March 20, 2008

The Nuclear Renaissance Will Happen Slowly

While lots of countries, including the United States, are exploring the idea of expanding their nuclear power plant infrastructure, a rather critical problem exists. Part of a nuclear reactor core is a containment vessel, which is the thing that actually holds the radioactive metal during the fissioning process. If you don't have one, your reactor core will leak enough radiation to kill the workers in the plant and you could lose control of the rate of fissioning going on with your radioactive metal. (It gets buried underground and encased in concrete as well as the steel.) So obviously you can't have a nuclear power plant without one.

A containment vessel is a very large, heavy, single piece of elaborately-crafted, high-quality steel that is made from 600 pound ingots of stainless steel. So it turns out, you can't just call up your local machine shop and have the guy pop out three or four of these things from his milling machine by next Wednesday. So where do you get them?

The answer is Japan Steel Works, Ltd., a manufacturer on the island of Hokkadio. Theirs is the only plant in the world capable of making these things. Japan Steel Works only has the capacity to make four of them a year, and while they're trying to expand their capacity, they're on back order until 2015.

There are some other companies that are looking at competing with Japan Steel Works for this market. But it is estimated that the closest competitor will take at least five years to have sufficient facilities in place to make these things. What all this means is that even if we were to get our act together today and agree to what I think is the obvious proposition that we do need more nuclear power plants, we will likely not have any up and running until the 2020's.

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