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Nuclear power is dead: long live nuclear power

March 20, 2014

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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2014 4:34 pm

    I like this post. You say:

    “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. ”

    I fear this is true. I hope (and, to some degree, am optimistic) that by that time we will have well embedded large scale wind, better PV and I, too, would like to see Thorium reactors. It seems to me that the inherent safety benefits of a thorium reactor over uranium fuelled equivalent should allay many of the fears due to unknown consequences held by our “fellow travellers” as you put it.

    I came to this blog via your comments on the Guardian blog (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/mar/17/east-africa-dealing-with-climate-change), which I thought were very measured. I too, noticed the dearth of comments on the story regarding the effects of CC being felt in the poorest places of the world and contrasted it to the rather more sensationalised posts that draw 100s of comments. I confess I was drawn into commenting on such a post and felt ridiculous when I read the list of posts and thought of the hundreds of more important topics I could apply myself to.

    I think the problems of Climate Change consequences affecting the vulnerable and exploited whilst being caused by the rich, powerful and, indeed, lucky is an area that should receive far more attention. I will be back here to read your thoughts more regularly.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 24, 2014 7:12 pm

    Hi Richard – and welcome.

    As I mentioned, it seemed rather a shame that so few people were interested in solutions, in progress in developing nations, and in those who so often are nominated as more deserving of attention than climate change mitigation. Of course, it’s pretty clear that in fact, the world’s poor are being used to bolster arguments that have little merit, and the proponents of those arguments put forward views that their actions do not validate – but that’s nothing new, I guess.

    Still, it was heartening to read how people in Africa were neither helpless, dependent on nor begging for handouts, and had the energy and abilities to find appropriate solutions in the context of their own culture and way of life. I’m glad I was not the only one to appreciate the article and its story. I also regret that so many of those who share my concerns also seem blinded by fear when it comes to the potential for nuclear power to be developed beyond the problematic methods in use right now – as I said, it’s a crude system that hasn’t changed much since its inception, and given the history of technology it seems logical to believe we can do much better.

    All the best – Graham

  3. mark hb permalink
    March 25, 2014 9:46 pm

    HI Graham, thoughtful post as ever. More solutions are indeed needed as is a far greater focus & dynamism. I am far more suspicious of nuclear power developments than you for some reasons that you dont explore.
    1/ It is economic & political systems which draw parameters for industry, and unfortunately human society tends to be corrupt. Here’s the thoughts of Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer.
    “Nuclear Power is a technology that can have forty good years of operation and one very bad day. Policy makers and business interests clearly want to believe the “forty good years” part of that sentence, but choose to ignore the “one very bad day”!
    Companies like Entergy claim that their nuclear plants are “safe”. What does this mean??? This means that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has reviewed 5% of that plant’s paperwork and checked off in boxes that the paperwork existed. However, those same companies did not tell you that the nuclear industry lobbying group has vetted every NRC Commissioner for the past twenty years before they allowed Congress to approve those Commissioners. And, did you know that those same lobbyists worked with the NRC to write those power plant regulations? So safe to Entergy and other nuclear power plant owners means that plants like Indian Point comply with the minimum acceptable criteria established by a compliant regulator”
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/lessons-from-the-fukushima-daiichi-nuclear-accident/5354517
    I dont doubt that the situation is similar in Asia, and I suppose my underlying premise is that human society & systems probably need to evolve a fair bit before we can be trusted with such powerful technology. I would make a similar argument with genetic engineering by the way, and whilst i have no problem using it to develop medicines, unconstrained environmental release seems simply irresponsible. The pressures for immediate economic return, with the future-public bearing the costs of any downside seems to make risk taking a recklessly simple equation for those making decisions.
    2/ We actually already have plenty of solutions to sustainability in renewable energy, resource recycling, and sustainable agriculture. All we need to do is invest in them.
    The challenges are overwhelmingly cultural & economic rather than technological. costs of solar & wind are continuing to fall by the day. Geothermal & hydro & CSP can provide all the balancing baseload we need. Costs of nuclear are rising. Timescales for nuclear build are too long.
    3/ Climate change is happening now and already causing an increasing litany of local environmental disasters. Nuclear power stations are intensely vulnerable in these situations – if and as society slowly breaks down – so do our systems of regulation and control, and our ability to clean up these accidents diminishes even further.
    Anyway theres a few for you to chew on. Like many of these things people’s minds tend to be made up instinctively on these matters rather than logically, and I am as much susceptible to this as anyone! Yours aye Mark

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 26, 2014 7:47 am

    Hi Mark;

    Gunderson’s remark addresses existing technology (the one ‘bad day’), as do quite a few of your points (regulation, proliferation, vulnerability). You do seem to be locked into an analysis that simply would not apply if we were able to develop the technology that, by its nature, would eliminate those same problems. I don’t think this is ‘instinct’ (as you wryly put it) so much as habit; I’m not going to address them except to say that they are problems with existing methods, and technology can solve them.

    As for corruption; nothing you’ve said there doesn’t apply equally to any other method of power generation, or pretty much any other enterprise; Mining, road planning, building regs, housing, waste disposal…so it does seem you might be over-egging your argument, perhaps because the topic has a visceral import for you above and beyond other topics to which the same problems are endemic. As I said, I’m a technologist, and my interest in this subject is purely from that standpoint; we must be able to do better, because the history of all technologies demonstrates that we do when we have a need, a demand or a desire to do so. We’re inventive enough to have brought nuclear energy into being, now we need to make it work properly. As an analogy, when I was a kid, cars were hopeless, very dangerous (none would pass the impact tests current vehicles are subjected to), deeply unreliable, and turning into rust buckets after a few years. There just isn’t any comparison between early cars and modern ones, and that same improvement curve can be traversed by the nuclear industry, given the right incentives – and that seems to be exactly what China is doing, hence the story in the first place.

    You also mention other sustainable sources and use the term renewable. Let’s not be taken in by the nomenclature: ‘safe’ nuclear power, that China is seeking for example, is just as sustainable, but not ‘renewable’ because it does require some fuel, where wind, geo and tidal do not. However, the energy return on the amount of fuel needed is wildly disproportionate to the amount you put in, so its efficiency is comparable. And like other sustainable sources, it would not produce CO2 in operation, only in build – but that’s also true of sustainable sources too.

    I believe we need a mixture of technologies. Excluding current nuclear power is sensible; too many risks as you rightly point out. But a source without those risks provides benefits in some situations – a lack of dependence on natural variability of energy sources being the most obvious – and we should both consider and investigate all options that don’t involve burning fossil fuels.

    I find the energy issue the most complex I touch on, and I’m really not well enough researched to take a strong position. It is my belief that we can do better when it comes to nuclear power. I also suspect – without anything much to back it up – that we can’t run an energy-profligate global economy – an industrial machine like our current one – on renewables. I think we can power domestic requirements, but industry needs something with a lot more grunt and consistency, and a safe form of nuclear power could provide that. In the end, with enough work, perhaps everything could be powered by renewables, but not in the timeframe we have available to us to make the profound changes needed to stop climate change destabilisation, and not without profound changes to the other half of the equation; demand. We’re discussing supply, which is good, but until we are more modest about our demands, I don’t see any way renewables alone will satiate our greed – and that’s another problem altogether. After all, if we just didn’t buy loads of stuff in a vain attempt to find happiness that way, we could probably mitigate climate change without hardly changing anything else at all, hence my recent article about materialism being the root cause of the entire problem.
    All the best,
    Graham

  5. mark hb permalink
    March 26, 2014 8:37 am

    Your points are – as ever- well made and incisive. I suppose what i am struggling with is the very notion of satisfying our greed; surely in itself its not sustainable or desirable to do that. Our ambitions surely need to be constrained by the limitations of sustainability. It is clear that this may be an arbitrary distinction but EVEN IF there was to be developed an absolutely clean nuclear power technology, (and even if it was “too cheap to meter” would it be wise to make use of it? Would human society be able to be responsible in the face of such power, and restrain itself from utterly devastating the natural world? Surely we need – as a species – to use other (communication?) technology to realise some of the key strategies necessary for survival – namely self restraint? And the time is clearly now. Tough love rather than further indulgence? Look forward to your response! Very best Mark

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 26, 2014 8:54 am

    Good reply Mark – I have long believed that before we got the right answers, we should make sure we’re asking the right questions – and demand is that part of the equation that is all too often missing from the debate, particularly when energy is discussed not just in terms of current demand, but in light of predictions that demand will go up. To me, that sounds like a ‘free market’ argument, where demand for energy is equated (or conflated) with economic growth.

    I find this a very difficult subject because it is so complex. Demand in the developed nations is, in my view, out of control, and way to excessive to cater for. But then I think about the developing nations; they need a lot of energy to build and maintain the infrastructure we now take for granted. I would rather see them do that with a safe form of nuclear power than with fossil fuels, but without the kind of development I hope China achieves, and assuming we demand the developing nations only use renewables to fuel their own parity with the rest of us, we are in effect demanding that they remain poor, under-developed and inferior for a much longer period of time. And we must always bear in mind that the cost of energy is the chief constraint on development; the more it costs, the slower the development. It’s all very well talking about ‘grid parity’, but first you have to build a grid.

    That said, we could and should make the point to developing nations that for them to emulate our excesses is a profound learning failure (Santayana again). Trouble is, most of the developing world has been brainwashed by American TV and films, and by pervasive advertising, to want what we have – including our profligacy. You talk about tough love, but I’m not sure your average rural Indian or African is going to see it that way, or appreciate being told they shouldn’t want what we have because it’s bad for all of us. In this respect, China is a disappointment because they seem to be in a mighty rush to make all the same mistakes we have, only much faster (e.g. air quality – I grew up in the great smogs that blighted London for weeks on end without lifting at all).

  7. mark hb permalink
    March 26, 2014 10:12 am

    It is indeed a complicated subject.
    The very last thing that I would wish to do is to cause any developing nations remain poor for any extra length of time but I am not sure that a consumerist expansionary nuclear powered model is really worth the price? The truth is that nuclear technology as presently manifested is huge of scale, long of lead time, expensive to install, impossible to clean up after and increasing in cost, whilst risks of catastrophic failure are so un-insurable as they need to be born by the state, and often by its unwitting neighbours as many countries experienced during the Chernobyl disaster. I fear its a trap.
    Renewables on the other hand are reducing in cost substantially year on year and able to be installed in increments with immediate effect. Solar & wind are also advanced technologies but eminently more suitable for a sustainable development paradigm than nuclear. There’s no risk of weaponisation or proliferation and minimal waste. Solar has the extra advantage of diversified empowering ownership of one’s own electricity supply, at least partially breaking the corporate stranglehold on a homeowner’s creation of power. For so many supporters of nuclear the ultimate argument seems to be that its “better then coal” and to that – i have no answer except – of course it is, but we can do better, and we can do it now! My hope is that the developing nations can avoid the catastrophic mistakes made by Ukraine & Japan and leapfrog directly to the best renewable technologies available today. Clean nuclear is still a far off concept that its probably appropriate to treat with scepticism.
    China is indeed rushing forward but many are already repenting with every choking breath.
    Yours aye Mark

  8. Allen Hull permalink
    April 1, 2014 2:21 pm

    Nuclear power has actually killed very few people. Contrast this with the fact that, for example, in 2010 motor vehicles killed around 1.25 million people and injured between 20 and 50 million people, according to figures published in Wikipedia. So in 10 years we can expect around 125 million people to be killed by motor vehicles, yet I am not aware of any massive campaign to remove motor vehicles from our roads because of their appalling death toll. Everyone is too aware of the huge social and economic benefits motor transport brings.
    So in my view, invoking the “Precautionary Principle” with regard to nuclear energy is quite ridiculous. Modern technology is now quite capable, I would suggest, of devising safe nuclear reactors, and the risk of them causing harm is most remote, and far less than that caused by motor vehicles. And while it may take a while to get nuclear power sources up and running, I would suggest it would be far quicker and more successful in every way than fiddling about with the medieval technology of windmills and the more modern but relatively inefficient solar panels which can never provide reliable base load energy, and which have not gained much effective traction in the generation of power during the last 20 years.

  9. mark hb permalink
    April 1, 2014 8:50 pm

    Hi Allen.
    I of course agree that nuclear has killed very few, but it has sterilised vast areas of land around Chernobyl & Fukushima.
    I also agree that modern technology is probably capable of devising “safe” nuclear reactors.
    It just hasnt been done yet so I hope you allow me to remain sceptical about that. Just like car crashes, most nuclear accidents are a result of human errors and cultural weaknesses which are virtually impossible to eliminate. Only the results tend to have rather worse consequences.
    However when you talk about fiddling with the medieval technology of windmills i am afraid that your prejudices and ignorance is quite deeply exposed. Possibly some research on your part is appropriate rather than a long debate here.
    Photovoltaic panels are indeed relatively inefficient but substantial technical improvements have been demonstrated and price is coming down year on year. Whereas of course the opposite is true for nuclear, whose costs are rising.
    When you claim that solar has not gained much traction, possibly you are not sufficiently up to date with your numbers. This year about 44.5 gigawatts will be added globally, a 20.9 percent increase on last year’s new installations, according to the average estimate of nine analysts and companies. That’s equal to the output of about 10 atomic reactors.
    Best regards Mark

  10. April 27, 2014 6:14 am

    I would like to point out that this neither new or unproven. At Oak Ridge National Laboratories there was a molten salt reactor in operation for like 4 years. This was almost 50 years ago. But we decided that reactors that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons were the higher priority.

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