As people in the earthquake-tsunami disaster zone north of Tokyo either flee or hunker down in response to the fear of radiation being released from the area's crippled nuclear reactors, nations across the globe are taking the crisis as a sign that it's time to get more aggressive in their development of passive safe nuclear power plants.

The nuclear power industry has discussed the potential of fully passive cooling systems for reactors since the first commercial fission plant came on line more than 50 years ago, says Ken Bergeron, a physicist formerly involved with nuclear reactor accident simulations at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. But as yet, a 100% passively cooled reactor is not commercially available, despite advances in adding passive features new nuclear reactors.

The concept behind passively safe nuclear reactors is that they will automatically shut down in an emergency, and reduce the residual heat by cooling the reactor's uranium or plutonium core without the need for human intervention, or the use of electrical power. Instead, a fully passive system would rely on gravity -- rather than valves and pumps -- to naturally circulate coolant around the core to bring its temperature down.

If such a system had been in place in at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant (pictured), Japan's current nuclear crisis could have been averted, says John McGaha, a board member of the American Nuclear Society.

"The thing that got Japan in trouble was not the earthquake, but the tsunami that took out power supplies [for the water pumps that cooled the reactor cores]," McGaha said. "Passive reactors would have been part of the answer to what happened over there. The passive systems in newer designs don't rely on an outside power source. A passive system happens automatically, even if the operators don't do anything."

Building a Better Nuclear Mousetrap

Several nuclear reactor manufacturers have designed highly advanced passive systems, but they all fall short of being 100% passive because they rely on some externally operated system, such as automatic values to channel the water around the core rather than allowing it to naturally circulate.

Westinghouse Electric has its AP1000 advanced passive system, which is expected to be used in nuclear power plants now under construction in China and the United States. And earlier this month, Westinghouse signed an agreement with Endesa to share its AP1000 technology, with an eye toward selling its system for use in nuclear power plants in Spain and South America.

General Electric (GE), which designed the nuclear reactors damaged in the Japan disaster -- and is taking a hit in the stock market because of it -- may get a better reaction from shareholders should its jointly developed passive nuclear reactor, the GE-Hitachi Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR), receive full certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. GE received final design approval for its ESBWR from the commission recently, and is working towards full certification, according to a Nuclear Engineering International report.

And French company Areva's EPR next-generation passive reactors are going up in nuclear power projects in India, France and Finland.

"A number of countries around the world are testing and prototyping passive reactors and they're beginning to build them around the world, but I don't know of any that are fully passive and in commercial use now," McGaha said.

One barrier to the widespread adoption of passive reactors has been the cost, Bergeron said, noting that the technology must compete against cheaper power sources such as coal and fossil fuel. But with the world now watching events in Japan unfold, the concept of fully passive nuclear reactors may gain more steam.

"People have talked about passive designs for the past 50 years and since Three Mile Island [nuclear disaster in 1979], interest in [them] has gained," Bergeron said. In his opinion, the situation in Japan will likely spur even more enthusiasm for passive rectors.

Location, Location, Location

While a move to build fully passive nuclear reactors may address some of the problems of a potential meltdown, nipping potential dangers in the bud by being more careful about siting the projects would go a long way, too.

"The wisdom of building near faults will be challenged all over the world, and also building near the ocean where you can have a tsunami," says Bergeron.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says 65 nuclear power plants are under construction around the world, which would add to the 442 nuclear reactors in operation today. And of the reactors in operation, the World Nuclear Association estimates that 20% are located in areas of "significant seismic activity."

Some plants located near seismic fault lines could face a double whammy -- a quake followed tsunami like Japan just suffered -- if they're located near the ocean. In California, the San Onofre nuclear power plant, just a few miles south of the seaside community of San Clemente, sits near the offshore Cristianitos fault line, and would rely on its 30-foot seawall to guard against a tsunami. And along the Central California coast, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is perched on a cliff with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean -- but it's also close to the San Andreas fault line.

"The proximity to ... the ocean will definitely be taken into consideration [when building a nuclear power plant], like it is today, but more weight will be given to it after Japan," McGaha said. "The plant in Japan withstood a bigger quake than was anticipated, but the force of the tsunami wasn't expected."

A number of older nuclear power plants require a lot of water for their cooling systems -- hence their proximity to coastlines, bays, lakes and rivers, McGaha says. The nuclear industry, however, is gradually replacing water with a more environmentally friendly method for cooling the core: using blasts of air from an air tower. This method avoids dumping heated water back into its source, which can damage fragile aquatic ecosystems.

Locating nuclear power plants further from seismically active areas has its own difficulties, however. Plants are often based as near as is feasible to their customers in order to keep the costs of transmitting the energy from plant to consumer low, Bergeron says. And that often means they get built on the densely populated coasts. But those consumers often have a "not-in-my-backyard" mindset, which pushes plants onto less desirable real estate -- like seismically active zones.

Nuclear Aftershocks Around the World

In the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that ripped through northeastern Japan last week, Taiwan began considering a reduce to its use of nuclear power, Germany put plans to extend the lifespans of its nuclear reactors on hold, and Switzerland put some nuclear power plant approvals on ice, according to a Reuters report.

But in the United States, President Obama reiterated his desire to keep nuclear energy in the mix, as part of his move to diversify America's energy sources away from fossil fuels. Obama's budget proposal includes loan guarantees that would help expand the number of the nation's nuclear power plants. Whether investors will bite is another matter.

After the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island, the nation's worst nuclear disaster, investments in nuclear power went dark for three decades, notes a Bloomberg report.

The impact of Japan's nuclear drama is expected to go beyond international energy policies and investments -- it will very likely force the nuclear industry to re-evaluate how it operates.

"People will look at their plants and see if the standards that they were designed and licensed for are adequate or need to be strengthened," said Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "A lot of the plants were licensed based on earlier earthquake data that is now of questionable validity."

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Bonds for Beginners

Learn about fixed income investments.

View Course »

Investing in Real Estate

Learn the basics of investing in real estate.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

GOD BLESS OBAMA !! Unemployment down & market UP ! PRESIDENT OBAMA has been very effective in bringing legislation like health care and financil reform to fruition in the midst of two wars and a bad recession, which by the way, he had nothing to do with, and now when the Middle East is in termoil he has been very steady in handling the situation. He is the most intelligent president in modern history, and when he gets a second term and the Congress back, you will see new life given to a dying middle class

See full article from DailyFinance:

March 17 2011 at 8:04 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Here in the good old USA Atomic Scientists finished with work on the A bomb. On their own a few came up with the kind of reactor still making medical isotopes. With that done they started work on a Nuclear Power Plant. One that was so passively safe it could not overheat. They did the science work and were starting the engineering plans when Ike said the Feds would fund the Atoms for Peace Program and pay for Nuke power plants, of the dangerous, boiling water type used in 50's submarines . I have read that this kind makes weapon grade bomb material, but I don't know. The unused safe kind became known as the pellet bed reactor. The radioactive material was in the middle of very high temp. marbles that allowed usable heat to form. But was held to far apart to over heat. A few years ago, the Germans started work on it and made a safety test bed to try and make it overheat. Just air moving in the large marbles kept it from over heating. The German Green Party came to power on a promise to end all nuclear work and stopped work on it. For study they said. Years ago. One could think we are working on it. We are not. Our corporateshions are working on the kind we have, only much hotter, and more dangerous. They are said to be more efficient, and make weapons grade waste. We will need lots of Nuclear Power Plants to hold back co2 in the air. If no new co2 were made, the world will still get hotter for many years from the co2 now there. With nothing but mother nature, co2will keep going up. At a tipping point the seas will be too full of the acid from co2 not to kill all sea life. Then all land life will die, it has happened before. As its going now the sea will die about 2050. Then we will.

March 17 2011 at 5:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to VAST LEFT WING CONSP's comment

March 17 2011 at 9:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

No problem's in japan. It's the floor matts.

March 17 2011 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nuclear power is very safe. It creates no carbon footprint. You can buld a quake-proof reactor - it's simple. It uses rubber isolation pads, and springs. The buildings are shaped like upside down boat hulls so that waves simply wash over them. It's very, very do able. If they ask me, I'll design it for them for free...Alfred Schrader

March 17 2011 at 5:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment

if it shaped like the hull of a boat it will tip over. go back and rethink, plus do not forget hurricanes, floods, tsunamis etc. plus if a 9pt quake happened right under a nuclear plant or within 5 miles, like may happen in NY or LA then no design would save it.

March 17 2011 at 7:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This whole situation is rife with mis information from many sources but mainly from the NRC. Believe only 10% of what any "expert" tells you, (an expert is someone more than 90 miles from home),especially anyone from our government. Use your own common sense. These reactors have a very strong steel containment chamber, strong enough to withstand a jet airliner crashing into one. They have a capacity of 40,000 gallons of water. Since no leak has been found as yet, (if there was one the steam plumes and radioactivity would have risen at a very high rate of speed. Then around that is a very thick concrete and steel outer shell which no one has seen an evidence of a crack or leak. If the water was gone from the area holding the radioactive fuel rods the unit would have blown up or melted down and then blown up by now. I believe the Japanese they have the most to lose and are very honest people, (not like those in the Obama administration. So why all the noise from ABC, NBC, CBS and their cable surrogates? They are stooges for the Obama administration who's goal is to bring the American people to their knees by breaking us financially. All to prepare us for a "New World Order", in other words Socialism where the Fed rules and tells us what to do and when to do it. To help break us they have to get energy costs sky high for all kinds of energy, so no drilling permits, no Natural gas drilling permits only spending money that we must borrow in grants for stupid green energy. In order to gain a 15% energy supply we would have to put solar panels every where on every building and on the ground etc., windmills would have to be put on every open land area and in the ocean every where it is shallow enough to hold one. What are we going to do for the other 85%. Build more nuclear plants, drill every where, dig every ounce of coal start using natural gas where ever possible. If the Obama administration wont issue drilling permits then the states should disregard the fed and issue their own. Can't do it? B.S. Obama did what he wanted by every trick in the book look at all of the advisors he appointed during recess appointments every one is an avowed Communist or Socialist. Even Richard Trumka pres of the AFLCIO says he talks to the pres daily and in the same breath almost praises Socialist and Communist regimes.

March 17 2011 at 4:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to parthenon1's comment

The Japanese are very honest people huh? If you believe them you'll believe there isn't a melt down proble but that "It's the floor matts".

March 17 2011 at 5:25 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Lets hope for another 3 mile island. IT melted down, no one died and 20yrs later when they went inside they found that the design was much safer than they had thought. Of the 5-6 inches of stainless steel on the reactor bottom only 5/8" was melted into. It then had 3+ feet of steel and then 8 ft of concrete to get to the ground water. A meltdown but nothing happened. All hype from people who no nothing. If we listened to no nothings then we would shutdown the airline industry and the automobile industry because of crashes and go back to the dark ages where millions die from disease.

March 17 2011 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to tj1108's comment

True, more people died at Chappaquiddick than at 3 mile Island

March 17 2011 at 4:39 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

March 17 2011 at 9:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

nuclear debate is a distraction.

March 17 2011 at 4:21 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

After 4o+ years of engrg and construction work - mostly involving nuclear power plants, including work at Fukushima Daiichi unit #3 and the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station less than 10 miles from my residence - my opinion is that no nuclear power plant can be made completely safe - but we can spend billions trying - but why would we when the answer is deep drilling for "hot rocks" geothermal power. According to the 2006 MIT/DOE study most of the United States has the ability to be tapped for steam cycle generated electric power far in excess of our needs. In fact a number of countries including the US presently have substantial shallow well thermal stations ( look up Nevada Geothermal Power or either of the big utilities in California ) It does not need a gov't research program for 10 years - Japan could be the first large scale implementation. It probably won't happen because TEPCO will be risk averse now and will go with combined cycle natural gas fired plants to fill in for lost nuclear generation and the United States will continue to push Shale gas from NY and PA. The only good choice is eliminating the purchase of coal, oil, natural gas, LNG, or uranium from our electric power production cycle. Look for yourself and learn or continue to pay thru the nose and be afraid. Solar and wind are nice but not for Baseload.

March 17 2011 at 4:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which sits less than a mile from an offshore fault line, was not required to include earthquakes in its emergency response plan as a condition of being granted its license more than a quarter of a century ago....... Though experts warned from the beginning that the plant would be vulnerable to an earthquake, asserting 25 years ago that it required an emergency plan as a condition of its license, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fought against making such a provision mandatory as it allowed the facility to be built.........Is this a scare tactic??? Or, just 'mass stupidity' for the 'nuclear power can get us to heaven' crowd!

March 17 2011 at 4:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gardeningatnite's comment

I am sure if they are tried harder they could have built it on the fault line. Beyond belief!

March 17 2011 at 4:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

All of these scare tactics are just another way for the greenies to bolster their agenda. What about all the nuclear powered vessels in our navy? Are these a catastrophe waiting to happen? We don't hear of any hype to get rid of them. Nuclear power is the cleanest and cheapest way to go and it can be 99% safe!

March 17 2011 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to x4hirekiller's comment

Scare tactics by the greenies??? LOL!....... Is there a certain part of 'Japan's Nuclear Crisis Revives Call for Safer Reactors', that you have a problem with????

March 17 2011 at 4:10 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

When they go FUBAR they sink, everyone is killed and the Reactor is automatically cooled by the ocean and dilution takes care of irradiated fuel. Not pretty but effective.

March 17 2011 at 4:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply