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New Nuclear Power Plants May Pose Greater Risk Than Conventional Reactors

New Nuclear Power Plants May Pose Greater Risk Than Conventional Reactors

Nuclear plant cooling towers and power lines in France. Photo: Reuters/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

New Delhi: According to a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on March 18, a new generation of advance nuclear power reactors that are currently in development, may be no safer than conventional nuclear power units.

Edwin Lyman, physicist and director of nuclear power safety at UCS, said in the new report, “The [advance] high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors may have the potential to be safer, but it remains unproven. Problems have come up during recent fuel safety tests.”

Scientists in the group rated the two types of reactors for safety, nuclear proliferation, terrorism risks and sustainability in using the nuclear fuel efficiently. They also took into account how long the nuclear waste lasted for both reactors.

Conventional reactors use enriched uranium fuel and are mostly cooled by water. The nuclear waste generated needs to be safely stored underground for the order of 400,000 years or converted to less dangerous materials.

According to Lyman, none of the new reactors they reviewed were safer or lowered nuclear proliferation than existing reactors.

For example, Terra Power, a nuclear power company founded by Bill Gates, is developing new reactors that use liquid sodium instead of water to cool the reactor at a lower pressure. This can help avoid meltdowns, according to a CNBC report.

“Nuclear power has actually been safer than any other source of [power] generation,” Gates said in a CNBC interview.

The union’s report states that reactors that use sodium as coolant wouldn’t reduce the amount of waste that requires long-term isolation. Sodium can also burn when exposed to air or water, posing safety issues that conventional reactors, which don’t use sodium, sidestep.

Jungming Kang, chair of South Korea’s nuclear safety and security commission, told the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that reactor-makers around the world need to develop accident-tolerant fuels.

Another issue is that, according to the union’s report, the fuel for many of the newer reactors is enriched at a much higher rate than that used in conventional reactors.

This is risky because more refined uranium is used to make nuclear weapons. Timothy Gardener, an energy and environment correspondent for Reuters, reported that the fuel supply chain for newer units could thus become an attractive target for militants.

Also read: Ten Years After Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Meltdown, Cause for Worry Persists

This said, there seems to be renewed interest in nuclear reactor design because the power they generate is considerably cleaner and greater in quantity than fossil fuels and renewable sources like solar and wind energy.

Brent Wanner, an analyst for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a statement, “Nuclear power remains the world’s second largest source of low carbon electricity. Without nuclear power’s contribution, the clean energy transition will be difficult and expensive.”

Henri Paillere, head of IAEA’s planning and economic studies section, added, “Comprehensive decarbonisation by 2050 is a [major] undertaking that will require the full range of low carbon energy sources.”

However, solar and wind power – especially the former – have become considerably cheaper in the last decade.

Mycle Schneider, editor of the world nuclear industry status report, told news publication Deutsche Welle that renewables today have become so cheap that in many cases they are below the basic operating costs of nuclear power plants.

“It would be affordable to pay 1-1.5 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity storage in addition to the generation costs for wind and solar power and still be below the operating costs of nuclear power plants,” he added.

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