Magazine | June 17, 2013, Issue


America has squandered its lead in nuclear-energy technology

In the dazzling sunlight of the United Arab Emirates, 30-story construction cranes twirl in the desert sand as thousands of highly trained, imported workers scurry below. The elaborate dance is choreographed by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), which is seating the containment structure for the first of four nuclear reactors it has contracted to build for the desert kingdom by 2020. A newcomer to the international market, KEPCO was the surprise winner in the bidding four years ago, besting France’s semi-private nuclear giant, Areva, and a consortium of GE and Hitachi.

Now pivot to Washington, where American and Korean diplomats are trying to renegotiate a 1974 treaty, set to expire in 2014, whereby the United States supplies South Korea with nuclear technology. Under this treaty, the U.S. also supplies South Korea with uranium. In 1974, the U.S. was just embarking on a wave of construction that would produce 100 new reactors in 20 years, reactors that still provide 19 percent of our electricity. Today the U.S. has not built a new reactor from the ground up (as opposed to modifying an existing one) in 25 years. The frontiers of nuclear development have moved far beyond America’s borders. Yet State Department officials are still trying to hold South Korea to the terms of the 1974 agreement, which states that the Koreans cannot build their own uranium-enrichment facilities and, more important, cannot reprocess their spent fuel.

Why? Because the Koreans might use the technology to build a bomb — like North Korea, perhaps. The South Koreans complain that they are being treated like children, or even criminals, and the negotiations aren’t going anywhere.

If you ever wanted to see a nation clinging pathetically to its past accomplishments while the world passed it by, take a look at the U.S. and today’s nuclear technology.

In China, the first of six new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors has just come online. When the Chinese contracted with Westinghouse five years ago, they insisted on being given all the design specifications. In their usual way, they reverse-engineered the design and now have their own model, the CAP1400. At Taishan on the southern coast, China is also building two licensed Areva 1,700-megawatt EPRs (European Pressurized Reactors, a much-praised new design) — half again as large in capacity as anything ever built in the United States, and due to open this year.

Korea entered the nuclear business only in the 1990s but has since made stunning progress. Altogether, the nation has 23 reactors, which provide 45 percent of its electricity, and wants to build 16 more by 2030. The capacity factor — the percentage of time the reactors are up and running, instead of being shut down for maintenance, repair, or fuel replacement — is the highest in the world, 95 percent, compared with 90 percent in the U.S. The Russians are also pressing ahead with nuclear energy, building reactors in India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Turkey, Belarus, and — unfortunately — Iran. Russia has offered to take everybody’s nuclear waste and reprocess it into more fuel — a technology that has been applied for 20 years in France.

And it’s not just in large-scale reactor construction that America has fallen far behind. We are also losing the advantage in new technologies. Small modular reactors (SMRs) of 75 to 150 megawatts — comparable to the ones that power our submarines and aircraft carriers — could be assembled at the factory, avoiding lengthy on-site construction. A 125-megawatt reactor the size of a gazebo could power a town of 70,000 and be buried six stories below the basement of a utility building.

Unfortunately, that would require wending a way through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, housed in eleven-story twin towers in Rockville, Md., where approval from the top must be issued before any nuclear facility in the country may buy a new set of wrenches. The agency is notorious for foot-dragging; after ignoring SMRs for years, NRC officials finally set up a design-review schedule in 2012, but it will be a decade before any American company can complete a demonstration project. By that time China may be selling SMRs in Walmart.

Or consider thorium. It’s a radioactive element very similar to uranium that can be used to produce controlled nuclear fission, but, unlike uranium, it doesn’t easily lend itself to making a bomb. It does not require enrichment — the laborious process of separating radioactive isotopes from non-radioactive ones — and it creates only about one-tenth the amount of waste material. But in the 1950s we started generating power from uranium instead, because — well, the military had its needs, we were making a lot of bombs, and it was too much trouble to go off in another direction.

#page#Groups such as the Thorium Energy Alliance are constantly petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to give thorium a look, without any luck. It could take the next decade for the NRC to find thorium on the map. Meanwhile its potential will be developed abroad. India has particularly ample thorium resources and is building a 300-megawatt prototype reactor that is expected to go operational this year.

Then there is the Integral Fast Reactor. It is a “breeder reactor,” meaning that it creates usable fuel from non-enriched material, such as spent fuel. All our nuclear waste could be consumed in IFRs. An experimental prototype ran for 30 years in Idaho, but the Clinton administration shut it down in 1994 in an attempt to phase out nuclear technology. Russia’s BN-600, a similar type of breeder reactor, has been in operation since 1980, and China, Korea, Japan, Britain, and France all have programs to develop the IFR.

Then there’s the Traveling Wave, a design that caught the attention of Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures when that company decided to explore energy. The reactor would run on depleted uranium that is transformed into fissionable material within the reactor core, largely eliminating the problem of handling and storing highly radioactive fuel. After five years of study, TerraPower, a spin-off, was ready to move but found itself waiting outside the door of the NRC. So Gates went to China and signed a deal with the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation instead.

Finally, there is reprocessing. Somewhere around 1974, the U.S. got the idea that if we only stopped reprocessing fuel in this country, the world would be forever free of nuclear weapons. The logic goes like this: The easiest way to build a bomb is with the plutonium that is produced in nuclear reactors. While plutonium does not exist naturally, it collects in spent fuel as a by-product of uranium fission. But it can also be burned in nuclear reactors. For this it requires “reprocessing,” a chemical separation whereby it is isolated for a short time before being mixed with uranium to form what is called “mixed oxide fuel.”

Sometime around 1972, an eccentric nuclear scientist named Ted Taylor became obsessed with the idea that somebody would steal plutonium from an American reprocessing plant and use it to make a bomb in a garage. The New Yorker’s John McPhee took Taylor’s ruminations and turned them into a book, The Curve of Binding Energy, which still sells well on Amazon. The book seized the imagination of the Carter administration, which canceled all reprocessing experiments in the United States. As you can see, the world has been free of nuclear proliferation ever since.

It turns out that there are better ways of obtaining plutonium for a bomb than stealing it from U.S. reprocessing plants. Ambitious nations can even build a reactor and reprocess it themselves. What we have managed to do by maintaining this pointless ban is to create the supposedly “insurmountable problem of nuclear waste.” Reprocessing reduces the volume of dangerous material by 95 percent; France stores all the high-level “waste” it has created in the last 40 years, during which it has generated 75 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, beneath the floor of one room at its La Hague reprocessing facility. Meanwhile, we’ve been looking for a hole in the ground the size of Yucca Mountain. Once again, America is moving to the rear while everyone else moves ahead.

And now we’re trying to drag South Korea back with us, insisting that the nation with perhaps the world’s most advanced nuclear technology should not enrich its own uranium or reprocess its own fuel. If we did let them reprocess, the Koreans wouldn’t even be isolating plutonium; instead, they want to implement the “pyroprocessing” technique, in which spent fuel is subjected to an electric current at very high temperatures, separating out the highly radioactive components (which can be reused) and leaving behind a much smaller volume of much less dangerous waste. It produces no plutonium suitable for bomb-making, but to American diplomats, reprocessing is reprocessing, and so it can’t be allowed. Don’t be surprised if we end up driving South Korea into the arms of Russia, Australia, or Kazakhstan for its next round of uranium supplies.

– Mr. Tucker is the author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.

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