America No Longer Leads in Nuclear Technology

America No Longer Leads in Nuclear Technology

By William Tucker - May 22, 2013

In a recent announcement, Westinghouse Nuclear and the China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. declared a joint venture to develop small modular reactors -- submarine-size nuclear boilers that many people believe are the future of nuclear technology.

It is not the first time Westinghouse and China have agreed to work together. The Chinese are putting the finishing touches on the world’s first Westinghouse AP1000, a “passive” design that incorporates many of the safety lessons learned at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The first unit is just coming on line at Sanmen with another scheduled later this year and two more headed for completion in Haiyang by 2014. After five years working on these projects together, the two partners are preparing to market China’s own version of the AP1000 to the rest of the world.

Westinghouse, of course, is a familiar name to Americans. Started in the 19th century by Thomas Edison’s rival George Westinghouse, the company prospered when it hired Serbian genius Nikola Tesla and bested Edison in the “War of the Currents” (waged over whether alternating current or direct current was better for long-distance transmission). During the 1960s and 1970s, Westinghouse pioneered the “pressurized water reactor,” a design that is now accepted as the superior way to generate nuclear electricity. In 1999, however, with American nuclear construction at a standstill, Westinghouse sold its nuclear division to British Nuclear Fuels, which in turn passed it on to Toshiba in 2005. Since then, Westinghouse has emerged once again as one of the world’s leading nuclear developers -- despite the Japanese backing away from nuclear technology after Fukushima.

Other American technology is also passing into foreign hands. In 2006, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates became concerned about America’s energy future and delegated his technical genius, Nathan Myhrvold, to head Intellectual Ventures, a start-up that would try to develop new means of producing power. After studying the field, Myhrvold decided on the traveling wave reactor, a futuristic design in which the nuclear fuel burns down like a long cigar for 50 years, consuming its own waste in the process and requiring no refueling. After standing for more than a year in the lobby of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the 22-story headquarters of the American nuclear industry in Rockville, Md., Gates and Myhrvold realized that the chances of developing a new nuclear technology in the United States are virtually nil. So they took their design to China. In 2012 Gates signed an agreement to develop the traveling wave with the China National Nuclear Corp.

The message is clear. The torch of nuclear technology in passing to the rest of the world. The U.S. may still hold on to some vestiges of leadership -- enough, for example, to try to tell the Koreans what they can and can’t do with their spent fuel. But the cutting edge has moved abroad, to France, Japan, China, Russia and Korea. There are 60 reactors under construction in the world, only four of them in the United States. Those four -- two at the Vogtle site in Georgia, two at the Virgil C. Summer nuclear generating station in South Carolina -- are all AP1000s, the same model China is now completing. By the time the first Vogtle plant opens in 2017 -- if that happens on schedule -- China will have eight and will be selling its own revised design to the world.

There’s an explanation for this. Nothing in nuclear technology can happen without first getting permission from the government. Unlike fracking on private land or freeing tight oil or putting up solar projects, everything must first be cleared by the NRC. If a 40-year-old reactor in Minnesota wants to switch to a different set of wrenches, it must check first. When employees at the Cooper Nuclear Station in Omaha, Neb., asked permission to ride bicycles in order to avoid long walks between buildings, the NRC reviewed the matter for eight months before ruling that bicycles would be too dangerous -- but they could ride tricycles.

Design approval for the AP1000 was delayed for four years. First, the NRC decided Westinghouse should add an elevated metal shield to protect the reactor from airplane attacks. Then after Westinghouse had redesigned the reactor, the NRC decided it wasn’t such a good idea because the shield might fall on the reactor in an earthquake.

Decision-making at the NRC takes place at an intergenerational pace. One of the biggest complaints from the nuclear industry is that NRC staff members often retire before they have finished reviewing their projects. That leaves the applicant with the task of bringing the next generation of bureaucrats up to speed on the proposal. Yet the impression still prevails among American politicians and diplomats that the world dances to our tune and if progress in the technology takes place, America will set the pace.

In 2010, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal expressing hope that the development of small modular reactors would offer the U.S. the opportunity to jump back into the lead in nuclear technology:

America is on the cusp of reviving its nuclear power industry. . . . As this paper recently reported, one of the most promising areas is small modular reactors (SMRs). If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge.

Only three years later, that optimism seems quaint. After completely ignoring SMRs for half a decade, NRC officials finally agreed to sit down with the handful of companies -- NuScale, Hyperion, GE, B&W, Westinghouse -- that had entered the field since 2000. America, after all, has been equipping submarines and aircraft carriers with “small modular reactors” for more than 50 years. In many cases, it was simply a matter of transferring the technology from the military, as has occurred with the Internet and other technological developments. But even at this modest pace, America will simply not be able to keep up with foreign competitors. The schedule for SMR development now has the first experimental reactors being constructed sometime around 2022. By that time the Chinese are likely to be selling them in WalMart.

Nor is there any indication that we will be ceding the field gracefully. Look at what is happening with Korea. In 1974, South Korea was still a military dictatorship under Gen. Park Chung-hee. The country was short of energy, however, and needed bolstering against its northern neighbor, so we negotiated a treaty by which we would supply them with uranium and they could use our technology. But it would be kept under tight control to make sure no one used it to develop a bomb.

From 1979 until 2000, the Koreans built 18 reactors based on American and Canadian designs. In the meantime they had overthrown military rule and become a thriving democracy. Then, in the 1990s, they took some old blueprints from combustion engineering and created their own designs. In 2005 they came up with the APR1400, a 1,400-megawatt reactor that is one of the most advanced in the world. Construction on two is now being completed, with the first scheduled to open this year.

Then, Kepco, the Korean state power company, surprised everyone in 2009 by going up against the two international giants, Westinghouse and France’s Areva, in the bidding to build four reactors for the United Arab Emirates. To everyone astonishment, the Koreans won the $20 billion contract, then the largest international contract ever awarded. They marked the occasion by celebrating National Nuclear Energy Day, on which schoolchildren were introduced to the wonders of nuclear power.

So, all is going well, right? Well, no. The problem is that when it comes to renegotiating a nuclear treaty, we’re still acting as if it is 1974. A nation that hasn’t built a reactor in 20 years is trying to tell what may be the world’s leading developer of nuclear reactors that: 1) they can’t enrich their own uranium and 2) they can’t reprocess their own spent fuel.

The United States is now the only major nuclear country that does not have some form of reprocessing. France has perfected the technology, storing its “nuclear waste” from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity with nuclear in one room at La Hague. Meanwhile, we’re still fooling around with Yucca Mountain. Korea doesn’t have vast wastes of desert in which to hide unreprocessed fuel -- which has 20 times less volume after reprocessing. Its on-site storage facilities will be full by 2016. Yet we’re still pretending it’s the days of Jimmy Carter and we’re saving the world from nuclear proliferation by preventing other countries from stealing plutonium from reprocessing plants. (As North Korea has proven, if you want plutonium, you can manufacture it yourself.)

So the U.S. is not well prepared to acknowledge that the world is moving along without us. Don’t be surprised if South Korea decides to dump the U.S. altogether and get its uranium from Australia or Russia or Kazakhstan instead. And don’t be surprised if we wake up one day soon to discover that what we once thought of as “our technology” has passed completely into the hands of other nations. 

William Tucker is the author of “Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution” and “End America's Energy Odyssey” and news editor for RealClearEnergy.

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