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And unlike today's light-water reactors, HTGR reactorswhich would be cooled by helium gasshould burn up their radioactive materials more efficiently. The new facilities would then retain their waste for up to 40 years before carting it off to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Proponents of HTGR also boast that the reactors require none of the concrete and steel containment walls that keep radioactive material locked inside light-water reactors. The uranium and graphite pellets inside HTGR reactorseven if all of the coolant is lostwould heat up so slowly they're unlikely to melt down.
Officials at the Idaho lab hinted at a dramatic exhibit of its pilot reactor's safety. "We could even do a demonstration in which we dump the helium coolant," said James Lake, associate laboratory director. "That would be a way to show the public in a visible way how safe the technology is."
Lake may have trouble selling tickets to that event, but opponents of HTGRs are less concerned about accidents than another scenario: "In a word, it's terrorism," said Charles Sheehan-Miles, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.
Existing plants have already been targeted by terrorists, suggest warnings from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Presented with the prospect of a plane slamming into an HTGR reactor, Lake starts adding layers of concrete and steel (and significant cost) to what was once a spiffy little module. "We could put the reactor underground, inside a robust, concrete citadel," he said.
MIT professor Andrew Kadak, who worked on the U.S. government's "Generation IV" Roadmap for new reactors, said his nuclear research lab's own plan for an HTGR reactor does not include robust containment walls. "Most of the reactor, however, is protected by concrete," he said. "And the reactor is mostly underground. If necessary, we could move it completely underground. But we have not done the [damage] analysis yet."
Still, Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, questions why nuclear energy companies and HTGR proponents are seeking free insurance from U.S. taxpayers. The Senate energy bill also calls for the extension of the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, a U.S.-funded disaster insurance policy, to cover HTGR reactors.
"Why would a safe reactor require Price-Anderson liability protection but not containment protection?" Lochbaum asked.
Read responses from Voice Question of the Day: Are hydrogen cars worth pursuing if it means building more nuclear power plants?