02 February 2010

"Navy Corps of Nuclear Engineering"

Let it be known that very occasionally I actually come across an expansion of government activity I could support. Stephen Bainbridge has just such a plan, involving the Navy running nuclear power plants for fun and profit.
The Navy already operates dozens of small nuclear reactors in aircraft carriers and submarines, with an outstanding record of safety and reliability. They have an established training program that churns out nuclear-capable officers.

By analogy to the Army Corps of Engineering, we could create a Navy Corps of Nuclear Engineering. It would build and operate dozens of small nuclear power plants around the country. To address security concerns, the first plants would be built on military bases, where the garrison can provide security. Licensing costs would be cut because the government would own and operate the plants.

The proposal should not offend small government sensibilities. Nuclear power is rife with market failures (and government failures). Huge research and development costs associated with traditional large scale nuclear power plants may be beyond the ability of private firms to finance. In addition, we know that private firms tend to underproduce the sort of basic R&D necessary to develop new generations of power plants. But the Navy already spends money to develop new naval reactors, which presumably could be scaled up at reasonable costs. Since the Navy need not worry about earning market competitive rates of return on its investment in R&D, moreover, there's no economic disincentive to conducting that sort of R&D in the Navy.

Private utilities are subject to state utility regulators who notoriously meddle, typically to "protect" consumers from rate increases, but usually with the outcome of making plants nonprofitable. A federal Naval Corps of Nuclear Engineering presumably would be outside the scope of state regulation.
My nuclear engineering is rusty (not that there was ever much of it), but there's another huge benefit Bainbridge doesn't mention.

Low-enriched "reactor grade" uranium is the only fuel US power plants can use. It contains about 3-4% U235. Naval reactors use uranium enriched to anywhere from 30% to 90%. This is much more efficient, allows them to run much longer before being shut down for refueling, and makes the problems of spent fuel disposal much easier to handle. The reason for this is that we don't trust civilian power companies to handle the much more dangerous mix. But if the Navy was running power plants...

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PS The Russians seem to have skipped the step where you have the Navy build actual power plants, and just tethered a nuclear-powered ship to the shore:
Wikipedia | Nuclear Marine Propulsion

Russia is well advanced with plans to build a floating nuclear power plant for their far eastern territories. The design has two 35 MW units based on the KLT-40 reactor used in icebreakers (with refueling every four years). Some Russian naval vessels have been used to supply electricity for domestic and industrial use in remote far eastern and Siberian towns.

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