New Low-Cost Nuclear Reactor Barrier Could’ve Withstood Chernobyl and Fukushima

Nuclear Reactor Drawing

Researchers suggest a new safety barrier for big Light Water Reactors throughout the world. This barrier, which is going to replace one that was already outdated, is predicted to lower the likelihood of core melt to that of a large meteorite striking the location.

In the aftermath of the notorious accidents in the history of nuclear energy at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), where all three have turned into devastating disasters due to meltdown in the core of a reactor, leading in turn to the release of radiation into the environment, many countries around the world have already pledged to a nuclear power phase-out.

However, while actions towards the closure of all nuclear power plants in only a few decades’ time are already well underway, the alternative energy sources currently in operation have some major drawbacks: they rely mainly on non-renewable resources, produce significantly less energy compared with nuclear power plants and, most importantly, are considered to be amongst the main contributors of carbon emissions and, thereby, the climate crisis which humanity is now set to battle.

Nevertheless, a future powered by nuclear energy might be neither a lost cause, nor a game of “Russian roulette”, according to the research team of Francesco D’Auria (University of Pisa, Italy), Nenad Debrecin (University of Zagreb, Croatia) and Horst Glaeser (Global Research for Safety, Germany). In a recent paper, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Nuclear Energy and Technology and the result of 30-40 years of collaboration, they propose a new safety barrier to be implemented in large Light Water Reactors around the world. Coming at a fraction of the cost of the already obsolete one that it is about to replace, this barrier is expected to reduce the probability of core melt to that of a large meteorite hitting the site.

Chernobyl Liquidators Monument

In December 2017, the ‘Chernobyl liquidators’ monument by Andrei Kovalchuk was ceremonially unveiled on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow’s Victory Park to pay tribute to the people who took part in the clean-up operations after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. Credit: Country of Rosatom

With their new technological solution, these scientists aim to bring together research findings from the last few decades, mostly in relation to accident analysis capabilities and nuclear fuel material performance, as well as the concepts of the very pioneers who developed the nuclear technology in the past century. The proposal is based on studies and discussions from the 11th Scientific and Technical Conference “Safety Assurance of NPP with VVER” (Russia, May 2019) and the International Conference on Nuclear Power Plants, Structures, Risk & Decommissioning, NUPP2019 (United Kingdom, June 2019). As a result, they hope to regain public confidence in nuclear power – an efficient and sustainable source of renewable energy, as well as bridge the gaping chasm between what we have learned over the years about nuclear energy and technology and what is being implemented in practice.

Amongst the up-to-date research findings and knowledge to be implemented in the novel technological solution are the recently discovered nuclear fuel structural weakness, as well as a more elaborate Extended Safety Margin Detection (E-SMD), which allows for an emergency shutdown of a reactor, following even low and very low probability events. It also provides advanced information to the operators about the actions needed to prevent or mitigate possible damage. The recruitment of an Emergency Rescue Team (ERT) is also proposed to consist of a group of highly trained and specialised rescuers who will be in possession of suitable machinery and equipment, as well as access to each nuclear reactor installed within an assigned geographic region and who will be able to reach any of the sites within an hour or execute a remote shutdown of the reactor.

In their study, the researchers go on to explain how and why exactly these features would have prevented core melt and the eventual nuclear disasters at each of the three notorious nuclear power stations.

In the case of the Three Mile Island accident: the most devastating accident in US commercial nuclear power plant history, considered to be the result of a rather typical combined failure, an alarm from E-SMD detectors would have triggered the emergency shutdown of the unit well before the event.

In Chernobyl, where critical human errors are found to have led to the accident, an intervention from the ERT: a remotely controlled shutdown, and perhaps the deployment of the military would have prevented the consequent catastrophe.

Extended core damage at the Fukushima Units 1 to 3 would have also been prevented thanks to the combination of emergency alerts and prompt action by the ERT.

The researchers also note that, in spite of the notoriety of the three nuclear disasters, there have been about 500 safely operated nuclear power plant units since the demonstration of the capability to control the fission reaction in 1942 and the connection of nuclear fission driven electricity generator to the electrical grid in 1954. On top of that, there have been a few thousand accident-free reactors used for purposes different from electricity production, including research, production, and marine propulsion.

“The industry and/or the Government of responsible Countries where applicable, become the main players for the possible implementation of the ideas in this paper,” the scientists write in conclusion. “A strategy is needed in this connection: academia and research institutes willing to be engaged in practical applications of the nuclear technology should become actors.”

Reference: “The technological challenge for current generation nuclear reactors” by Francesco D’Auria, Nenad Debrecin and Horst Glaeser, 25 September 2019, Nuclear Energy and Technology.
DOI: 10.3897/nucet.5.38117

16 Comments on "New Low-Cost Nuclear Reactor Barrier Could’ve Withstood Chernobyl and Fukushima"

  1. If you never used or built any nuclear plants there would be no problem to start with
    It’s just the brain dead think this is clear energy with all the waste they can hardly dispose of, and to cheap to put it all on a rocket and send it into the sun to burn forever without leaving a trace on earth, But be stupid and don’t take good advise !

    • Why dispose of it? There’s so little waste it’s a non-issue. In the 60 years nuclear power has existed in the US all of the fuel waste created in the whole industry can fit on a football field, and with reprocessing that amount would be reduced significantly. No other power industry can account for their waste the way nuclear can. We know where every little bit is located. Creating power will always create waste, that’s an immutable law of physics. The real issue is how that waste impacts people and the environment. When properly contained nuclear waste has zero impact on people or the environment. Very few industries are able to make that claim.

    • Consider, which options require more energy, material and land inputs: solar, wind and their required mountains of batteries or nuclear, such as the molten salt reactor etc? I’m not against wind, solar and batteries (infact, I demand that enviros do not block their large scale construction). however, only socialists want the minimalist “solutions”…

  2. This is a waste of time.

    A “highly trained emergency response group”? The reasons that TMI and chernobyl failed are no longer valid in today’s reactors so “addressing them” is not necessary as their issues were addressed decades ago. Fukushima’s primary issue is the tsunami wiped out their equipment so they did not have equipment available in time to prevent the meltdown. This has already been addressed by adding FLEX equipment stored on site in hardened buildings and the establishment of two equipment storage locations, one in the east and one in the west that could airlift equipment anywhere in the country in 24 hours.

    The notion that you’d have a team that is qualified to operate a whole region of plants is laughable. It takes two years for an operator to get licensed to run one plant. And every single plant is different in some way. Fukushima was not an operator issue, they had very skilled operators who worked extremely well under terrible conditions. The issue was equipment, which has already been corrected for US plants.

    Our defense in depth is already like 5 layers deep. All this will do is add more cost on an industry that cannot support it.

    And terribly written article btw. Total clickbait.

  3. Three Mile Island was the result of operator error; they turned off emergency cooling pumps. Chernobyl was the result of a major design flaw; the reactor was unstable at low loads. Fukushima was the result of not protecting diesel and switchgear from flooding.

  4. William P Gloege | November 26, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Reply

    Has the author read the UN reports on 3 mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima? At Fukushima and 3 mile Island not a single person was injured let alone killed by the reactor incidents. At Chernobyl those who died were mainly workers dealing with the fire itself and cleanup work. The total fatalities were maybe 150. That many people are killed in our worldwide by use of fossil fuel‘s and this may be an under estimate of fossil fuel harm, thus “DANGER.” But we love to fear Nuclear and that gets readers attention and attention to authors who fudge on facts as in this article. Just like the performance of government in America it all comes down to the knowledge of the common voter and citizen. If the citizen doesn’t know anything about Nuclear, he or she will believe just about anything written.

    Nuclear provides 63.3% of the carbon free electricity produced in the United States. That’s right, 2/3 of our Non carbon electricity, most comes from nuclear reactors, not dinky solar (1%) or wind (5%). The big fossil fuel industry make sure you almost never read the facts.They don’t want America to become an all Nuclear country like France.

  5. William P Gloege | November 26, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Reply

    Correction to my comment: 150 people killed worldwide in one hour by burning fossil fuel. There are probably many more killed by burning fossil fuel. See website of the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Lung Association and many more for ominous danger mof burning fossil fuel, especially to Children with growing bodies. Lungs are permanently scared, causing lifelong lung issues.

  6. William P Gloege | November 26, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Reply

    Stored unspent reactor fuel is another factor of nuclear energy labeled “dangerous.” This is classic mislabeling because this stored material has never injured let alone killed a single human. The alleged “danger” resides completely in the imagination of the person(s) fearing nuclear energy and not having facts to back their fears. So they “IMAGINE” incidents none of which have occurred in the 75 year history of using clean, carbon free nuclear energy. Put these people on Stephen King’s fear creation team and send them to Hollywood. But please – keep them out of serious science and energy discussions.

  7. Pensoft Publishers is a Bulgarian business that writes articles like this on subjects they apparently know very little about. Surely this website could find reliable information sources if it looked.

  8. I agree with others that this article is clickbait. I would go so far as to label articles like this which grossly misrepresent the facts regarding nuclear power as dangerous, because I believe that nuclear power represents the most realistic way to provide the large amount of reliable baseline power we need now and for the foreseeable future while producing the zero greenhouse gas emissions needed to try to mitigate the effects of climate change. While I believe that we should take full advantage of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, etc, I also believe that nuclear power provided by newer, better, and safer designs needs to be a part of our energy future going forward.

    We have the technology available today to design nuclear fission reactors that would provide numerous advantages over outdated designs. Advanced designs exist that utilize thorium as the nuclear fuel in a liquid state (typically as a molten salt), which allows for passive safety features that would safely shutdown a reactor without any human supervision or electrical power required. Furthermore, since these designs typically operate at standard pressure, the containment building can be much smaller, and there is no possibility of an explosion that would contaminate a large area. Another significant advantage is that new reactors using the nuclear fuel in a liquid state result in extracting over 95% of the available energy, as opposed to current plants which are only able to extract less than 2% before solid fuel rods must be classified as “spent”. This means that the amount of waste produced could be over 100x less compared to current plants. In addition, the waste that would be produced would only take approximately 300 years to fully decay instead of hundreds of thousands of years. As an added bonus, new plants could be designed to use the nuclear waste we currently have sitting around as fuel, which would solve the issue of what to do with existing nuclear waste while providing useful energy. I could go on, but I hope that these points provide food for thought.

    The main obstacle to implementing these changes is the negative bias that the general public has regarding nuclear power, which has been heavily influenced by the media and articles like this.

  9. The pair of reactors at Vogtle are delayed again according to the PSC, gonna be over $30 billion.

    Lazard says nuclear now over 11 cents/kWh at best, so dismal growth potential.

    • That is because political and enviro leaders purposely only allow the most expensive type of the awesome potential of fission. Mark my words, when FUSION get developed (and able to be cheap) These damned socialists will find something wrong with that, too. In fact, many an enviro has supported the blocking of even (large scale) solar and wind!
      There is such a thing as planned obsolescence. there is also such a thing as planned scarcity…

  10. Pro-nuclear advocates tend to assume that we have 20-30 years to turn things around with a new attempt at a nuclear Renaissance. They are idealists who assume all mobil users of fossil fuel energy will soon be powered by synthetic fuels, generated from nuclear power, that don’t emit CO2. Typically, they have no clues regarding the following revelations, such as this statement made over a year ago.

    UN chief: World has less than 2 years to avoid ‘runaway climate change’

    A Horrifying New Study Found that the Ocean is on its Way to Suffocating by 2030

    World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020, major report warns

    The Threat of Global Warming causing Near-Term Human Extinction
    Temperature, carbon dioxide and methane

    CO2 Concentration – Last 800,000 years

    Climate: What did We Know and When Did We Know it?

  11. An ERT? Highly laughable! Why not real and scientific failsafes like simply change over from fossil fuels to the molten salt reactor, as envisioned by Alvin weinberg and team at ORNL (many decades ago). Useless articles like this merely continue the brainwashing within current (and really old) paradigms.
    How can global warming, defined as GHG induced radiative forcing, be solved with minimalists style “let’s make nuclear EVEN MORE expensive” (non) solutions?
    Utter nonsense. And for that, I declare you have also been brainwashed by (or are) socialists (or minimalists, same difference). I saddened when I hear about such non solutions because it is these very socialist inspired non solutions that make conservative say ” well, global warming just isn’t true, THEN” (hence the great political divide that is designed to rip asunder the free market and the free world.

  12. Here’s a thought. Stop building stupid reactors. A Genie in a bottle that will kill you if it can is NOT a practical powerplant. Getting away with it 99% of the time does NOT MAKE it practical. Also, solid fuel that must be removed after buring 1%, because otherwise you can’t get it out, is 99% less fuel efficient that a liquid fuel reactor. Also, the waste generated by concentrating U-235, then burning 1% of it, is drasticly (many orders of magnitude, tons to teacups) greater than a reactor that BURNS NUCLEAR WASTE and produces discreet and valuable elements via continuous fuel cleanout.

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