Nuclear power is dead: long live nuclear power
Interesting story in the Guardian this morning; China working on uranium-free nuclear plants in attempt to combat smog. The gist of it is that China has given a research group 10 years to design and build a working nuclear plant based on new (and as yet unproven) technology that uses thorium molten salt as a fuel instead of uranium. An advanced research centre was set up in January by the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the aim of developing an industrial reactor in 25 years, but the smog problem is getting so bad the government has now reduced the timescale (although the article doesn’t say if they also increased the funding appropriately – let’s hope so, rather than making the demand with unfortunate implications for those poor souls should they fail).
I can understand the imperatives that are driving the Chinese. It’s a strange and disturbing example of Santayana’s aphorism – how we repeat history if we don’t learn from it – that China is now reliving all the worst environmental and social excesses of the west’s history of industrialisation, as well as enjoying its sweeter fruits. I had hoped that China would have more sense, and learn from our mistakes, but the speed with which they are gearing up precludes the sober, cautious path, in part I suspect because they know they world is fast running out of time, as a burgeoning global population, resource depletion and climate change combine to make a perfect storm.
What China doesn’t achieve in the next decade or two, they are unlikely to achieve at all, because as the world’s climate destabilises, so too will the global economy. The export markets funded principally by our ‘disposable income’ will wither away, so China is in a rush to squeeze every last drop out of this seeming serendipity. Unfortunately, such a trajectory of development can only be fuelled right now by coal, hence the staggering pollution that is making life deeply unpleasant, indeed dangerous, for many Chinese. Unless the government does something about this very quickly, they are going to face civil unrest whose trajectory will mirror that of their industrialisation – again, just like we did.
I do however find this story encouraging for a different reason, because unlike many of my fellow travellers (but like Monbiot and others) I believe that nuclear power could be a way forward in respect of climate change and the search for non-polluting energy generation, but not – for obvious reasons – in its present form.
There is an unfortunate conflation of ideas about nuclear power, many it seems driven by deep anxiety about radiation that, in my view, seem also to echo the fears of socialism that pervade the thinking of the conservative right – more so in the US, admittedly. Both fears were born at a time when science seemed to be opening one Pandora’s box after another, and the connection between the cold war, capitalism, communism, nuclear power and nuclear weapons has not made it easy to discuss the subject.
For my part, being a technologist of sorts, I look at the iterations of current nuclear generation plants as being crude, and not really subject to the astonishing innovation seen throughout science and technology in parallel fields; space, communications, electronics, medicine and so on.
So it seems sensible to me that we should be investing strongly in nuclear power, because as is often the case, while early developments in many technologies have been unreliable or outright dangerous, progress addresses these issues where there is a need or a demand. We both need and should demand safe, non-polluting nuclear power because we’re already half way there, and if the Chinese get it right, such a development would really help to combat climate change, without any of the caveats that must accompany other forms of non-polluting energy generation. And surely it must also be true that if the Chinese can do it, so too could we. In many ways, China’s emergence as the leading world power in the 21st century is being catalysed by a lack of conviction, of energy, of innovation and invention in the west. Sometimes, I think we’re just plain worn out.
As a footnote, I also believe that a lot more money and time should be put into making solar panels more efficient, employing cost-effective methods that can be mass-manufactured, and into the storage methods that can localise energy production without us having to go to bed when the sun comes down. I mention this because even safe nuclear power depends on a distribution infrastructure that the developing world doesn’t have, and cannot afford to build. The vast distances between suitable sites for nuclear plants and the African nations that need energy prevent distribution, but they do have an abundance of sunlight.