Modern nuclear technology for new plant
The hand wringing has started in earnest as the NRC has granted permission for Southern Co. to add two more units to its Vogtle nuclear plant site in Georgia. “Haven’t we learned anything from Fukushima?” the chorus asks.
The answer to that is yes, we have learned a great deal, not just from Fukushima (other than maybe we don’t want to locate plants right on the coast) but from all the nuke plants around the world. Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you want to buy a new car, but your friend says cars aren’t safe based on the fact that his aunt was killed in a crash in a 1967 Plymouth. What would you say in response to that? You could legitimately make the point that cars have changed a great deal since then. Accident information collected over the years has guided technical improvements, like airbags, that make today’s cars much safer.
Such is the case with nuclear reactors. The new units proposed for Georgia will use Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, which are billed as Generation III+ technology using many safety improvements compared to those designed and built 30 or 40 years ago. This reactor is also a modular design to cut construction costs. To make a specific and very relevant connection to Fukushima, once the tsunami hit and those plants went dark, there was no power available to run cooling pumps, which was a serious problem. The AP1000 has a passive cooling system that can operate via gravity and convection without needing power. Lesson learned.
Of course there are lots of those old nuke plants still running which need upgrades. Many have already been improved, but there is more to do.
Others detractors suggest that those new plants aren’t necessary, particularly with natural gas so cheap. Yes, it’s cheap today, but what happens if fracking is banned for various environmental reasons? That idea has been seriously suggested. Nuke plants look to the very long term, and they are 24/7 base loaded facilities. I don’t know enough about Southern Co’s generating fleet, but maybe these new reactors could create room to retire older coal burners.