Nuclear. Can engineers keep this clean energy from being a dirty word?
Mark Atwater posted on August 21, 2013 | | 10181 views

Fukishima has had a recurring media presence since the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the nuclear power plant there on March 11th, 2011. The initial fallout was significant, but recent reports of contaminated water release reveal that environmental exposure is a continuing problem.

When things go wrong with nuclear power plants, there is a chance that they can go very wrong. This potential severity and the issue of what to do with the spent, radioactive fuel cause concerns among many about the safety of the technology.

As reported in TIME, young engineers see the potential for nuclear energy. For instance, Leslie Dewan, a recent MIT graduate in nuclear engineering, sees the greener side of the technology. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.”

The choice to use nuclear energy is a global debate. Around the world new nuclear power plants are being built while others are being decommissioned. Old nuclear plants have to be constantly updated to maintain safety. Many are being operated at outputs they were not originally commissioned for.

The US stopped building nuclear plants back in the 1970s and has only recently began to reconsider. In many cases, the old equipment in current plants is nearing the end of its life-cycle. Due to broader concerns about nuclear energy, the path forward must be carefully chosen.

New designs aim to increase efficiency and safety while simultaneously reducing cost. A new reactor in the state of Georgia, started in 2009, will use a new generation of reactor technology. This includes passive shutdown where the plant is designed to automatically shut down in the case of an emergency, with no need for human intervention or outside power for up to 72 hours.

Cost is reduced by using off-site, prefabrication and reducing redundant controls. Another idea for reducing the multi-billion dollar, upfront investment in nuclear plants is to reduce the reactor size. These small, modular reactors (SMRs) are a third the size of traditional reactors. By housing less nuclear fuel, in the the event of a meltdown, radioactive contamination would be significantly reduced.

That still leaves the possibility of radioactive contamination, and for some, any chance is too much. Methods to increase safety, reduce waste and provide clean, reliable, cheap energy are going to require continued innovation on the part of engineers. Convincing society that nuclear energy is both effective and safe may be much more difficult. The fundamental question is, "Can engineering overcome the risk?"


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