Monday, January 24, 2011

Nuclear Treaty Trivia That Only I May Care About

So the U.S. just signed a treaty with Russia that for some reason doesn't have to go through the Senate. It can be made merely by exchanging "diplomatic notes" between the diplomats of two countries, and in this case it's addressing potential collaboration between Russia and ourselves on civil nuclear issues. I think it sounds great in theory, but there's a few niggling issues that have come out in the press releases I read, that I'm going to discuss in this post.

Prominently Placed Disclaimer: Last semester, my semester-long research project was on the future of nuclear power in the United States. In the process of writing it, I became a nuclear geek, and now care about issues that are totally arcane to 'most anyone else. This post is a reflection of that, so before ye read on, be warned of its obscurity.

Still here? OK, good. The State Department (second link) says that the treaty will "facilitate cooperative work on reactor designs that result in reduced proliferation risk", as well as helping the two countries "explore new areas for collaboration".

This is a good thing in Russia, where most of the 12 RBMK reactors currently operating (an outmoded Soviet design; Chernobyl was one of these) need to be replaced. And the proliferation threat of research reactors in both countries, and indeed around the world, that use highly-enriched uranium (bomb fuel) will be made less dangerous by this treaty. But the civil benefits to US reactors are tenuous at best. With five separate designs currently being certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (at last count), and billions of dollars of federal grant money that Southern Company is waiting to use at the Vogtle site in Georgia*, bringing new voices and information into the design process only complicates everything.

This whole site is just waiting for the go-ahead from the NRC.
I'm also not sure how transporting nuclear waste to Russia for reprocessing and storage is a net benefit for the US. Sure, we're getting rid of a dangerous and toxic commodity, but we'd also be shipping some of the ingredients for a nuclear bomb (including plutonium-239) to a country that we're simultaneously trying to reduce the risk of proliferation in! Plus, there are problems (most extensively detailed by the Nevadan government) with moving nuclear waste from any point A to point B, never mind all the way to Russia. Nuclear casks are heavy and difficult to transport, they can be vulnerable to terrorist attack, and the best method of transportation-train or road-will inevitably take the casks through a metropolitan area.** Shipping the waste outside the US would be expensive and likely insufficient to address the output of the 104 civilian nuclear reactors (~2,000 tons/year), never mind cutting into the stockpiles (~62,500 tons).

Finally, the reprocessing plants mentioned in the TPMDC article have some importance. We'd be shipping the waste to Russian plants for a reason: the U.S. has none of its own. Since Jimmy Carter essentially halted U.S. research into that technology, the only method of reducing the gross amount of nuclear waste*** that we know has languished. Shipping it overseas isn't the answer to the problem of waste, either from an energy standpoint (trying to establish a closed fuel cycle) or from a national security standpoint (why be dependent on Russia when we could have a domestic industry that does the same thing?).

It'd be good to put a reminder here that none of the issues I just mentioned are deal-breakers. From the standpoint of preventing nuclear proliferation, this is a series of great ideas. I just think that implementing parts of it-particularly the movement of nuclear waste, which is more my area-will be more difficult and problematic then it sounds on paper. Far from being a "vast new area of potential profit", shipping our waste to Russia might end up costing more money then it saves.

 *Vogtle's design, the AP1000, is in the process of being certified by the NRC. Under their new procedures, the design must be fully certified and approved before any construction can begin. After that, the company that's building the reactor can't deviate from that plan, increasing the pressure on the NRC to check it fully the first time around.

**This is nothing to be alarmed about under normal circumstances. Nuclear casks are extensively tested, in half- as well as full-scale, and are certified against casual release of radiation; in other words, if your car is stopped next to a cask-containing truck at a red light, you will not be irradiated. However, if the cask were to get in an accident, or suffer a fire or explosive event beyond what they're tested against, the damage to a city could be incalculable.

***Right, right, aside from shutting down the stupid plants altogether. But unless you've got the ability to replace 10% of the U.S.'s electricity generation capacity in your back pocket, not to mention 20% of the electricity we generate in a given year****, this is a bad idea too.

****Hooray, nested footnotes! Why does that 10%-20% thing make sense? Well, all power plants have what's called a capacity factor, or the percentage of the time they can be running at full capacity. To put that another way, if I'm running a coal-fired plant, every so often I have to load new coal into the plant, or I have to shut it down for maintenance. Those are the times when it's not running at full strength. Nuclear power plants by sheer megawattage make up around 10% of the U.S.'s total capacity to generate electricity; that is, if all the power plants in the country were on full blast, nuclear would pick up around 10% of the total^.

But that doesn't happen, because every plant has to shut down sometime. Nuclear plants only have to replace their fuel every 18-24 months (within NRC guidelines). That's when they perform maintenance. The record for continuous plant operation is something over 700 days. Long story short, nuclear power has a capacity factor over 90%, higher than anything else except hydropower. So it picks up the tab when solar or wind or natural gas can't.

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