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Post-Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Finished?

by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Since the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown which was initiated by an unprecedented earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, some have wondered, “Is this the end of nuclear?”

The median age of the world’s nuclear power plants is 33 years.
The median age of the world’s nuclear power plants is 33 years.

For some nations it is.

Following Japan’s Fukushima disaster, Germany investigated the status of it’s aging nuclear power stations and became the first nation to begin an orderly shutdown of all of it’s nuclear power plants by 2022 – although full decommissioning and land remediation may take until 2045. Some n-plants failed so-called stress tests which were instituted in the aftermath of Fukushima-Daiichi.

Germany has begun replacing that lost capacity by ramping-up it’s wind, solar and biomass electrical power generation via an aggressive feed in tariff scheme which has added to the growth of renewable energy manufacturing in the country.

Exports too, of wind turbines and solar panels, along with the signing of international renewable energy construction contracts worth billions, have resulted in the creation of 300,000 new jobs. Not only that, countries like the Netherlands are shutting down their traditional power plants and buying gigawatts of affordable German renewable energy.

Switzerland has decided to decommission all of it’s nuclear power stations by 2045, as decision-makers there decided that the cost to bring their n-plants up to a modern standard was unaffordable. Italy quit nuclear power in 1987, as the costs to retrofit their old n-power plants with new technology exceeded any potential profits.

After the Fukushima incident, Japan put their reactors through stress tests. The modern plants passed the tests — while the older plants may require billions to upgrade. Speaking about the age of Japan’s nuclear fleet, the first Fukushima-Daiichi unit was designed in the 1960’s, construction began in 1969 and it was commissioned into service in February of 1971.

And herein lies the problem with nuclear power. Most of the world’s nuclear plants were commissioned prior to 1990 and feature design, engineering and construction techniques of a different era — to put it politely.

But a new hope has arrived in the form of the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) which is a comparatively tiny reactor built on an assembly-line by nuclear technicians and delivered to a site by transport truck — as a fully-assembled unit.

mPower-cutaway
Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) mPower 180-megawatt Small Modular Reactor.

SMR’s can range in size from a tiny 25-megawatts (Gen4 Energy) which is enough to power a small town — up to 300-megawatt units that are powerful enough to run a small city. Most SMR’s fall within the 45-megawatt (Nu-Scale) to 225-megawatt (Westinghouse) size. The winner of a recent U.S. Department of Energy SMR funding program (all, or part, of $452 million) was the Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) mPower SMR, which is a 180-megawatt reactor.

Quite the opposite of behemoth nuclear power plants of the past, with their 1,000-acre (or more) site requirements, unimaginable water usage and huge grid and infrastructure commitment – an entire SMR facility could fit inside a football stadium, use tiny amounts of water and ‘hook up’ to normal high-tension power lines.

The best part of the SMR story is that they use many passive, redundant safety systems – quite unlike old-fashioned nuclear power plants. For example, most SMR’s will be installed underground in a room surrounded by thick concrete on all sides, while above the reactor enough gravity-fed cooling water is stored to last for a minimum of 7-days (some SMR’s store 14-days worth of emergency cooling water on-site) which activates without any human assistance whatsoever, in the event of excess heat buildup inside the reactor pressure vessel.

SMR’s are a perfect fit for renewable energy, as they can ramp-up (load-following) to meet electricity demand resulting from shortfalls in solar power output (such as night-time) or during the day (usually mornings) when wind power can be less efficient.

The modern, Small Modular Reactor can deliver safe and secure electrical power to complement the future of energy – renewable energy.

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