New approach, old debates
So far, there is no sign that the government's nuclear gatekeeper, NRC, is wowed by the small-reactor designs.
NRC's Office of New Reactors warned Babcock & Wilcox in June that the agency "will need to limit interactions with the designers of small power reactors to occasional meetings or other nonresource-intensive activities" over the next two years because of a crowded schedule of work on other proposals.
Meanwhile, opponents of nuclear technologies are not convinced that small reactors are an improvement over traditional designs.
Arjun Makhijani, who heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think tank that advocates against nuclear power, sees disseminating the technology as incompatible with controlling it.
"A lot of the proliferation issue is not linked to having or not having plutonium or highly enriched uranium, but who has the expertise to have or make bombs," Makhijani said. "In order to spread nuclear technologies, you have to have the people who have the expertise in nuclear engineering, who know about nuclear materials and chain reactions and things like that -- the same expertise for nuclear bombs. That doesn't suffice for you to make a bomb, but then if you clandestinely acquire the materials, then you can make a bomb."
Peter Wilk, acting program director for safe energy with Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear group, argues that expanding nuclear power use runs counter to the goal of nonproliferation. "The whole proposition presupposes an ... international economy in which more and more fuel is produced and more and more waste must be dealt with, which only makes those problems that are still unsolved larger," he said.
"It may or may not do a better job of preventing the host country from literally getting their hands on it, but it doesn't reduce the amount of fuel in the world or the amount of waste in the world," Wilk added.
And then there is the issue of public opinion.
"Imagine that Americans would agree to take the waste that is generated in other countries and deal with it here," Makhijani said. "At the present moment, it should be confined to the level of the fantastic, or even the surreal. If [the technology's backers] could come up with a plan for the waste, then we could talk about export."
Makhijani pointed to a widely touted French process for recycling nuclear waste as a red herring (ClimateWire, May 18). "It's a mythology that it ameliorates the waste problem," he said.
According to Makhijani's calculations, the French recycling process generates far more radioactive waste than it cleans up. One category of highly radioactive material, which ends up stored in glass "logs" for burial, is reduced, he said. But in processing the waste, about six times the original volume of waste is produced, he said. Much of that must be buried deep underground, and the discharge of contaminated wastewater used in recycling has angered neighboring countries, he said.
Operational risk, of course, is another major concern.
"One has reduced the amount of unnecessary risk," Wilke said, "but it's still unnecessary risk."
He added, "I get the theory that smaller, newer, ought to be safer. The question is: Why pursue this when there are so many better alternatives?"
To Sandia's Sanders, Wilke is asking the wrong question.