Yesterday, I participated in a workshop hosted by the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State. Leaders from across the nuclear enterprise talked about the future of nuclear power in the US. The US has about 25% of the current global fleet of reactors, but well below 10% of the new builds underway.
A number of barriers to nuclear power were discussed. Interestingly, safety is not one of them, in spite of public perceptions. The industry is its own worst enemy in that it lacks a public outreach ethos. The nuke culture tends to focus on doing work to demanding standards, not talking about it. This challenge has been compounded by increased security since 9/11. But, they are recognizing that in the absence of real data a lot of misinformation can emerge.
A lot of the discussion was on lessons learned from Fukushima. This was characterized as a “man-made disaster”, inasmuch as other reactors in the region survived the tsunami. Nevertheless, all US reactors have been reviewed in light of what went wrong at Fukushima and improvements have been made.
The single greatest barrier for nuclear power is the economics. It is just too expensive to build a nuclear reactor in an environment when natural gas is around $3/mcf. There are a lot of costs embedded in building nuclear reactors that add little value in terms of safe performance. Other industries have advanced their fabrication technologies to significantly reduce costs, but the nuclear industry has been relatively static in its procedures that are embedded in regulation. For example, modern welding techniques would enable reactor vessel heads and shells to be made just as safely by welding forged parts as you could do with massive forgings, thereby expanding the supply chain dramatically and reducing both cost and construction time.
To become more competitive, the nuclear industry needs to identify the low value / high cost activities that could be eliminated or reduced.