Climate change

March 18, 2010

Cheap, green nuclear power?

Guest Post by Dr John Rolls. John is an adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Systems & Technology, University of South Australia. He an environmental scientist interested in global food systems and clean energy and is treasurer of the Australian Solar Energy Society (South Australian Branch).

John attended both of Tom Blees’ recent events in Adelaide, and offers this balanced commentary on the issue of how environmental groups should evaluate the role of nuclear power in a clean energy future.

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Tom Blees, author of “Prescription for the Planet”, believes that the way to a low carbon energy future is through a new form of nuclear power – that uses nuclear waste as its fuel.

Tom presented his ideas to the Royal Institute Australia (RiAus) in Adelaide on 3rd February (podcast here) and at a debate on nuclear energy hosted by Zero Carbon Network (ZCN), Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), and Australian Solar Energy Society (AuSES) on 5th February (podcast here, BNC write-up here). Both events were well publicised and delivered to packed houses.

At the RiAus presentation, Blees was interviewed by Professor Mike Young from Adelaide University’s Environment Institute, co-sponsors of the event, where he had more opportunity to describe the background to his ideas.

Blees is not a scientist, but has had a long term interest in energy. He is also concerned about social justice: he was affronted by the idea that the West has developed its wealth using fossil fuels – with the associated environmental consequences – but that people in developing nations would be denied access to cheap energy on account of concerns about greenhouse emissions. While visiting Russia several years ago he learned of US research on Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs), a power source with essentially zero GHG emissions apart from those incurred in constructing the power plant. This started him on a quest to find out everything he could about IFRs. He learned most of what he knows about nuclear power from scientists who had worked on developing IFRs.

The IFR was developed by the US Argonne National Laboratory, commencing in 1964 with construction of the EBR-II, a research breeder reactor with on-site fuel reprocessing. Work on the project was terminated by the Clinton administration in 1994, apparently for political reasons, when the next phase would have been construction of a full-scale demonstration plant.

One important feature of IFRs Tom notes is that they would be fuelled with depleted uranium, plutonium from old nuclear arms and the global accumulation of waste from existing nuclear power plants. A second is that they increase energy recovery from 0.6% of the energy contained in the fuel – typical of existing nuclear energy installations – to 100%. The IFR turns the problem of nuclear waste management into a free source of energy. He estimates that IFRs could meet likely global energy demands for several centuries without the need to mine or process any new uranium.

Blees proposes the rapid development and adoption of three technologies: (IFRs), a technology he describes as well-developed; boron as an energy carrier to replace oil-based fuels for vehicles, a technology with high promise but needing further research and development; and recycling of wastes using high temperature plasma technology, which is operating at plants in China, Japan, Poland, Italy and Australia. He also proposes a standardised modular design of IFRs to reduce costs and increase reliability, and an international system to control construction and operation of IFRs.

To promote adoption of his vision Blees has created an international NGO, the Science Council for Global Initiatives (SCGI), of which Dr Jim Hansen, the world’s most prominent climate scientist, and Barry Brook, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, University of Adelaide, are members. Barry Brook also took part in the ZCN/ SPA/AuSES debate, where Tom Blees described how negotiations with high level participation by the Obama administration are in progress to enable use of US IFR technology by Russia, China, India, South Korea and Japan. The most likely scenario is the construction of an IFR reactor in Russia, on account of Russia’s long development of breeder technology, and the relative ease of avoiding political opposition. An agreement with General Electric has been established to build such a plant. Among other potential applications, the Russians are interested in using IFRs to power pumps on pipelines taking Russian natural gas to the West.

The Obama administration has a clear interest in taking part in these negotiations. The fact that the US has developed the technology is known to other countries, and either alone or in cooperation some of the existing nuclear states with rapidly growing energy demands could replicate the design. It would take time, but they would get there, and this would destroy the US’s commercial interest in selling the intellectual property. At least as cogently, while the US has this strategic negotiating advantage it also has the potential to gain acceptance of an international oversight arrangement like that Tom Blees envisages. There are powerful interests in the US that might fall on opposite sides on this issue. American exceptionalists and US nuclear corporations would likely vigorously oppose an international control system. For the US fossil fuel industry, the prospect of the eventual replacement of fossil fuels by IFRs would suggest that their initial response would be to oppose IFRs under any circumstances, and if/as they became convinced that IFRs were the way of the future, they would want to ensure that they owned and operated them.

The claim that IFRs have huge potential to produce low emissions, low cost energy from waste from current generation reactors with low likelihood of contributing to nuclear proliferation, nuclear diversion and terrorism, presents the conservation movement and anti-nuclear activists with a big challenge. It would be inadequate for anti-nuclear and conservation organizations to resist the introduction of IFRs on the basis of the characteristics of past and current nuclear power technologies. Both Mark Diesendorf, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at University of New South Wales, and David Noonan, ACF Nuclear Free Campaigner largely argued along these lines at the debate. They also argued that non-nuclear alternative energy sources could provide our energy needs; the pro-nuclear side denied that this could be achieved cost-effectively. The two teams agreed that energy efficiency could easily make a major contribution to reducing emissions.

The concepts Blees promotes are more than worthy of serious consideration. If all the features of IFRs, boron power and plasma recycling are as Blees presents them, their rapid adoption would create a wholly new energy dynamic. Set in the existing economic paradigm, this would drive a rapid expansion of some environmental problems, especially in developing countries; essentially limitless cheap energy will accelerate the adoption of higher consumption western lifestyles with all the attendant resource use implications. For the next several decades the Chinese and Indians will not be building new housing, factories and infrastructure solely from materials recycled by plasma technology from their existing counterparts; there is nowhere near enough material in existing structures to achieve that. They will be using virgin materials – even if far less Australian coal!

Associated with rapidly rising real incomes based on cheap energy, there would also be a huge expansion of demand for tourist access to remote and environmentally sensitive areas. Cheap energy would be seen as a green light for those with a mystical faith in the infinite capacity of our finite Earth to support unlimited economic and population growth.

As Tom Blees would assert, we have no right to seek to deny higher living standards to people in developing countries. However the impacts of Western lifestyles unrelated to greenhouse gas emissions, (loss of biodiversity, elimination of species, marine and inland water pollution, over-use of water resources, loss of environmental services) are huge, and if the world’s current population adopted Western patterns of consumption and current technologies, we would need another 3 Earth’s to cope with the impact. In the absence of huge adjustments to our consumption patterns, production methods and attitudes to waste, these impacts will double or treble. If Tom Blees’ ideas were rapidly adopted, all of these issues would initially be expanded in scale. The West clearly needs to lead the way in dealing with them, but there is precious little evidence that Western governments recognize their scale and urgency, let alone that they are addressing them seriously.

Tom Blees’ ideas demand serious consideration, as much because these consequential issues need to be thought through now, and vigorously addressed by the West, not after they have achieved the momentum they inevitably otherwise would.

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