Under Construction: Thoughts on New Nuclear Plant Design and Construction, Part I

It takes heavy equipment to build something as large, vast, and complex as a new nuclear power station. Drawing by the author, in ink and markers.

Given that I am a journalist with a background in architecture, and given my work on nuclear power, one of the most-fascinating things for me is learning how new nuclear plants are designed and built. This focus is also crucial to understanding nuclear power in the United States because for a very long period of time, from the late 1970s to the middle of the 2000s, new nuclear power plants simply were not being built. Plans were shelved, NRC applications were left in file cabinets and not sent into One White Flint North. In some instances, blueprints were quite literally frozen in time, with some reactor and containment structure designs being hand-draught on paper or mylar in the early 1980s and never converted to a CADD file. Giant Mayline drafting tables saw scores of plans created on their sleek surfaces only to be stored away in some obscure basement as the regulatory—and more importantly—popular climate of opinion shifted from optimism over nuclear towards fear and the unfounded yet common belief that "nuclear isn't safe".

This caused several things to happen, as plants were not being built—not only that, plants were not being designed by and large nor were the specific technologies needed for such plants. Nothing was advancing for many years of the 1980s and 1990s at the same pace nuclear power technologies that were plant-centric advanced over the 1950s to the 1970s. If you lack a market for a very specific technology, chances are that technology will not be developed. You don't see new progress being made in Parrott or James cannons like those used in the Civil War today because those technologies have been superseded. There is no demand for a better rifled cannon today akin to the ones we saw in the 1860s, nor is such a demand likely. However, in nuclear power, there was actually an ongoing need for better technologies, yet that need could not be made as a convincing case per fiscal terms when no new plants were being constructed. Thankfully, core reactor research moved ahead anyways, resulting in small modular reactor technologies and other advances, yet supportive containment and plant design technology and theory didn't move as fast because these are clearly market-driven fields and the market for about two full decades dried up—at least in the United States. 

As a student studying architecture and architectural history this was one of the key reasons I became keenly interested in nuclear industry policy and praxis: I realized that here you have the most-complex, most highly regulated, of all structures ever built and none were being built anew. None in my adult lifetime in the US were being built and few had seen serious renovations. More had been closed down, placed in safe storage with the operating licenses converted to possession licenses than those plants which were being added to or updated in meaningful ways. Zion Nuclear Power Station outside of Chicago is a perfect example of a plant that could have been brought forward to current standards but instead was shut down altogether. As expensive as building a new plant is, shutting one down isn't a cheap undertaking, either. Nor can it be done quickly, nor . . . perhaps this is most jaw-droppingly essential of all, can it easily be reversed. If you have a plant, and remove it from operation, and you change your NRC license status with a view towards shuttering that plant forever and the eventual removal of its fuel materials, you've pretty much just carved its name on a tombstone. The process, from an architectural viewpoint, doesn't quite make sense. Build something that may be shuttered in twenty years with no real useful future application beyond that short tenure for what may be a multi-billion-dollar investment. It's a horrible ROI and the fact it can even happen is, and I say this with obvious irony, the best case against nuclear power I've ever heard. That's right, the best reason I can actually, honestly, think of to not turn towards nuclear is that some people—most of whom are well-intentioned—may make some very bad choices with a plant and shut it down, turning a massive investment into a massive tax write-off at best. It's a snake's head biting the snake's head on the other side, a terrible circle: because the public didn't trust nuclear, there was a cry to shut down plants and not to plan—much less build—future plants. Then, when that outcry was taken seriously, plants were shut down and power companies looked like fools for throwing money into those same plants in the first place.

Why am I bringing all this bad news up in light of construction of plants? Because, in my mind, from the journalist's viewpoint and the architect's, I believe it's the odd reason many anti-nukes now see nuclear as an "overly-expensive" energy solution. Yes, if you build a safe, modern, top-notch, plant then only operate it for twenty years or so then shut it down, it factors out as a bad investment, a bad dollar per kilowatt-hour return. Zion operated from 1973 to 1997. That's not long enough, I mean, you have B-52s that have operated for the Air Force for over three times that time span probably. You have commercial jets in major airline service longer than that. And these are things, my friends, these planes though expensive, are things far less costly than Zion was to build and maintain. Nuclear has a big problem with this: Yucca Mountain is another fine example—you design the super-safe, super-researched, state-of-the-art solution everyone demands and throw millions if not billions into the project then the same opposition that called for its exacting, overly-secure, well-researched, design is now crying over how expensive it has become. So expensive, it cannot be completed. We see that with the MOX facility at the Savannah River Plant also. But we see it most commonly and openly with commercial nuclear power plants over the dry period of the preceding few decades. If you're an architecture student and aspire to design nuclear plants, you're told "don't bother, no one is building any". If you're responsible for the engineering of supportive systems, you have little domestic incentive to proceed with advances. A nation that once wowed the world with its depth and scope of nuclear technologies became the outsider of the progressive nuclear community. And that comes to another of my areas of focus in journalism: the former Soviet Union. Russia has moved forward apace with nuclear technologies and the marketing of the same to other nations for power station design and construction, in good part because the market is there. The best national security approach the US could have taken from circa 1991 onwards with Russia and nuclear power would have been allowing Russia to develop their technologies for domestic applications—helping and encouraging them, even—but to cloister the Russians as much as possible from export markets. Why? Because the Russians may, as they become more desperate for cold hard cash (especially now with their current recession), become willing to sell to . . . well, anyone. How would we wall them off? Simple. By offering a superior product at lower cost to the states that would otherwise be clients to what Rosatom can sell. All we had to do was abide by the basic concepts of the free market and the basal competencies of our engineering community in nuclear and we'd have nipped the Russian reactor export business in the proverbial bud. And yet, we didn't do that. 

With the research/production reactor at CintaChem in upstate New York, we saw a prime example of more money going into a reactor facility than ever was fully seen in return on the investment because the reactor's secondary containment suffered a failure deemed too expensive to repair—so the whole facility was eventually razed. Did CintaChem and its legacy corporate owners get money out of that facility in terms of what the research done there yielded? Yes, but not in full, not as far as it could have gone. There is, sadly, on a regulatory level, more incentive to shutter a plant with problems seemingly greater than a blown light bulb or squeaky door hinge than to remedy them in a fashion towards keeping the plant—or even research reactor—operational. CintaChem will come up again and again in my blog posts, by the way, because it's a fascinating example of a dream that never quite got as far into the future as it could have, and I find that a real shame. Plus, there is the question of the unrealized CintaChem experiments and what happened to them, where they are today. Back to power plants, Crystal River Number 3 suffered a very similar fate and similar ignoble outcome as CintaChem, just at a much grander—and more expensive—level. Crack in the containment, end of operational life of the plant. How do these things happen? How are new plants—now that we're finally building some again—plan to prevent the same issues in the future?

In forthcoming blog posts I'm going to focus on the process of plant design and construction—from the architecture to NRC politics to novel technologies on the frontier. Construction is a fascinating field, and there's a wealth to cover. 

  • Anonymous

    You have a very interesting point of view and the ability to express it. I wanted the article to continue. Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks, I appreciate that comment. There will be further articles on this theme, which is why this is "part I". I didn't want to write too much at once give that this is a blog and it's been my experience many readers expect blog posts to be fairly short, but there will be much more on the topic at hand.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, the politics and anti-nuke tactics seem to rule, so there is neither a real (long-term) commitment to nuclear power, nor the will to terminate frivolous injunctions and lawsuits that drive up nuclear plant construction costs. In addition, perceived radiation risk bears no resemblance to other technological risks because of greatly exaggerated radiation health consequences. Predictions of great numbers of radiation deaths from a nuclear plant accident receive widespread publicity, while the real health consequences are never reported. An uneducated public will always believe the worst and these are the people politicians depend upon for votes.

  • I believe the political climate can change. If you read some of my other blog entries here, you'll see I've talked about that some before. The climate towards nuclear in the 1950s, in example, was very positive. The irony is, our technology is so much safer now than then, so by all logic the climate on a socio-political level ought to be more—not less—in favor of nuclear. Some politicians have stood up for nuclear, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley being a good example. She's fought for the MOX plant at the SRS that her state needs for jobs and influx of funding and she knows and understands that this is a viable Federal project that should not, after all that's been spent on it already, now be abandoned.

    One thing we really need is elected officials who are unafraid to reform the NRC as to promote a system there that ensures safety yet furthers the industry as well. Anti-nukes long have targeted the NRC as an agency that is victim of regulatory capture, yet this is far from the truth. Allison Macfarlane, in example, came from a background as a geologist and professor who only had one real involvement in nuclear policy prior to being appointed to chair the NRC: she was opposed to Yucca Mountain on grounds that she claimed via her expertise in geology there were serious risks to the site. I am not qualified to say whether her concerns were valid or not, but I've found it alarming that someone with such narrow and specific expertise in nuclear would be chosen to lead the NRC. I feel she's probably a very good scientist and educator, and maybe she'd make a great university president but as a leader in nuclear? She was selected mainly to say we appointed a woman to the post and to say we appointed someone who is an opposing voice in nuclear. Certainly, with that sort of leadership, the NRC is not a victim of regulatory capture. I am, by the way, all for seeing more women in technological leadership roles. Someone like Janet Fender, the longtime USAF physicist and program director could have been a great choice for the NRC chair. I am sure there are other women in nuclear or associated fields who could have done it. The political goal with the NRC should be a functional NRC, not one lined with token people who represent the fear some people have of nuclear.

    In addition, to address the concerns with regulatory capture, I can say as a journalist covering nuclear I am only impressed with the comprehensiveness of the NRC's data on all US reactors and how easily I can access that data when needed for research. I am also . . . perhaps "impressed" is not the best of terms, but very . . . astounded at the depth of NRC regulations for the administrative structure of reactor stewardship. Aerotest Operations, which runs a small test reactor in California, has run into a serious issue when they were sold to a Swedish company because the Swedish corporation doesn't have enough American ownership to meet the fiscal guidelines for domestic ownership of a reactor. Ok, so can they sell their reactor now to some true-blue American company? Well, only if such a company steps up, wants to buy it, and has the reserve funding in the bank to demonstrate it's a secure corporation. That's not money to make the purchase mind you, but money to show it is a solvent company. This is all per NRC regulations. To own a reactor in America, even a little bitty one, you must be mostly American (in corporate ownership) and quite wealthy. And that's just the fiscal side of the regulatory process.

    So when greens or liberals say the NRC favors industry, I'm just not sure where they're getting that at all. I do not know of another single regulatory agency world-wide that is as exacting. And aside from nuclear, I cover aviation and can tell you the FAA nor any European aviation authority is as difficult as the NRC nor is any Euro nuclear authority. The oversight simply exceeds what even the serious safety and technological aspects demand.