Climate Spectator: What’s really wrong with nuclear?

“The one problem with nuclear power is its advocates.”

Tristan Edis writes in the Climate Spectator:

As we approach the 12 month anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, it’s worth reflecting on the potential future role of nuclear power in this country. In spite of this disaster the Australian Government was brave enough to suggest nuclear power as a back-up plan in the Energy White Paper. While I’m very optimistic about renewables in combination with energy efficiency, I’m also keen on a back-up plan given the threat of global warming.

The kind of temperature changes expected as a result of global warming have occurred in the past due to natural causes. The problem is they involved very nasty things called mass extinctions.

That’s why I like anything that has a demonstrated track record of significantly reducing emissions. It’s why I like compact flourescent light bulbs, solar hot water, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels. Heck I even like pink batts. After all pink batts don’t spontaneously combust, they were put alight by highly inefficient, poorly installed halogen downlights.

All of these things definitely work, and I can see first-hand evidence of them delivering rather than promising to deliver.

It’s also why I like nuclear power. Nuclear power generated a little over 13 per cent of the world’s electricity in 2010. It has a horrible track record of meeting construction timetables and budgets, but it can definitely supply large quantities of electricity with low emissions. It has achieved this while resulting in significantly less deaths than coal use, a major plus in my book in spite of Fukushima. I worry that Japan and Germany, with their nuclear phase-outs, will instead revert to fossil-fuels rather than renewables, which is exactly what Japan is doing right now.

For a geologically and politically stable country like Australia, nuclear power could be a good option for us to reduce carbon emissions while meeting the essential need for large quantities of electricity.

The one problem with nuclear power is its advocates.


Read the entire commentary.

3 thoughts on “Climate Spectator: What’s really wrong with nuclear?”

  1. Tristan Edis appears to be pushing his own barrow; that of carbon tax. A political rant that provides insight into his depth of ignorance and prejudice; not into nuclear options.

    Nuclear has cost and schedule over-runs because of deliberate obstruction by “environmentalists” (people who hate humans). No mention of the ZERO fatalities from radiation at Fukushima.

    Nuclear (PWR and BWR) power stations need no more water than coal-fired power stations. The amount of water required depends on the amount of heat that has to be rejected to the surrounding in order to keep the heat engines (steam turbines, typically) turning to generate electricity.

    Next-generation Thorium designs (molten-salt breeder reactors – MSBR) incorporate closed-cycle gas turbines running at much higher temperatures (500+ degrees C vs 300), increasing efficiency and reducing the amount of heat to be rejected to the surroundings for the same amount of power generated. Those reactors also look like having a far cheaper fuel cycle with the fuel supplied “in bulk” and dosed into the reactor In a pressurised or boiling water reactor, fuel has to be incorporated into fuel rods that have no more than 2% utilisation before having to be removed because the solid fuel traps fission products; which “poison” the reactor by uselessly absorbing neutrons; often producing long-live transuranics.

    The MSBR is based on liquid fuels; fission products can be separated chemically by e.g. bubbling gases through the molten salt on a continuous basis. The breeder produces fissile material which is fed back into the core, with any surplus used to kick-start a new reactor. Other isotopes can be harvested continuously for medical or special purposes (e.g. RTG in satellites and space probes).

    Refuelling is by adding salt granules into the Thorium circuit with a hopper.

    Operating at high temperature with molten salts and at atmospheric pressure, the reactor is self-throttling because the expansion of the salts when heating reduces the density of fissionable and fertile components. They can be made inherently safe (vis ORNL MSBRE) to be walk-away safe, requiring no machinery to shut down and to cool off. Further, the fissile material in the core (most U-233) can be “poisoned” easily by introducing/mixing other Uranium isotopes into the liquid as it drains; in the event of a terrorist threat. The stuff is then less useful than yellowcake for making nuclear weapons.

    Unlike pressurised or boiling water reactors, MSBR can be built “small”, from 100 MW without substantial loss of efficiency; and in 10’s of megawatts for “mobile” use. Up to 100 MW can ostensibly be air-cooled, requiring no water. A cooling tower using water won’t be as noisy and more efficient.

    The high quality heat from the reactors is also useful for process heat. Including synthetic liquid fuels for transport from bio-waste, coal and gas or extraction of oil from tar/oil sands.

    A Czech-Australian consortium is developing a prototype molten-salt Thorium reactor; to be running (IIRC) within 4 years. They have on tap the nuclear engineering experience of Skoda and other suppliers who built “Soviet”-designed reactors in Czechoslovakia (as it was) and other Eastern bloc countries. The Czech nuclear research institute “NRI” has been researching applicable materials and processes for well over a decade.

    They aren’t the only ones researching: China’s got mountains of spoils from its rare-earth minerals mining operations. Spoils containing large amounts of Thorium. Last year, a delegation visited ORNL and got copies of the old research documentation on MSBR and poked around the old facilities. All legit. .

    I believe that Tristan’s closing remark “The majority of Australians are opposed to the use of nuclear power in this country.” is misleading.

    Once I explain the options and answer the questions as best I can; the scale of radiation risks and risk management in future reactors (Australia won’t be building 40-year old reactors), they seem quite positive. I don’t have to mention “greenhouse gas” or “climate change” as reasons to use nuclear power. Conserving gas, oil and coal for purposes other than electricity generation is mentioned as a significant motivation to move to nuclear power ASAP.

    Oh yeah; and they also like the idea of burning up the “hard” waste from other nuclear power plants and weapons in a MSBR. Letting the neutrons smash the nasties to bits quickly, instead of trying to store them securely for 30,000 years; and making more electricty from that smashing as well.

  2. If only nuclear advocates would advcate global warming. (Apparently exclusively.) Tristan weighs in with the hammer’s viewpoint of nails.

  3. “I’m also keen on a back-up plan given the threat of global warming.”

    A schoolyard bully is more of a threat than global warming.

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