Backstory – Barry Brook on 4th Generation Nuclear Power

This is a mini “in-between” post to alert you to an extended radio interview I just did on 4th Generation nuclear power. (For those who might wonder, I’m currently writing “TCASE 3: The Power Hungry Future”, which I’ll post in a couple of days).

Here is a link to the audio (MP3 download). It runs for 50 minutes and was conducted at 6-7 pm tonight (7 October 2009). It was broadcast on Radio Adelaide’s 101.5 Backstory, a weekly current affairs programme which provides perspective on politics, people and places, with a special focus on international issues. Here is the interview précis:

Any solution to the world’s ever increasing energy requirements must be climate change friendly.

While many activists and scientists insist that renewable energies such as wind, solar and hydro electric can solve the world’s energy needs and avoid a climate catastrophe, opponents point to fourth generation nuclear power as a better solution.

Professor Barry Brook holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide and is an advocate of fourth generation nuclear power. Barry’s personal website is Brave New Climate.

Sean Robinson spoke to Barry and asked him to give an over view of what “fourth generation” means and how it differs from contemporary nuclear reactors.

In this interview, I obviously talk about the technology of nuclear power (Gen III and Gen IV), but also attempt to verbally map out my thoughts on the future of sustainable energy, what the likely pathway will be, and how fast we might be able to get there. I hope you get something out of it, or at least have some questions or critiques.

For a previous interview of mine on Backstory from May, on climate science and the roots of scepticism, see here (MP3 audio download).

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37 Comments

  1. Yes. There are vested interests against IFR. I fear it takes many years to win the war against those rogues. Coal, oil, gas, “renewable” etc.

    We should begin today IFR in a large scale. Ten years more, and our species is lost…

  2. Another brilliant interview Barry! You must be getting through to a large audience. It was so interesting and compelling it kept me up until after 1 am!! I encourage others to listen to it.

  3. I agree with Perps@#2. There were a couple of things I would’ve tackled differently, but on the whole, a sterling job!

    Those ‘couple of things’ are probably better explained on the second or third installment of detail anyway. You have done an excellent job. Are they likely to invite Green or Noonan or some such along for a response in the interests of ‘balanced reporting’?

  4. One of the better explanations I have heard for lay consumption on this topic. We need more communicators like you reaching out to the non-technical audience to explain the benefits of nuclear energy. Well done

  5. Last night I listened to half of the interview via satellite internet. Now I need to find a way to fast forward streaming audio. Incidentally that could free up $10bn or so from the optic fibre rollout by using satellite and wireless instead.

    My feeling is that Australia needs several Gen III’s on the ground before IFR will be accepted. I didn’t catch whether your talk proposed going straight to IFR.

  6. Great presentation Barry. I loaded it on my MP3 player and listened to it while I was walking. Could you add some MP3 tags to make it more mp3 player friendly? On Windows XP, right click on the file and select properties and click on the Summary tab and the value fields to add artist and album title.

  7. One of the things I liked about Barry’s talk was the overall all, large perspective. I’ve been *almost* a lone voice sometimes in the “Gen IV community” about the need to support, actively, the deployment of Gen III/III+ reactors. I think the 80 year life of all the Gen III reactors is going to be critical for the developing the nuclear infrastructure for Gen IV. I don’t mean the physical economy, per se (technology) but I mean the political and social acceptance on the one hand and to produce a large amount of the feedstock for Gen IV reactor fuel.

    Charles Barton has been following the three step/phased Indian deployment of their smaller sub-700MW nukes on Nuclear Green. They start with a Heavy Water Reactor, run the spent fuel then through a Fast Breeder Reactor and then again through another tuned breeder for final energy harvesting and zeroing out their waste stream. It’s very cool.

  8. Thanks all for your comments and suggestions. A few points:

    #1: Yes, we need to kickstart the research programme for LFTR and the commercial demonstration for IFR, immediately. The Gen III/Gen IV synergy will be key, but we must not let the Gen IV develop lag any longer.

    #3: Finrod, let me know what you might have tackled differently. It’s always good to understand different perspectives on how best to tackle the ‘public face’ of nuclear education. I don’t think they will get Green or Noonan in – at least the Backstory producers didn’t leave me with the impression that they viewed this as a ‘debate’.

    #5/#10: David, what else do you think I might have said in the short time (looking for constructive feedback here, please don’t take my question as a rhetorical retort!). We (the collective nuclear power advocates) definitely do need to spend more effort explaining this concept; anyone who has looked deeply into the rate of deployment problem knows that this is essential.

    #6: John, I think the only way is the D/L the whole .MP3, rather than stream it, to jump ahead/backwards.

    #8: Joel, good suggestion, but unfortunately I don’t have an control over the .MP3 (it was produced and posted by the studio).

  9. OK, Barry, on Gen III. I think in terms of expanding, you, many of us here, certainly my LFTR comrades, tend to make a dictomy between Gen III and Gen IV for the obvious reason: all Gen IV is better (in most ways) than Gen III. We “perceive” this as argument to convince anti-nukes…by this I mean the broader, general public anti-nukes, not he activists fundi types, why nuclear is good, or, “don’t worry about Gen III, we have Gen IV”.

    I think anyone who goes on the air, writers articles for newspapers, etc has a kind of obligation to tell the truth about the positive aspects of nuclear. What people “see” is Gen II and III. You can talk, as you *should* all you want about IFR or Gen IV but we can’t change the discussion, that discussion is politically contextualized by the the 400 plus Gen II reactors and the current crop of Gen III reactors that are due to go online in he next 4 years or so.

    I think you need to put Gen IV in the overall “nuclear context”. There cannot be a Gen IV without the *success* of Gen III. This means learning more and expanding on the Gen III “as a good thing, not something that is ‘worse than Gen IV’. We need to talk up the Nuclear Renaissance because the deployment of the IFR and the later LFTR/LCTRs are 100% dependent on the success of the Gen III paradigm. “Success” is defined in political terms (financial, regulatory, scheduling, replacement/mitigation of coal/carbon generation, etc).

    We shouldn’t try to separate Gen IV from III. It won’t work, and we don’t have the time. I want to see China build their 100 plus reactors. This is a good thing. In fact, with their investment in both fast breeders underway and their breaking ground on their TRISO PBMR this year, they *show* the road map TOO Gen IV. As do the Indians with their 3 phase uranium/thorium paradigm that Charles has documented on Nuclear Green.

    In other words (since I’m on the rambling road here) discuss the Chinese approach who have, with Shaw and Westinghouse, plan to build a hundred *modular* AP1000s and why this is good, why the methods used successfully there can help in building IFR and LFTR here (Aus/US/etc).

    I also think it would be good to focus on the developing world and how smaller Gen IV reactors, built, again, modularity, in smaller outputs, can be the basis for real, modern, development of their societies. Think about how the IFR can be built in, say, a developing country like Egypt or Mexico or Nigeria. What would it offer those societies? We’ve had so much discussion here on grid development, and some of these countries have totally retarded grids that perhaps the IFR or LFTR can serve as the needed shot in the arm to get them off burning down their forests for charcoal.

    David

  10. David, I agree — but I’ve been trying to say this! See here for instance:

    “I would have no problem with the storage of the small amounts of Gen II/III waste in geological repositories, if that was necessary. But it won’t be, since this spent fuel will be used in Gen IV reactors. The Gen III / Gen IV synergy is splendidly neat. In that context, we should be building as many Gen III plants as we can, as fast as we can, in places like China. US and other well-developed nuclear nations should be building a whole lot more Gen III, with a serious plann to start bringing Gen IVs online ASAP.”

    and here:

    “Gen IV could be delivering significant electrons in 10 years (or less — some interesting plans are afoot that I can’t elaborate on at this stage) and will be the only type of nuclear plant being built within 30 years. In the meantime, there is more than sufficient uranium to be ramping up Gen IIIs at a frantic pace — with their spent fuel providing the start charges and ongoing fuel (along with depleted U and thorium) for the Gen IVs. Uranium supply is NOT a constraint to massive expansion of the nuclear industry over the next 10 or 50 years (with millions of years worth from Gen IV thereafter, if we bother to look that far ahead), provided there is a Gen III/Gen IV synergy with a % transition from one to the other taking dominant position.

    Given that the EREOI for even Gen II/III with centrifuge enrichment is >50 (better for CANDUs), ‘peak uranium’ is an utter nonsense.”

    and here:

    By the way, Gen IV nuclear can only work in time to seriously mitigate carbon emissions if it does it in synergy with Gen III. That much is now abundantly clear to me. I’ll have to blog about it soonish. So no, 4th gen nuclear is not an instant fix (though a synergy of Gen III and Gen IV roll out over the next 40 years, through to total replacement of energy generation, is a medium-term fix). The next 10 to 15 years only matter in the sense of whether we put the systems in place to ultimately constrain the total carbon budget.

  11. Barry,

    I keep meaning to download the interview and listen to it. However, did anyone (Australia that is) see Thursday’s Q&A on the ABC. I downloaded it here (London) last night to watch it and half way through an audience member asked why Australia was resisting using nuclear power (this was in the context of a discussion on Australia’s ETS – you know the legislation designed to protect against change and funnel my tax dollars to oh-so deserving coal eaters). On the panel, Germaine Greer and whats-his-name from the Gruen Transfer (Sorry to non Australian posters here) both wanted nuclear straight away with Greer lamenting that 50 years had been lost by Australia not taking up nuclear power receiving a large round of applause from the audience. Now the funny thing is that these two would be labelled as ‘lefties’ in the Australian social discourse firmanent.

  12. Bary Brook@#11:
    #3: Finrod, let me know what you might have tackled differently. It’s always good to understand different perspectives on how best to tackle the ‘public face’ of nuclear education. I don’t think they will get Green or Noonan in – at least the Backstory producers didn’t leave me with the impression that they viewed this as a ‘debate’.

    You’re still (albiet reluctantly) conceding a possibble role for ‘renewables’. It may be that you suspect some revolutionary design for, say, a solar or ocean-based renewable energy system may actually hold some promise (not absolutely impossible, but enough of a long-shot that we shouldn’t gamble our future on it) , or you may mean that there are certain low-power off-grid applications which are best served by something like a wind-driven pump or a PV array, such as artesian bores for watering cattle, communications satellites, and remote scientific monitoring equipment (true, but not relevant to the problem we’re trying to solve).

    Or you may have made the concession as bait to potential converts to nuclear power still in the renewables camp. I’m not going to assert outright that this is a complete waste, because there will certainly be plenty of people still in that camp who have not yet had the opportunity to reassess their position in the light of the facts which you and others have made known, and doubtless there are many potential supporters who can be reached that way.

    I do question the wisdom of proceeding with that tactic at this stage, though. I suspect that the time has come for us to close ranks on this issue in the public debate, and consistently denounce renewables for what they are. I believe that you will obtain more supporters that way, including ones who don’t necessarily agree with you on the issue of climate change… and lets face it, so long as they’re supporting the technology which offers the best hope of decarbonising the economy, who cares if they don’t agree with you on climate change?

    I think you got the message on the relative role og GenIII/IV exactly right. Gen IV technology has one huge advantage over Gen III, namely that it has the capacity to power our civilisation for an indefinate duration (effectively for the forseeable lifetime of the planet). It offers other advantages as well, but overselling them by casting Gen II/III in an undeserved unfavourable light is counterproductive to the immediate needs of the cause. This needs to be addressed, and I congratulate you on avoiding the temptation to take unnecessary, counterproductive cheap shots at the current state of the art.

  13. Pingback: Gen4 nuclear power podcast « Eclipse Now

  14. I sat down and listen to the interview and I think it cover’s all the main points.

    However to “Win” and see nuclear penetrate the market place it needs to be a “Vote Winner” and at the moment there is plenty of fierce opposition, albeit misinformed.

    To my mind if Nuclear can be potrayed as the Environmentally responsible choice with support from a major environmental group then the rest should fall into place. Given a rational assement of the facts most reasonable people would draw that concusion themselves. Bear inmind that most people have already formed an opinion. So you need to get their interest early on and get them to be hungry for more information. To that end I feel the interview should have had tit bits early on hinting at this great technology that solves the nuclear waste and clean energy problem simultaneous. As it stood I feel that all the great stuff didn’t really get a mention till about half way through when only those with an interest in Nuclear amy have still been tuned in.

    The general public by in large want to be green, support for wind turbines is huge and if anything a windturbine has become a symbol of the fight against climate change. Never loose sight that it is the general public that votes in the decision makers.

    So are there any plans in the SCGI for mainstream support from an environmental organisation etc?

    Because if there isn’t I feel it could be a long uphill battle when there isn’t the time to waste.

  15. Ian, that idea of giving the punchline first, and then taking the time to explain the details later, is an excellent point. I will heed it henceforth. Indeed, in my scientific papers, this is just what I try to do, and tell my students to do. Seems I don’t always listen to my own advice. Actually, I said to others, including Finrod when we last had a beer together, that a potentially good way to grab people’s attention is to say some really outrageous things. Things that people KNOW are false… except that they actually aren’t. Things like “nuclear power is as sustainable as ‘renewable’ energy and can meet all of humankind’s power needs for billions of years” or “there is no long-lived nuclear waste problem — it’s already been solved” etc. I need to try it out.

    SCGI has plans in the sense that we are talking to groups like NRDC and Sierra Club, who seem to be the most rational. In Australia, it’s groups like the ACF. I agree that we need to work harder to convince these people that this is actually an incredibly rational choice to make. As for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, we can forget it. Their raison d’etre is anti-nuclear, and as such they’ll NEVER change their opinion and are immune to logical and evidence on this matter.

  16. Why would you use nuclear when solar thermal with salt storage is already available at commercial scale and teams perfectly with wind to provide close to 100% renewable energy with far less problems than current nuclear. We cannot afford to wait for unproven technologies including 4th gen nuclear.

    David Mills talked about how we can repower Australia with 100% renewables recently in Melbourne. http://www.deakinlectures.com.au/program-09/the-photon-economy-solar-energy-everywhere A brief summary of his talk is available at http://www.theage.com.au/business/with-green-power-comes-great-responsibility-20091009-gqvt.html

  17. Hi Jane,
    you should read several of the previous log entries by Peter Lang on the real costs of storage for various forms of renewable energy. Please peruse them at your leisure, they regularly have hundreds of comments also.

    Hot salt storage has *not* be scaled up to industrial levels. I know people like David Mills talks like all these technologies are available now. They are not. Only a few have been built and none more than 17 hours worth of storage.

    The problem here comes in several areas:

    1. The cost of Molten Hot Storage (MHS) is large, almost doubling the cost of the CSP plant.
    2. CSP needs prodigious amounts of water for cooling the steam turbine. Air cooling can be used but youtake a big efficiency hit doing so.
    3. Storage with MHS means you have to deduct the number of storage hours from the capacity of the CSP plant. Major overbuilding will be necessary. A “300 MW” CSP plant means, with, say, an extra 12 hours storage, an on demand capacity now of 150 MWs. This means if you want 300 MWs you have to over build by 100% doubling the costs.

    You see where this is going?

    More importantly, any regional overcast that can last, say, a week, needs a huge amount of storage, for *days*, thus keeping the grid from collapsing almost an impossibility.

  18. Great interview Barry – a good one to forward on to friends, foes and family. Also a very friendly interview with lots of free air to develop the ideas. And a home game. Don’t imagine it will always be this easy!

  19. And the money quote from the above (which also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald today):

    Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, said: ”I have never seen a credible scenario for reducing emissions that did not include nuclear energy.”

  20. Hmm…where to begin? This interview really just flips my understanding of nuclear power 180º. I’m in the young greens and have argued strongly against nuclear power for years but if what you say is correct then I’m converted, though it really does sound far too good to be true. How could such an amazing potential exist and yet not be utilised anywhere in the world? Why aren’t there more people promoting this? I can guess that in Australia the nuclear power lobby is linked to the uranium miners so the idea of IFRs that don’t constantly need freshly mined uranium wouldn’t be all that appealing. What a shock to the system this is for me. What next? And what does it mean for my membership of the Greens? I would like to think that sufficient evidence would be enough to force a change of policy but I understand that many within the party have built a whole identity for themselves in campaigning against nuclear. Imagine the greens going pro-nuclear…I can’t. It’s unimaginable. But if this information is correct we must!

    Barry, I’m a Crikey reader and I wonder if you’ve tried to get an article regarding this stuff published in their daily? It would surely spark some interesting discussion.

  21. Thanks Arlen, I’m glad to hear your considered view. Yes, what I said is quite true and accurate – my reputation is at stake and I am not going to manipulate facts to fit a story. I would like the Greens to be more flexible in their thinking, but to date have had little success in convincing any dyed-in-the-wool Greens party supporters, or even getting them to listen to me serious (there are some exceptions, such as a talk earlier this year I gave to some of the SA Greens, though all of their state/federal MPs were disappointingly absent).

    I might indeed consider a Crikey post at some point when I’ve cleared some current commitments. It just all takes a lot of time to get these messages out to different audiences, and right now I’m working on a large public relationship project (1/2 a book on nuclear power).

  22. I’ve been contemplating this new information over the last few days and some questions have come to mind. One of them was brought sharply into focus today while I was watching a screening of the film “The End of the Line”, which is about the impact of overfishing on our oceans. It showed some images of one of the huge restaurants in Hong Kong selling live tropical fish out of tanks and I was struck by the thought that if we were to confront the challenge of climate change successfully using the abundant nuclear power of the kind you foresee humans will just be given the capacity to continue this mad cannibalism of our life sustaining systems at ever increasing rates. The rest of the world’s impending catastrophes will be much easier to ignore with abundant nuclear energy. Which leads me to the conclusion that, in many ways, being forced to reduce our energy use dramatically is the only chance we have for letting the planet recover in some way from the deep wounds being inflicted. I understand that in the absence of nuclear energy the world is far more likely to continue burning coal than to reduce our energy use significantly and unfortunately this leaves me feeling rather pessimistic about it all.

  23. Arlen@#32:

    Humans will continue to consume resources and exploit the planet… but in what manner shall it be done? Nuclear power provides us with the only realistic option for sufficient cheap and abundant power to close the material cycles we depend on, including our basic sustenance. There are enough material resources on this planet to support a human population many times that of the one we have now and simultaneously enable an expansion of the natural biosphere by allowing us to return the great bulk of land and sea currently devoted to food production to a state of managed wilderness, provided we invest a bit of research into the problem and embrace nuclear power.

    In the long run, this is really going to be our only option if we wish to continue carrying on a technological civilisation… and in spite of occasional protests otherwise, most people would not want to live in the other sort.

  24. Barry, like most supporters of the nuclear option, you seem to avoid any evidence on the economics of the so-called “nuclear renaissance’. The new model IFR’s are not cheap to construct, so it seems to me this is a central part of the equation as we make the transition beyond fossil fuels. For example, the new model Olkiluoto 3 reactor under construction in Finland is an economic disaster. The project is running three years late and US$2 billion over budget. French nuclear corporation Areva and the Finnish government agency TVO are suing each other because of delays caused by poor engineering and increased safety inspections.

    In the real world, the financial crunch will increase in coming years, as taxpayers face costs to decommission or extend many reactors built in the 1960s and 1970s that are coming to the end of their operating life. In Europe and the US, there are few new reactors in the pipeline, so governments are facing increased safety hazards as some existing reactors are extended to operate for up to 60 years.

    At the same time the nuclear industry want government subsidies and insurance gurantees for new IFRs, they also want government (ie taxpayers) to foot the bill for costs like decommissioning, proliferation safegurards and long-term waste management. The private sector, who can do the maths, are not wiling to foot these bills – around the world in 2007, private venture capital put US$71 billion into renewable energy but zero into nukes.

    So while the nuclear industry touts increased projections for nuclear generation by 2030, the global share of electricity generated by nuclear reactors actually dropped a percentage point in 2008. I suspect this will continue to fall in coming years.

  25. Pingback: IFR FaD 1 – Context « BraveNewClimate

  26. The path of least resistance in the short term is to build mid sized gas fired plant. If a 400 Mw combined cycle plant placed anywhere costs say $1bn a couple of them look a lot cheaper and less controversial than a gigawatt Gen III plant for say $6bn. Plus costs for a secure new site. The political elites can’t think far enough ahead to consider escalating fuel costs and carbon charges.

    If IFRs could come in at similar prices to gas fired ($2.50/w ?) that might be a winner. However in Australia I think the ice breaker might be a quickly built Gen III that provided well paid jobs and cheap desalination. The money is here, just cut some other big budgets.

    @Finrod there still might be other problems even with abundant low carbon energy. For example ‘concentrated’ phosphate is thought to be 70% depleted. That may be hard to recover.

  27. Nic Mac – While it is true that capital costs for nuclear plants generally account for 45-75% of the total electricity generation costs they produce, compared to 25-60% for coal plants and 15-40% for gas plants. Nuclear power’s big advantage is in its low fuel costs, relative to fossil, and especially to gas fired generating stations. Generally speaking generation cost (capital, operation and maintenance, and fuel) for nuclear targets in the range of 3-5 US cents/kWh, which is highly competitive with fossil alternatives.

    There are several proven means for reducing costs of nuclear projects.

    Shortening the construction schedule reduces the financing charges that accrue without countervailing revenue. Standardization and construction in series offer savings by spreading fixed costs over several units, and from productivity gains in equipment manufacturing, field engineering, and construction. Closely related is multiple unit construction at a single site. The average cost for identical units on the same site can be about 15% lower than the cost of a single unit, with savings coming mostly in siting and licensing costs, site labour and common facilities.

    AECL has built several nuclear stations now that apply the cost reduction means above. The following list gives the record of recent CANDU projects undertaken by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, you will note that in places there aren’t too many layers thing can get done on time and on budget.

    1996 Cernavoda-1 Romania On budget, on schedule
    1997 Wolsong-2 South Korea On budget, on schedule
    1998 Wolsong-3 South Korea On budget, on schedule
    1999 Wolsong-4 South Korea On budget, on schedule
    2002 Qinshan-4 China On budget, 6 weeks ahead of schedule
    2003 Qinshan-5 China On budget, 4 months ahead of schedule
    2007 Cernavoda-2 Romania On budget, on schedule

    Meanwhile back in Canada almost every project has gone over budget by an average factor of 2.

    One would think that it would be significantly more difficult and problematic to build a reactor overseas versus in Canada. They’d have to deal with trade regulations, having people travel, working with local contractors who are not directly experienced with the technology, training technicians, procuring materials, language barriers. If a shipment is late there are issues and if a part breaks or doesn’t arrive then it would have to be shipped from Canada or they’d have to fabricate it locally.

    Yet, despite the challenges of building a reactor like this on an international contract they seem to do a lot better than back in Canada where you’d think the home field advantage would make it child’s play, right?

    Wrong. Back in Canada any nuclear project has to face numerous hearings and a laundry list of injunctions, petitions, stays, 11th hour appeals for delays, disputes and every other maneuver designed to make it as difficult as possible. And not just from the antinukes, regulators here seem to think their mandate is to prevent nuclear reactors from operating. Perhaps readers will remember two years ago this Xmas when Ottawa had to fire the chair of the nuclear safety commission to start the flow of medical isotopes.

    Problems with regulators are also at the bottom of the Olkiluoto 3 mess not engineering when you look at the issues in detail. The bottom line is that in the West over half of the cost of nuclear power plant construction is directly related to the cost of licensing, approval and other bureaucratic expenses. When that is broken out the cost of a NPP is comparable to any other thermal plant of the same size.

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