by Scott Berinato

A Third Nuclear Age?

Jan 01, 20022 mins
Risk Management

Nuclear advocates invoke the capabilities of information technology as grounds for reviving old stations and building a new fleet of plants to provide for our boundless energy demands. (Ironically, those demands come partly from proliferating IT and power-hungry data centers.)

IT has transformed nearly every aspect of the nuclear reactor, from the virtual design of plants to command and control of reactor functions. Redundant systems, self-diagnostics and predictive maintenance make the plants safer. These are not off-the-shelf systems but highly specialized, proprietary and completely hardened software systems developed by nuclear engineers.

“The technology has improved so much,” says Steven Arndt, team leader for instrumentation control and digital system safety within the office of research of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, Md. “IT has the potential to make the benefits of new nuclear plants outweigh the disadvantages.” For example, software has revolutionized feed-water controls, which monitor and maintain the levels of cool water injected into the steam generators, preventing them from overheating. The design of fuel cells and thermal hydraulic mechanisms, which control the nuclear reaction, are also vastly improved through computer-aided design and high-computation simulations. Perhaps the most important IT concept used in nuclear plants is redundancy. Some systems have multiple backups running the same processes.

Shirley Ann Jackson, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, believes the dramatic technology improvements can usher in a third nuclear era. She describes the first era as the halcyon 1950s and ’60s, when nuclear power’s candy-coated image was represented by Disney’s 1956 animated film Our Friend the Atom. The second era started with the 1979 Three-Mile Island meltdown and was cemented by the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. Public trust never returned, and as plants closed, they were not replaced.

While IT can streamline a nuclear power plant, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) warns that technology doesn’t remove risks?and there’s still that pesky problem of disposing of radioactive waste. “IT doesn’t make nuclear power inherently safe,” says Lochbaum, who notes the UCS is neither anti- nor pronuke. “The technology gives you faster insights, but in a sense, it’s just making it easier to get to the risk.”