That the opinion of Tracyite Lynn Wallis, a nuclear engineer who worked 39 years for General Electric, which designed the now-troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on the coast of Japan.
Wallis noted that locating standby generators in the plant’s basement — flooded by tsumani water — was the critical mistake that caused the problems that are still ongoing. Underestimating the potential for flooding by a giant tsunami was a major deficiency in the plant’s design, not underestimating potential earthquake damage, he said.
He is very familiar with the design of the Japanese plant.
“It was a 1971 design that was used by GE in a number of nuclear power plants in the U.S. and in other countries in that era,” he said. “Plants of that design had operated without problems until the current events in Japan.”
Wallis did say that in his experiences with Japanese nuclear power people, they weren’t anxious to accept ideas from non-Japanese.
He said improvements in nuclear power plant design and technology should make a new generation of plants safer than the 1971 models. What was learned in Japan in recent weeks will undoubtedly be factored into the new technology.
Nuclear power will be needed in future decades to meet power needs and retire coal-burning plants, but getting those plants approved and constructed will take awhile, he noted.
“The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has promised, as it should, to make a thorough study of existing plants based on what happened in Japan,” he said. “That will take some time.”
Wallis believes another factor in delaying development of new nuclear power plans in the U.S. is the relatively low price and ample quantity of natural gas.
“Natural gas is much cleaner than coal, and we have plenty of it in the U.S.,” he said. “With the annual consumption of natural gas at 23 trillion cubic feet, known underground supplies in the U.S. alone could last some 90 years.”
Although estimating the natural gas potential in the U.S. is difficult, estimates run between 1,000 trillion cubic feet up to 2,300 trillion cubic feet.
One energy executive pointed recently that the U.S. has twice as much natural gas as Saudi Arabia has oil.
But in the long run — and with new technology and decisions on the best way to store nuclear waste — nuclear power has to be a part of the electricity-generating mix in the U.S., Wallis believes.
“Wind and solar are certainly the cleanest, but they can provide only a fraction of the nation’s power needs.” Wallis said. “Nuclear generation provides the only realistic alternative to burning fossil fuel — but it will take some time.”
And Boone, too
After talking to Lynn recently, I heard T. Boone Pickens speak Tuesday night in Oakland.
And here again, our nation’s abundant supply of natural gas was a central focus of his talk.
Boone, the old Texas oil hand, advocates the use of natural gas in all large trucks in the U.S. This will greatly diminish the amount of oil needed to be imported, especially from the OPEC cartel, he states without hesitation.
Pickens said hybrid and electric-powered cars will be more plentiful in the future, but electricity can’t produce enough power to propel an 18-wheeler. The only available alternative to diesel fuel is natural gas.
Pickens reported a bill was being introduced in Congress this week to provide incentives for use of natural gas in vehicles.
“I fuel it (natural gas) in my garage at night, and it’s less than $1 a gallon,” he said in Oakland. “And you’re getting ready to pay $4 a gallon (for gasoline).”
As both Lynn and Boone have indicated, we’ll be hearing a lot more about the use of natural gas to generate electricity and power vehicles in the next couple of years.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.