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A Better Nuclear Power Plant?

Nuclear power is a hot topic these days, following the explosions at Fukushima, Japan last year, and problems at San Onofre that have shut down the plant. KPBS reporter Alison St John visited General Atomics on Sorrento Mesa, where researchers are looking for better ways to generate nuclear power. (Video by Katie Euphrat)

The San Onofre nuclear power station, located 50 miles north of San Diego was built in the 1980s, based on technology developed in the ‘60s. Its license runs out in 2022 and the operator, Southern California Edison, has not yet said if it will apply for an extension. Problems with the plant's new steam generators threaten to cost the company, and the ratepayer, dearly.

Nuclear power is a hot topic these days, following the explosions at Fukushima, Japan last year, and problems at San Onofre that have shut down the plant. General Atomics in Sorrento Mesa is looking for better ways to generate nuclear power.

At the sprawling General Atomics campus near Torrey Pines, Senior Vice President Dr John Parmentola said there are better ways to harness nuclear power.

“Several years ago,“ he said, “we set out to take a fresh look at nuclear, and asked ourselves, 'could we design a reactor that would be more economic?'”

Parmentola said the company is working on a new paradigm that would drive down the cost of nuclear power by 30 percent, and solve some of the safety issues that plague nuclear power today.

One of those safety issues is the amount of spent nuclear fuel stored on site. There are spent fuel rods stored in cooling pools at San Onofre, which are transferred to dry casks for long-term storage.

“The startling thing,” Parmentola said, “is the amount of energy that still exists in the waste at nuclear reactor sites around the country, as well as waste in the states of Kentucky and Ohio left over from enrichment. If you add up all that stuff, it’s 40 times the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. It’s equivalent to 9 trillion barrels of oil in energy. It begs the question: ‘Can’t you do something with it ?’“

Many people have looked at this question. General Atomic’s answer is EM2. It’s a compact module containing a reactor that would run on spent fuel.

The lab where EM2 is being developed is in a low, unassuming building. Inside, there are furnaces and cylinders, computer screens, wires and more wires.

Christian Deck is part of the team working on the project. He’s developing a new kind of material to insulate the fuel rods. He proudly shows us the furnace where the ceramic composite is formed.

The ceramic “cladding,” or insulation, is particularly important, he explained, because this reactor is not refueled every 18 months like in current nuclear power plants. The fuel would stay in the reactor, burning, for 30 years.

“We need this material to safely contain the fuel throughout the entire life of the reactor,” Deck said, “under normal and under potential accident conditions.”

Parmentola believes this new insulation could have prevented the hydrogen explosion that happened at Fukushima when the fuel rods were exposed.

After several cycles of burning the nuclear fuel, Parmentola said the EM2 reactor could ultimately leave very little waste.

“The radioactivity of spent fuel can last hundreds of thousand of years,” he said. “The waste I’m talking about will last hundreds of years.”

One of the major objections to reactors that burn spent nuclear fuel has been the risk of proliferation. Parmentola said EM2 would generate material that could not be easily used by terrorists.

“These neutron absorbing products have no proliferation use whatsoever,“ he said. “Nobody would want to use them to make a bomb - you can’t make a bomb out of them.”

The EM2 modules -- including a reactor, a gas turbine and a heat removal unit -- are small. You would need about five of them to generate the same amount of energy produced by San Onofre. They are designed to fit on the bed of a flatbed truck to be shipped to wherever they are needed and buried underground.

Senior scientist, Robert Schleicher is the co-inventor of EM2. He admitted it could cost billions of dollars to build a prototype before bringing this new kind of nuclear fission reactor to the commercial market.

“EM2 is a very new idea,” he said, “and to take it from an idea to an actual working plant takes several thousand man years of work. This may take 20 years from where we are now to have an actually working plant.”

Murray Jennex, a systems engineer who used to work at San Onofre, took a look at General Atomic’s plans for EM2. Jennex is a believer in nuclear power, though after Fukushima he regularly took a Geiger counter to the beach in his home in Oceanside to check radiation levels.

“I didn’t find anything,” he said.

Jennex thinks the idea of putting used fuel in this new type of reactor is a good one.

“If it works, it will be an excellent way of helping us solve some of the spent fuel problems,” he said.

But he’s not convinced the new design is as safe as General Atomics claims.

“This reactor is still subject to meltdowns,” he said.

Plus he is worried about the digital controls General Atomics proposes to use on the new design.

“We haven’t used digital because we have had trouble proving that they won’t fail,” Jennex said.

Digital controls are also vulnerable to cyber attack, he added.

“Anything that solves an old risk with new technology is introducing inherently new risks that we haven’t really thought through yet,” he concluded.

When dealing with nuclear power, Jennex said the technology must be tried and true. The problems with the newly designed steam generators at San Onofre are proving that point.

The challenge for General Atomics is to keep generating enough money to build prototypes to prove that EM2 technology is tried and true, cost-effective and safe. That will be billions of dollars.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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