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Atomic Quixote

I keep reading about proposals for small nuclear reactors.  Toshiba is offering a design that produces a few megawatts and won’t need refueling for something like 30 to 40 years.  The concept is to provide power for a neighborhood rather than a few counties.

The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, or “INPO,” has published a series of principles that nuclear generating companies embrace as a sort of creed.  One of these principles says, “Nuclear technology is recognized as special and unique.”  The uniqueness of nuclear power drives the way the industry approaches managing the reactor core, key safety features and designed safety margins, equipment maintenance, probability based risk assessments, the requirement for rigorous control of activities through the use of written procedures, and each employee’s mastery of the fundamentals of his job.

A dime-store approach to nuclear power will diminish these safeguards.  Nuclear energy as deployed by commercial nuclear utilities in the United States has proven safe and reliable.  Even the meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant did not endanger the health and safety of the public.  Proliferation of lots of small reactors could change that by decreasing the total business investment in nuclear safety. 

I’m all for nuclear power.  It’s safe, reliable, produces no pollution, and it’s the lowest cost electricity you can buy.  But that all depends on the industry being able to maintain a prudent and well-invested position on nuclear power’s unique safety aspects.

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