to put the fear of this technology aside and work towards not only making current technology safer, but also working toward alternatives.  

    Hell, most current reactors could be switched to Thorium with minimal effort, and every continent on the planet has abundant supplies of the metal.  It requires minimal processing, no purification, and cannot be used to make a weapon itself as it can’t reach criticality, which is also a benefit for use in reactor cores.

    Used in a MSR reactor (the metal is dissolved into molten fluoride salt) and it’s even safer.

  7. “But a new nuclear power plant, in my mind, is better than a new coal power plant.”

    I wholeheartedly agree about this. However, more importantly IMO, a new nuclear power plant is better than an old nuclear power plant. It saddens me that so many oppose replacing old nuclear power plants with safer, more efficient ones. Even if the long term goal is to get rid of nuclear power, modern plants can generate more power while producing less waste and makes it possible to retire older plants, which should be in everyone’s interest — especially the anti-nuclear folks.

  8. Maggie, I hadn’t heard of Thorium until people on this thread mentioned it. It would be really cool if you did a short blog post on it at some point — could it really be a clean source of power? Is there any chance of a significant proportion of the world’s energy (e.g. >2%) being powered by Thorium in the next century? Should we be investing in this to get it on the road?

  9. I am surprised that there is rarely any mention of the CANDU Reactors designed in Canada.  There has never (to my knowledge) been a serious incident with any them.

    Their inherently different design requires heavy water as a neutron moderator. If the heavy water is removed, the reaction ceases. If, somehow, the temperature rises significantly, the fuel tubes will bend, and the reaction will cease.

    The usable fuels range from nuclear waste from other reactors to enriched uranium. In fact, in many cases it is capable of using sintered uranium ore. There is also research being done in using thorium in conjunction with this. This all means that there is no practical requirement for enrichment (which is perhaps why countries have not adopted it, as it removes the excuse of enriching nuclear material for peaceful uses).

    The only drawback is the larger capital cost involved in construction, sourcing the heavy water, and larger containment dome.

  10. I just came in here to say “Thorium” about 200 times.  We have the world’s second largest reserves of it, it can’t create a runaway reaction, and it only requires thin aluminum shielding to protect from exposure.  Thorium. 

  11. The continuing and massive taxpayer subsidy of any energy source is the wrong direction to go for anyone with faith in market forces. Wall Street gave up on nuclear even before Three Mile Island, and for good reasons.
    Supply-side subsidies destroy the economics of conservation and efficiency on the demand side and value of renewables on the supply side.
    Thorium fans? Go see a doctor and get a prescription for some.

    1.  Er… Wall Street ruined the economy because of short-term thinking. “Market forces” these days are only concerned with short-term profit.

      Why in the world would you advocate those with short-term profit in mind being the ones in charge of our energy future?

  12. There maybe safer cleaner and whatever reactors in the future, but current nuclear technology is already the safest way to generate electricity. have a look at that is based on historical data, i.e it includes the ancient 1950s reactors.

    reducing carbon emissions means that a lot of infrastructure need to be electrified. This report ( ) from a sustainability group suggest massive reductions in energy usage (colder houses, less driving, less meat consumption, etc) and still requires a doubling in electricity production .

    So we can either sit around, arguing about renewables vs nuclear, uranium vs thorium, molton salt vs pebble bed or whatever, while burning coal and oil, damaging our ecosystem, and killing people through respiratory illness and mining, drilling, pipeline and refinery accidents.

    1. The statistics you supplied are amazingly selective.

      For example the WHO study he cites for deaths cause by Chernobyl disaster caused much controversy. Most liqudators have never been registered let alone being monitored.

      Calling nuclear energy safe is just wishful thinking.

      1.  put in a number 10 times as big, nuclear is still safer than all fossil fuels and some renewables.

        if there had been a better reaction from the authorities (i.e. giving people iodine tablets) then number of deaths would have been more than 10 times smaller.

        alternatively, note that reactors are 10 times safer now than the 1950s designs. and that even under catastrophic failure (fukushima) nobody died. so nuclear is the safest, and is getting safer.

        the german ecoli outbreak last year (  ) killed more people than nuclear power has in a decade. calling cucumbers safe is wishful thinking.

          1.  Interesting article. A similar one in the UK was recently found to be build on broken statistics ( ).

            The most interesting thing in the KIKK study is that they find that increases in cancer are not due to radiation emissions from nuclear power stations (page 7 and 8).

            There are lots of areas of the world that have high natural backgrounds due to their geology. Much higher than you get from being near at nuclear power station. Various studies have been unable to find increases in cancer in these places.

            Someone should build a placebo nuclear reactor, and see if that increases local cancer rates.

  13. “NRC approval is conditional on utility Southern Company demonstrating that they have learned from the lessons of Fukushima”

    What?  How is it possible that we’ve learned our lessons from Fuk?  There has been only subterfuge, cover-up, and denial on a global scale.  This is science in a vacuum with our heads in the sand.  The lack of interest in Thorium pushes even skeptical minds to utter that blasphemous word, “conspiracy”.  I was pro-nuk b4 Fuk.  Now I simply believe that mankind lacks the institutional capacity to deal with this in a rational way.  It is from this platform that I view building new reactors (with “safe” new designs) as hubris.  But, then again, are we not men?

  14. I lean more pro nuclear than you Maggie but I think your post is really well said. I agree with you saying “But a new nuclear power plant, in my mind, is better than a new coal power plant.” People don’t realize that coal plants spew out a lot of radiation that is not regulated.
    Also to all the Thorium-fanboys it is interesting and I think deserves more research but it’s not all roses.
    Stabilization and disposal of the remains of the very small “Molten Salt Reactor Experiment” that operated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s has turned into the most technically challenging cleanup problem that Oak Ridge has faced, and the site has still not been cleaned up.”

  15. Question: What is the current “best practices” for getting rid of the used fuel? What is going to change in the next 10 years to invent a better solution? I hate to be a legislator, but why don’t we add a tax of 1% to fund research and development of a “real” solution.

    1.  There is a solution, as jacobian alludes to in the comment following yours. The used fuel from today’s old-school reactors can be re-used by newer reactors to the point where it is relatively safe.

      The problem has been that 1970’s legislation prevents these reactors from being built due to concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation (whether all of the new reactor designs are covered by these restrictions I’m not sure).

  16. Those opposed to nuclear research have no answer to the problem of dealing with long lived nuclear waste.  The best solution to nuclear waste is to burn it.  Burning it requires building fast reactors.

  17. Also: It’s weird, it’s not quite practical, but it is actually really really neat, so boingboing should talk about it:

    Basically: Pulverise/liquify coal/oil/whatever, and burn it at very very VERY high temperature, use it to make a plasma, and use that to generate electricity. Plasmas have electric and magnetic fields, so shooting them through a channel with a big magnet and aiming the result at electrodes makes — a battery. The output is very clean, very hot gas, so use THAT to power a steam plant.

    Cost: It is way more complicated than a traditional coal/oil steam plant, and some of the parts wear out quickly. It also requires lots more equipment and technical skill.

    Benefit: 60% efficiency (as opposed to 40% for traditional).

    Added cool factor: Plasma! Giant Magnets! Cesium! 

  18. Renewables should be our long-term solution.

    Is there anything substantial planned for renewables in America? Every Dollar spent on nukes is one Dollar not spent on renewables. And dismantling these things costs much more than building them.

  19. There does exist a solution to nuclear waste beyond “bury it”: reprocess it.  The isotopes we can fission, we fission.  Other long-lived isotopes don’t put out much energy per unit of time, so it’s easy to dilute them until they’re no more radioactive per gram than the uranium ore we started from.  The short-lived isotopes went away while the rods lurked in the pools at the plant.  The medium-lived isotopes– including the headaches Cs-134, Cs-137, I-131, and Sr-90– are problematic, but dilute them down, embed them in glass, and don’t let anyone eat the glass for a few hundred years, and problem solved.

  20. Maggie, I have nothing really to contribute this conversation as you’ve pretty much said it all – that being said, you rock – its amazes me that someone can still write an informed, scientifically balanced article these days, but you manage to do it pretty much every time.

  21. current technology means your children come to curse you. “New, improved” technology means your grand children come to curse you.   Fukushima clean-up waste is already turning up in gangster-contracted public school construction.

    How many human generations will it take to get it right?  How many have we got?

    1.  “Fukushima clean-up waste is already turning up in gangster-contracted public school construction. ”

      Have you got a link for that? Genuine interest, not snark…

  22. Interesting article. A similar one in the UK was recently found to be build on broken statistics (… ).

    KiKK is valid. It was conducted by Germany’s equivalent to NRC and is the third in a series of studies with similar results. Numbers are even too low because they only picked cases within a 5km boundary around nuclear plants.

    Baseline is this: Supposedly safe reactors increase leukemia rates in children. Experts on nuclear energy are dumbstruck.

    If that does not disturb you, I don’t know what will.

      1. No. Try

        Epidemiological study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants – KiKK study
        Concluding statement of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection
        (September 2009)

        Moderator note: I’ve redacted your link. Please do not use URL shorteners. That lead to pdfs. That open up a download dialog box.

  23. googling  Epidemiological study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants – KiKK study
    Concluding statement of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection
    (September 2009)  seems to get one there.

    It appears their conclusion is “more study”.  The question follows: is “more study” what would YOU  choose if you lived in a country where the government injected pregnant mothers and new born infants with radioisotopes without their knowledge and consent?

  24. Arne Gunderson destroys the safety claims of this new reactor design here:

    Fukushima and Its Impact Upon the Westinghouse-Toshiba Designed AP1000 Atomic Power Plant

    I think these alleged “reasonable people” need to understand the ongoing coverup of internal exposure to radiation.  We get Big Lie figures when reactors melt down.  If you die right away, then maybe they’ll count your corpse if they deign to admit you received a high enough “dose.”

    If you consume radioactive food, water and air and die of cancer in 20 years, you are erased from history.  That is the way it works, and multiple studies show a million dead from Chernobyl.

    The Future Children of Fukushima

    Nuclear power is immoral, reckless and should be considered a crime against humanity.  I never consented to ingest radioactive hot isotopes from Tokyo electric.

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