Skip to main content

Applied sciences and engineering/Engineering/Nuclear engineering/Nuclear power plants

Renewable-energy technology is advancing, but improvements in efficiency are a major factor in curbing society’s growing appetite for energy, experts told a AAAS audience.

The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear electricity generating facility, touched off when a tsunami hit northern Japan, has achieved the “key milestone” of cold shutdown where the temperature within the damaged reactors is below the boiling point of water, said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Using a cellular telephone while driving or walking clearly causes accidents, yet some people may be more worried about getting brain cancer from cell phones—a concern that has been largely dispelled by public health authorities.

Despite a general consensus that highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel should be stored in underground repositories, finding appropriate sites for such repositories has been so politically fraught that none exist worldwide, panelists at a AAAS-organized Capitol Hill briefing explained.

With about 240,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage at the end of 2009 and approximately 10,500 tons of spent fuel generated annually, the need for a long-term solution for spent fuel storage is growing quickly.

No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since the 1970s, and yet, in that span of time, reactor technology has made considerable strides. For nuclear engineer Eric Loewen, the progress is embodied in a reactor design called PRISM, short for Power Reactor Innovative Small Module. The reactor would be compact and easy to mass-produce, and where the problem of radioactive waste has long weighed against new reactor construction, PRISM would actually run on nuclear waste.

Computer models can be useful risk-assessment tools in the arena of nuclear proliferation, though even the most advanced cannot “predict” whether a given candidate country will try to develop nuclear weapons or not, nuclear engineer Man-Sung Yim told a Capitol Hill luncheon gathering organized by AAAS.

As images documenting the devastation caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill appear around the globe, an energy expert speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by AAAS said modest investments could soon make nuclear power a more affordable and reliable piece of the nation’s energy portfolio.