Nuclear Energy Story

Nuclear energy is such a technological and emotive subject that trying to present a simple story is quite impossible for one person (That’s why we need an organization to develop the story). Personally I have vacillated between enthusiasm, while young and stupid, to outright dismissal, while older and equally stupid.  Maybe one needs to think again?(1)

Here are the problems just in formulating an outline:

  • The technology is complex
  • Even when the technology is understood other concerns get in the way:
    • Economics
    • National pride
    • Local resistance
    • Human nature
  • Nuclear energy, nuclear weapons and terrorism are always linked.  That is a reality, even if not justified or just subconscious.

The social contract

I have one great fear about nuclear power and other technologies like geo-engineering; 

If we dither about taking big steps in reducing consumption and moving to renewables we will reach a point where we have no option but to use “big technology”.  

That’s not necessarily bad.  However history has shown us that technological advance often has unintended consequences.  If the technology is powerful enough we are tempted to make social contracts that violate our basic beliefs – for example:

  • Tens of thousands of deaths and more ruined lives per year in return for the motor car 
  • The export of waste “across the border”, as in electronic recycling and ship breaking.  (The biosphere has no borders…)
  • Reliance on fertilizers, specialized seed and pest control chemicals in return for the “agricultural revolution”

With that bias on the table…

Nuclear Technology  

This is just a list of headings and some minor comments;

  • Most commercial reactors are Pressurized Water Reactors using Uranium fuel
  • Over 100 pressurized water reactors power active US navy ships – more than the number of commercial reactors
  • The US Navy has had no major nuclear incident in 70 years (except for the total loss of two submarines, not caused by the nuclear power plant)
  • There is promise in other designs (e.g. thorium fuel, fast breeders, liquid metal or liquid salts)
  • Nuclear plants provide significant amounts of electrical power around the world.  
    • The USA has the largest installed total generation capacity (809,000 GWh) but is #15 in terms of percentage of electricity provided by nuclear; 19.7% – on the same level as Russia.  
    • France is #1 in terms of electricity share at 70.6% and #2 in generation (382,000 GWh)
    • The Ukraine is #2 for electricity from nuclear, at 54%  – despite Chernobyl
    • Germany(2) has announced a total phase-out of nuclear power by 2022.
    • Switzerland plans a gradual phaseout
  • The nuclear waste issue is not solved(3).  Of all the countries using nuclear power only Finland is in the actual construction phase of a High Level/Long Term Waste storage facility.  Many countries, including the USA, China(4), France and Sweden, have identified and planned sites. But all have run into roadblocks preventing construction.
  • Fusion power remains interesting, but even with breakthroughs in design commercial introduction is very unlikely to happen before we reach the environmental “breaking point” mentioned before

Economics

Civilian nuclear power plants must supply electricity at competitive rates (except for subsidies when national pride enters the picture). This in turn means that construction, waste management and operations costs must be kept down. In practice this has led to construction flaws, a short term approach to waste handling and, possibly, lower motivation of operational staff.

One opinion(5) states that operational practices are the reason for the US Navy safety record compared to commercial operations.  However military reactors are smaller and built for rugged conditions, unlike commercial units.  The Navy also has less economic restraint than a commercial organization.

Life cycle costs for nuclear power are an area of disagreement. Reactor builders and operators argue that once constructed and in operation, the efficiency of nuclear generation allows for waste handling and eventual decommissioning.  Others claim that waste and end of life costs are externalized to society.

Bottom Line

  • Nuclear power is here to stay
  • It is not “clean”
    • The waste problem is not solved
    • Uranium production causes pollution at the mine site
  • Proliferation and terrorism concerns will remain and impose extra costs
  • We do not want to be forced into major nuclear power expansion through lack of effort in other directions

________________

Notes:

  1.  In a world changing at unprecedented speed, there’s a new must-need skill on the block: “Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”  from Adam Grant: “Think again”
  2. Germany is, justifiably, regarded as a leader in environmental action.  However, Germany; 
    • Imports (part nuclear) power from France for load balancing and exports power to France when the reactors there cannot meet peak demands
    • Uses large quantities of brown coal
    • Plans to complete a natural gas pipeline from Russia (Nord Stream 2)
  3.  “It’s a societal problem that has been handed down to us from our parents’ generation. And we are—more or less—handing it to our children.”Gerald S. Frankel, materials scientist, Ohio State University – quoted in As nuclear waste piles up, scientists seek the best long-term storage solutions
  4. Scientists say China has the chance to become a world leader in this field but has to find a way to ensure it does not leak.” “Researchers will conduct tests at the location in Gansu to see whether it will make a viable facility to store highly radioactive waste safely” – South China Morning Post – 5 Sep, 2019
  5. “Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., said commercial nuclear power plants have at times been run haphazardly and sloppily.  The Navy is one thing, Lyman said. “Are they going to be able to run the commercial sector with that kind of discipline? I doubt it.”” – Politifact, June 2008

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