Does Illinois have a nuclear future?

As President Obama visits Argonne to talk energy, scientists there are racing to make nuclear power cleaner and safer.

March 14, 2013

(WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)
An empty lot next to the Braidwood nuclear power plant

President Barack Obama was in town Friday visiting Argonne National Laboratory in the Western suburbs. The president talked about his “all of the above” energy policy, which includes alternative fuels and better batteries, but one area didn't get quite as much air time from the president: nuclear power. 

Illinois continues to be the largest producer of nuclear power in the country.

And scientists at Argonne, and nearby Fermilab, want to keep it that way – by making nuclear part of our sustainable energy future.

But the future of nuclear here and across the country is shaky. After a long hiatus, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is licensing new reactors again, but most of those are in the Southeast, and none are in Illinois.

Reduce, reuse, recycle...

The first rule of Argonne National Laboratories: Don’t touch anything. When nuclear engineer Roger Blomquist took me on a tour, he was sure to show me the Geiger counter the employees use to check their hands and feet on the way in and out of the lab where Argonne builds specialized parts for research reactors. 

I learned the second rule of Argonne pretty fast, too: Don’t say nuclear waste.

“The idea that it is waste is somebody’s interpretation,” Blomquist said. At Argonne, the radioactive stuff most of us know as nuclear waste is called spent nuclear fuel.

Part of the reason for the linguistic shift, says Blomquist, is that we could be recycling the materials in nuclear waste.

“With enough recycling you can use 100 percent of the energy that’s in the uranium ore you dig out of the ground,” he said. Today’s technology uses up just one percent of the power we could be getting out of uranium through nuclear fission. The rest comes back out of the reactors, mixed with a slush of more volatile, radioactive elements.

But recycling nuclear fuel is well within reach. Blomquist is working on the development of fast reactors, a type of nuclear reactor that can run on reprocessed fuel and that he says would be smaller, more contained and safer than the reactors we currently use. 

Just down the road at Fermilab, Argonne’s sister laboratory, researcher and associate lab director Stuart Henderson agreed that the technology in use these days is way behind the times.

“A lot of what we do with spent nuclear fuel is sort of what Homer Simpson would do,” Henderson said. “It’s not very sophisticated.”

Reprocessing or pyroprocessing nuclear waste would allow us to take the pellets of radioactive fuel out of reactors, separate out the elements with the longest half-lives, and reuse them as fuel for reactors. The only thing left over would be the most radioactive parts of the waste, which decay in just a few hundred years.

Right now spent fuel has to be stored in pools or casks for hundreds of thousands of years.

Henderson’s working on another type of nuclear reactor that would deal with both waste and safety issues, a reactor powered by a particle accelerator.

Right now, what happens in a nuclear reactor is a controlled chain reaction: in short, particles crash into one another and cause other particles to crash into one another, generating an enormous amount of heat.

But once it starts, nuclear fission in a reactor can be hard to slow down.

In the new model, called a sub-critical reactor, there would be no chain reaction. A particle accelerator would shoot particles into the reactor to keep the reaction going.

So if you want to stop it, you just hit a switch and turn off the accelerator.

“That means that the reactor is never capable of having a Chernobyl-type explosion,” Henderson said. He’s in touch with Belgian scientists who are building one of these reactors, called a sub-critical reactor; his job is to help build the high-powered accelerator that’s capable of doing the job.

If you build it

So, what’s the hangup? Where are these reactors of the future?

Both Blomquist and Henderson say having the technology is simply not enough to usher in a nuclear renaissance. We’d need to start building these reactors of the future now if we wanted to be getting power from them in less than 15 years, and in the U.S., that’s just not happening.

They both say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a part of that equation – it’s expensive and complex to license a reactor design, so much so that companies don’t see an incentive to get involved with the grandiose designs of the future, no matter how much safer they might be. Here in Illinois, Exelon is looking to make its current reactors more efficient, but there are no plans for new reactors in the state.

“Nobody’s gonna build any new ones, anytime soon,” said Mark Cooper, a researcher at the University of Vermont who studies the safety and economics of nuclear power.

Cooper says other options available like solar, wind, natural gas and coal remain far more economically viable than nuclear, and he suggests we should be investing more in other high tech energy innovations.

Plus, he says even the most advanced nuclear reactors still come with risks – and someone has to pay for insurance on those, too. 

“As you operate them, you learn that you haven’t done enough,” he said. “Mother nature throws you a curve, human beings don’t behave properly, equipment breaks down.”

Just two years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, those possibilities loom large, especially for people with nuclear power in their own backyards.

Living with nuclear power

Braidwood, Ill. is only 50 miles from the high tech labs, but in a lot of ways, it’s a different world. The fear of nuclear power is real here.

Exelon operates a nuclear plant at the edge of the small town, and in the 1990s the water was contaminated with radioactive tritium from the Braidwood plant. According to the Chicago Tribune, Exelon didn’t admit the mistake until years later.

The people in Braidwood have developed a sort of gallows humor about living near a reactor.

“You’re gonna be the first one to go if you live by one,” said resident Mike Franklin put it. In other words, you won’t live to suffer through the devastating effects of radiation – and that’s a good thing. Franklin, like a lot of people I talked to, grew up in Braidwood, and said he generally doesn’t think much about the plant.

In a grocery store parking lot at Braidwood’s main intersection, just up the road from the reactor, I caught an older man named Charles Crick unloading his grocery cart. He worked at the Braidwood plant.

“I started in a nuke in 1971, and I worked in ‘em until I retired,” he said. “Do I glow in the dark? No.”

The Stumble Inn is a bar just a mile down the road the other way, in the 600-person town of Godley. The morning crowd at the Stumble Inn was small but enthusiastic - and none of them like living near the plant.

“I’m not for nuclear power,” said Arthur Wallace, who goes by Slick here. Slick’s son-in-law worked at the Braidwood reactor, and died of leukemia at age 44; some research suggests links between leukemia and radiation. His daughter worked in security at the plant.

“They sent her home every once in awhile with her badge gettin’ too much rads. Too much radiation,” he said. “She quit after 11 years.”

The bartender, Ronda Bally, was a school bus driver for a long time, and recalled getting trainings from Exelon on how to pick up children and the elderly during a nuclear emergency.

“My life is half over,” she said. “My kids and my grandkids still have a lot of years left ahead of them, and if something as basic as a water supply could cause them serious health issues or even possible death, I have a problem with that.”

A lot of people here say they’d support safer nuclear power in a heartbeat. But Bally, like Slick, isn’t sure she wants a nuclear future at all.

“I’m kinda more interested in the whole wind farm thing that they’re doing now”, she said. “Nuclear anything is very scary.”

The nuclear future

“Nuclear power is the worst investment in the current environment,” said Mark Cooper. “You have gone through a series of these pursuits of a technological holy grail. And they have failed.”

His point: scientists have known about safer nuclear for decades – and companies just aren’t willing to spend the money to make it happen.

But Roger Blomquist at Argonne thinks it’s only a matter of time before climate change eclipses the barriers to nuclear innovation.

“Then getting rid of burning fossil fuels will become a national emergency,” he said. “And when that happens, that’s when this technology will be blindingly obvious to most people.”

At that point, he says, maybe living in the nuclear future won’t seem so bad.

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