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Nuclear Power You Can Trust?

by Richard Elen on 21 Jun, 2011

in Politics, Science & Technology

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Having been involved in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in one way or anoth­er since the 1970s, I’ve always been in the “anti-nuclear” camp.

Indeed, I think I was the first per­son to cre­ate an Eng­lish ver­sion of the famous “Atom­kraft? Nein Danke” logo – for the cov­er of an edi­tion of Under­cur­rents mag­a­zine – a mag­a­zine that was into renew­ables (main­ly of the DIY vari­ety) before a lot of peo­ple. (You can read some copies of it here.)

Of course there are plen­ty of rea­sons to be wary of nuclear pow­er – of the cur­rent vari­ety at least.

  • There’s the ques­tion of ener­gy secu­ri­ty: Ura­ni­um does­n’t come from here, we have to import it, or reprocess oth­er peo­ples’. So although I gath­er there might be deposits off the British coast, it does­n’t seem at this point to help decou­ple us from poten­tial prob­lems with depen­dence on over­seas sources.
  • There’s the prob­lem of nuclear waste dis­pos­al, though some peo­ple (James Love­lock for exam­ple) are con­vinced that this can be done safe­ly and per­ma­nent­ly.
  • Nuclear pow­er as we cur­rent­ly do it is absurd­ly inef­fi­cient. What you do is you let radioac­tive decay heat some water and then pass it through tur­bines. It’s just like a con­ven­tion­al pow­er sta­tion, except you heat the water dif­fer­ent­ly. I can imag­ine the effi­cien­cy is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than 50%. What­ev­er hap­pened to inno­v­a­tive direct con­ver­sion tech­nolo­gies like MHD (Mag­ne­to­Hy­dro­Dy­nam­ics), where, for exam­ple, you can run a plas­ma back and forth in a mag­net­ic field and pull elec­tric­i­ty direct­ly off the plas­ma, in a kind of flu­id dynamo? The Sovi­ets had some pilot plants gen­er­at­ing sev­er­al megawatts. What hap­pened?
  • And there’s the risk of dis­as­trous acci­dents, like Cher­nobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushi­ma, which can poten­tial­ly spread sig­nif­i­cant amounts of irra­di­at­ed mate­r­i­al over a wide area, with poten­tial health effects like increased long-term can­cer risk and oth­er prob­lems beyond the direct effects of radi­a­tion poi­son­ing.

Counter to the last of these, there’s the fact that remark­ably few peo­ple have actu­al­ly been affect­ed by radi­a­tion from nuclear pow­er plants. Many, many few­er than have been killed or injured by coal-min­ing acci­dents and oth­er fos­sil-fuel-relat­ed dis­as­ters. If Ger­many was as sen­si­tive to risks to life from bac­te­ria as it is from nuclear pow­er, it would have closed down the organ­ic food indus­try by now. But instead, it’s clos­ing down its nuclear plants, which, as far as I know, have not caused any deaths at all, unlike the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed beansprouts.

But of course, it’s nev­er as sim­ple as that.

The fact is that right now we need low-car­bon ener­gy sources, and quick­ly, to com­bat the threat of anthro­pogenic (human-cre­at­ed) glob­al warm­ing (AGW). There is no doubt about the threat of AGW, and I’m not going to enter­tain dis­cus­sion about it here. Sor­ry.

Much as I am in favour of renew­ables, and much as I like the sight of ele­gant, vir­tu­al­ly silent wind tur­bines dot­ting the land­scape (and I would as hap­pi­ly have some in the field behind my house as James Love­lock would have a nuclear waste stor­age facil­i­ty behind his), the fact is that renew­ables are almost cer­tain­ly not enough, and we need some­thing more to replace our age­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing­ly destruc­tive car­bon-spew­ing fos­sil-fuel pow­ered gen­er­at­ing sta­tions. Nuclear is the obvi­ous option, so after years of tak­ing an anti-nuclear stance, I am chang­ing my mind. And in doing so find myself aligned with peo­ple like George Mon­biot and Pro­fes­sor Love­lock.

In my opin­ion, even if we did no bet­ter in the inter­na­tion­al nuclear pow­er indus­try than we have done to date, any threat to human life from nuclear pow­er, past, present and future, is as noth­ing com­pared to the bil­lions whose lives are threat­ened by AGW and will be over the 50–100 years ahead.

I will be a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial and say that in my per­son­al view (and I am not a nuclear pow­er expert, so may be wrong), the cur­rent lev­el of nuclear pow­er tech­nol­o­gy is much safer than the chain that ends in a con­ven­tion­al fos­sil-fuel-dri­ven pow­er sta­tion. That, to me, is not the ques­tion.

Instead, the ques­tion is, can we trust any­one to build, main­tain and oper­ate nuclear pow­er sta­tions safe­ly?

You could argue that by and large, the answer to that ques­tion is yes. Nuclear pow­er as it is prac­tised today is in fact extreme­ly safe com­pared with fos­sil-fuel gen­er­a­tion. But there is a bit of a knife edge here. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, how­ev­er intrin­si­cal­ly safe the cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy is, the fact is that I do not trust for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tions to do the job prop­er­ly. I am not even sure I trust gov­ern­ments. They will always be look­ing to cut cor­ners and save mon­ey, time or what­ev­er else, and the result will be a great­ly increased risk. Take a look at this:

 

This is the seg­ment on nuclear pow­er from Adam Cur­tis’s Pan­do­ra’s Box series on some mis­us­es of sci­en­tif­ic research. I’m a big fan of Cur­tis’s work (although I have some issues with his lat­est series, All Watched Over By Machines of Lov­ing Grace) and I think the above is spot on.

So, I think the tech­nol­o­gy of cur­rent nuclear pow­er is fine in the­o­ry, but we are going to screw it up in prac­tice. How can we have our cake and eat it? What we need is a method of nuclear pow­er gen­er­a­tion that you can’t screw up [very eas­i­ly].

The answer just might be hint­ed at in this arti­cle from, of all places The Mail On Sun­day, a paper I would nev­er have thought I’d find myself rec­om­mend­ing in, er, a month of Sun­days. It’s also rec­om­mend­ed by the cli­mate-scep­tic Glob­al Warm­ing Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion. Talk about strange bed­fel­lows….

The piece is about the “Elec­tron Mod­el of Many Appli­ca­tions”, or EMMA. Here’s the arti­cle. Research into this tech­nol­o­gy is going on in Cheshire and it might just pro­vide the key to one method of using Tho­ri­um in a reac­tor to gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty – assum­ing the UK gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues fund­ing the research prop­er­ly, which I doubt. Here’s the begin­ning of the piece:

“Imag­ine a safe, clean nuclear reac­tor that used a fuel that was huge­ly abun­dant, pro­duced only minute quan­ti­ties of radioac­tive waste and was almost impos­si­ble to adapt to make weapons. It sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. This is what lies in store if we har­ness the pow­er of a sil­very met­al found in riv­er sands, soil and gran­ite rock the world over: tho­ri­um.

One ton of tho­ri­um can pro­duce as much ener­gy as 200 tons of ura­ni­um, or 3.5 mil­lion tons of coal, and the tho­ri­um deposits that have already been iden­ti­fied would meet the entire world’s ener­gy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike ura­ni­um, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it’s far less tox­ic. Hap­pi­ly, it pro­duces ener­gy with­out pro­duc­ing any car­bon diox­ide: so an econ­o­my that ran on tho­ri­um pow­er would have vir­tu­al­ly no car­bon foot­print.

Bet­ter still, a tho­ri­um reac­tor would be inca­pable of hav­ing a melt­down, and would gen­er­ate only 0.6 per cent of the radioac­tive waste of a con­ven­tion­al nuclear plant. It could even be adapt­ed to ‘burn’ exist­ing, stock­piled ura­ni­um waste in its core, thus enor­mous­ly reduc­ing its radioac­tive half-life and tox­i­c­i­ty.…”

Now read on.

It seems to me that this tech­nol­o­gy could answer many, if not all, of the envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns about the accept­abil­i­ty of nuclear pow­er. Of course I want to read the full report that is appar­ent­ly soon to be pub­lished, and no tech­nol­o­gy comes with­out draw­backs (or unin­tend­ed con­se­quences for that mat­ter), but pre­lim­i­nary accounts, like the one above, seem to offer promise.

For more on oth­er pos­si­ble uses of Tho­ri­um for pow­er gen­er­a­tions, see this Wikipedia arti­cle. You’ll see it’s not entire­ly prob­lem-free – but then noth­ing is.

*Head­er image from MensPulpMags.com

 

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