Sunday, 13 November 2016

My advice to Trump on nuclear power

At the start of his first term, Obama appointed Gregory Jaczko, who was basically an anti-nuclear power activist, to run U.S. nuclear power regulation: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC. This activist proceeded to do as much damage as he could to the cause to reducing green house gas emissions.

I doubt Trump will be able to match that feat, no matter how many coal mines and gas pipelines he allows to operate.

Trump should do the opposite of what Obama did. Instead of spiking nuclear power, Trump should reform the NRC with a few strategic deregulations, and re-regulations. Eventually the USA will see the fruits of such deregulation in several years time. There's very little, perhaps nothing, Trump can do immediately to jump start cheap nuclear power. That's why he must begin by reforming regulation.

  1. Change exposure limits for radiation from no-safe dose to a threshold dose. Even a threshold as low as 50 mSv/a looks like a real improvement. It will positively impact two things:
    1. It will undermine the rationale for ALARA. If tiny emissions are not harmful then why obsess over them? A great deal of time and money is wasted obsessing over small, but harmless, amounts of radiation.
    2. It will undercut radiophobia. Radiophobes will not longer be able to legitimately claim that 0.1 mSv, of say tritium, is a catastrophe. Radiophobes will not be able to use these arguments to lobby for a nuclear power shutdown as they have in the past.
  2. Change the NRC mandate. From a mandate that only tries to make nuclear power as safe as possible. To one that promotes safe, cheap nuclear power. Return to something like the old AEC mandate. Nuclear power plants of each type have already been made as safe as can possibly be. These advances will not be lost, no matter what.
  3. Force NRC to explicitly justify current and new safety measures by cost benefit analysis and assessment. Ensure that cost-benefits are measured in numerical units like DALY. IMO: only when you pin them down to numbers, will antis use proper cost-benefit.
  4. Look through all U.S. laws for anything quoting a precautionary principle and rescind that law. Republicans need to stop using precautionary arguments too.
  5. Clarify the position of U.S. government on issues like reprocessing and proliferation. If there are agencies out to stop reprocessing, please let us know what their rules are. If there are going to be reprocessing bans against nuclear used fuel, let the NRC oversee them. Likewise for other proliferation risks imagined and real. Please make technology bans explicit. This may involve clarifying exactly what the law is and which agencies have been directed to enforce or dictate rules and laws. I warn Mr T. that continued bans and heavy restrictions on reprocessing will result is continued expensive nuclear power. By enforcing the current 'de facto' monopolies. By preventing newer, better, technology.

Atomic Energy Commission - AEC

The AEC regulated nuclear power before the NRC was created:

In ... 1954, when Congress revised the law and, by allowing nuclear technology to enter the mainstream of American industrial life, it broadened the AEC's mandate. Congress declared that the widespread use of nuclear energy was a national goal and that it was the AEC's task to promote that growth.

But the AEC was created with a dual mission. Congress directed the AEC not only to promote nuclear power's peaceful uses, but also "to protect the health and safety of the public."

--Hostages of Each Other: The Transformation of Nuclear Safety since Three Mile Island, by Joseph V. Rees

Due to lobbying by coal power interests: the AEC was abolished in 1974/'75. It's regulatory functions were given to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC. The NRC was given only one single goal: to make nuclear power as safe as possible. Consequently, applications to build new nuclear plants fell to nothing, almost overnight. For those nuclear plants already with planning permission : a large number were never built, or completed largely over-due, over-budget. Costs of complying with extreme regulation practically doubled the cost of building nuclear power plants. In contrast: coal power never had its own draconian safety regime. The nuclear power industry, such that it was, did not lobby to spike coal power.

It was argued that this dual mandate created a problem - a paradox at the heart of the AEC - making it impossible for AEC to properly consider safety. This critique never had any legitimate foundation. It is a false critique. During its time, AEC made cheap, safe, nuclear power possible in the USA. The myth of unsafe nuclear power is just that. A myth created by phobics and Luddites either foolishly or recklessly. U.S. nuclear power has always been safe. Chernobyl happened in the Soviet Union, a communist dictatorship, where there were no checks and balances. Nothing like the AEC nor NRC. An unsafe nuclear power plant design such as the Russian RBMK was, in 1986, would never have been allowed in the USA. Not by the AEC, not even by the most fervent pro-nuclear power supporter.

Barriers to nuclear power

Some of the things U.S. government is holding back:

  • Lithium isotope separation: Dr. Stephen Boyd: MSRs - What are We Waiting For? Contrary to what Stephen Boyd says - there are no U.S. national security interests. Russia and China currently separate lithium-7 from lithium-6, and USA buys all the lithium-7, or lithium-6 it needs from Russia or China. Sure: lithium-6 can be used to make tritium. Sure: in theory, tritium could make a fusion bomb. But as Russia and China already make loads to lithium-6, and USA makes none: I don't see the national, nor international, security issue.
  • ... Canada that's ... a realistic scenario ... except I don't want to go to prison. I was told in no uncertain terms by the department of energy that if I bring any of my intellectual property off of the United States soil, that represents a national security threat, I will get thrown into prison. They told me over the phone and I know who they are. I'm not going to name them.
    -- Dr. Stephen Boyd
  • U.S. government invented the lie that breeder reactors and reprocessing are A-bomb proliferation threats. The opposite is true. At the moment U.S. makes about 2,700 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel each year. Any of that spent fuel can be easily chemically reprocessed to make, rather impure, plutonium. That plutonium could be used to make inferior A-bombs. In contrast: a properly working breeder reactor, with full reprocessing, will leave no useful waste for A-bomb proliferation. A breeder will leave only fission products.
  • Rare Earths - Thorium - the alternative, more abundant nuclear fuel - is often found in conjunction with rare earths. In mining, thorium is left behind as tailings. But the thorium can't simply be dumped because it is slightly radioactive. It's half-life is 14.5 billion years. It's classified by the EPA as naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). Currently, this must be disposed of under state rules. The radioactivity is too low to cause harm, but just significant enough for the EPA to rule on. In practice, it means USA has no rare earth industry to speak of. USA is totally dependent upon, and at the mercy of Chinese imports. An EPA rule change could stop all that, and give USA a rare earth mining industry bigger than it used to have.
  • Thorium fuel. Could actually power current reactor technology as well. It will not be considered because it requires reprocessing and US government has always opposed that.

PS: Also read: Who killed nuclear power and why?

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