I came across a very interesting review of the book Why Nuclear Power Has Been a Flop. I haven’t read the book itself, but the summary is well worth a read.
The main point is this: nuclear power is expensive, but it should be cheap. The reason it is expensive is that regulators have held nuclear power to far higher standards than any other power source. Risk from nuclear must be ALARA – as low as reasonably achievable. This, in effect, means that nuclear power can never become cheaper than any other option. If it is cheaper, than obviously there is room for increased safety.
This has not only led to exploding prices for nuclear power plants. In some instances, it also led to a decrease in safety as engineers had to use experimental materials to comply with irrational safety requirements. In one instance, half a mile of road had to be renewed because some (perfectly safe) water from a cask had dripped on the floor. The irony: the material used to pave the road was naturally high in thorium and far more radioactive than the water that had dripped on the floor.
It also led to the problem that it is hard to test new and safer reactor designs: In order to build a small test reactor, you need to go through an approval process similar to the regular one. That is often impossible or infeasible.
Part of the problem, the book argues, is that the industry paints nuclear power as ‘perfectly safe’. It isn’t. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are rare incidences, but there is no guarantee there will be no incidences in the future. Something like Chernobyl will probably never happen again, because the reactor was designed without any of the precautionary measures that are implemented in modern reactors. But something may happen. The question though, is this: Does that mean we should not use the technology? People use airplanes even though they crash from time to time. It is probably time to have an hones discussion about this.