I fear that we in America are going to repeat the mistakes of our past that led to more than 55 nuclear reactor accidents, the most serious of which was the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
Fear of global warming is renewing interest in redevelopment of nuclear power in the United States. It should be remembered that the whole issue of CO2 causing global warming was fostered by the Mobil Oil company when it underwrote scientists’ studies that would expound on the global warming theme. It did so because in the 1970s, Mobil Oil was intending to expand into nuclear energy for fear of shrinking U.S. oil reserves. The incident at Three Mile Island effectively shut down Mobil Oil’s plans and any expansion of the U.S. nuclear industry.
The failure to develop safe nuclear power plants in the United States stems from the development protocol of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which allowed large construction companies and conglomerates to employ their own designs. The result was a myriad of designs that were all aimed at winning low-bid contracts. The NRC engineers were charged with the task of reviewing and approving the various designs, but such was a guaranteed-to-fail mission. Nuclear power plants are inherently very complex undertakings and entail literally hundreds of thousands of interdependent physical and electrical components.
I worked with an engineer at the Federal Power and Federal Energy Commissions for years, who then went to work for the Nuclear Energy Administration. He told me that the engineers at the NEA were overwhelmed with the myriad of designs and couldn’t really evaluate the safety of the proposed developments within the short time constraints as required. He said there was no way to ensure the safety of the newly proposed power plants.
In 1976, four nuclear engineers, three from General Electric and one from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, resigned, stating that nuclear power was not as safe as their superiors were claiming, and testified to the House Joint Committee on Atomic Energy: “The cumulative effect of all design defects and deficiencies in the design, construction and operations of nuclear power plants makes a nuclear power plant accident, in our opinion, a certain event. The only question is when, and where.”
While the United States’ experience with nuclear power has been an unmitigated disaster, France has had a sterling safety history of nuclear power development. France in 2018 generated 71.67 percent of its electrical power in nuclear power plants. So what’s the difference between the American and French experiences?
The difference is in the development protocols. Whereas the Americans have allowed virtually any company to design its own plants, the French developed one nationally approved design to which all power plants must adhere. All power plants in France are identical and have provided decades of operational experience. In France, if a design flaw or shortcoming is found in any nuclear power plant, the flaw or shortcoming is rectified quickly at all power plants, because all power plants are identical. If America is going to rekindle its nuclear power resource, it would be well advised to follow the French example and adopt a mandatory national design or even copy the French design, since the French plant design has had decades of safe operation.
Jack Duckworth Virginia