Nuclear power options snippets
Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-07-25
There was a nuanced post by B.Tolputt over at Blogocrats ("The Nuclear Option" 2009-07-24), and looking back at the comments I wrote, I think they are worth repeating here.
In particular, I’m concerned that those with anti-nuclear sentiments are easily discredited if they talk of "nuclear technology" or "nuclear power" in the singular, rather than "nuclear technologies".
The two comments are separated by horizontal rules. While they address other comments in the thread, while they do not provide the scope I’d like for a post, they are reasonably self-contained. I have fixed up some typos, added some links, and reformatted during the cut-and-paste.
Good nuanced article. Thanks.
Further to your notes about the limited Uranium (which suggests some advantages of fast breeder reactors), it is worth noting that rare earths, essential for many energy saving devices (including solar cells, the LCDs of laptops and mobile phones) are in even shorter supply – I’ve summarized the work by Tom Graedel of the USGS here. According to this survey, there are NOT 85 years, but around 60 at current consumption, and 20 for worldwide consumption at 50% of current US per capita consumption. Even less with expanded use to replace coal.
Thus, the nuclear option can only be seen as a stopgap measure, albeit a useful one. Large reactors that take years to come online won’t actually help.
While the big utilities would push for large reactors, newer designs for "portable and disposable" reactors, small enough to fit in your garage and power a town of 10K people are now becoming available, removing the inefficiences of long transmission lines. The "pebble bed" reactor is also much safer… lower temperatures, lower pressure, and with the physics of the reaction itself meaning that it shuts itself down when it overheats – without the need for control rods and the like.
As I discuss here, the key danger of nuclear power comes not from the technology, but a toothless regulatory regime that puts safety in the hands of private enterprise. That article uses the root cause of the Three Mile Island disaster in support of my position, as told to me by an expert witness to the Maralinga Royal Commission.
If Australia /is/ to gain economic benefit from the use of uranium to give us breathing space to take action on climate change (e.g. time for population and consumption shrinkage, without which other actions are futile), then the AWU (not my favorite union!) proposals for downstream processing, storage, etc are essential. Otherwise we will continue to be "China’s quarry and Japan’s beach".
More and more, while I’m 50:50 on the nuclear issue, and certainly unconvinced about it’s long-term use, together with the problems of rare earths required for solar cells, I’m of the opinion that wind, tidal, and use of algae to trap solar energy are better long term options.
But again, whatever we use for energy sources, without managed and rapid population shrinkage, we’ll have even more shrinkage (many scientists calling it a "cull" of between 50% and 90% by the end of the century), but it will be totally unmanaged.
"no-one can be trusted with such a dangerous technology"
RN’s use of the singular (technology) rather than the plural (technologies) is dangerous, because it gives the least ethical people in the debate an easy way to discredit objections by well-meaning folk. Objections to nuclear technologies need to be done on a case-by-case basis, risks and benefits. Just because van de Graaf generators deal with similar voltages to high tension power cables doesn’t mean the two technologies are equally dangerous. (see this vid of a little girl with a van de Graaf)
Yes – large nuclear plants using high pressure, high temperature, with complex cooling systems of liquid sodium, can fail and cause massive disasters. Different designs, different risks. As I pointed out elsewhere, people who are paranoid about radiation happily walk through Kakadu national park, despite bits of Kakadu being more radioactive than bits of Maralinga.
The "catastrophic" Chernobyl-like failure that causes continent-wide problems is impossible with small "portable/disposable" reactors. Yes, many more small reactors means that the risk of an accident goes up – but these accidents have only a small impact, affecting (paranoid guesstimate) 1000 people – and those mainly by having to shift location. 10 short-term deaths – maybe, a few hundred with statistically significant increased risks of cancers. Hand out the iodine, give out the relocation dollars, set up a health monitoring program.
There are many studies showing that risk perception by the general population is often severely flawed. Do you know what one of the most lethal objects in UK households is based on actual mortality statistics? The old-style CRT TV set. Gets toppled on top of climbing kids because the risks are ignored.
The best example of risk misperception was a study after planes ran into the WTC. Air passengers in the US were offered two forms of insurance – one covering everything for $50, and covering only terrorism for $60. A very significant number chose the $60 option, even though it covered less.
I’ve worked with radioactive sources, deadly microbes (and genetic engineered some), carcinogens, nasty toxins, military-grade weapons…. but the greatest dangers I’ve posed to myself and the public involved getting behind the wheel of a car and lighting a campfire in summer.
So – object to one or more nuclear technologies – fine. You’ll be correct for more than one or two of those technologies. But at least do it properly. Understand it’s not just the technologies, but the processes around them. AS/NZS 4360 (Risk Management Standard) provides the structure for the argument and the decision-making process.
And the best mitigation? Keep "Monty Burns" types away from the politicians, keep untrained "Homer Simpson" types out of control rooms, and remove the profit motive.
The worst things? Make it easy for Monty Burns to discredit you, make it easy for Monty Burns to make political donations, have weak regulations so that Homer gets into the room with the dials and buttons.
If there is a take-home message, it’s that politicians and Monty Burns will probably put in nuclear power whether we want it or not. The only thing we can do is make them put in the appropriate controls, the appropriate reactor designs, in the interests of citizens rather than corporations.
Actually, the best thing is to cut the need for power generation: a one-child-per-woman policy.
- "Keep Uranium for research and medicine while we still have it" (2007-06-07) is probably less equivocal than it should be… but then, my position is not fixed on the entire nuclear power industry. Still, I think it remains an important consideration.
- "Climate change may not be our worst problem" (2007-05-27)
- "Australian Nuclear Industry: Qualified Support" (2006-11-07)
- "Nuclear Power" (2009-07-21 – A Senex View) – A good discussion of the CANDU reactor from a newish Australian blog
- "Nukes: a necessary part of our future?" (2009-07-20 – Larvatus Prodeo by "Brian") has some more good information, and the usual mix of comments good and bad.
- "Safe portable nuclear – almost" (2009-07-18 by Jennifer Marohasy) – yeah, normally someone who sets my teeth on edge, but this particular post has a point that needs to be considered.
- Pebble bed reactor (Wikipedia)
- The "portable/disposable" no-moving-parts reactor is described in Hydrogen Moderated Self-Regulating Nuclear Power Module (Wikipedia), supplied by companies such as Hyperion (a link useful for the picture to get some idea of how small it is). This is the type of reactor I mean when I suggest dotting them all around the place, decentralizing production, cutting out transmission lines, and if one or two worldwide have the worst possible failure – it’s hardly a problem.
- Toshiba 4S reactor (Wikipedia) claims to be "super safe small and simple", but with liquid sodium as coolant, and MUCH larger than Hyperion, and needing staff, I’m dubious of the claim, considering the name almost misleading advertising.
- Nuclear power reactor types (Wikipedia category)