Is Fukushima a teachable moment for nuclear educators?

By Rod Adams

There are many facets of my chosen avocation as a pro-nuclear blogger and podcaster, but one aspect that has been prominent during the 25 days since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear nightmare at Fukushima has been that of atomic educator. Following the role model of my favorite teachers, I have worked hard to maintain a two-way flow of information—successful educators have to be open-minded learners. There is no doubt that I know a lot more about the design and operation of boiling water reactors with MK I containment vessels now than I knew four weeks ago.

Arial view of units 1-4 Fukushima Dai-ichi March 30, 2011Some nuclear energy advocates might cringe at my use of of the alliterative phrase of “nuclear nightmare at Fukushima,” but I hope they will think hard about all of the implications of that choice of words.

It is hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario than having a multi-unit nuclear power plant installation hit with a massive earthquake, a subsiding coast line, and a massive tidal wave that wiped out a significant portion of the local grid, the emergency diesel generators, and the electrical components required to enable even moderately difficult power restoration. Even the most ardent antinuclear activists with whom I have butted heads would have had to work hard to imagine that kind of initiating event.

Fukushima was truly a nightmare for those of us who favor the increasing use of nuclear energy as a way to reduce our rapid depletion of the earth’s valuable store of hydrocarbons. It was pretty easy to recognize very early in the accident that it had the potential to be the story that the opposition to nuclear energy has been eagerly anticipating for many years.

Even the timing added to the bad dream quality of the event—there was already a steadily increasing drumbeat of reminders from organized antinuclear groups that an explosion and fire at a nuclear power plant had once killed people—25 years ago this month.

It is hard to imagine a worse situation than the one we faced on March 11, 2011. Not only were there vast areas of devastation and thousands of human casualties caused by the natural disasters, but there was also a highly visible nuclear power plant event. That nuclear event was occurring at the same time that hundreds of eager antinuclear Lilliputians had their updated media contact lists in hand. They were primed and ready to add as many more threads as possible to hold down the atomic Gulliver that they want us all to fear. The confluence of an event with an anniversary brought flashbacks of the incredible coincidence of a nuclear plant event occurring in Pennsylvania within weeks of the theater release of a movie about a core meltdown that actually included a line about causing damage to an area “the size of Pennsylvania.”

The one thing that the professional opposition to nuclear energy had not counted on was the fact that information sharing today is on a completely different plane than it was the last time there was significant damage at a nuclear power plant. In April 1986, as in 1979, there was no Internet and no world wide web. Cable television was only available in very limited markets; CNN had finally broken into the public consciousness, but only a few months before Chernobyl when it was the only television news organization with live coverage of the Challenger disaster.

Within just a few hours of the earthquake and tsunami, informal networks of nuclear energy experts began exchanging information using the wide range of tools that modern communications technology has delivered. Though the initial headlines were breathlessly scary, there were alternative paths through which the real story could be gathered and shared. There was plenty of reason for concern among professionals, but it soon became clear that the many layers of protection and procedural backups were having a positive effect on the net outcome.

There will be lessons learned and additional protective measures implemented, but the fact remains that the loss of life at Fukushima Dai-ichi has been limited to two workers who were killed by the tsunami while performing rounds. One other worker was killed when a crane fell at the separate Fukushima Daini nuclear power station. In contrast to that very limited human toll, the natural disaster has killed in excess of 20,000 people.

As one of my favorite nuclear experts likes to point out, nuclear energy systems are designed to provide many opportunities to respond. Bad things can and do happen, but the basic engineering choices made from the earliest days of the technology were aimed at making sure that they happen as slowly as possible. Slow motion disasters might not be optimal from a public relations point of view, but they are often very beneficial from a public health point of view. It saves lives and property when there is time to take preventive action.

Though there have been many bad moments and plenty of negative press coverage, the accurate information that nuclear energy experts have shared using modern communications paths that include the web and social networks have begun to sink in. Despite all of the gloom and doom scenarios, each day brings us one step closer to stability and each report of injuries brings a growing recognition among the public that their carefully stoked fears regarding a nuclear catastrophe have been misplaced. Professional journalists have begun to recognize that the scary stories they told at the beginning were fictional instead of factual.

On Sunday, April 2, 2011, there was a front page story in the Washington Post titled Nuclear power is the safest way to make electricity, according to study. Similar stories are beginning to pop up in other unexpected locations, including The Guardian, The Australian, the New York Times, and even

I chose to enter the nuclear energy profession just two years after the Three Mile Island accident. It has not been the easiest choice I could have made. Young nuclear professionals who harbor a little concern about their future employment prospects can rest assured that Fukushima will not result in another three decade slumber. That is largely due to the efforts of people with real nuclear knowledge and the means, motive, and opportunity to share it widely.


Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

ANS Q&A on Radiation & Fukushima

Fear of the unknown is a powerful force.

Ionizing radiation by type - graphic courtesy of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission

Explaining radiation issue related to Fukushima in plain English is the objective of this briefing.

Note to Readers: The online version of this briefing in PDF format at the ANS website contains multiple links to additional sources of information.

Q: What is the health risk of radiation from the Fukushima incident to people in the United States?

A: There is no health risk of radiation from the Fukushima incident to people in the United States or its territories, as the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have affirmed.

Q: But radiation from Fukushima has been detected within the United States?

A: Yes. That’s because we are able to detect very small amounts of radiation. Through the use of extremely sensitive equipment, some US laboratories have been able to detect very minute quantities of one type of radioactive material, Iodine-131 (I-131). The EPA has detected levels of I-131 of 0.8 picocuries per liter at locations in the US. This level is 5,000 times lower than the safe limit set by the FDA and poses no risk to health.

Q: Would taking potassium iodide tablets be a prudent precaution?

A: No. Potassium iodide provides some protection against the absorption of I-131 if it gets into the food and water we consume. However, food contaminated with I-131 is not being exported from Japan, and normal everyday background radiation is 100,000 times more than the highest radiation level detected in the United States from the Fukushima incident. In addition, iodine tablets can be risky for pregnant women, and/or people who are allergic or have certain skin disorders. Too much iodine can cause a thyroid disorder in infants. Iodine tablets also can cause side effects like nausea and rashes. Note that iodized salt is of no value as an anti-radiation medicine, as it is not possible to ingest amounts approaching an effective dose.

Q: What about the radiation risk to people living in Japan?

A: People living within 12 miles have been evacuated as a precaution, and people within 19 miles have been advised to leave the area or to stay indoors and try to make their homes airtight. U.S. citizens located within 50 miles of the plant site were initially advised by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission to leave the area for the time being. In an appearance before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on March 30, NRC Chair Gregory Jazco stated that he believes a 20- mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan represents a “safe distance,” given radiation readings around the damaged plant. The Japanese government advised against using tap water for infant formula when levels of I-131 temporarily exceeded recommended safe levels, although those restrictions have been lifted in all areas except four locations around Fukushima. Also, tests for plutonium in the Fukushima area found levels indistinguishable from normal background, and thus pose no health risk. The samples are being tested to determine if any particles are from the power plants rather than old nuclear weapon tests. Although these were all sensible precautions, increases in radiation in the area have been so small as to not pose a measurable health risk.

Q: What about the radiation risk to people working at the site?

A: The Fukushima nuclear power plant workers are at risk for radiation exposure. However, they have extensive knowledge of how to minimize their exposure, training in the principles and practice of radiation protection, and portable radiation measurement instruments and protective gear. They are monitored closely to keep exposure well below internationally accepted standards.

Q: Is any level of exposure to radiation safe?

A: Yes. Safe levels of radiation are well understood and have been evaluated and agreed upon by many independent panels of experts. Daily exposure to very low levels of radiation is a normal part of life on planet Earth. Everyday we are exposed to radiation that is produced by the sun, radioactive materials in the earth and the air, and even trace amounts of naturally radioactive potassium and carbon contained in our own bodies.

Q: What is the risk of radioactivity getting into the US food supply?

A: Normally very little food from the Fukushima region is imported into the USA. Affected foods from the region around the Fukushima plant have been banned from export by the Government of Japan. Any food from that area not already restricted by the Government of Japan will be detained for testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and not allowed into the USA unless shown to be absolutely free of contamination. Food from areas further from the plant will also be diverted for testing by the FDA. The immense quantity of water in the Pacific Ocean rapidly and effectively dilutes radioactive material, so fish and seafood are likely to be unaffected. Nonetheless, all seafood from Japan will also be diverted for monitoring. Even if affected foods from the Fukushima region were not banned or monitored, one would need to eat enormous amounts exclusively to approach the normal exposure from everyday background radiation.

Q: So what preparations should I make to protect my health from Fukushima?

A: None are needed. You would be better served to consider other lifestyle factors which have proven, direct impacts upon human health, such as tobacco use, exercise and weight control.

Q: Where can I find more information?

A: Two good places to learn about radiation are the American Nuclear Society interactive radiation chart and the Health Physics Society radiation answers. Good sources of information on radiation effects from the Fukushima incident include the Food and Drug Administration reports on Fukushima food safety, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Health Physics Society. Also see the joint statement by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American Thyroid Association, the Endocrine Society, and the Society of Nuclear Medicine.

Updated April 5, 2011

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ANS and Fukushima

By Joe Colvin

In the days since Japan’s earthquake and tsunami combined to create the situation at Fukushima, nuclear professionals across the country have been united in our deep concern over the events in Japan and have contributed countless hours working to ensure that information provided to the public and media was based on fact and reason rather than hysteria and misinformation. I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the many ANS members who stepped forward to support the efforts of the Society in this time of great need.

The Society has played—and is continuing to play—a major role in addressing the scientific and technical aspects of the accident at Fukushima with the public, policy makers, and the media. ANS headquarters, the ANS corporate officers, and our media, social media, and federal consultants have worked diligently, with the support of many members, to improve the public understanding of the situation in Japan. Within several hours of the events at Fukushima, ANS initiated the Crisis Communications Team, which has met daily by conference call since the accident to coordinate the Society’s activities, including media outreach. Though ANS members could not be everywhere, we have had a significant and positive effect.

ANS members have participated in more than 150 interviews in venues such as The Today ShowCBS Evening NewsNBC Nightly NewsCBS Morning News and local affiliates, CNNNPRGood Morning America, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal—to name a few. Over one hundred members volunteered their services after Candace Davison, ANS Public Information Committee chair, explained the urgent need for media resources.

Thanks to your efforts, ANS members reached more than 81 million people through proactive media outreach. That’s over one in four U.S. households—a truly remarkable effort!

While some ANS members could not serve as media spokespersons due to company restrictions, they provided essential analysis of the ongoing technical events in Japan. That analysis helped to formulate documents such as the Japan Backgrounder and the ANS Talking Points. ANS Social Media Group members actively engaged in positive, proactive media outreach—something they have done so successfully in the past. They identified and shared media opportunities and formed the backbone of the early media efforts.

Those who could not speak helped those who could by lending information, analysis, and advice.

The ANS Nuclear Cafe blog site was repurposed as an information clearinghouse during the early morning hours of March 11. As ANS members shared links to factual, non-alarmist information provided on the blog, traffic to the site increased by a factor of 100.

The strength of the Society is rooted in our membership and catalyzed by effective and talented expertise. ANS Student Sections, Nuclear Engineering Departments, and Local Sections have engaged in efforts across the country to reach out via public forums, webinars, presentations, conversations with friends and colleagues, and social networks. ANS Professional Divisions have put together technical briefs and fact sheets, and our commercial publications, such as Nuclear News magazine, are focusing articles on the Fukushima events. You can also visit the ANS website to be inspired by the wealth of activities catalogued under ‘Featured Content.’

ANS members have engaged in the vital grassroots efforts that drive greater understanding—and thus greater acceptance—of nuclear science and technology.

In response to your overwhelming feedback, ANS established the ANS Japan Relief Fund to help our friends, colleagues, and their families in Japan who have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami. This fund symbolizes how the international nuclear community stands together to help one another.

ANS will continue to play a key role in placing the Fukushima incident into perspective, as well examining the factors that have contributed to the incident. We are in the process of outlining the important role that the Society can play in developing a greater understanding into the scientific and technical issues surrounding the accident at Fukushima. Nuclear professionals will continue to set the bar high for nuclear energy, which remains the safest source of electricity generation.

I look forward to working with you, the dedicated and passionate members of this Society, as we continue to promote the awareness and understanding of nuclear science and technology.


Joe Colvin is the 56th president of the American Nuclear Society. He has been an ANS member since 2001 and has worked to obtain senior nuclear utility expertise on ANS committees and the Board of Directors. Colvin is President Emeritus of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and he serves on the boards of Cameco Corporation, the world’s largest uranium company, and US Ecology, a hazardous and radioactive waste disposal company. He also is on the boards of non-profit organizations such as the Foundation for Nuclear Studies, which was set up by NEI to help provide the U.S. House and Senate with information on nuclear technology.

Impact of MOX Fuel at Fukushima

A plain English explanation

Based on alarms raised by scientists in Japan and elsewhere about the use of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in the Fukushima reactor #3, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) published a technical brief on the issue on March 25, 2011. It contains factual information on the impact of mixed oxide fuel use at Fukushima Daiichi.

There are two key points that emerge from the ANS Technical Brief which was prepared by ANS members contributing their expertise as individuals and not on behalf of their respective employers.  The paper is being published online by the ANS Special Committee on Nuclear Nonproliferation.

No significant impact on reactor cooling or releases of radioactivity

Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel has been used safely in nuclear power reactors for decades. The presence of a limited number of MOX fuel assemblies at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 has not had a significant impact on the ability to cool the reactor or on any radioactive releases from the site due to damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

Less than 6% of fuel in core was MOX

At the time of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 was operating with 32 mixed oxide (MOX) fuel assemblies and 516 low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel assemblies in its reactor core. In other words, less than 6 percent of the fuel in the Unit 3 core was MOX fuel. There were no other MOX fuel assemblies (new, in operation or used) at the Fukushima Daiichi plant at the time of the accident.

Questions and Answers about MOX

A typical MOX fuel assembly for a commercial nuclear reactor

What is mixed oxide (MOX) fuel?

· MOX fuel is a mixture of plutonium and uranium.

· MOX fuel is typically made using plutonium recycled from used nuclear fuel (i.e., reactor-grade (RG) MOX), but it can also be made using surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons (i.e., weapons-grade (WG) MOX).

· Low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel commonly used in commercial nuclear reactors initially has no plutonium. During irradiation in a reactor it builds up plutonium as a result of the nuclear reactions.

· Toward the end of its useful life LEU fuel contains about 1% plutonium and actually produces about half of its power from this plutonium rather than uranium. RG MOX is fabricated from this recycled plutonium.

· WG MOX has a higher concentration of the Pu-239 isotope, which is more desirable for power generation than other plutonium isotopes.

· Low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for commercial nuclear reactors has about 95-97 percent U238 and the remainder, the importance fissile isotope of U235, at 3-5%.

· In MOX fuel plutonium takes the place of the U235 isotope in low enriched fuel in a range of 4-9 percent depending whether the plutonium was derived from reprocessing commercial spent fuel or from weapons grade plutonium.

How does reactor operation with MOX fuel differ from operation with LEU fuel?

· Based on current practice and future plans, MOX and LEU fuels would be loaded into the core at the same time, with the fraction of the core using MOX typically in the range of 30-40 percent.

· The MOX core would be designed and licensed to the same operating and safety criteria as an all LEU core (e.g. same operating temperature, electrical output, etc.). The MOX core may require enhanced reactivity controls (increased soluble boron in the reactor coolant and/or additional control rods) to meet the licensed operating conditions.

· Operations with a MOX core would be nearly identical to operations with an all LEU core.

Are the consequences of an accident worse using MOX fuel?

· Both LEU fuel and MOX fuel meet conservative NRC safety criteria for design basis events.

· Independent safety authorities in five different countries have reviewed the use of MOX fuel in commercial nuclear plants, including severe accident analysis, and found that it meets all licensing and safety requirements.

· For beyond design basis events (i.e. significant fuel damage, loss of primary containment integrity and some atmospheric dispersal) the consequences from a 40% WG MOX fuel core would not be significantly worse than those with an all LEU fuel core.

What about storing irradiated MOX fuel? Is MOX fuel hotter?

· Right after reactor shutdown, irradiated fuel produces heat due to the decay of radioactive isotopes contained within the fuel equal to about 7% of pre-shutdown operating power.

· Irradiated MOX fuel initially produces about 4 percent less decay heat than equivalent LEU fuel. Decay heat production falls off very rapidly for both fuel types, to less than 1 percent of original operating power after 24 hours. However, decay heat production in MOX fuel declines at a slower rate than LEU fuel due to isotopic differences in the irradiated MOX fuel. Eventually irradiated MOX fuel produces slightly more decay heat than irradiated LEU fuel, about 16 percent more after 5 years.

· After about 5 years, the decay heat load from both fuel types is about the same as one or two medium-sized hair dryers for each used fuel assembly. Used fuel with this decay heat rate is sufficiently cooled to allow loading into dry cask storage.

For more information on MOX fuel at Fukushima, please read the ANS Technical Brief available online at the ANS web site.

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46th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs

The discontinuous nature of current events suggests this graphic of a mobius strip as the design basis for a roller coaster.

The 46th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is up at Next Big Future.  The

carnival  features blog posts from the leading U.S. nuclear bloggers and is a roundup of featured content from them.

This week there is continuing news from Fukushima, but there are also a diverse set of posts on nuclear energy topics.

If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it.

Past editions have been hosted at Cool Hand Nuke, NEI Nuclear Notes, ANS Nuclear Cafe, Yes Vermont Yankee, Idaho Samizdat, and several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

Small/modular reactors and near-term expectations

This article was originally scheduled to appear on March 17. It has since been slightly revised by the author.

by E. Michael Blake

There is considerable activity right now in the United States aimed at the addition of new nuclear generating capacity. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent, and hundreds of skilled professionals have been put to work. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call this activity nuclear expansion, although it actually involves two separate activities with very little overlap: the licensing of new, large, light-water reactors (LWR), and the development of small/modular reactors (SMR). While the latter activity might help return the United States nuclear industry to a leadership position worldwide, I believe it would be unwise to expect SMRs to be deployed on a large scale in the near term.

Aside: Apart from the rather smirky title of “Renaissance Watch,” a recurring feature in Nuclear News, I generally don’t use the term “nuclear renaissance,” in part because it suggests that what went before must have been “nuclear dark ages.” While there had been more than two decades without new-reactor activity in the U.S. before 2003, the people operating the reactors that were in service made those reactors far more productive and reliable than they were ever expected to be. Why is this not seen as a “renaissance?” End Aside.

While the push for new reactor construction, based on LWRs, does not have as many participants now as it did three years ago, there has been enough progress in licensing reviews to suggest that as many as four reactors could be under full-scale construction by this time next year, and that at least six more will be pursued despite some delays. This would re-establish the United States as a growing market–but not as the industry leader, because all of the reactor vendors have foreign ownership ranging from 50 percent (GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy) to 100 percent (Areva, Mitsubishi).

Could the U.S. dominate the SMR market?

Given the globalization of so many different enterprises, it might be unrealistic to expect that a revived American nuclear industry could ever again dominate the world LWR market the way it did in the 1960s and 1970s. An opportunity may exist, however, on the other side of the U.S. nuclear expansion: SMR development. By my rough count, half or more of the companies developing SMR concepts are American-owned.

Why this matters has nothing to do with nationalistic pride, and not all that much to do with the pursuit of a competitive edge in the global economy. In my view, the sprouting of designs from so many different sources attests to the creativity and innovation possible in this country’s nuclear energy community. The atmosphere of ingenuity and opportunity could attract more top-level talent to nuclear fields. This should generate cycles of product improvement that can make U.S.-developed SMRs the most desired fission-based energy production devices for decades to come (based on my perception that U.S. designs already appear to be more developed than those in other countries). All of the usual economic benefits should follow from that–abundant high-paying jobs, improved trade balance, and so forth.

Long overdue in this post is an explanation of what counts as an SMR. In essence, an SMR is a relatively small reactor (300 MWe is usually defined as the upper limit), designed so that the entire energy-producing unit is a module that takes up relatively little space, and several modules can be built together in a single facility.

If one looks back far enough in time, one can observe that small power reactors existed long before large reactors were developed. Since then, there have arisen design aspects, construction techniques, and innovations in fuels, materials, and coolants that can (according to the designers) overcome the historic economies of scale that spurred the move to larger reactor designs, starting about 40 years ago. Ideally, modular construction would allow a reactor to be put into service quickly, with most of the work done at the factory and only a few tasks (final assembly, testing, etc.) at the plant site.

That word “ideally” must be applied to all SMR attributes, especially those that, in the designers’ view, should allow them to receive lighter treatment from regulators than large LWRs get. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as far as I can see, has been receptive to the notion of SMRs (going back several years to discussions of “technology-neutral” licensing), and has begun pre-application reviews of designs for what are classed as “integral pressurized water reactors,” the SMRs that most closely resemble power reactors that have operating experience. The NRC’s job, however, is (and should be) to uphold public health and safety. If the agency eventually modifies some regulations for the sake of SMRs, it would only be once the claims made for these designs (such as inherent safety, insignificant radiation dose at the site boundary under any circumstances, and so forth) have been backed up by verifiable testing.

The closest thing yet to a demonstration project for an SMR is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s proposal to seek licenses for two or more of The Babcock & Wilcox Company’s mPower reactors at the Clinch River site in Tennessee. The effort would also entail certification of the reactor design by the NRC. Even if TVA pursues this (the project has not yet been approved by the TVA Board of Directors) and the NRC’s estimated schedule can be maintained, certification would be complete in mid-2018 and the first modules would enter service perhaps at the end of 2019. So, for what may be the most advanced SMR project, power operation is more than eight years away.

Two of the less conventional designs–GE Hitachi’s PRISM, and Hyperion Power’s HPM–are in a feasibility study stage for possible use at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, to consume “legacy” materials left over from the site’s mission in nuclear weapons development. These designs, based on fast-neutron spectra and liquid metal coolants, depart substantially from the NRC’s experience base in reactor licensing. The site operator, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, has encouraged the developers of other SMRs with actinide-burning capability to propose similar studies. It has been suggested that prototype versions of these SMRs could be built with limited licensing requirements, allowing the reactors to establish experience and prove principles while assisting in site cleanup–but even if the NRC is receptive to this approach, working out and using such a system would take years.

Could SMRs be developed more rapidly overseas?

Could SMR developers get their reactors built sooner by selling them overseas? My own view is that operating something in another country before it has passed muster in its own country smacks of imperialism. Besides, for some SMR models operation isn’t the only licensable aspect. If the reactor is shipped with fuel sealed in the vessel, with the entire reactor to be returned to the manufacturer after a long duty cycle, the manufacturer’s home base would be producing and managing what are just short of critical assemblies before shipments leave and after they return. Some SMRs also depend on closed fuel cycles, and thus reprocessing, for which there is no licensing system (or legal authority) now in place. Moving every aspect of a sealed-reactor SMR business offshore, to avoid the NRC at every turn, would not only increase the imperialism, it would export the jobs that SMR work would provide.

As with the other side of nuclear expansion–licensing of new large LWRS–the SMR effort will probably require vast reserves of patience. An untried licensing system under 10 CFR Part 52, and a demanding qualification process for DOE loan guarantees, have drained the enthusiasm of some large-LWR license applicants. The aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi accident could further darken the prospects. Other applicants, however—including those for Vogtle-3 and -4 in Georgia, and Summer-2 and -3 in South Carolina–have thus far stayed the course and may be in full-scale construction by this time next year. For SMRs, opportunities like those offered by TVA and Savannah River may start the process of bringing the designs to reality, but there is every indication that it will be a long process, with usable energy not available for many years.


E. Michael Blake is a senior editor of the American Nuclear Society’s Nuclear News magazine. The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not represent the editorial position of Nuclear News magazine or the policy of the American Nuclear Society.

NETS 2011 Lifts off in Albuquerque

By Paul Bowersox

This article was originally scheduled to appear on March 14.

The 2011 Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space meeting in February was by all accounts a great success. A total of 190 registrants attended, distributed almost evenly among NASA, the Department of Energy/national laboratories, industry, and universities. Conference participants were pleased to once again have a venue for discussing and publishing the latest research and development in space nuclear technologies and the exploration missions enabled by those technologies.

The efforts of General Chair Shannon Bragg-Sitton of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory, and General Co-Chair Michael Houts of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, in initiating and organizing this conference resulted in a very important stepping stone toward major new advances in space exploration.

Opening Plenary

The NETS-2011 Opening Plenary welcomed a highly distinguished panel of speakers to discuss historical space nuclear programs, current programs (and currently desired programs), and how to make these more successful in light of budget constraints, public perception, politics, and policy. Harry Finger’s opening presentation outlined successful developments in nuclear rocket propulsion in the 1960s, so that by 1970 detailed planning of human exploration of Mars had become possible. That development was cut short, but NETS-2011 will serve as a stimulus to move forward in those areas.


John Casani of NASA Jet Propulstion Laboratory, and then James Adams of NASA headquarters, discussed potential and current mission applications for space nuclear systems. Robert Lange of the DOE presented developments in radioisotope power generation, a critical power source for exploration of the solar system. Michael Griffin, former NASA administrator, concluded the opening plenary by presenting viable development strategies for space fission power and propulsion. These presentations and session summaries can be found at the NETS-2011 meeting website.

Meeting Chair Bragg-Sitton received numerous enthusiastic comments from those attending the plenary sessions.  Attendee Don Palac, lead for the Fission Surface Power Program at NASA Glenn Research Center, commented this was the best plenary he had seen in 10 years.

Opening plenary panel

Special Session on Politics, Policy, Non-Technical Challenges


Griffin and moderator Elizabeth Newton asked panelists in a special session to discuss the non-technical challenges of developing space nuclear technology.  “The US space program has enjoyed little stability in space-related policy over the years, and this fluctuation in space program goals can wreak havoc on our attempts to complete a program,” commented Newton to start the session.

Chuck Atkins, retired chief of staff for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, noted the non-technical challenges faced by space nuclear technology are far greater than the technical ones. An example cited by Atkins is that while a Congressional committee might authorize program spending in a certain area, a program is not funded unless an appropriation is made by another committee. Differences are frequent among committees, between the House and Senate, between the administration and Congress, among various stakeholders within the space program, sometimes within the space nuclear community itself. As long-term programs must survive the entire budgeting process each year, Atkins advocated crafting a long-term nuclear space policy, along with efforts toward longer-term authorizations and appropriations.

Griffin stated the policy timelines in Washington do not correspond to programmatic timelines—combining two challenging technologies such as space travel and fission power takes more time than it takes for an administration to turn over. Griffin asserted the stakeholders in the space nuclear community need to come together to help form a strategic policy to carry space exploration “to the next level.” Bragg-Sitton: “This policy session inspired numerous questions and insightful discussions with the audience, and I urge readers to explore the complete session summary at the NETS-2011 website.”

Special session panel

Technical Sessions

Numerous technical sessions were held, exploring the most advanced research and development in nuclear technologies for space propulsion and power, surface power, radiation mitigation, and many other related fields. Detailed meeting topics and abstracts of presented papers can be found here.

Exhibit Hall

Opening Dinner with Dr. Glen Schmidt

The opening dinner at NETS-2011 featured a keynote address by Glen Schmidt, test engineer for SNAP-10a—the only fission reactor the United States has flown in space. SNAP-10a overcame many significant engineering challenges on the way to mission success. “I believe we need to take a close look at past programs to understand both how and why things were done a certain way as we endeavor to get a fission system to a flight program once again,” said Bragg-Sitton. “We can certainly learn from such a successful flight program.”

Evening at National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

At another special evening event, conference participants were treated to a presentation by Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, former U.S. Senator for New Mexico and Apollo 17 astronaut—the last man (and the only scientist) to walk on the moon. “Hearing Dr. Schmitt’s reflections about the Apollo program and why there might be reason to return to the moon was truly inspiring,” said Bragg-Sitton. “So few people have had the opportunity to gain this first-hand perspective—Dr. Schmitt’s discussion was truly insightful and inspiring.”


The NETS organizing committee is currently planning NETS-2012. Check the NETS meeting website for more details.

If you would like to be added to a mailing list to receive notification of future NETS meetings, please send email to



Paul Bowersox is a space exploration enthusiast and freelance writer who holds a master’s degree in science policy.

He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.