By Scott Jones
About 300 people attended a showing of the new pro-nuclear film “Pandora’s Promise” and heard a panel discussion about nuclear energy on Saturday, including perspectives from Oak Ridge National Laboratory staff.
The lab worked with Regal Entertainment Group to bring the film to the Downtown West theater from July 19-25.
Few phrases carry the ideological weight of the words “nuclear power.”
The costs and benefits of deriving energy from the splitting of atoms has occupied headlines and the minds of many a policymaker for decades, and the failures are all too familiar: Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island.
Environmentalists and traditional, fossil-fuel based energy companies have used these tragedies as ammunition, but have these attacks frightened the public away from what could be one of humanity’s greatest sources of energy? With a population on track to hit 10 billion by 2100 and an increasing reliance on technology, the world is in dire need of new energy sources.
A growing consensus is looking to nuclear to fill the gap.
The controversy and potential surrounding nuclear power is the focus of “Pandora’s Promise,” written and directed by Robert Stone. The film examines the history of nuclear power and how that history has led to the numerous misconceptions that keep it from being widely accepted and therefore widely used.
Saturday’s panel was moderated by Knoxville public relations consultant Mike Cohen and included Jeff Binder, ORNL’s associate lab director of nuclear science and engineering; Robert S. Eby, director of technology and process engineering for the United States Enrichment Corporation, or USEC; Doug Kothe, director for ORNL’s Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors; Gordon Petersen, a University of Tennessee nuclear engineering student; Ned Sauthoff, director for the US ITER project office; Lawrence Townsend, chancellor’s professor of nuclear engineering at UT; and Robert J. Whalen, vice president for nuclear engineering at the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The film uses as its primary vehicle a cadre of environmental activists who were once staunchly anti-nuclear but have since come around to the other side after investigating the issue more thoroughly.
A major point of the film is that nuclear power has been tainted by its association with nuclear weapons. The perceived connection has made it difficult for the public to accept that nuclear power can be provided safely and with moral motives, according to the film. Ironically, the film points out that 10 percent of the fuel for American nuclear reactors comes from old Soviet warheads.
The film also points out that there have been no deaths in the United States as a result of nuclear power production, while 13,000 deaths annually can be linked to particulates in the air. And despite advances being made in renewables such as wind and solar, those alternative sources can’t make a significant impact in the way we harvest our energy. In all, the film seeks to reeducate the public about nuclear power and convince skeptics that nuclear power is an essential ingredient in our energy portfolio if we are to meet future demands.
“The movie raises a very important question with respect to the overall energy demand … it does a fair job of raising questions associated with nuclear power from a safety perspective and an economics perspective,” Binder said.
When asked by Cohen what they saw as the biggest challenges toward nuclear power playing an increasing role in America’s energy mix, the panel largely agreed that political will and cost were two major hurdles.
“Cost in terms of time and dollars to get new reactors on the grid really, really needs to be brought down,” Kothe said. “It’s a financial risk for a lot of utilities to get in the nuclear game. Technology innovation is a big part of the solution.”
The panel also largely agreed on the need for further innovation. One of the most discussed innovations was the small modular reactor, or SMR, a prefabricated reactor smaller than today’s conventional plants. SMRs require less on-site construction and are cheaper to build.
“The real opportunity with the small modular reactor is to really take the technology to a point where you can factory build with advanced manufacturing techniques the components to put the reactor together and do that in a very cost-effective, scalable way,” said Binder, who also pointed out that ORNL is working on these very challenges and that total costs for an SMR could be one-tenth or one-twentieth today’s larger, traditional reactors.
Panelists also discussed nuclear waste storage and disposal. “There are technology challenges but they’re really very surmountable,” Binder said. “From my perspective the waste issue is really more of a political issue than it is a technical issue.”
Perhaps the most telling responses came when the panel discussed possibilities during the next 10 to 30 years in modeling and simulation, fission, and fusion.
“You would like to be able to use modeling and simulation to design the reactor well enough to where an expensive experiment which is still required is confirmatory instead of exploratory,” said Kothe of the next 10 years. A crisper definition of operating and safety margins are also a major goal, he added.
“Within 24 years we went from discovering the neutron to having commercial nuclear power. We can do things fast with the right will and the right investment,” said Binder, adding that new plant designs such as SMRs could be adding power to the grid in the next 10 to 20 years with the right motivation.
And finally, ITER’s Sauthoff laid out a 30-year timeline for the fusion reactor: “In 10 years, we will have produced a real, live plasma filling the machine…Twenty years from now, we will have introduced the deuterium and tritium fuel; we will have produced 500 megawatts of power; we would be going towards running it for an hour long; and hopefully we will be producing 10 times as much energy out as energy into the plasma.” He also explained that in 30 years there would possibly be a next-generation fusion power plant actually producing commercial electricity.
All of the panelists agreed that the future of energy use in America will come from a mixture of energy sources, and that nuclear will need to be a part of that mix in order to meet our needs. “As the nation looks at energy policy, there are decisions that will have to be made going forward,” Whalen said. “It’s a subject that needs a national debate.”