Nuclear Energy reality check, Part IV

I think its time for nuclear advocates to check they’re brains into the Grand Hotel Reality-ville – or else the nuclear industry basically has no future. If we are to continue to utilise nuclear power in the future, never mind build new reactors, I would suggest the following:

•Many of the nuclear reactors globally are old and antiquated and now arguably substandard. This includes of course the two involved in the incidents in Japan. I would suggest a policy of rapidly phasing these reactors out of service. No need to just turn them all off tomorrow, we can turn them down to run at a lower power output rate (which would reduce, though not eliminate the risk of a meltdown) and adopt a much greater willingness to turn them off in the event of an emergency, increase maintenance on them, and gradually replace them with new kit, or alternatives energy sources.

•The plants in question got into difficulty because they were hit by a Tsunami wave, which likely took out the diesel generator plant. Is it sensible to put nuclear power stations in Earthquake prone areas or along coastlines? While you might argue the likelihood of a Tsunami in other parts of the world is lower than in Japan, it’s still a risk. Off the US West coast for example there are a lot of faults that can trigger a Tsunami.
While the likelihood of a Tsunami in the Atlantic is relatively low, there are rare phenomenon that can strike oceans and trigger such event, or even worse, so called Mega-Tsunami’s, notably Volcanic Island collapse, in particular the Cumbre Vieja Volcano off La Palma.
Again, while the likelihood of a Tsunami (or Mega Tsunami) is still small, you have to consider the timescales involved. A typical nuclear reactor has a 50 year operating life, with a further 5-10 years of construction and 100 years or so of decommissioning at the end (so nuke stuff on site for 150-160 years). Many of the next generation of proposed nuclear power stations in the US and UK are at coastal sites, which have already had an active nuclear reactor for many decades, and presumably will continue to have reactors of some sort on-site so long as we continue to use nuclear energy. These long time scales upgrades the risk of some calamity striking one or more nuclear sites, even within the UK, from very low to not that unlikely! Also there’s climate change to worry about, which will almost certainly push up sea levels in the next century or so (making coastal areas more prone to tidal surges and storm damage). Overall, it might be prudent to phase out any reactors at coastal/low lying locations and build them further inland in future.

•The latter point is particular important on the topic of nuclear waste. Selafield, Britain’s principle nuclear waste dump, is fairly low lying and has many hundreds of potential Chernobyl’s worth of nuclear material stored on site in containers which I’m guessing, were never designed to withstand a Tsunami (nevermind a mega-Tsunami) nor a crazy suicide pilot flying a plane into them, nor a thousand other possible things that could go wrong (right down to a carelessly discarded cigarette). Many US nuclear plants, both those on the coast and further inland, have much of they’re 40 or so years worth of spent fuel stored on-site in interim waste storage pens. These typically consist of large concrete and steel casks mounted out in the open. These are designed to withstand radiation and normal working stressed but nothing extraordinary (such as again Tsunamis or suicide attacks, etc.) A typical one of these facilities would contain 20 times the radioactive payload of the nuclear reactor itself. Obviously such storage of waste as it is now practiced is not a long term option. Whether you are pro-nuclear or against it, you have to agree that this waste needs to be moved to a safe location, preferably located underground. Here the waste can be stored and contained safely for extended time periods.

•The nuclear industry needs to come out with its hand up as far as the true cost of nuclear power are concerned. As I pointed out earlier, there is a massive widening gulf between the claimed cost of nuclear power by the lobby groups and the actual costs on the ground. The industry is doing itself no favours in the long run by promoting figures that are wildly inaccurate. Eventually they will get “found out” by the markets (and governments), indeed I would argue they have already been “found out”, as I mentioned in a previous post. As the situation in the US shows just because a country starts building reactors doesn’t mean they won’t stop and leave a billion dollar hole in the ground if it circumstances change (even more likely if its private investors rather than taxpayers who loose out!). The indications from the two EPR projects is that new nuclear plants will be much more expensive than either coal/natural gas with carbon capture and storage or indeed wind energy with intermittency backup (most likely in the UK via hydro) or indeed other options such as Geothermal energy (which I would note the Japanese have in abundance if they’d only use it).
Of course, the cost issue alone isn’t grounds to say we shouldn’t build nuclear power plants. We got into this energy mess by letting the markets decide everything and they went for the lowest common denominator – which proved to be gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East. Let’s not make that mistake again! Nuclear reactors can be useful for providing baseload power for large areas (continents), and while they may well be expensive (to build and decommission) the cost is fixed (gas and coal prices fluctuate depending on demand and market forces). There’s also climate change to consider and nuclear is a (relatively) low carbon source of energy. So even if the nuclear industry came out with cost figures substantially higher than other energy sources, there would still be a case to build a few reactors, though obviously not nearly as many if the costs were lower.

•The 2nd Fukushima is more of a worry if it melts down as it appears to be fuelled by MOX. For those not in the know, MOX (mixed oxide fuel) is basically Plutonium (from bombs or Fast Breeder reactors) and lots of other “stuff” recovered from spend fuel via reprocessing, which is then blended together to form a kind of synthetic nuclear fuel, which you can use much like standard enriched Uranium. The problem is that if a reactor loaded with it melts down the consequences are much worse as MOX is substantially more dangerous than the conventional “stuff” we put in reactors. This alone, in context of what’s happening in Japan, would be grounds to stop using it…..Or, at the very least, only use MOX in our very latest and safest of nuclear facilities (certainly not ageing reactors like this Fukushima one). I would also note that if the financial viability of nuclear power looks shaky, the MOX case is even shaker. The books on MOX are cooked to a degree than would have the Enron board shaking their heads in disgust. MOX fuel supply is dependant on a nation either having an active nuclear weapons program or using Fast Breeder reactors. Fast Breeder reactors have a dire reputation for reliability, danger, and massive cost overruns. The most recently built at Monju (also Japan), which has already suffered 2 coolant leaks and fires, cost a staggering $ 5.9 Billion and took 10 years to complete, despite its tiny 280 MW output (that’s about $21,000 per kW! 3 times the cost of PV at the time of its installation!). It has only actually been active and working for a fraction of the time since its completion.
If there’s one thing recent events have proven it’s that reprocessing is a very effective way of burning through lots of cash, generating lots more nuclear waste that you finally have to get rid of and raising the stakes in the event of a nuclear incident. It would be sensible as a result for the nuclear industry to simply ditch such ridiculous boondoggles and focus on the more practical applications of nuclear energy.

•The Nuclear industry needs to realise that the supplies of nuclear fuels, while certainly not scarce, they are limited in scale. As I pointed out above recycling of spend fuel is largely a pipe dream. The Thorium fuel cycle has major limitations, it can help stretch things out….a bit, but not by much. And besides, we can’t run everything off nuclear reactors (cars? planes? ships?).
There’s also the intermittency issue to worry about. Nuclear power plants like to be on all the time, but the grid demand varies considerably. Once nuclear output goes above 40% of a nation’s electricity demand (about 10-20% of total energy use) you start to get problems with load balance, i.e. the grid suddenly demands power the nuclear reactors can’t add power quickly enough to cope. When the gird demand drops, they can’t shed load quickly enough. The solution is to either export the power aboard and buy it back later, which is what the French do and why they are currently the world’s largest net electricity exporter (and one of the largest importers), but that’s not an option if everyone else goes nuclear too and are trying to shed load at the same time.
As a consequence of these fuel limitations and practical matters there are limits to what we can do with nuclear energy, even more so when we factor in the economic matters mentioned earlier. At best nuclear power can supply a small fraction of the world’s energy, again probably not much more than the 2.4-4.9% we actually get from it now, maybe even a bit less than that if we’re realistic.

•If the nuclear industry have, as I suspect, been more interested in the perception of safety and avoiding scary tabloid headlines, as opposed to maintaining actual safety, then this needs to stop. If there is a need for UK nuclear reactors to run some drills to say, verify they can keep everything running in the event of a power black out, then that’s something that has to been done. Yes I’m quite sure the Daily Express and the Sun will claim that such tests will have a 99% probability of killing 45 Billion people in the UK alone :lalala:. And the Greenpeace mob will no doubt show up and have to be scraped off the reactor roof by PC plod, but who said science was ever meant to be easy ;D!

•If we are going to build new reactors in the future, let’s build the right ones. Smaller reactors tend to be safer (lower thermal mass, less likely to go into meltdown, less radiation released if they do). Disposal of the core at decommissioning tends to be easier. The Americans have managed to transport a few smaller reactor cores to the INL in Idaho and bury them, something that isn’t feasible with the larger cores (such as the EPR or ABWR’s) currently proposed (which have to be enchased in concrete and left in place). Also, for many of the world’s smaller countries these large multi-GW plants currently on offer are unwieldy and impractical (when you consider the grid balancing issues I raised earlier). While smaller reactors have lower economies of scale that is only a concern if we’re trying to do things on a economically competitive basis, another reason why the nuclear industry would be better off coming clean on its true costs.


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