Monday, February 02, 2009

The Nuclear Option

Is Nuclear Power Worth It? Link goes to a Scientific American article. It's definitely worth the read. Definitely some pro's and con's to this energy source.

A pro, as odd it may seem by reading this quote:
And nuclear power plants have been operating in the U.S. for 50 years without exposing workers or residents in surrounding areas to excessive radiation. "Radiation is mundane, it's a weak carcinogen," says Rod Reed, a senior health physicist at the NRC. "It leads to very mundane changes, not three-eyed fish."

In fact, a typical coal-fired power plant exposes local residents to as many as 18 millirems of radiation yearly, whereas a nuclear power plant emits less than six millirems per annum, according to researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Reed adds: "Radiation should be respected, not feared."
And a con?
At issue in the failure at Davis–Besse is the alloy metal used to craft the nozzles—known as Inconel 600 or Alloy 600. The alloy of nickel, chromium and iron is resistant to corrosion generally—but slowly cracks when exposed to boric acid and stress.

But it isn't just reactor heads that are made from the stuff. The steam generators that transfer the heat from the solution of water and boron, which comes into contact with the nuclear reactor, to the water heated into steam that turns the turbines to produce electricity also employ the alloy. "The tubes in the steam generators were susceptible to cracking," says Ken Karwoski, senior level advisor for steam generators and material inspection at the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. "It's a combination of the temperature and the water chemistry."
So is this an issue dealing with all nuclear power plants? Fortunately no.
As early as the late 1950s there was some suggestion that this metal would crack under pressure but "the decision was made to go with this material," Karwoski says. "The perspective was that it should last but it didn't." And, as of today, there are still 15 nuclear power plants, including Davis–Besse, employing their old steam generators made from the alloy.

The U.S. fleet of 104 nuclear reactors—most built in the 1960s and 1970s—produced 806.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2007, a record, and ran almost 92 percent of the time.
Speaking of issues with nuclear energy infrastructure, here is another article from Sci Am about nuclear mishaps.
In all, there were 10 incidents at U.S. nuclear plants last year [2006] that merited ratings of 2—"significant spread of contamination / overexposure of a worker" and "incidents with significant failures in safety provisions," as the INES handbook puts it—or above, Jones says. "Two reactor events and eight nonreactor events."
Overall, I'm still of the opinion that nuclear energy is a reasonable source of energy for the United States.

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