Atomic Timeline


The blog post for today’s broadcast of my nuclear power segment on The California Report weekly magazine has been updated from the original post on August 24.

And don’t forget to check out  Amanda Dyer’s interactive  “Atomic Timeline,” with key milestones in the history of nuclear power development.

Do We Need Nuclear?

This is an updated re-post from August 24th, when my radio feature first aired on KQED’s Quest series. That report repeats on this week’s magazine edition of The California Report.

More people appear to be saying “yes” these days, even if grudgingly. The question is: Is it too late?

The Public Policy Institute of California has been tracking public support for expanded nuclear power over the past several years. Survey participants are offered a menu of four potential energy options, one at a time.

The question posed is: “Thinking about the country as a whole, to address the country’s energy needs and reduce dependence on foreign oil sources, do you favor or oppose the following proposals?” Then the four options are offered, including: “How about building more nuclear power plants at this time”

As recently as 2002, adults surveyed in California opposed the idea by a margin of 59% to 33%. But that gap has been closing steadily in the years since and by this July, Californians were split just about down the middle on the question, with 46% in favor and 48% opposed. The poll has a margin of error of about 2%, making it a virtual tie.

When you dig into the numbers a little deeper, some demographic preferences emerge. Support increases with both age and education. Californians 55 and older support more nuclear by a wide margin (58% to 36%) as do college graduates (50%-43%).

Many people use cost as an argument against nuclear but just as the PPIC was phoning around for opinions on the matter, the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute was finishing up its own report, concluding that trying to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals without baseload technologies like nuclear power, could end up costing much more.

Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at U.C. Berkeley, would appear to agree. He said in a recent interview for Climate Watch that “Without knowing exactly where things will come down on nuclear, I think that it absolutely has to be part of the equation in a way that it has not been in the past. Energy costs from fossil fuels are rising at almost 5% a year now, and the damage we are doing and are going to do more of, if we don’t stop our fossil fuel expansion, in terms of greenhouse warming, is so large an issue that these technologies have to be back on the table.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

But there are serious doubts whether the nation–let alone the state–is in a position to embrace nuclear as it did in the 1960s. Kammen is also a professor of nuclear engineering, and noted with some alarm the rate at which the industry is “graying.” Now in his mid-forties, he told me that when he attends technical meetings for nuclear engineers, he’s often “the youngest guy in the room–by 20 years.” Since the U.S. more or less abandoned its nuclear hopes following the Three Mile Island debacle, the nation has ceded most of its nuclear industrial capacity to other nations, and few young people have chosen to enter the field.

Reports from new projects around the world have not been encouraging of late. Finland is struggling mightily to get its newest reactor up and running. This goes directly to doubts expressed by Kammen and others, that the industry can cowboy up fast enough for nuclear to play a meaningful role in meeting CO2 reduction targets.

The effective ban on new nuclear plants that California has had in place since 1976 could be reconsidered. But ultimately electric utilities will have to want it and I sense a certain “nuclear fatigue” in that arena.

Managers at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) shut down its only reactor in 1989, after a thumbs-down referendum. When I called to ask for an interview on the prospects for a nuclear revival, they declined. They didn’t even want to talk about it. Managers at PG&E, whose twin reactors at Diablo Canyon produce nearly a quarter of the utility’s output, still claim an interest in nuclear. But when I asked CEO Peter Darbee about it recently, he said he had the sense that most people in California would prefer to look elsewhere for energy solutions.

Of course, that was before the latest PPIC poll.

Former Climate Watch intern Amanda Dyer prepared an interactive “atomic timeline,” marking off some of the milestones in nuclear power history in the U.S. Use your cursor to move around the timeline.

No Crystal Ball for Fusion Power

Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab

Photo: Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab

Now here’s a guy with some historical perspective: For something north of a half-century, David Perlman has been covering science for the San Francisco Chronicle. On KQED’s Forum program this morning, he noted that “40 years ago, they said ‘in 20 years, we’ll have unlimited energy from fusion’.”

The record will show that we didn’t quite get there–but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. The long quest for bottled fusion will pass another milestone this week, when the US Dept. of Energy formally cuts the ribbon on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Comparing the hardware with other titanic undertakings, like the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, Perlman called the 192-laser assembly “one of the most amazing machines–if it succeeds–and one probably won’t know for the next two, three years.”

That’s the hopeful time frame for creating fusion in a fuel pellet the size of a BB (artistically rendered in the image, above) Will they? Perlman says: “I would not dream of putting a bet on it.”

Nor would sparking some mini-fusion at NIF quickly translate to a national solution for clean, safe energy. Scaling that ignition up to practical size for reactors would likely require decades more.

A NIF technician appears to be gazing into a "crystal ball," which is actually used to amplify laser beams--but not much good for predicting the future. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

A NIF technician appears to be gazing into a "crystal ball." Precision-ground crystals are used to amplify laser beams--but not much good for seeing into the future. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Earlier this week, in an interview with NASA scientist James Hansen, I asked him about the potential for nuclear power to make a comeback with new technology. Rather than waiting for fusion, Hansen favors the technology known as “fourth-generation nuclear,” which he says could “burn nearly all of the fuel, where at present, the nuclear technology that we’re using burns only one percent of the energy in the uranium.” From one percent to “nearly all” would represent a drastic reduction in the current radioactive waste problem.

There may be some wishful thinking in that. An early report published in the magazine 21st Century Science & Technology describes these “Generation IV” reactors as “about 50% more efficient than conventional nuclear reactors.”

Other nations have moved ahead with Gen-IV reactors. The French expect to have one under construction by 2020.

Meanwhile, as the US pursues a parallel Gen-IV research program, it will press on toward the Holy Grail of fusion with its Livermore megalaser, described by Perlman as “already a mini-Manhattan Project.” Costs so far have run to nearly triple the original budget of more than a billion dollars. DOE expects to spend $140 million per year to run the NIF. So, it would be–you know–nice if something comes of it.