[ RadSafe ] BOOK REVIEWED: - Nuclear Renaissance: Technologies and Policies for the Future of Nuclear Power

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Fri Jul 29 13:33:48 CDT 2005

>From Nature 436, 461-462 (28 July 2005).
No, I have not read the book myself.
Power and the people
Michael Golay(1)

Abstract: A wide-ranging look at the future of the
nuclear power industry.

 - Nuclear Renaissance: Technologies and Policies for
the Future of Nuclear Power
by William Nuttall

Institute of Physics Publishing: 2004. 334 pp. £45,

Nuclear Renaissance provides a welcome addition to the
literature on nuclear power. It is an unusual book,
covering the history of nuclear power but also
reflecting on recent policy and technological
developments — all presented in the clear voice of the
author, William Nuttall. The book covers the broad
scope of factors important for the future of nuclear
power, while avoiding the pitfalls of either
cheerleading or simplistic criticism, both of which
have characterized much of the nuclear-power
literature during recent decades.

Nuttall provides an accurate and concise survey of the
important aspects of light- and heavy-water reactors,
gas-cooled reactors and liquid metal-cooled reactors.
Some of the other technologies he describes, such as
actinide transmutation-focused accelerators and
reactors, and the DUPIC concept — using spent fuel
from light-water reactors in heavy-water reactors —
are less likely to play a future role, but are
nonetheless interesting. He correctly observes that
reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel is unlikely to
be economically justified or technologically important
for several decades, as are reactor designs that
depend on this practice.

Whereas most discussions of nuclear power focus on the
hardware — as if it were used in a socioeconomic
vacuum — Nuclear Renaissance covers the full scope of
the nuclear-power scene, from the hardware to national
energy policies, schemes for economic deregulation and
competition from non-nuclear technologies, and the
social factors affecting the acceptability and
economics of this energy source.

Chapter 1 alone, which surveys the more important
social and policy factors affecting nuclear power in
the United States and Britain, is worth the price of
the book. It also recognizes that the acceptance of
nuclear power has been affected by non-technological
factors, such as the cold war, and the failures and
frustrations of the Vietnam war — opposition to
nuclear power was an effective vehicle for opposition
to the establishment that imposed the war on them.
Accidents at nuclear power plants, which have tended
to be viewed differently in sociopolitical terms over
the years, are another factor. There is also a good
discussion of the trends and causes of changes in UK
nuclear policy.

Crucially, Nuclear Renaissance recognizes the
importance of the role of public trust in providing
conditions favourable to the success of nuclear power.
Compared with most European states, this factor is in
short supply in Britain and the United States, and
this partly explains why the nuclear power industry is
more successful in France and Finland.

However, despite the book's many merits, I have a few
quibbles. The unforgiving nature of nuclear power when
mistakes occur is not noted in the book, yet this is
the primary reason that the technology is so difficult
to use successfully. The socially and financially
punishing nature of such accidents is also relevant
here. These factors create high barriers to the entry
of new concepts in nuclear technology, especially in
the absence of abundant financial resources for coping
with mistakes. Safety regulatory agencies effectively
'lock in' the technologies that are already licensed,
to the exclusion of new entrants. This factor is
especially acute in the United States, where efforts
to remedy this effective bias are proceeding too
slowly to allow the adoption of new technologies.

Nuclear Renaissance provides enthusiastic support for
the US Department of Energy's Generation IV programme,
which aims to foster technologies for improving the
sustainability, safety and economic viability of the
next generation of nuclear power plants. However,
Nuttall seems too ready to accept the claims and hopes
of the initiative's proponents. He is also too kind to
the developers of gas-cooled reactors in Britain,
France, the United States and Germany, claiming that
the failures of these reactors were due to their being
ahead of the times, rather than faulty engineering and

The book's greatest omission is that it gives no
attention to the goal of 'user friendliness' in
nuclear technology — in other words, achieving ease of
operation, low maintenance burdens and low corrosion
rates. Yet these are some of the greatest problems of
the current generation of reactors.

The existence of the Institute of Nuclear Power
Operations (INPO) in the United States, and the World
Association of Nuclear Operators, which were created
following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl
accidents respectively, are not acknowledged, much
less discussed. This is despite the consensus that the
INPO has been largely responsible for improvements in
the performance of the nuclear power industry in the
United States over the past 25 years.

The need for nuclear technologies capable of
mitigating global warming — for example, with greater
power capacity and fuel breeding — is also not
recognized as an essential goal.

Technological subtleties such as uncertainties over
future economic performance, the trade-offs between
passive and active safety features and the role of
human error are at the heart of debates over the best
paths for technological development, but Nuclear
Renaissance does not examine these issues in any

It does discuss economic deregulation, but fails to
explore the role of Britain's more compact
transmission and distribution structure in the greater
success of deregulation compared with the United
States. Despite this advantage, nuclear power has been
less successful in the United Kingdom than other forms
of power generation. BNFL, Britain's nationalized
nuclear-power company, currently survives on subsidies
from the government. This example raises the question
of whether nuclear power plants, with their need for
cash even when not operating, are suitable for use in
economically deregulated markets.

At the same time, Nuclear Renaissance is far too kind
to the opponents of nuclear power, claiming that they
have supported the interim storage of nuclear waste at
monitored surface sites where terrestrial disposal —
as at Yucca Mountain in the United States — is
unavailable. This may be true in Britain, but in the
United States, anti-nuclear pressure groups have
insisted on perfect and immediate solutions to the
problem of nuclear-waste disposal. The US nuclear
industry has foolishly accepted this impossible

Finally, Nuttall asserts that greater public knowledge
about nuclear power and debate of the issues will help
to win acceptance, but I'm not convinced. He does not
recognize the alternative hypothesis that the public's
approval of nuclear power may depend more on the
industry being the three Bs — beneficial, boring and
banal — than on intellectual appeals. This hypothesis
seems to explain how the public has come to accept
other hazardous and previously feared technologies,
such as lifts, steam engines and electricity. These
opposing hypotheses for public acceptance are worth
exploring: knowing which is closer to the truth may be
at least as important as developing better hardware.

The book is essential reading for anyone who is
interested in the relationship between energy, society
and the environment. The author's observations are
thought-provoking, and his knowledge of the current
energy scene, particularly in Britain, is deep and
subtle. So, despite the few warts noted here, this
book is a valuable contribution to the debate about
nuclear power. You should read it.

(1)Michael Golay is professor of nuclear engineering
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139-4307, USA.

"Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a new idea and never shrinks back to its original proportion." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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