Still building nuclear power plants?

Will experiences in Japan kill off new nuke plant construction?
March 25, 2011

Dear Control Engineering: When I see articles about new nuclear power plant construction, I have to wonder if the experiences in Japan won’t send that grinding to a halt.

It’s true that the problems at the Fukushima site have caused people all over the world to wring their hands over the scarier aspects of nuclear power plants. There will be additional discussions and inquiries related to any new construction or even operation of existing plants, but like many other issues, it will blow over eventually. We got over Chernobyl, and that was much worse.

The need is huge for power generating technologies that do not depend on fossil fuels with greenhouse gas implications, and nuclear plants are certainly one of the most practical options. Bear in mind that the sites in Japan are very old facilities and nuclear generating technology has been advancing all these years, even if we don’t see it in the U.S. That story about the new plants in China discusses a specific reactor and plant design, the Westinghouse AP1000. The company characterizes that as a generation III+ design with many improvements from the old Dai-ichi complex.

Westinghouse goes into greater detail at its Website, but the idea is that newer reactor designs use passive safety features that allow it to shut down safely even if everything goes dark. Check out a presentation on reactor safety. Westinghouse says that type of reactor can safely sit with no human intervention for 72 hours, even in an emergency. Moreover, the control architecture is far more modern, using digital controls rather than old analog devices.

The need for generating capacity is going to increase, particularly in developing markets. That’s why China and other growing economies are still committed to nuclear power. It is certainly possible that older plants may be phased out more quickly, but that just gives all the more reason to deploy newer reactors.

Peter Welander,