There was both interest and confusion over at the ABC Unleashed site when I wrote my first piece there on nuclear power. Going by the comments, most folks who were traditionally anti-nuclear continued to harbour their old beliefs and misconceptions about the technologies involved, even after reading my short piece. I did briefly (in one paragraph) explain the advantages of advanced nuclear power (Gen IV, the exemplar being the Integral Fast Reactor) — that is, it eliminates or at least minimises the major concerns held against Gen II (Gen III also solves some, but not waste/supply) and carries a bunch of advantages (like a huge amount of concentrated, zero-carbon energy). But that first Op Ed was always meant primarily to get people thinking more broadly about energy solutions — pointing out that mitigating climate change is the crucial end game: if you don’t get this right, everything else is ceases to matter.
Anyway, in order to take the basic idea of IFR to the masses, I wrote a second piece which is focused specifically on this tech (and a little more on Gen III+, which are also attractive as a transition/stop-gap). I’ve reproduced the essay at the end of this post. For regular readers, there is probably nothing new there. On the other hand, it contains almost too much detail for those unfamiliar with the concepts (at least that is what GR says!).
For another popular audience take on it, Steve Kirsch has written a nice piece for a The Mercury News, a Silicon Valley newspaper. It’s called “How a 24-year-old technology can save the planet“. It’s also well worth a read.
Finally, Jim Green from Friends of the Earth, has posted a critique of IFR. Check it out, and see what you think after reading the details of the IFR technology here and elsewhere (follow those links). As a head’s up, I plan to post a rejoinder to Jim’s critique, once I clear a few other things off the desk.
Why old nuclear power is not new
Previously in this forum I have expressed the view that nuclear power will likely play a key role in the world’s future energy mix. My bottom line was this: the climate and energy crises need fixing with extreme urgency, and both require solutions which completely solve their underlying causes. Half measures at best merely help to delay the same eventual result as business-as-usual (and at worst encourage complacency) — saddling future generations with a climatically hostile planet with a scarcity of available energy.
The comments in response to my openness about the nuclear option were not unexpected. In short, five principle objections were mounted against the viability or desirability of nuclear power.
First, uranium supplies are small, such that if the world was wholly powered by nuclear reactors, there would be at most a few decades of energy to use before our resource was exhausted and the power plants would have to shut down. Second, nuclear accidents have happened in the past, and therefore this power-generation technology is inherently dangerous. Third, expansion of nuclear power would axiomatically risk the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Fourth, in taking the short-term nuclear energy option, we would be bequeathing future generations with the legacy of long-lived nuclear waste requiring thousands of years of management. Fifth, large amounts of energy (and possibly greenhouse gases) would be required to mine, mill and enrich uranium, and to construct and later decommission the nuclear power stations themselves.
Cost and embedded energy arguments used against nuclear must be left for another day, because to be addressed fairly, this also requires a critical examination of the costs and embedded energy requirements for the alternative sources (renewables and fossil fuels).
Now all five of the above points have some merit, although their relative importance compared to threat of climate change and the societal disruption caused by critical energy shortages is debatable. The chaos and bitter complaints which stemmed from the power shortages experienced during the current heatwave in southern Australia demonstrate how dependent we are on a secure, reliable energy supply. But to be honest, there is little point in even having a debate on how persuasive these five objections are, because none will be applicable to future nuclear energy generation.
Of the more than 440 commercial nuclear power stations operating worldwide today and supplying 16 per cent of the world’s electricity, almost all are thermal spectrum reactors. These use ordinary water to both slow the neutrons which cause uranium atoms to split (fission) and to carry the heat generated in this controlled chain reaction to a steam turbine to generate electricity. Because of the gradual build-up of fission products (nuclear poisons) in fuel rods over time, we end up getting about 1 per cent of the useable energy out of the uranium, and throw the rest out as that problematic long-lived waste.
Modern reactors are incredibly safe, with physics-based ‘passive’ safety systems requiring no user-operated or mechanical control to shut down the reaction. Indeed, a certification assessment for the ‘Generation III+’ Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) put the risk of a core meltdown as severe as the one which occurred at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979 at once every 29 million years. For reference, the TMI incident resulted in no deaths. Similarly, comparing the inherently unsafe Chernobyl reactor design to an ESBWR is a bit like comparing an army revolver to a water gun.
Fast spectrum reactors, also known as ‘Generation IV’, are able to use 99.5 per cent of the energy in uranium. There is enough energy in already-mined uranium and stored plutonium from existing stockpiles to supply all the world’s power needs for over a century before we even need to mine any more uranium. Once we do start mining again, there is enough energy in proven uranium deposits to supply the entire world for at least 50,000 years. Fast reactors can be used to burn all existing reserves of plutonium and the waste stream of the past and present generation of thermal reactors.
The safety features of Gen IV designs, due for instance to the metal alloy fuel used, is superior even to the ESBWR. The nuclear fuel used by fast reactors is fiendishly radioactive and contaminated with various heavy elements (which are all eventually burned up in the power generation process!), making it impossible to divert to a nuclear weapons programme without an expensive, heavily shielded off-site reprocessing facility which would be easily detected by inspectors.
Yet in reality the only nuclear waste material that will ever leave an Integrated Fast Reactor complex (a systems design for power stations which includes on-site reprocessing) are fission products, which decay to background levels of radiation with a few hundred years (not hundreds of millennia), and can be readily stored because they produce so little heat compared to ‘conventional’ nuclear waste.
For further details, I refer you to my review of the book Prescription for the Planet, which discusses the Integral Fast Reactor technology in-depth, as well as ways to transform our vehicle fleet to use zero-emissions metal-powered burners and how to convert our municipal solid waste to plasma.
Business-as-usual projections suggest that at current pace, we may have Gen IV fast spectrum reactors delivering commercial power by 2025 to 2030. Too late, you say! True enough, but these same sort of forward projections resulted in the International Energy Agency recently predicting that non-hydro renewables will go from meeting 1per cent, to 2 per cent, of global energy use. Either option therefore requires radically accelerated research, development and deployment, if it is to make a difference to climate change and energy supply. A project of Manhattan-style proportions (America’s development of the atom bomb, three years after the first controlled chain reaction) or the audacity of the moon-shot vision (12 years from Sputnik to Neil Armstrong’s famous small step), is required.
There is no doubt in my mind that we have the means to ‘fix’ the climate and energy crises, or at least avert the worst consequences, if we have full recognition of the scale and immediacy of the challenges now faced. New generation nuclear power is one possible path to success, and one that all nations should actively support – though certainly not to the exclusion of other zero-carbon energy options such as renewables and efficiencies. So let’s be sure, when rationally considering energy planning, that we are not mired in old-school thinking about exciting new technologies.