Think Too Much: Is this the time to rethink nuclear power?

2013-08-11T07:45:00Z Think Too Much: Is this the time to rethink nuclear power?By Mike McInally, Albany Democrat-Herald Corvallis Gazette Times

NuScale, the Corvallis company that’s trying to develop smaller, modular nuclear reactors, got caught in a national crossfire last week.

It’s all part of a fascinating national debate about the future of nuclear power – and, frankly, it only was a matter of time before NuScale, which is working to commercialize technology developed at Oregon State University, got drawn into the debate.

A bit of background: NuScale is one of a number of companies trying to develop these smaller reactors. NuScale says its design is safer and more cost-effective than traditional, larger nuclear reactors. The company, like others involved in developing these so-called SMRs (small, modular reactors), still faces a lengthy process to get its design licensed by the federal government.

Last week, though, a Washington think tank, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, launched a broadside against the entire SMR notion.

The organization, which is upfront about its anti-nuclear agenda, challenged both of the key ideas helping to propel work on the smaller reactors.

First, the institute questioned the idea that the smaller reactors would, in fact, be cheaper to build. In essence, the institute’s position is that building the reactors would require enormous government subsidies to create the necessary supply chains.

The institute also questioned the idea of whether the smaller reactors would, in fact, be safer.

Although the report didn’t really specifically single out NuScale, company officials fired back, arguing that manufacturers likely would seize the opportunity to expand their facilities in a relatively cost-efficient manner once the company’s design earned federal certification.

And NuScale officials noted that the company’s reactor design already has endured a decade’s worth of safety tests — with much more testing still to come.

In a backhanded way, though, you might argue that NuScale should be pleased by the institute’s report. It sends a clear signal that the idea of these small modular reactors has advanced to the point where an avowed foe of nuclear power sees the need to counterattack.

And the entire incident underlines an increasingly fascinating debate about the future of nuclear power, a controversy that reached a simmering point earlier this year with the release of a documentary named “Pandora’s Promise.”

In the documentary (which I haven’t seen yet), filmmaker Robert Stone — who earlier made a pair of environmental documentaries — profiles a handful of environmentalists who have come to the same conclusion he has: That nuclear power, because it doesn’t generate greenhouse gases, is the safest way to wean the world off fossil fuels.

As you might imagine, the documentary touched a variety of nerves — and, to be honest, I haven’t had a chance to fully assess all the arguments for myself.

A couple of things certain, though: First, it’s obvious that nuclear power still triggers considerable passion. But perhaps the time has come to try to dissipate some of that heat and to look at the entire issue in some fresh light.

And, second: the mid-valley’s NuScale, for better or for worse, now has a front-row seat in this important discussion. (mm)

Mike McInally is the editor of the Democrat-Herald. He can be reached at 541-812-6097 or

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. Pro Nuclear
    Report Abuse
    Pro Nuclear - August 15, 2013 8:57 am
    @ William Wilgus,

    Once a site is cleared for nuclear power you can build several plants on that same location. This is a common pattern now. NuScale's design anticipates 12 modules on a single site. The cost per module would drop considerably after the first one was installed. There are several savings paths.
    1. The cost of construction for each unit will drop as multiple units of exactly the same style are built.
    2. Refueling will be more efficient since a dedicated group of highly trained and experienced workers could refuel year around. Only 1/12th of the plant's capacity would drop during a refueling.
    3. Current rules by the NRC need to be modified - which require a per reactor fee of 4 million rather than a per capacity fee.
    4. There are many many very old coal plants that are less than 100 MW that need to be replaced. A drop in replacement reactor like MPower would enable the same site to be used making use the existing steam and electrical infrastructure.
    5. Much of the same equipment is NOT required. The NuScale designs are convection cooled.
  2. Pro Nuclear
    Report Abuse
    Pro Nuclear - August 15, 2013 8:12 am
    @ Andyg,

    1. What alternative sources?? Sure, we can develop pebble bed reactors,
    We can develop Molten Salt reactors.
    We can develop ultra safe Light water reactors like NuScale, and MPower

    The investment of Billions by the government in Nuclear power is in the form of grants that reduce the cost of the 4 + year licensing by the NRC to about 1/2 of the normal cost. the cost for development is carried by B&W. The NRC charges $254 / hour They examine questions like "If the whole core were to suddenly vaporize and spread over a 10 mile radius what would the health effects be?" These types of questions ignore all possible physical realities to examine the "safety" of Nuclear reactors.

    The only thing cheaper than a paid for Nuclear power plant operating at an average cost of 1.8 cents / KWh are Government subsidized power sources like Wind which have feed in tariffs that pay even when they dump electric on the grid that is NOT needed at that time.

    2. What to do with the Nuclear waste? That is some of the most valuable material in existence. It is so far from being "waste" that if you were to offer it to companies with the ability to sell it some of the materials are worth 10's of thousands of dollars a gram.

    If you want to throw it away there are many ways to do it very safely. One verified place is the Waste Isolation Pilot Project WIPP in New Mexico.

    Nuclear power is the ONLY power source that has displaced fossil fuels. Japan is paying nearly 70 billion dollars for the replacement Natural gas to supply only a part of the power that the closed NPP's were suppling.

    Finally the question not asked - is radiation really that dangerous?
  3. William Wilgus
    Report Abuse
    William Wilgus - August 12, 2013 8:33 am
    The site preparation requirements are the same for large and small plants. Since they'd be many more of them, any group of small ones would cost more than the comparable power from big ones. Any fool should be able to see that smaller ones would require much of the same equipment that large ones do: controls, pumps, steam generators, steam turbines, electric generators. You'd lose 'economies of scale'. More generating plants would require more grid. Sorry, SNRs are less economical than large ones.

    Regardless of how safe the small ones might be, eventually one or more of them will have an accident, perhaps a catastrophic one.
  4. Harry Mallory
    Report Abuse
    Harry Mallory - August 11, 2013 4:34 pm
    There'll be no link, of course..we're either supposed to search for that story or just give up and assume its true.
  5. Austin
    Report Abuse
    Austin - August 11, 2013 2:43 pm
    This would be a good spot for the not so curious one to regale us all with a story about the "One dude who caused a melt-down and got away with it". Or...maybe accuse teapublicans for using the waste as a food additive in low income school districts.
  6. andyg
    Report Abuse
    andyg - August 11, 2013 2:06 pm
    Sure, rethink it all you want. While you're at it, try to answer two questions:
    1. What alternative sources of energy could our country be developing with billions of $ of subsidies and how do they compare?
    2. What are you going to do to safely dispose of nuclear waste?
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