A Way Out of the Nuclear-Power Jitters? : Japan and U.S. should consider safer gas-cooled technology

Japan's nuclear power plants are starting to cause the same understandable misgivings among apprehensive neighbors that have choked off expansion of the industry in the United States. Despite Japan's urgent need for power, its industrial barons don't seem any more able to cure the nuclear jitters than America's nuclear industry has.

Amid growing concern over global warming, many industrial nations feel they are going to need more nuclear power, or something very much like it, to replace fossil fuels. Japan's energy crisis should be a chance for the next generation of nuclear reactors to show its stuff. But as we understand it, Japan's energy decision makers are of the same mind as American utility leaders. If they ever start buying new reactors again, they will stick with what they know.

They should put their heads together and think this through. The Japanese could give the Americans some pointers on how to go about picking winners among competing technologies. The Americans could offer a winner--a technology that is very much "new generation" and as close as this century's engineers are likely to get to foolproof.

In recent years, the Japanese reputation for building high-quality cars spilled quite comfortably into other products, even its nuclear power plants. They seemed to work just fine, too. In recent months, however, a string of reactor failures--one serious enough to put a plant out of commission for a projected three years--has started to drain Japanese public confidence in nuclear power. Americans probably still are generally more jittery about nuclear plants than Japanese, but for the Japanese even a small loss of trust in power plants could complicate the nation's overall energy planning. With no fossil fuels of its own, Japan depends on nuclear power far more than the United States to keep its factories going. By its own estimate it needs to build two plants a year for the next 20 years to avoid serious harm to its economy.

Americans get 20% of their electricity from nuclear power, but no utility is planning to build new plants. What discourages new starts here are high cost, lead times of 12 or more years for clearance and construction, and concerns arising from disasters such as Chernobyl and near-disasters such as Three Mile Island.

Finally, there is a lack of design standardization. France has built a network of reactors that are alike, so if a piece of equipment fails at one plant, that piece of equipment can be yanked and replaced before the breakdown spreads. No U.S. Administration has brought itself to pick the best equipment--and in turn make it standard as in France--from among the offerings of the four or five companies competing for nuclear reactor business.

What's the best option? Consider the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor--a 30-year-old concept. Demonstration plants operated in Pennsylvania and Colorado in the 1960s and 1970s, and the design has been refined since then at General Atomics in San Diego.

Because a power plant can be built in modules, gas-cooled reactor cores are smaller than the existing standard. Thus even if the helium gas that circulates over fuel rods to cool the nuclear pellets and create steam for generators was somehow cut off, heat would not build up as it has in existing reactors when a cooling-water pipe breaks. Heat would simply radiate into land around the plant rather than rising to the point where it would melt nuclear fuel rods.

Late this year, the federal Energy Department must choose a reactor to produce tritium for nuclear warheads at its Savannah River installation. The first generation of reactors has had its chance. It's time to try the gas-cooled technology.

The Energy Department should leap at a chance to give both Japan and the United States a way out of the nuclear jitters.

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