The other nuclear power: The reactors we have aren't the only option

Are the design flaws and technology problems that led to the crisis at Fukushima a necessary evil inherent in nuclear power? Not really, says Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic.

There's definitely a bit of irony circling around the Fukushima reactor failures. The plant uses very old reactor designs, dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reactors like this exist in the United States as well, and they're flawed in some ways that would be almost comical, were it not for the risk those flaws impart. Maybe you've wondered over the past couple of weeks why anyone would design a nuclear reactor that relied on external generators to power the pumps for it's emergency cooling system. In a real emergency, isn't there a decent chance that the backup generators would be compromised, as well?

It's a good question. In fact, modern reactor designs have solved that very problem, by feeding water through the emergency cooling system using gravity, rather than powered pumps. Newer designs are much safer, and more reliable. But we haven't built any of them in the United States, partly because people are afraid of the old designs. Like I said, irony.

On the other hand, the full explanation of why light-water reactors like the ones at Fukushima dominate nuclear power is much more complex. In fact, as Madrigal points out, it starts before the general public became afraid of nuclear power—before any nuclear power plants had been built at all.

In the early years of atomic power, as recounted by Alvin Weinberg, head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his book The First Nuclear Era, there was intense competition to come up with the cheapest, safest, best nuclear reactor design.

Every variable in building an immensely complex industrial plant was up for grabs: the nature of the radioactive fuel and other substances that form the reactor's core, the safety systems, the containment buildings, the construction substances, and everything else that might go into building an immensely complex industrial plant. The light water reactor became the technological victor, but no one is quite sure whether that was a good idea.

Few of these alternatives were seriously investigated after light water reactors were selected for Navy submarines by Admiral Hyman Rickover. Once light water reactors gained government backing and the many advantages that conferred, other designs could not break into the market, even though commercial nuclear power wouldn't explode for years after Rickover's decision. "There were lots and lots of ideas floating around, and they essentially lost when light water came to dominate," University of Strasbourg professor Robin Cowan told the Boston Globe in an excellent article on "technological lock-in" in the nuclear industry.

Why's this history especially important right now? No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States for 25 years. During that time, the operational record of the plants has improved tremendously and the specter of climate change has made nuclear power more popular among some greens. In Washington, a consensus appeared to have coalesced around developing more nuclear power. Meanwhile, during nuclear power's long lull, plant designers reopened the history books and began to look at new ideas for tapping the atom's energy. From the thorium reactor featured in Wired to the modular plant backed by Bill Gates to the pebble bed reactors developed in South Africa and China, a host of new ideas are on the table for the future of nuclear energy.

If you want to better understand the history of how we ended up with light-water reactors, I'd recommend reading this week's excerpt from Madrigal's upcoming book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. In it, he explains how GE, Westinghouse, and the United States government let their excitement at the possibilities of nuclear power get away from them, and pushed through the commercialization of nuclear energy technology before that technology was really ready to be commercialized.