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Nuclear energy challenges for the 21st century

The following post, by Dan Meneley, was originally presented at the 17th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference Cancun 2010, and is reproduced here with Dan’s blessing (I plan to buy him dinner, as thanks, when I visit Toronto in June). Its contents are highly topical in the context of the current situation in Japan and the debate that the Fukushima crisis has inflamed. It is also effective as a counter argument to the recent MIT report on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle (which I think made a really bad call, from both a technical and socio-political standpoint).

You can download the 15-page printable PDF version here. There is also a really excellent annotated PowerPoint presentation (30 slides) available here, which is also definitely well poring over.

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Guest Post by Dr. Dan Meneley. Dan, a founding member of SCGI, is a Canadian nuclear engineer with 50 years experience in systems analysis for nuclear energy, reactor safety and physics, plant design, risk analysis and operations and engineering of the CANDU design. He has also worked on research on sodium-cooled fast reactors since the 1960s. He is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Energy Systems and Nuclear Science, University of Ontario Institute of Technology. 

SUMMARY

The past fifty years have witnessed the advent of a new energy source and the beginning of yet another in the series of energy-use transitions that have marked our history since the start of our technological development. Each of these transitions has been accompanied by adaptive challenges. Each unique set of challenges has been met. Today the world faces the need for another transition. This paper outlines some of the associated challenges that lie ahead of us all, as we adapt to this new and exciting environment. The first step in defining the challenges ahead is to make some form of prediction of the future energy supply and demand during the period. Herein, the future up to 2010 is presumed to include two major events — first, a decline in the availability and a rise in price of petroleum, and second a need to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Both of these events are taken to be imminent. Added to these expected events is the assumption that the total of wind, solar, and other such energy sources will be able to contribute, but only in a relatively small way, to the provision of needed energy to our ever-expanding human population.

1.    INTRODUCTION

Nuclear energy systems, now more than 50 years old, use a mature technology. They are ready to take on larger and larger roles in the provision of energy for the benefit of mankind. Utilization of this new primary energy source is an engineering task of first magnitude, and is no longer a leading subject of scientific research, except at the margins.

This paper outlines the major tasks remaining for nuclear energy professionals over the next half-century and more. These challenges form an integrated set ranging from the purely technical to abstract questions of sociology and philosophy.  They touch on broad matters of public policy as well as on the future development of the world economy.

Today’s challenges to the nuclear industry all arise from the known great energy-related challenge to the world; that is, to find a clean and sustainable source of energy to replace petroleum.  The only greater related challenge of our day is to find a solution to the problem of world over-population. Without a sufficient energy supply there can be little hope for successfully managing this underlying issue.

Some people say that petroleum is not, and never will become, a commodity in short supply. Better-qualified and convincing persons and organizations point out the error of this thinking. The world now uses approximately 1000 barrels of oil in each second of each year. The latest annual report of the OECD’s International Energy Agency states simply “we must leave oil before it leaves us”.

This technical challenge to the nuclear industry is indeed very large. Assuming a plant capacity factor of 90 percent, the higher heating value of oil being consumed in the world today is equivalent to the total fission heat produced by about 7000 nuclear units, each with an equivalent electrical capacity of 1 Gigawatt.

At the same time there are other, perhaps greater challenges facing us. Among them is the matter of urgency. We have very little time to meet the main challenge. Using the most optimistic assumptions, the job should be complete before the year 2200. This massive change will require the good will and the effort of many thousands of people, backed by their governments and the population at large.

The following headings address the main challenges ahead of the world nuclear energy enterprise. The opinions addressed herein are completely my own, and make no pretense of being complete. These opinions are drawn, primarily, from Canadian experience but include some broader aspects of the task ahead. Not all of these challenges are important to any single nation; indeed some have already met some of these challenges to some degree.

2.  BACKGROUND

Formulating a list of “challenges” requires, of course, some sort of prediction of the future. This is a notoriously difficult process, and in many circumstances is impossible [1].

In their 2008 report entitled “International Status and Prospects of Nuclear Power”  [2] as updated in 2010 [3], the IAEA lists nine key issues and trends, shown in Table I, that constitute challenges for near term development of the nuclear industry.  This author prefers to call the first item in Table I a “pre-condition” rather than an issue. Unless the operators of nuclear plants are prepared to operate these plants reliably and safely, they would be wise not to operate them at all, and to find another line of work that is less exacting. Similarly, economic competitiveness is considered a pre-condition, because unless it exists, nuclear energy will not go forward at all.

A more limited prediction was made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as reported in their document “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle” [4]. The MIT study is focused primarily on the US scene.  This report is formulated in terms of findings and recommend-ations. The main points of the Executive Summary have been recast in terms of challenges, in Table II.  Several entries are equivalent to those in the IAEA report. The MIT challenge to deploy nuclear capacity at the terawatt scale by mid-century is related to climate change risk in that report. Missing from both of these lists is explicit reference to the impending crisis in world petroleum supply.

Given the extremely optimistic assumption that world petroleum demand based on current projections can be satisfied over the next 90 years [5], the predicted growth of nuclear energy capacity (4 percent per year in the “high” scenario) would seem reasonable. However, if a more realistic assumption of oil production had been used then the Terawatt scale of capacity in the world by mid-century would perhaps best apply to the US alone; the world requirement would be about five times larger. This single change in one fundamental a priori assumption would drastically change the list of challenges to be faced in the short term.

Prognostications differ. Various experiences and individual assumptions can lead to widely different future scenarios. Without by any means exhausting the possibilities, this paper presents one more set of challenges, underlain by a somewhat different idea of how the future should unfold. Table III, representing this author’s predictions, shows a list similar to those of the IAEA and the MIT studies, but with differences.  The item first listed in Table III shows what is, in this author’s opinion, the most difficult challenge of all.

3.  GAIN PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE

Though political systems and practices vary greatly from one nation to another, it is generally true that unless a substantial majority of the population agrees with a major undertaking such as nuclear energy, it will be very difficult to sustain the undertaking over a long period of time. In many countries a vocal minority opposition to nuclear energy has dogged the industry for many years. As the advantages of this energy system become more apparent, this opposition seems now to be decreasing, but this trend could easily reverse if and when a major problem arises in the industry.

In one sense this opposition is useful – it keeps us on our toes. At the same time this active opposition requires a large amount of effort to repeatedly refute the spurious claims of those who are dedicated – some very deeply dedicated – to opposing any activity associated with the adjective “nuclear”. The distribution of these zealots is wide. Some can be found entrenched in government bureaucracies and other respected institutions, at times very near to the top levels.

Do we have any “respected institutions” remaining in our society? Hugh Heclo [6], in his book “On Thinking Institutionally” asks us to re-examine our opinions of those institutions on which we rely so heavily, and yet for which we show very little respect. At times, of course, institutions go off the rails and no longer deserve respect – Heclo addresses this phenomenon as well. He illustrates the situation with many examples, and points out that the systematic denigration of our basic institutions has been building up over the past century, to the point that it is now hardly appropriate to support many of them when speaking in polite company.

It must be obvious that our society cannot function without a large number of institutionalized organizations and processes. It is equally obvious that these institutions must earn and hold the respect to the general population. In the case of an operating nuclear utility, this generates a powerful need to deserve the trust of the people from day to day. The same applies to all aspects of our industry, and more so because the integrity of this institution is always under challenge.

“Deserving of trust” is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Today’s political climate of challenge to all institutional authority, coupled with our new instant and worldwide communications pathways, makes it very easy to generate dissent on virtually any topic. The apparent virtues of “truth telling”, and the normal penalties for violating that norm, have decreased in recent years. Herein the root cause of our public relations trouble. Perfectly rational people who have a deep understanding of the nuclear industry criticize the industry for not “standing up” to the onslaught, and presenting the true story. A splendid example of such critical remarks can be found at Ted Rockwell’s blogsite, [7]. Many of the truths of our industry are defended therein. Others would do well to follow Rockwell’s lead. We must do whatever we can to eliminate the falsehoods, the distortions, and the extreme assumptions from our technical discussions.

Over the years of verbal conflict between scientists and engineers versus their opponents, the “defensive ramparts of truth” have become bent and battered to some degree. This is especially so in the area of nuclear regulation, where the technical arguments of the proponents meet the political reality of the day. The regulator must defend each decision to allow a project to proceed with a very high degree of assurance. That institution also is challenged every day, the same as are all the rest of the several institutions involved with nuclear energy. In order to continue this great enterprise of providing the world with plentiful energy, we must remember always to defend the “ramparts of truth” and to rebuild them as and when necessary.

This author considers that the task of providing the necessary human resources to the industry can be included as an integral part of gaining public acceptance of our enterprise. If the people accept the need for nuclear energy, young people will rise to meet that need with enthusiasm and in great numbers. At the same time, if the majority of young people see the wisdom of the choice, the future of nuclear energy will be assured. The only remaining job will be to provide suitable means for their education and training.

The human resourcing task is by no means trivial, since it involves continued re-staffing and training of at least three generations of operating crews for each power plant over its lifetime. The task falls on the operating utility to sustain detailed information about the plant as its configuration changes over decades of operation. This problem is significant in many plants in operation today. Fortunately, modern CADDS systems and training courses used in the original construction phase, modified as the plant configuration slowly changes, will in the future enable the utility to maintain not only the plant, but a detailed model of the plant at any given time [8].

4.  RESTORE REALISM TO ASSESSMENT OF RADIATION RISK

This challenge is related to the public acceptance challenge, and could greatly assist in reaching that goal. During the original development of nuclear fission reactor technology, a number of very conservative assumptions were made; especially with regard to the health consequences of low radiation doses to people, and also with regard to the potential consequences of reactor accidents. Two major factors have changed. First, the effects of small doses of ionizing radiation are found to be much less than expected, e.g. [9]. Second, more careful analyses based on recent experiments show that the consequence of the “bugbear” accident of pressurized reactors – the large loss of coolant event – has been grossly overestimated in many cases. [10]. Extremely conservative analyses have resulted from years of stringent regulatory review and steadily more demanding criteria of proof.

A direct challenge for the technical community is to eliminate, wherever possible, gross conservatism in safety analysis wherever possible. Though this may turn into a long and painful struggle with regulatory bureaucracy, it may be the best way to regain public confidence, in the end. Perhaps the most important example of unjustified extreme conservatism is the almost universal application of the now discredited linear, non-threshold hypothesis for estimating the consequence of low radiation doses to large populations. A growing array of facts drawn from past experience [7] suggests that re-evaluation is required of many of our present-day licensing analyses in the light of improved engineering knowledge and operating experience.

5.  COMPLETE THE TECHNICAL TASK – REPLACE PETROLEUM

Electricity supply is only one of the tasks that soon will be required of nuclear generation systems. Petroleum, one of the world’s major enabling resources will almost surely rise dramatically in price within this century, but may even become a scarce resource, at least in some parts of the world.

5.1. The Need

There is still some debate regarding the timing, and even the existence, of the “peak oil” phenomenon, the postulate that we are at or near the maximum production rate of petroleum. Recent price fluctuations support this postulate – fluctuating price is seen in many cases when a commodity in demand approaches its maximum production rate. Exploration plays are now rare outside areas controlled by national oil companies, and tend toward deep offshore ventures that are very expensive. Unconventional reserves such as oil sands bring with them high development and production costs that demand higher product prices.

In their latest annual report, the International Energy Agency of the OECD [5] strongly reminds its member nations:

One day we will run out of oil, it is not today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day. The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously.

At the same time the world can take comfort in the fact that there is enough nuclear fuel available to supply us with energy for thousands of years. Once again we are fortunate to have “A bird in the hand” in the form of today’s mature nuclear technology. Our descendants may well invent a better way to meet this need – but just in case they do not, we know that nuclear fission energy can do the job. Even though a diverse suite of alternative sources likely will persist over time in niche markets, nuclear energy must provide the bulk of the world’s supply for a very long time. We must do the heavy lifting!

The latest issue of the IEA report presents a sobering picture in their reference scenario, which follows the expected trajectory of world energy development over the next 20 years, assuming that world governments make no changes to their existing policies and measures for energy supply. This scenario is dominated by large increases in demand for fossil fuels, extensive exploration, and consequent large capital requirements. The expected total investment requirement is 26 trillion US dollars up to 2030. The power sector requires 53% of this total. The IEA report [5] concludes that:

Continuing on today’s energy path, without any change in government policy, would mean rapidly increasing dependence on fossil fuels, with alarming consequences for climate change and energy security.

For the past several years the IEA has urged OECD governments to increase their commitment to nuclear energy. Most countries of the world show signs of taking up this challenge, with the surprising exception of the OECD countries themselves.  In both Europe and North America the response is half-hearted at best, up to now. The IEA report notes the following:

The main driver of demand for coal and gas is the inexorable growth in energy needs for power generation. World electricity demand is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.5% to 2030. Over 80% of the growth takes place in non-OECD countries. Globally, additions to power-generation capacity total 4,800 gigawatts by 2030 – almost five times the existing capacity of the United States. The largest additions (around 28% of the total) occur in China. Coal remains the backbone fuel of the power sector, its share of the global generation mix rising by three percentage points to 44% in 2030. Nuclear power grows in all major regions bar Europe, but its share in total generation falls.

The underlying driver of this demand growth usually is, of course, the rise in world population – energy demand growth is a consequence of this seemingly uncontrollable factor. At the present time, however, it seems that much growth arises from the need (or at least the desire) of underdeveloped countries to increase their standard of living. Any energy policy must be coupled with stabilization of the world population along with rising living standards.  A sustainable level of energy supply is a necessary prerequisite if we are to provide a respectable living standard for all people.

5.2 Meeting the need

In its 2009-2030 alternative (preferred) scenario, called the “450 Scenario”, so named to indicate a target of 450 parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the IEA Executive Summary for 2009 points out:

Power generation accounts for more than two-thirds of the savings (of which 40% results from lower electricity demand).  There is a big shift in the mix of fuels and technologies: coal-based generation is reduced by half, compared with the Reference Scenario in 2030, while nuclear power and [other] renewable energy sources make much bigger contributions.

Three points are notable in this statement. First, I have inserted the word “other” in square brackets to emphasize the now-recognized fact that nuclear fuels are sustainable for many thousands of years [11], so this energy source should be included in the “renewable” category. Second, the hoped-for amount of demand reduction due to conservation in the electricity sector is very large – a most optimistic projection, given past experience. The third item of note is the urgency of action to reduce our reliance on petroleum. There is very little time left for our world to adapt to the coming collapse of the present-day environment in which petroleum is relatively plentiful and cheap. It is quite apparent that someone will repay the tens of trillions of dollars that must be invested in oil supply development to ensure supply of oil up to 2030. It also leaves a big question as to what we might expect to happen during the following quarter-century. For a rather gloomy guesstimate of the upcoming situation, see the apocalyptic prediction in the book “The Long Emergency”  [12].

Accepting the IEA estimate of “new build” generation capacity requirements up to 2030, and then assuming that all of these new plants will be powered by uranium, we would need to build 240 nuclear units each of capacity 1 gigawatt every year between now and 2030. This ideal situation will not be realized, of course, but the number certainly provides a “stretch” target for new nuclear plant construction. Once again, with reference to the IEA alternative scenario, there is another challenge implied — the provision of transportation fuels. This most important topic is outlined in subsection 5.3.

Where else could we get this massive energy supply? Dr. Charles Till (pictured right), retired Associate Director of Argonne National Laboratory [13] reaches the following conclusion:

To sum up, the alternatives to fossil fuels are very, very few that could promise the magnitude of energy required to meet our nation’s need. It is not as though plentiful alternatives exist, and one can be weighed against another …

The blunt fact is that there are the fossil fuels and there is nuclear.

Failure to recognize this, while focusing on options that do not and cannot have the magnitudes [of supply] required, will inevitably lead to increasingly dangerous energy shortages. Who then will answer? Will [it be] the environmental activist, who blocks real options, and then puts forth options that cannot meet the need?

Who else indeed? Will it be the politician who is ready to subsidize unsustainable short-term solutions and who forever plans for his re-election, carefully deferring difficult decisions until after that happy day? Not likely.

My expectation is that the engineer will answer, based on past history. More generally, it is the organization that people really expect to deliver the goods – usually the electrical utility or other operating organization. Because of the long time taken for the results of these decisions and their consequent good or bad impact on society to be revealed, politicians usually get away with no need to answer to anyone.

From the point of view of a large-scale enterprise, the uranium industry exhibits characteristics similar to both the oil industry and coal industry. The time scales involved in exploration, development and market delivery times are all very much longer than political cycles. They all require enlightened and consistent public policy over a period of decades to enable them to become effective. Only real statesmen can and do listen to recommendations whose consequences lie further in the future than the next round of the electoral cycle.

To answer the need for sustainable large-scale energy supply, the first step is to examine the available options. Among the options that are concentrated and thereby easily collected, by far the largest energy potential is from coal or uranium [14] Figure 1, pg. 6. Figure 2 in the same document compares nuclear and coal. Wind is included in the Figure only to show the best of the diffuse options – and the most popular today. Its primary disadvantage is its highly variable nature, which must be backed up by either backup sources or by major energy storage facilities.

Coal suffers from an extraction rate limit and an uneven distribution of deposits, thereby causing transportation difficulty in many nations. Nuclear fission energy is the clear choice. It is highly concentrated and so has only minor transportation problems for either fresh fuel or for used fuel.  In addition, this fuel is inexhaustible[11].

The very large quantities of fuel available from uranium and thorium are well known [14] Figure 3, page 7. Using today’s technology (thermal reactors) along with the 2005 total world energy usage, we see that at least 40 years of fuel supply are assured. Assuming a reasonable rate of exploration and tolerable increases in fuel price, at least 300 years of fuel supply can be assured from uranium resources alone. Accounting for thorium fuel supply would probably double the amount shown in this Figure.

Fast reactors apparently are necessary to extend nuclear fuel availability in time, to well beyond the horizon of human existence. It is not practical to mine uranium from seawater to fuel thermal reactors, because of the very large required extraction rate. Fast reactors do not suffer from this drawback, however, because a one-gigawatt electric unit requires only 2 tons of makeup uranium per year. This makeup fuel also can be obtained from dilute ore deposits, from the ocean, or from depleted uranium from enrichment plants. This huge diversity of fuel sources arises because of the very large amount of potential energy in each unit of natural uranium or thorium,

5.3 Alternative strategies

The world is, at the present time, blessed with a sound cadre of successful nuclear plant designs. Based on direct experience, these designs are seen to be economical, safe and reliable when properly managed and regulated.

The basic choice, then is whether to build a large fleet of existing plant designs (subject, of course, to the slow evolution in detail that always follows from experience) or to re-examine all of the alternatives previously studied, so as to find one or more optimum designs for the future. Based on this author’s understanding of the great urgency of building to replace petroleum as its supply declines and its price rises, it is recommended that the correct path can be found closer to the first option than the second. This is mainly due to the urgency of our situation – it is imperative to begin building a large number of power plants now. We have no time to waste. We have no time for long, drawn-out research programs. In this case, in a very real sense “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.

Edward Kee, Vice President, NERA Economic Consultants, said in a recent interview [15] that, from the point of view of both vendor and buyer,

The most important issue for reactor designs is to get a lot of units built and in operation as fast as possible. This gets the design down the learning curve to lower costs and shorter schedules, but also stimulates additional sales from buyers who look for low risk and demonstrated success. While design features are important, market success is much more important.

This market reality strongly discourages introduction of revolutionary design concepts, especially if private industry is expected to shoulder the majority of project risk. Of course there is no reason that the development of improved or new designs cannot continue in parallel. It must only be assured that any development effort does not interfere with the ongoing production plant capacity buildup.

Existing plant designs can be operated with adequate safety, if they employ conscientious crews led by knowledgeable and “mindful” management [16]. Meeting the need for energy immediately creates the challenge of supplying trained manpower to build and operate the plants. Fortunately, this need is fully recognized within the industry.

Given the fact that thermal reactors must be built in large numbers as soon as possible, the question arises as to which characteristics of these units will ease the transition to new designs when they are available? It is obvious that the transition will begin only when the price of uranium rises; it is also obvious that any new reactor type must have improved characteristics for uranium utilization; preferably, these reactors should produce more fissile material than they consume.  Their excess fissile material then could be blended with recycled materials to refuel thermal reactors without using any new uranium. The effect of this strategy will be to control the rising price of natural uranium. The best available system for this purpose is the fast reactor design known as the Integral Fast Reactor, or IFR [17].

Clearly, during the transition between thermal and fast reactor fleets, the less excess fissile material required for refueling of existing thermal reactors, the greater the flexibility for growing the numbers of fast reactors. This indicates that the best strategy to prepare for this transition is a thermal reactor fleet with a high ratio of fissile material produced per unit of fissile material consumed – usually called the “conversion ratio”. Commitment of “High-C” thermal reactors such as the PHWR today would considerably ease the future transition toward a mixed fleet of thermal and fast reactors [18].

Nuclear energy also can be used to reduce petroleum use for transportation fuels. For example, the following conclusion is quoted from a recent paper [19]. These concepts are explored further in a later work [20].

Liquid fuel demands for transport could be reduced in half by combinations of several options such as diesel engines and plug-in hybrids. Independently, the biomass liquid fuel options could meet existing liquid fuel demands without reductions in oil demand. Rapid technological changes are occurring with the development of biological plants for fuel production, methods to process biomass, and plug-in hybrid vehicles, as well as in other areas. Consequently, the specific combination of biomass, nuclear energy, and liquid fuels for transportation will be determined by the results of this development work.

A great deal of work is now being done in this field. There is a high expectation of success. As a direct result, requirements for additional nuclear capacity might well arise over the next few decades. Nuclear capacity planners should consider this possibility very seriously.

6.  Establish means of financing large-scale nuclear energy

Financing is difficult for large projects such as nuclear plants. Two good comparisons are seen in development of a new oil field and the construction of a continental highway network. In the first case large capital resources must be committed many years before any return can be expected. In the second case, people expect that taxpayers will fund major highway construction.

Bill Gates [21] puts forward a precise and simple explanation of the problems of nuclear plant finance. He argues that the private sector will remain unable to finance this new build program, but that governments can help a great deal. The US government has, in fact, begun this process by offering loan guarantees. A similar system was utilized to finance construction of the Qinshan-3 project in China; nations associated with several major systems and components used export development loans of various kinds. This operation was very successful, and the loans are now being paid back expeditiously.

https://ted.com/talks/view/id/767Government loan guarantees could be established in support of the project. Loans would be repaid over time during plant operation. Financing also would be greatly eased if some of the capital expenditures incurred during plant construction could be charged into the rate base, recognizing that plant benefits will eventually accrue largely to those same ratepayers. Both of these alternatives depend completely on the support of the community where the plant is located, thus underlying the paramount importance of their trust that the plant being constructed is truly in their interest. Of course, this is a political and sociological question.

The complexity and uniqueness of project arrangements for building a large plant defeat any attempt to generalize the process. There is no doubt that it is one of the crucial steps toward success. Expert management combined with careful project planning, clear definition of roles and goals, along with comprehensive design and scheduling of each step of the project can lead to timely and economical project completion [8}.

Financing of large projects can benefit from better predictability; this can be achieved through standardizing all or even part of any plant design. Partial standardization implies modularity, and is the preferred alternative recognizing the large span of time involved between projects that might be built on one site as well as the wide diversity of site conditions, in other cases. In most situations it is be wise to restrict evolutionary design changes to infrequent, incremental steps.

All of these arguments support standardized design for new plants and militate against radical changes, even though such changes might be advantageous in theory. In general, such developments must take place outside normal commercial venues. New reactor types must be thoroughly tested and demonstrated before being considered seriously as production options.

7.  Answer power plant site, security, and energy transport questions

Assuming the greatly increased scale of this industry, choice of sites for new power plants will become a serious issue in the future.  As the application of nuclear energy broadens from electricity production into a wide range of industries [22] it may be necessary to update traditional thinking about these locations. In any case, the area requirements for the plants themselves will not be large; the majority of space will be required to accommodate the “industrial parks” that will surround these plants.

The need for security is another factor in the choice of site. Together, these two factors suggest the establishment of energy parks on which many nuclear units (at least, those of a scale envisaged today) will be co-located along with fuel recycling and possibly long-term fuel storage facilities. Recycling “on site” may well be preferred to drastically reduce the need for shipping of used fuel and other radioactive materials back and forth to the power plants. High security for all nuclear materials is, of course, easier to establish on a large site than it is on a number of small, isolated sites.

Yet another advantage of energy parks is that they can service smaller sites without the need or the capability to grow very large [23]. The so-called “hub and spoke” arrangement is very likely to be chosen in most cases. The idea is that small or medium capacity (SMR) units would receive their fuel from an energy park, and return their used fuel to the energy park for recycling. Several of these satellite units serviced by a single large central site.

Presuming that a few large-scale sites are established raises the question regarding the proper scale of nuclear units to be installed there [24] Those studies indicated that very large (5,000 to 10,000 MWe equivalent) units could be optimal. Industrial application also likely will lead to some of the units being dedicated to supply process heat; these may or may not include electrical generation capability.

When established these energy parks would be similar to large oilfields in production capacity. Their main energy currencies [25] would be electricity and hydrogen; this system could be identified by the newly coined word “hydricity”. Transportation fuels may be an important product, carried from the site to consumers via conventional pipelines or supertankers. Location of energy parks on large waterways, ocean shorelines or islands would greatly facilitate transport of products from these sites.

8.  Eliminate nuclear weapons proliferation

This issue is really one that must be solved through international diplomacy; technical methods can assist in reaching the goal of eliminating both national and sub-national weapons production; however, in the end it is a matter that must be settled through international agreements. As noted in the book “The Bottom Billion” [26], behavior of individuals and nations is more effectively sustained through social “norms” rather than laws or coercion. Agreements between governments establish these norms of behavior. The nuclear non-proliferation regime constitutes the sum of these agreements. Up to the present day, this network of agreements has been sufficient to avoid any use of these weapons. As technology advances and behavioral norms are even better established, it is reasonable to hope that the use of all weapons of mass destruction, including this one, will be eliminated.

9.  Ensure commodity supply and infrastructure strength

By this time (about 50 or so years into the future) one possible issue will be the supply of the necessary materials and equipment to serve an ever-growing population. The underlying issue is, of course, the sustainable limit of human population. Otherwise, just how many people constitute a “full house” on this earth?

Note that two of the IAEA issues do not appear in the present list: reactor design and fuel cycle innovation.  This author assumes that these aspects of nuclear energy development will occur more or less automatically as the promised capacity of the system increases. I assume that they will be driven by a combination of human need and commercial enterprise. This is not to say that they are unimportant, but only to recognize that the form and style of these developments will be a matter of trial, error, and discovery.

Fuel supply is one aspect of long-term development that is already established. Several publications e.g. [11], [27], confirm this, provided only that systems capable of transforming almost all of the fertile material into fissile fuel are installed. The Integral Fast Reactor [17] has already demonstrated this basic capability.

10.  Grow nuclear capacity to more than ten terawatts (equivalent)

This figure for ultimate nuclear capacity can only be a wild guess.  It is intended to indicate a large number, and one that could include not only electricity generation but also a broad array of industrial processes [14]. Ten thousand one-gigawatt units (electricity equivalent) seems to be a large number, but the actual unit capacity will likely be considerably larger by this time.

When the world’s nuclear energy system has grown to approximately this scale, it will be capable of supplying all of the energy needs of humanity for thousands of years. Of course, a better way of supplying large amounts of safe and reliable energy may be invented before this time, even though none is apparent on the horizon at this time.

11.  Conclusion

The era of cheap and abundant petroleum and natural gas is drawing to a close. Many alternative replacements are proposed. The only clear alternative today is nuclear energy extracted from uranium and thorium. During the past seventy years, this new energy source has been fully developed and installed as a second-rank contributor to the world’s energy supply. During the next 50 to 100 years it can and will grow to become a predominant force in sustaining the health and well being of all humanity. If necessary, fission energy can continue this role for many millennia.

No prediction of the future can be reliable, and this prediction is no exception to the rule. By studying our energy supply options we can only hope to improve our understanding of the present, and thereby might improve our descendants’ chances of survival in the future.

12. References

  1. Orrell, D 2007 The Science of Prediction and the Future of Everything, Harper Collins Toronto, Canada
  2. International Atomic Energy Agency 2008, International Status and Prospects of Nuclear Power, Vienna, Austria
  3. International Atomic Energy Agency 1010, International Status and Prospects of Nuclear Power Report by the Director General GOV/INF/2010/12-GC (54)/INF/5, Vienna, Austria
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2010 The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, Summary Report, MIT Press, Cambridge, USA
  5. International Energy Agency 2009 World Energy Outlook, Executive Summary, International Energy Agency, Paris, France
  6. Heclo, H 2008 On Thinking Institutionally, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, United States of America
  7. Rockwell, T 2010 Learning About Energy, http://www.learningaboutenergy.com/, [Accessed 24 Sep, 2010]
  8. Petrunik, K; Rixin, K 2003 Qinshan CANDU Project, 2003 Construction Experience and Lessons Learned to Reduce Capital Costs and Schedule Based on CANDU Project in China, Proceedings of the 24th CNS Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada
  9. Cuttler, JM and Pollycove, M 2009 Nuclear Energy and Health: And the Benefits of Low-Dose Radiation Hormesis, Dose-Response, 7, p. 52-89. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2664640/ [Accessed 29 Sep, 2010]
  10. Muzumdar, AP; Meneley, DA 2010 Large LOCA Margins & Void Reactivity in CANDU Reactors, Report COG-07-0912, CANDU Owners Group, Toronto, Canada
  11. Lightfoot, HD; Mannheimer, W; Meneley, DA; Pendergast, D; Stanford, GS 92006), Nuclear Fission Energy is Inexhaustible, Climate Change Technology Conference, Engineering Institute of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
  12. Kunstler, JH (2006), The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, Grove/Atlantic, New York, USA
  13. Till, CE (2005), Plentiful Energy, The IFR Story, and Related Matters, The Republic News and Issues Magazine, Jun-Sep 2005
  14. Meneley, DA 92010), Nuclear Energy in this Century – A Bird in the Hand, Proceedings of the 31st Canadian Nuclear Society Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada
  15. Kee, E (2010), Asia to Lead the Shift to Nuclear Power, NERA Economic Consultants, http://www.nera.com/67_6964.htm. [Accessed 29 Sep 2010]
  16. Weick, KE; Sutcliffe, KM 2007 Managing the Unexpected – Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition, San Francisco, USA
  17. Beynon, TD; Dudziak, DJ (Ed); Hannum WH (Guest Ed); 1997, The Technology of the Integral Fast Reactor and Its Associated Fuel Cycle, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 31, Number 1&2, Amsterdam, Holland, Elsevier
  18. Meneley, DA 2006 Transition to Large Scale Energy Supply, Proceedings of the 27th Canadian Nuclear Society Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada
  19. Forsberg, CW 2007 Meeting U.S. Liquid Transport with a Nuclear Hydrogen Biomass System, Proceedings of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers Annual Meeting, Salt Lake City, USA
  20. Forsberg CW, 2009 Sustainability by combining nuclear, fossil, and renewable energy sources, Progress in Nuclear Energy, V. 51:1, p. 192-200
  21. Gates, W; Holliday, C 2010 Energy Sector Poised for Innovation — with the Right Spark, Washington Post, April 23, A19
  22. Gurbin, G; Talbot, K 1994, Nuclear Hydrogen – Cogeneration and the Transitional Pathway to Sustainable Development, Proceedings of the 9th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference, Sydney, Australia
  23. Wade, DC; STAR H2: The Secure Transportable Autonomous Reactor for Hydrogen Electricity and Potable Water, NERI Project No. 20-00-0060, Argonne, USA.
  24. Hub, KA; Charak, I; Lutz, DE; Thompson, DH; Gast, PF; Meneley, DA 1966, Feasibility Study of Nuclear Steam Supply System Using 10,000 MW Sodium-Cooled Breeder Reactor, ANL-7183, Argonne, USA
  25. Scott, DS 2007, Smelling Land – The Hydrogen Defense Against Climate Catastrophe, The Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Association, Vancouver, Canada
  26. Collier, P 2007, p139 The Bottom Billion, Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It, Oxford, United Kingdom
  27. Cohen, BL 1983 Breeder Reactors: A Renewable Energy Source, Am. J. Phys. 51(1), American Association of University Teachers
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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

162 replies on “Nuclear energy challenges for the 21st century”

Financing really should not be a problem in the US. But loan guarantees are being derailed by bureaucratic processes and by failure to recognize that the sovereign risk which these projects are subject to should NOT be costed into the guarantee fees. Indeed, for me, that is part of the point of offering them, that the risk posed by legislative bodies and policy shifts should be excluded from any such calculation, as distinct from a commercial loan.

So far the US govt has shown no urgency at all – similar to many other governments worldwide. I wonder whether the zealots referred to are the root of this problem or whether it is a more deep-rooted issue of government processes.

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Joffan, on 29 April 2011 at 1:50 AM said:

So far the US govt has shown no urgency at all

The Chinese appear to be content to be the ‘first adopters’. Why not let Areva, Westinghouse, GE et al work out construction ‘teething pains’ in China at Chinese expense?

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harrywr2, there is often some merit to stepping back from the “bleeding edge” if, as you point out, someone else is willing to be there. However I do not feel this will address the entirety of the problem; the reactor constructors can be twice as good as today and many of the non-engineering roadblocks will remain.

And I think the issue is more urgent than that; cooperation on the early adoption would be no bad thing and might mean better lessons learned earlier.

In fact, what you describe is probably what will happen anyway now. There are so few US plants likely to complete in the next five years that the lessons from the Chinese will be available by the time any serious construction program gets underway.

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Barry – thanks for posting Dr. Meneley’s presentation. It’s great that you’re going to be at the Waterloo Global Science Initiative conference; enjoy your dinner! I sincerely hope dv82xl can join you as well – I’d love to hear that conversation.

WGSI describes the conference this way:

A global conversation about how cutting edge science can help us build a more sustainable future.

Don’t let them get away with limiting the conversation to “cutting edge science” – whatever that means. Remind everyone that thermodynamics is the law, and “nature always bats last”. Hit it hard!

One thing struck me in Dr. Meneley’s presentation. I live in Alberta, and the oil sands are on my mind; I had wondered about the composition of the sand tailings. This image intrigued me greatly:

Sandstone is show as having anywhere from 200 to 2,000 ppm uranium, and presumably proportional amounts of thorium. That sounds like mineable ore to me. Google Scholar turned up US Patent 5,387,276 Method of leaching mineral values from oil sand tailings
John S. Rendall
, which shows that there’s interest. Does anyone know how much U and Th are in the Athabasca sand?

Even at average crustal concentrations there’s more energy in the sand than in the bitumen. How much better is it?

IMO we’ll need all the reactor technologies – IFR, molten salt, uranium and thorium. Social aspects and entrenched interests will dominate in the near term. We can only do our best to start turning the juggernaut towards an energy rich future.

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“A direct challenge for the technical community is to eliminate, wherever possible, gross conservatism in safety analysis wherever possible. Though this may turn into a long and painful struggle with regulatory bureaucracy, it may be the best way to regain public confidence, in the end. Perhaps the most important example of unjustified extreme conservatism is the almost universal application of the now discredited linear, non-threshold hypothesis for estimating the consequence of low radiation doses to large populations. A growing array of facts drawn from past experience [7] suggests that re-evaluation is required of many of our present-day licensing analyses in the light of improved engineering knowledge and operating experience.”

This is a non-starter, the bar is not going to be lowered. I am being kind by calling LNT a controversy, but clearly this is the inevitable result of giving the industry an inch, the bar would be lowered.

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Barry, Dan,
Great presentation, but was surprised that the figure of energy share to 2100, doesn’t seem to have any increase in hydro from the present <10% of world hydro resources. Surely if nuclear has an optimistic projection should have the same for hydro(say 300% increase).

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Neil Howes,hydro is a very finite resource and the limit has been reached in many parts of the world unless building dams in sensitive locations is to be considered.
Hydo storage has a large footprint and is extremely destructive.

The article is a welcome beacon of sense in the dark landscape of ignorance.

However,I would call into question the proposal to build energy parks close to the ocean or waterways.
If this is done it must take into account flooding from various causes and also rising sea levels which are happening now and will accelerate no matter if we get even a best case scenario in carbon pollution reduction.

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On ABC Catalyst nuclear engineer Glen Green argued that Australia would take at least 10 years to build a large reactor and that the country lacks both the expertise and heavy loading equipment. In contrast he says combined cycle gas plant takes 3 years to build and saves 65% of the CO2 of the pre-existing coal. Well gas it is then. Note Green worked on Phenix but made no mention of advanced fuel cycles.

I understand the Brightsource CST project in the US has got a loan guarantee for around $2bn. If it means loans can be secured at lower interest rates then I guess it is a subsidy on the capital cost. Perhaps in future low carbon energy technology can get help from just two basic sources; carbon taxes and loan guarantees. That cuts out the more distorting per-Mwh subsidies like feed in tariffs, renewable energy certificates and production tax credits.

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environmentalist,
The nuclear power industry is already safer than other major technologies for producing electricity. While it is already much safer than it needs to be, nobody is advocating lowering the safety standards; rather the reverse is true as new designs have the goal of improving safety still further though innovations such as passive safety systems.

While the LNT controversy is interesting it has little relevance to NPP safety unless you are one of those people who conjure myths about large numbers of people dying from the long term effects of radiation.

To illustrate, consider Chernobyl the worst NPP accident to date, fewer than 50 people died as a direct result of acute radiation exposure.

When it comes to long term exposure the scaremongers like Caldicott can dream up huge numbers. The attached link mentions a bunch of different scary estimates but they can’t tell us where to find the bodies.
http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/47357

This subject has been beaten to death on other threads at BNC.

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Guys, bioaccumulation is a problem for both fossil fuel and nuclear fuel, for the same reason. Why do you think coal is full of heavy metals? Because the living organisms that became the coal had collected the heavy metal. That’s how bioaccumulation works.

We’re adding transuranics to the mix, producing a very large rapid change in the amount of heavy metal available to the biosphere, along with a wide variety of innovative new persistent organic chemicals.

Comparisons that focus on short term health miss the whole point, often intentionally, for the whole energy industry’s purposes. We’re making our mark:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21282159

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@ Hank Roberts:

Why do you think coal is full of heavy metals? Because the living organisms that became the coal had collected the heavy metal.

Do you have a source for that? I ask because I was under the impression that coal was actually a good filtering material, and so tended to accumulate various elements as they were transported through it by groundwater.

We’re adding transuranics to the mix, producing a very large rapid change in the amount of heavy metal available to the biosphere,

Extensive deployment of nuclear power should reduce the amount of mining and heavy metals needed to sustain our power generation.

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I found this paragraph in the MIT study to be quite revealing:

There are large incentives for cooperative international programs where different nations build different facilities with agreements for long-term sharing. Unlike in the past, most new nuclear reactors and most fuel cycle research will be done elsewhere (France, Japan, Russia, China, and India) there are both financial and policy incentives for cooperative programs.

A pretty strong indication of which way the authors think the wind is blowing and they may well be right, at least in the short term.

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“To illustrate, consider Chernobyl the worst NPP accident to date, fewer than 50 people died as a direct result of acute radiation exposure.”

From your own link

Reports by the UN Chernobyl Forum and the World Health Organisation in 2005-06 estimated up to 4000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations and an additional 5000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

A study by Cardis et al. reported in the International Journal of Cancer estimates 16,000 deaths.

British radiation scientists Dr Ian Fairlie and Dr David Sumner estimate 30,000 to 60,000 deaths.

A 2006 report, commissioned by Greenpeace and involving 52 scientists, estimates a death toll of about 93,000.

So where do Monbiot and Caldicott fit in the context of these scientific studies of the Chernobyl death toll? They don’t fit anywhere at all.

Caldicott relies on a Russian report titled “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”. Suffice it here to note that the study uses a loose methodology to arrive at an unlikely conclusion.

Monbiot sides with the marginal scientists in arguing that low-level radiation is harmless. He cites the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) to claim that the “official death toll” from Chernobyl is 43.”

9000 is the accepted minimum

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4922508.stm

As for bodies, well they are buried.

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Finrod, I have old sources — one made it online that I recall from coursework that gave me the bioaccumulation story, it’s here:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0013-9327(77)90047-7
but you’re right, current sources differ on that. I found support for your impression here:

“The three major contaminants in coal (mercury, arsenic, and sulfur) were not a part of the living organisms that made the coal. These elements seeped into the coal beds through ground water or during a time when the land was flooded with ocean water.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/science/mercury.html

The next round of coal looks to be getting its load of metals from the atmosphere (assuming the current peat bogs eventually become coal):
http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es980882q

More complicated than I thought (no surprise there).

Point remains, the rate at which heavy metals and transuranics are going into the living environment is extremely high, they will bioaccumulate, and that will have consequences not well understood but not likely beneficial. The stuff doesn’t just go away.
http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=4744386269043477309

Interesting methods are being used to track this stuff — a Swiss project collecting baby teeth for example detected strontium from atmospheric nuclear testing, but a barely detectable result from Chernobyl.

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Swiss baby teeth cite:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2006.02.011

“… Activity peaked at 0.421 Bq g− 1 Ca at the beginning of the sixties, coinciding with the detonation of many large nuclear devices. Following the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that ended atmospheric nuclear weapon tests, a steady and significant decrease in 90Sr activity in milk teeth has been observed—down to a value of 0.03 Bq g− 1 Ca for children born in 1994. ….The effect of the 90Sr deposition from Chernobyl is barely measurable in milk teeth, and no effect is seen from the five Swiss nuclear reactors. …”

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I don’t see shale gas as having any significant long-term impact on nuclear’s prospects. It’s production rates are good initially, but decline precipitously. Dan may have more to say on this, of else I’ll dig up some material to support this statement when I’m back at my PC.

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Environmentalist, I sometimes have to describe and justify why some sorts of conservatism are a dangerous delusion of safety, not the real thing. What I call “random conservatism” – where your margin is not based on an accurate knowledge of consequences – simply causes you to pay attention – time and resources – to certain possibilities that are not actually the most pressing. By implication you spend less attention on the real highest threats – so accuracy is more important than conservatism. Become accurate and only then add a safety margin.

Your description of the ratcheting of regulation is often sadly accurate, but can sometimes be influenced by rational argument.

In the specific case of the linear no-threshold model of radiation harm, I think the author went a little further than reality allows when he described it as “now discredited”. There is still work to do there, but I would say it is now seriously challenged.

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@ Hank Roberts

If the nuclear process, like coal, involved the indiscriminate introduction of heavy metals into the atmosphere, causing broad, consistent distribution into the biosphere, in turn allowing for the bioaccumulation you warn of, I might be persuaded by your argument. Happily, this is not the case… certainly not under normal operations. Even under accident conditions, to my knowledge only Chernobyl managed to distribute “transuranics” in any appreciable quantity. Fukushima, which raises valid bioaccumulation concerns, is dealing primarily with daughter products, not transuranics.

Nuclear material in the power generating sector is very well managed and accounted for… it is simply not available for bioaccumulation. For the most part, examples of uncontrolled nuclear material are legacies of plutonium production military purposes (including Chernobyl, BTW).

In light of this, I find the following statement unsupportable, “We’re adding transuranics to the mix, producing a very large rapid change in the amount of heavy metal available to the biosphere…”

Presumably, in order for the addition of transuranics to produce “a very large rapid change in the amount of heavy metal available to the biosphere” there must have been a recent “very large and rapid” addition of transuranics to the biosphere… can you provide evidence for this claim?

How much of this heavy metal contamination is a product of coal burning? How much is a product transuranics? How do they compare? Have their relative proportions changed recently to an extent that transuranics are suddenly causing a very large and rapid increase in heavy metal bioaccumulation?

On a side note, I heard something interesting recently pertaining to bioaccumulation (sorry, no reference). It appears that cesium reactes chemically similar to certain fertilizer that sunflowers absolutely love. I understand plans are afoot to use sunflowers to remediate some of the cesium contamination in Japan. Very cool…

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John Rogers,
While I think we are on the same side I am troubled by your comments that seem to suggest that “daughter” elements are somehow less of a problem than transuranics, many of which have low activity (long half lives). Elements with shorter half lives are often more dangerous.

Cs137 has a 30 year half life and emits a lively gamma ray (0.6 MeV if my memory serves me). Sr90 has a half life of 29 years and it produces a lively electron (546 keV). This isotope can be a serious problem if ingested because Strontium is retained in bones because it has chemical properties similar to calcium.

In spite of its volatility and chemical properties, I131 is of less concern owing to its short half life (8 days) and the availability of effective treatment to reduce its retention in the human body.

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ABC’s Catalyst program did a a great hatchet job on nuclear power last night. It’s not going to happen any time soon , if ever, according to catalyst. It was more of a cheersquad for hot rocks (Never mind the acid that also bubbles up together with the steam)

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I think litigation over groundwater damage will be a severe body blow for shale gas. SBS TV will show this doco on Sunday night http://www.sbs.com.au/documentary/program/gasland

Re TV (I don’t think I’m an addict) I did some community work today and last night’s ABC Catalyst came up. People sort of know oil is on the downward path they don’t want to talk about it. I think most people also suspect that wind and solar are not coal or oil replacement technologies. Trouble is that view is overwhelmed by a strident minority.

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John Newlands, on 29 April 2011 at 7:14 AM said:
“On ABC Catalyst nuclear engineer Glen Green argued that Australia would take at least 10 years to build a large reactor and that the country lacks both the expertise and heavy loading equipment. In contrast he says combined cycle gas plant takes 3 years to build and saves 65% of the CO2 of the pre-existing coal.”

If you compare the options of running a coal plant for 10 years then switching to a nuke, with running a coal plant for 3 years and switching to gas. The cumulative Co2 contribution from my over simplified math shows the nuclear plant winning after 23 years from the start of construction or 13 years of operation.

I just used coal =1, nuke = 0 and gas = 0.35 (percentages in decimal form).

People pushing for the quick fix of gas just don’t realized that 35% of a big number is still a big number. 0% of a big number is a very small number.

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@Hank Roberts (about heavy metals accumulating in coal)
.
In groundwater uranium is common in its soluble oxidised form, U+6, but is less soluble in reducing soils, such as peat bogs, where it accumulates U+4 compounds.
.
Thus coal smoke contains uranium and its daughters, whereas wood smoke does not.

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@unclepete, 29 April 4.32pm.
The ABC’s Catalyst program raised the very same issue that Dan has raised here; the time to build additional nuclear and the manufacturing capacity. Australia has the additional handy-cap of few trained nuclear engineers, although one Australian company has experience in building nuclear power plants in other countries.
The clean energy gap is large we cannot afford to ignore any low CO2 energy resource, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar or geothermal. None are appropriate for all regions, all have issues, but all are needed.
Most telling is China’s demand for 1000GW of clean energy by 2030. Current plans are for five-fold increase). Hydro could be 300GW capacity(100GW av), and at last years build wind would be 360GWc(100GW av), but if this rate was to also increase five fold by 2020, wind could account for 500GWav, still leaving a 300GW clean energy gap.

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If I recall the chap on Catalyst said that NPP needed to be around 1500 MW to get average costs down. That seems to rule out mini nukes delivered in a few shipments. The trouble with a 10 year build time is that people get hysterical within weeks if things don’t go right, either another Fukushima or say a $200 oil panic.

On coal and uranium it is thought the coal basin that partly overlies the Olympic Dam basement rocks could have U-rich sandstone layers
http://www.ga.gov.au/ausgeonews/ausgeonews200803/uranium.jsp
That area was being investigated for underground coal gasification.

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Thanks for the article.
I would like to draw attention to a couple of points I find debatable:
‘It is not practical to mine uranium from seawater to fuel thermal reactors, because of the very large required extraction rate. ‘
If so the argument needs making.
Here is part of the debate:
http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/01/uranium-from-seawater-and-current-flow.html

It seems to me that uranium can certainly be extracted from the sea, that the costs given efficient use should not be excessive, and that there are in fact no scaling issues.

My second point is in respect of the amount of power we need, which seems to be based on the idea that we have to replace all the energy embodied in the oil we use.
For the light vehicle fleet electric power is much more efficient, so that for the UK for instance we would only need around 7-8GWe to power it that way.
In general we should be able to run society on an energy flow of only around 1.5kw per person.
Here are flows shown for the UK:
http://2050-calculator-tool.decc.gov.uk/pathways/3011111111111101131310024424014410320230441032012/primary_energy_chart

Within the limits of the model I set savings high, as better insulation etc by 2050 are a no-brainer, but convenience levels to high, so that the average temperature of homes etc rises, not falls as some who are keen on renewables argue for.
It is very difficult or impossible to eliminate nuclear power given restricted fossil fuel inputs, but the needed nuclear build is surprisingly modest, around 90GWe to provide most of our power
The main weakness shown is high import dependency due to uranium, but even on a once through basis only around 16,000 tons/yr of uranium is needed, at $100kg that is $1.6bn, compared to imports of around $8bn in 2009 for oil and gas alone

So it seems to me that uranium is likely to be much more abundant and that the needed build of reactors is much smaller than the article indicates.

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David Martin:

The link to the UK 2050-calculator that you give is presumably the result of your own deliberations. I would note that you have failed to meet the target level of 80% emissions reduction while still, according to the calculator, supplying more electricity than required. I must admit that my attempts to hit target were equally unsuccessful without the adoption of a much greater hair shirt approach. I suspect that this is because the calculator programme doesn’t allow one to replace certain energy uses with electrical power or “hydricity”. Equally, I am not sure that the programme factors in population growth associated with high immigration levels and the high fertility rates of first generation immigrant females. Nor, I believe, does it consider the extra energy needed (in retrofits and premature retirements of existing energy producing and using plants and equipment) that will be associated with transitioning to clean energy generation.

Having said that, I’m unclear as to whether you believe that Dr Meneley has, in general, overestimated the global need for energy by having failed to factor in the fact that electrical energy can often be used more efficiently than chemical energy. After all, what happens in developing countries is vastly more important than what happens in the UK in terms of carbon emissions.

As far as I’m concerned, the UK, along with the US and most European States, have the option of going flat out for nuclear and, in so doing, hoping to maintain living standards or to plunge towards living standards more typical of those currently extant in underdeveloped nations.

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Great post, thanks.

There are two points that bother me in Dan’s presentation:

1) Gain public acceptance. This is the number one issue. I don’t see *how* this could happen in the short term. It requires a massive education effort. This is likely to take a generation to complete.

2) Energy parks. One lesson learned from the Fukushima accident is that problems on a reactor can prevent other emergency work at nearby reactors. I think it would be safer to keep a large distance between reactors, which is the opposite of the energy park concept.

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Hank Roberts:

I have great respect for your diligence and attention to detail which I have experienced both on this site and at RealClimate. However, while I know you are a great supporter of establishment climate scientists and their advocacy, I continue to be perplexed over whether or not you support nuclear power as a means of emissions reductions. Your posts here seem to be heavily on the side of cautioning against nuclear risks or over-exuberance of nuclear advocacy rather than on any consideration of the possible (and IMO overwhelmingly greater) benefits that nuclear power can contribute to global warming and peak oil issues. You may accept these benefits to be a given and thus not worthy of comment from you. However, I would find it reassuring if you occasionally acknowledged them. Alternatively, have you opinions on alternatives that, in your opinion, would more satisfactorily address our looming planetary dilemmas?

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@ Enviromentalist

the World Health Organisation in 2005-06 estimated up to 4000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations and an additional 5000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

The WHO report clearly states that up to 4000 people total may die – and that is not just among the “higher exposed”. Where you got the other 5000 is beyond me.

Even still, up to 4000 + up to 5000 does not equal “9000 is the accepted minimum” as you say. It is actually about 5000 above the accepted maximum.

WHO report: 5 September 2005 | Geneva – A total of up to 4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index.html

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@ François Manchon, on 29 April 2011 at 7:30 PM:

François advocates single unit power stations. While I agree that all aspects of plant layout will need to be reviewed in light of Fukishima, were not Units 5 and 6 largely unscathed?

I see a valid argument against cheek-by-jowl construction of reactors, but not against multi-unit power stations, where reactors are somewhat further apart than, say, Fukishima 3 and 4. Multi-unit stations can benefit from the added reliability of shared resources such as emergency power supplies and O&M staff.

A reasonable case can be made for siting at least two reactors reasonably close together adjacent to industrial parks which use heat as well as electricity produced by the generators, since otherwise the factories would lose their heat during maintenance and refuelling shutdows.

Similarly, high standards of security and waste management are much more economical to ensure on shared sites.

Thus, there is need to provide space between individual reactors, sufficient to ensure that malfunction of one reactor will not endanger the safe working of the remainder, but not a need to mandate a limit of one unit per site.

One lesson I see emerging from Fukushima is that spent fuel should be removed from the spent fuel pool associated with individual reactors as soon as practicable and transferred to a common spent fuel pool, sited a safe distance from each of the reactors on site. There is value in making these pools large enough to hold all of the spent fuel which will be the produced during the life of the station, say 60 years, unless there are irrevokably committed plans in place to reprocess this fuel sooner.

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John, I understand your points, but how much is a “safe distance” between reactors? How large should those energy parks be?

If I remember correctly, on several occasions Tepco workers had to retreat out of the whole complex. This means the “safe distance” would be several hundred meters.

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John Bennetts, there is a good track record of safe storage of spent fuel in excess of five years old in (air-cooled) dry casks. I would prefer that for longer-term storage.

I was speculating on the process that would see fresh spent fuel – and especially temporarily off-loaded fuel like that at F1#4 – moved to a location further away from the reactor, and what risks might be involved in that process. I guess it depends on the view you hold of likely future incidents, whether the extra operational risks are worth the reduced risks in accident scenarios.

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@ Joffan:

Of course dry storage is preferable, once it can be done. Come to think of it, once in dry storage casks, it is probably safer for the spent fuel to be centrally stored, country by country. Even better, returned to the country of origin for storage under a contract arrangement, thus ending up with 10 or 12 dry storage facilities world-wide.

I take it that you agree with the general thrust of the remainder of my last post – several reactors are OK, provided that separation is adequate. It ends up being a bit like the case of large transformers, which are separated from each other by fire walls or blast walls, or the equivalent in relation to the various classes of dangerous goods storages such as flammable liquids and gases.

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Neil Howes, on 29 April 2011 at 5:41 PM said:

The ABC’s Catalyst program raised the very same issue that Dan has raised here; the time to build additional nuclear and the manufacturing capacity.

Australians fly in wide body aircraft even though Australia has no wide body aircraft design engineers or construction companies.

Domestic content on a nuclear power plant regardless of vendor is 60+ %. Cement is cement.

Even the US doesn’t have the manufacturing capacity to build a nuclear power plant with 100% domestic content.

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@HarryWR2:
I have been in the power station construction game for over 30 years. With the exception of one solar thermal array, no power station on which I have worked has been of Australian design. The world is essentially one marketplace for large items such as 660MW power stations, with the possible exception of China, although even China uses technology transfer arrangements when the desired technologies are not available domestically.

I’m sure that many Australians would be shocked to learn just how many things such as pumps or power transformers are manufactured overseas for use in Australia and how few are home grown. Now I am certainly off topic.

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Prof. Brook, I do not see this as an effective counter for the MIT study. It doesn’t really answer its points at all. For example, it doesn’t justify anything remotely like an urgency for a closed fuel cycle (on the contrary, his own numbers show how absurdly non-urgent it is). There’s nothing to dispute MIT’s “wait and leave options open” thesis. Nor does Dr. Meneley’s specific recommendatino of fast breeders (IFR) address the countering arguments from MIT: that they are not essential and the same results can be gotten with converter reactors (CR <= 1). And that this is preferable, because it leaves slew of alternative reactor options open (gas-cooled fast reactors, even light-water converter reactors).

That is; given the staggering uranium resources available at low cost (and chapter 3 really is eye-opening), there’s perfectly reasonable alternatives to an IFR breakout which accomplish all the same goals and more:

* Build vast amounts of LWRs, then start up converter reactors on the reprocessed plutonium

* Start converter reactors on ~20% enriched uranium

I think MIT’s core rebuttal against IFR is simply this: the necessity of high conversion-ratio breeders was an idea from a time when uranium was thought to be scarce, but subequent exploration showed this to be false. Conversion ratio is not a limiting factor for massive nuclear deployment.

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Harrywr2, 30April 1.43 am,
The comparison of building a nuclear electric power system with using wide-body aircraft, would be if we had no long runways, no trained pilots or ground crew and had to wait for the ordered A380 or dreamliner to come of the production line, and they arrived in 100 pieces that had to be assembled by construction crews. I am not saying it cannot be done, but it is no accident that originally most nuclear power was built in nations with a nuclear weapons program.
Probably the most relevant issue is how long a back-order is likely to develop if nuclear power is to provide even 30% of the worlds energy by 2050, about 2500 GW capacity in Dan’s figure of the clean energy gap. This is an argument for getting started now, but have to plan on a fairly slow replacement of coal-fried by nuclear. That’s why wind and solar are also essential, although they will also have back-order issues, but China has demonstrated how quickly capacity can be ramped up compared with its very vigorous nuclear program.
At least Australia will have some leverage for getting nuclear and wind, being a future major uranium and rare earth supplier.

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What about the proposals for seaside facilities? There were some articles floated a while ago, maybe I can dig them up. The basic proposal was to mix power, desalination, heating etc into a single large campus; further a fast thorium-breeder system could potentially manufacture fuel cells for large ships. The vessels would only be refitted at one of several coastal facilities, with the argument that a cell could be made exceedingly solid to prevent tampering by third parties.

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This is why I like Ceduna SA for an energy park. It has a port for loading zircon, was 1000km from the nearest Richter 7 quake, not too many NIMBYs, some resident scientists at an observatory, is an alternative coastal site for the cancelled Olympic Dam desal and new transmission could tie in with a unified national grid. Even the ZCA people like the area for seawater pumped storage.

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John Bennetts, on 30 April 2011 at 2:00 AM — The Chinese CPR-1000 uses about 20% components from abroad. That includes 60 year design life pumps from the USA.

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@ quokka

Thanks for the reference!

@ gallopingcamel

Perhaps I was clumsy in making my point.

I don’t mean to minimize legitimate concerns about the release, and subsequent bioaccumulation, of daughter products… I freely acknowledge and share these valid concerns. Nor do I wish to come off as indulging in tedious semantics by parsing Mr. Roberts use of the word “transuranics” and pointing out that daughter products are a different species.

The point is that there is no impending crisis, associated with uncontrolled distribution of transuranics, contributing to the industrial heavy metal burden of the biosphere (as Mr. Robert’s statement suggests). Like Douglas Wise commented above, I find myself at a loss as to Mr. Robert’s stance on nuclear, and I echo his curiousity… it might shed some light on why he would make such a claim.

On the other hand, that’s his business. He is clearly engaged, exceptionally prolific, and highly adept at cutting/pasting/referencing volumes of information from the internet… good on him. Whether his “drinking from a firehose” approach to posting serves to clarify or confuse the issue I remain undecided… but I won’t speculate as to his motives.

As for me, I am unabashedly pro-nuclear… for what I consider obvious reasons. In my small circle of friends and family, I am considered the resident nuclear expert, and so I spend a lot of time talking about the subject with folks unacquainted with the topic… especially since Fukushima. As a result, I am familiar with the common misconceptions of the nuclear neophyte, and spend a lot of time repairing the damage when these misconceptions are preyed upon and reinforced (whether through the media, or anti-nuke propaganda).

I’ve taken it upon myself to actually comment here (instead of lurking in the shadows, as I have done for years) because I suspect that there are many readers here like my friends and family… curious, intelligent, concerned, non-technically oriented… who have been saturated for decades in a spurious anti-nuclear narrative that make them easy marks for the cleverly phrased assertion that reinforces the deplorable public baseline of “what they already know”.

I agree with the source article that public acceptance is the most important hurdle to a rational, nuclear-centric global energy infrastructure. My experience suggests to me that an overly technical approach to public education simply exacerbates their confusion, and hence their fear. With that in mind, I try to keep my postings founded in common sense and accessible to normal logic, rather than requiring recourse to technical reports or primary scientific studies. Whether I am having any success I’m having doubts… obviously I’ve managed to confuse you on this point! Let me try again, not to pick a fight with Mr. Roberts, but to prevent the “general” audience from being led down the primrose path…

Hank Roberts made the following point in two seperate posts before I responded. His words…

“We’re adding transuranics to the mix, producing a very large “rapid” change in the amount of heavy metal available to the biosphere…”

“Point remains, the “rate” at which heavy metals and transuranics are going into the living environment “is extremely high”, they will bioaccumulate, and that will have consequences not well understood but not likely beneficial. The stuff doesn’t just go away.”

Both of these statements suggest that there is an alarming “rate” of uncontrolled “transuranic” contamination going on within the rather undefined and broad domain of the “biosphere”/”living environment”. I presume nothing as to his intent, but there is much that is misleading in these assertions, and since they flatter generally understood public misconceptions about nuclear, they are destructive to generating a clear understanding in the public mind.

Every durable falsehood contains a germ of truth, and Mr. Roberts statements are a good example. There is indeed an actual/ potential heavy metal bioaccumulation crisis looming for the “biosphere” at large, and it is in fact accelerating… but it has nothing to do with transuranics or nuclear power… it has everything to do with coal.

Under normal operations, nuclear power generation contributes zero transuranic heavy metal contamination to the “living environment”.

Under normal operations, in a single day, a typical coal plant aerosolizes and sends to the four winds more raw uranium into the “biosphere” than a nuclear plant would consume for the same amount of output, not to mention lead, chromium, mercury, etc…

In accident mode, once, in the entire history of nuclear power generation (Chernobyl), a nuke plant was responsible for the uncontrolled distribution of transuranics in any appreciable amount, and in terms of problematic heavy metal concentrations, the contamination was limited to a relatively small fraction of the “living biosphere”.

During the entire time that Chernobyl was busily contaminating its little corner of the biosphere with heavy metals, just in that short span of a few weeks, around the world, thousands of coal plants chugged out vast quantities of heavy metal pollution over every inch of the globe, dwarfing into insignificance any volume of heavy metal contamination to the “biosphere” that Chernobyl was ever capable of… just as they had for decades previous, and just as they have for all the decades since.

To lump general biospheric heavy metal pollution with transuranic contamination from nuclear power generation, as if to imply that the two are even remotely related, would require that you believe a grain of sand is eqivalent to an ever growing volcanic mountain.

It is even more perverse when you consider that the false equivalence presented demonizes the only viable solution (nuclear) to the actual source of heavy metal bioaccumulation in the “living environment” (coal).

To be clear, uncontrolled releases of radioactive contamination are always to be avoided, and should never be minimized when they occur. Equally as important, uncontrolled releases of radioactive contamination should not be exaggerated beyond any semblence of reality.

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Neil Howes says:

The comparison of building a nuclear electric power system with using wide-body aircraft, would be if we had no long runways, no trained pilots or ground crew and had to wait for the ordered A380 or dreamliner to come of the production line, and they arrived in 100 pieces that had to be assembled by construction crews.

Once the political decision to go ahead with nuclear power is made, there will necessarily be a period of preperation before we can open the throttle completely on construction. We should spend about one electoral cycle on the establishment of regulatory frameworks and their overseeing authorities while simultaneously educating the workforce and making special arrangements with nations currently using nuclear power to provide us with technicians and academics to kickstart our programme. We can leverage this by assuring both fuel supply (including domestic enrichment) and waste disposal services. Once this is done, we can build our first few plants over a period of about three years, then continuosly expand our domestic construction capacity, eventually building a base of expertise for export to assist the rest of the world go nuclear.

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Canadian nuclear power stations like Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington are multiple reactor facilities. Spacing between the units is not very large, however the distance, but the degree of isolation designed into the plant that provides a safety barrier between units.

CANDUs also are designed so that passive convection cooling can used for the primary systems to keep reactor cool in the absence of power. They are also equipped with large dousing tanks high in the reactor or containment building that work on gravity, which can be used to replenish water inventory and refill the steam generators, as required, to continue heat release in the event of an extended loss of power. And they use ceramic uranium fuel pellets that tolerate very high temperatures.

Finally they sit in high-density, reinforced concrete containment walls, around a metre thick.

Making a multi-unit nuclear power station capable of riding out a power failure is very possible, and has been done.

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@ François Manchon, on 30 April 2011 at 12:05 AM:

Remembering that the problems had already been made more complex due to the reactors’ proximity to one another, I would think that 200 metres is excessive separation. How about pairs of reactors, separated by say 50m, with hardened structures to prevent debris from damaging the containment of adjacent plant, with further pairs somewhat more distant? That enables such things as shared control rooms, which is always handy when an additional operator needs to be borrowed from Unit 1 to help out with Unit 2 and for training, etc.

The pairs could have interconnectable AC and DC emergency power supplies and other emergency services, thus reducing enormously the risk of loss of essentials.

As a comparison, Bayswater Power Station in NSW has a turbine hall about 500 metres long and has 4 x 660MW coal fired units, operated from two control rooms. Four nukes could be laid out safely and comfortably in about the same area – say total site say a 1.5 km square. If the land is available, then something more like 3 km square would enable flexibility of siting selected industrial plant, etc.

My point here is that the area is much less than that which is required for a fully coal fired station, including coal storage and so forth. Again, Bayswater is about 3km by 2 on a total site much bigger for ash disposal dams, etc and is surrounded by feeder coal mines stretching for many kilometres each way. Nuclear power stations, even generously proportioned, have a much smaller footprint than wind, solar thermal, solar PV, coal – you name it.

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Me, 11.40 am:

We can leverage this by assuring both fuel supply (including domestic enrichment) and waste disposal services.

To clarify, I mean we should set up an Australian uranium enrichment capacity as part of an integrated nuclear fuel production and waste management service for the international nuclear power industry.

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South Africa is (re)starting their entry into NPPs by sending engineers to France for training in matters nuclear. Chile is doing the same, but also plans to send other to the USA. Chile will establish an NRC from the trained engineers; I don’t know about South Africa.

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South Africa is (re)starting their entry into NPPs by sending engineers to France for training in matters nuclear. Chile is doing the same, but also plans to send other to the USA.

As far as leveraging advantage goes, I often wonder what Australia could do by partnering with South Korea.

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@Finrod : that would be a no-brainer . Imagine we swapping X amount of iron ore and LNG for a couple of reactors.

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@ unclepete:

@Finrod : that would be a no-brainer . Imagine we swapping X amount of iron ore and LNG for a couple of reactors.

Yeah, but I’m thinking more of the difficulty they’re having trying to get the US to give them the go ahead for fuel reprocessing under the NPT. If we can provide a good alternative for them regarding waste disposal, fuel supply and so forth, that could be very attractive to them. We could reasonably expect a lot of assistance in return.

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@David B. Benson

Finrod, on 30 April 2011 at 12:02 PM — Or Japan? What about China? India?

I’m sure they’ll all be worthwhile partners in times to come, but S Korea is in the export game right now, and looking to expand.

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@Finrod, 30 April, 11.40am.
China is completing reactor construction in about 5 years, we would have to expect a longer period at least for the first few reactors. I cant see any government starting to build at more than 2 locations until first and second are completed, and past initial start-up phase. The problem would be if many countries try to expand nuclear at same time, causing long delays in critical components, a shortage of engineering contractors, increases in costs and a longer construction period.

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Finrod, on 30 April 2011 at 12:23 PM — A Japanese company is building 2 Westinghouse AP-1000s in China and has contracted with the Vietnamese to build one NPP there with the possiblity of 2 more later.

Neil Howes, on 30 April 2011 at 12:46 PM — Chile is planning on 3, built sequentially with pauses in between and at 3 widely spaced sites.

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@ NH:

China is completing reactor construction in about 5 years, we would have to expect a longer period at least for the first few reactors.

Three years is the expected construction time for an AP1000 once the bugs are sorted. Part of setting up the regulatory process would be to ensure that spurious grounds for delay are not permitted to hold up work.

I cant see any government starting to build at more than 2 locations until first and second are completed, and past initial start-up phase.

Of course you can’t. This is why I would not wish to see you in any position of responsibility for the programme.

The problem would be if many countries try to expand nuclear at same time, causing long delays in critical components, a shortage of engineering contractors, increases in costs and a longer construction period.

Hence the need for Australia to leverage its considerable advantages.

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@ David B. Benson:

Finrod, on 30 April 2011 at 12:23 PM — A Japanese company is building 2 Westinghouse AP-1000s in China and has contracted with the Vietnamese to build one NPP there with the possiblity of 2 more later.

Good for them. Just because I specifically mentioned S Korea doesn’t mean I’m not open to others.

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John Rogers,
While I am probably at odds with most of the denizens of this site when it comes to the CO2 that coal power plants produce I share your concerns about the radioactive elements and heavy metals they put into the bio-sphere.

NPPs on the other hand put no significant amount of materials into the environment; no CO2 save that related to the concrete used in construction; no toxic elements or compounds of any kind; no stable elements, nor any radioactive ones. Of course they are guilty of “Heat Pollution” but that is an unavoidable consequence of using heat engines to generate electric power.

What about the highly radioactive spent fuel? What about the “radioactive water” in cooling loops? What about Xenon isotopes and Tritium vented from reactor cores?

Contrary to the practice for coal waste, nuclear waste is not released into the environment; everything is stored on site or in repositories. We do this because we can, whether it makes sense or not.

What about reprocessing? Even though this is now legal in the USA, nobody is doing it so it is not yet an issue here.

Prior to retirement I was responsible for managing radioactive materials so trust me when I say that at least in the USA these materials are under control at all times and that government oversight is highly effective.

The problem with NPPs is that accidents happen and accidents can cause containment to fail. Even minor accidents such as the Tritium release at Vermont Yankee cause widespread alarm to the general public and irrational responses by legislators.

Slide #11 in Dan Meneley’s presentation contains the following bullet point:

* Restore Realism in the Assessment of Radiation Risk

That is a truly difficult task when the “Main Stream Media” are determined to publish only the most extreme views concerning the health effects of radiation.

environmentalist,
That link I sent you quoted estimated fatalities from various NPP accidents ranging from a few thousand to 850,000. I was hoping that the absurdity would be obvious to you!

As someone trained in radiation safety, I do not share James Goldsmith’s view that we should be prepared to accept more radioactivity in the environment as the price for building more NPPs. I contend that NPPs have no significant effect on radioactivity in the environment unless containment fails and in the long term the consequences can be made insignificant through improved safety systems.

Looking to the future, Generation IV reactor designs are available with the capability of consuming over 90% of the spent fuel that is currently regarded as nuclear waste. Once these reactors come into service it will be possible to shrink the high level nuclear repositories around the world.

Turning “Transuranics” into stable elements and electricity is a wonderful way to make the world safer! With a little ingenuity “Muck” can be converted to “Money”.

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@Finrod, 30 April. 1.13pm
We can look at Canada’s track record to see what might be a realistic assessment of what is possible in Australia.
Canada, a non-nuclear weapons country with a larger population and GDP than Australia started building power reactors in early 1960’s, and ten years later had two commercial reactors( total 1000MW) operating. In the next 22 years they installed another 13,000MW which would have contributed at the time about 25% of electricity( now 15%). But Canada started a strong research and training program in the 1950’s.
Its more realistic to plan that Australia will require at least 30 years to be generating 25% of its electricity from nuclear, but very realistic to plan that 25% will come from renewable energy in next 20 years, in fact 20%renewable in next 10years still seems achievable. Australia’s clean energy cap is going to be very hard to fill with both nuclear and renewables being expanded as rapidly as possible, that’s the reality.

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@NH:

We can look at Canada’s track record to see what might be a realistic assessment of what is possible in Australia.

Nonsense. You’re claiming that the only model for us to go nuclear is to build an entirely local indiginous industry from the ground up, including complete local R & D. This isn’t the fifties or sixties. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The logical way to do things is to import most of what is necessary, leveraging our natural advantage in nuclear fuel supply to jump the queue ahead of other nations in claiming the attention of nuclear tech exporters.

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@Neil Howes, The growth nuclear energy in Canada was inhibited by the availably of cheap coal and gas, and great hydro resources, and less concern for CO2 than is current to-day. Yet in those markets where it made sense, it thrived.

Australia should, in my opinion buy CANDU because this system would be a good fit for your country, given the lack of a nuclear sector. It has been a good reactor for countries starting out in nuclear power in several instances, however Finrod is correct that you are in a unique position to leverage your uranium to cut a good deal for reactor technology.

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Another advantage of the CANDU reactor is no large pressure vessel. It doesn’t require the deep water port facilities for the unloading of large components, that the engineer on Catalyst suggested was a constraint on nuclear power development here.

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Actually Australia probably has the facilities to make the calandria (and most other components) in country with, existing industries. That was the whole point of the design – to be able to build one without specialized fabrication facilities. AECL has a licencing program that would allow customers to build their own units, rather than import them.

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DV82XL, from what I understand the CANDU reactors would be a excellent choice for Australia. Aside from the pressure vessel the fellow on Catalyst was saying the large power plants were too large for our grid to accomodate. But the CANDU reactors are smaller – 515 MW at Pickering, I understand. The ability to run on natural, unenriched uranium is also interesting. We could start into fuel fabrication without requiring enrichment facilities.

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One of the biggest bottlenecks in the global supply chain for new NPPs is still heavy forging capacity needed for pressure vessels. I wonder what sort of investment Australia would need to make a contribution in that area? We have steelworks in Wollongong and Newcastle, after all.

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CANDUs are interesting for the reasons mentioned above, and I can quite understand DV82XL’s enthusiasm for his home country’s industry, but I do wonder if we wouldn’t be better off in the long run going down the path I outlined above, tying into the larger nuclear aspirations of south and east Asia.

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@Finrod,
Well what about looking at S Korea, has a lot more heavy industry capacity suitable for building nuclear power, almost no FF so good incentive, started building off the shelf designs in early 1970’s, and over 40 years has installed 19,000MW(av 500MW/year) and produces one third electricity from nuclear.
Is that what we should expect to achieve? I would call that a very optimistic target, but possible IF at least some state and federal governments work together for next 20 years, we could have 7-10GW nuclear(25% of expected demand), and 40-50% electricity from nuclear in 40 years.
,

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I believe the best way to challenge the issues is the deployment of a huge number of RBMK reactors. They are proven technology, efficient and most of all have a modular design that allows very fast building times.

Also they can be scaled up pretty well, designs beyond 1,5 Gigawatts per reactor block are easily possible.

The only major accident I know of was due to some operators conducting experiments in the reactor…. I think we all agree that this is not what reactors are there for and everything can break by conducting stupid experiments beyond design basis.

I know RBMKs have a bad reputation especially among the renewable fans but they can be build much faster and cheaper than current designs like the EPR and to repeat myself: The only major accident was due to some operators conducting experiments.

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@ NH:

Well what about looking at S Korea,

What about looking at France? There you will see what is possible with a little determination. And I believe we can do even better than that.

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There is no longer a steel works in Newcastle, but there are plenty of heavy engineering works, owned now by Forjacs, United Group and so forth.

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@ lJohn Morgan, on 30 April 2011 at 4:52 PM:

Two points, please.

First, ports capable of handling lage lifts are not difficult to find in Australia. That is about the same mass as the large power transformers which regularly are transported by road and previously by rail between various points in NSW and Qld and elsewhere. Tey are also about the same mass as the turbine rotors and stators which were handled through Sydney and Newcastle and via barge to Lake Macquarie during construction and maintenance of the largest dozen or so generators in the NSW system. No doubt the same happened in Vic and Qld.

Second, the largest generting plant in Australia is at present 660MW. There are a dozen or more.

The largest power station is Bayswater, which, in conjunction with Liddell across the road, is capable of more than 4640MW. A few miles away is the proposed Bayswater B, another couple of 1000MW units. The sent out power is at 330 or 500 kV. It is not unrealistic to consider nuclear power plants in the 1000MW range. One consideration is the ability of the NEM to manage a tripfrom full load of the largest unit on the grid. A first approximaton is that this requires spinning reserve of at least the same size. This criterion is met most of the time already due to other reasons and is in no way a show stopper.

Somebody upthread suggested that 20MW of solar and wind intermittent generators should be installed in double quick time. The reserve requirements for this size of unreliable load would be, at first glance, greater than for 1MW NPP.

Does anybody have access to a study of these scenarios from a system stability point of view? The options would seem to be 20 * 1000MW NPP or 20,000MW solar PV and wind. Surely the AER has an NEM options study tucked away somewhere.

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@Douglas Wise:
We are working within the limits of the model provided, which does not allow more radical reductions in oil and gas use.
Since I have not got access to up to date versions of Excel, I am not able to alter the parameters.
Moving substantial amounts of freight transport to rail with delivery from the railhead by electric truck should enable further reductions, whilst high speed rail partially displacing air travel and the use of some nuclear power to produce liquid fuels would enable further reductions.
Separate calculations by Cyril R indicated that we may need an energy flow of around 1.5kw per capita to provide for a European lifestyle, no doubt more in the US.
I was interested in keeping the nuclear build to the more modest 90 GWe level, but towards the end of the target period out to 2050 a very large nuclear industry which has got it’s costs down by mass manufacture could surely build whatever additional reactors were needed to provide liquid fuels etc.
90GWe would seem to break the back of the job though, ie around 1.5 times present French capacity given strong but fairly simple conservation measures such as insulating around 750,000 homes a year up to 2050.

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I’m sure AECL could get a nuke plant built in Aus in 4 to 5 years given their track record. AECL has completed 8 new Candu reactor installations over the last twenty years all on time in 4 years and on budget at $2B/Gw.- the cheapest reactor available anywhere outside China. The last one was completed in 2007 in Europe. Best record in the world for any reactor manufacturer.

And cheaper than any of your coal plants to boot.

http://www.cnnc.com.cn/tabid/168/Default.aspx

Depends though on Canada’s fascist no nuke PM getting the boot on May 2nd, and the Pronuke Liberals getting some sort of control.

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A point on the safety of spent fuel storage in pools of water, its important to consider why the pools in Daiichi were such a trouble spot. There are two reasons.

One, the reactor unit pools are high up near the top of the building. This makes then hard to access and hard to add makeup water (need powerful concrete pumping machines to get water that high up!). Below grade pools do not suffer this advantage. The central spent fuel pond at Daiichi for example is fine. You can just hang a firehose in the pool an that’s it.

Two, the damage caused by the hydrogen explosions destroyed the upper building, adding debris which reduced air cooling capability in this severe event. With passive hydrogen recombiners or full containment inerting with nitrogen or argon, this problem goes away.

Older BWRs with spent fuel ponds at the top of the building can add passive autocatalytic recombiners and hardened water spray pipe connections so that water is easily fed in from standpipe connections at ground floor level.

While it is likely that the industry worldwide will move more spent fuel to dry casks, in many cases this is likely just a PR stunt (which is good though we could sure use some good PR, the industry invests far too little in PR).

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Regarding the MIT report, I think it is very interesting that people from MIT are starting to get more and more what many nuclear advocates have long known: uranium isn’t rare.

The biggest commercial/economic driver for new reactor technology will be investment cost. Its okay to have a slightly higher fuel cycle cost but higher capital investment makes new reactors a non-starter.

Reactors with low capital cost have a big advantage. Something like a simple fluoride salt cooled converter like the AHTR reactor running on uranium.

The IFR crowd may also be interested in the following paper which looks at IFR with fluoride coolant technology pros and cons:

Click to access salt-cooled-fast-reactor.pdf

Possibly much lower capital investment is a big advantage for this technology.

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@Finrod, 30April, 5.22pm,
“what about France”
Now lets see what does France have, that Australia doesn’t have? Firstly, a complete nuclear weapons program since the 1950’s, secondly a much larger manufacturing industrial base, capable of building military and civilian aircraft, high speed trains, ships, space vehicles.
I am not saying Australia cannot build nuclear reactors using CANDU or AP1000 designs, I am sure that eventually we could generate>80% of our energy from nuclear. The issue isn’t whats possible, its whats practical to do in the next 20 to 40 years, based on what has happened in other non-nuclear weapons countries and our limitations. As Dan points out, the world is going to have a clean energy gap for most of this century, even with very optimistic assumptions about the growth in nuclear.

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@ Neil Howes:

Your ‘points’ are garbage. Australia has most of the industrial potential needed for a rapid rollout of nuclear power (heavy construction using lots of steel and concrete) already. The finer technological necessities can be imported swiftly enough. Your attempt to link nuclear power programs to nuclear weapons programs might impress your anti-nuke mates, but to the rest of us you are completely transparent.

The only things we currently lack (apart from the political will) are the workforce, academic infrastructure and technology transfer agreements. All that can be remedied in less than a decade.

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Australia gets most heavy energy equipment from overseas – whether coal boilers, steam turbines, or wind turbines. I don’t see why nuclear is especially disadvantaged here. The uranium mining is already operating in Australia, and CANDU fuel rod fabrication is a very simple process. It doesn’t even require heavy equipment – the fuel elements are small modular rods welded in simple elements, they are all the same, amenable to mass manufacturing.

A greatly underappreciated aspect of CANDUs is that if your fuel fails due to manufacturing errors, you can simply remove that fuel bundle online, without shutting down the reactor, and replace with a new fuel bundle. That’s a great advantage that makes fuel rod quality much less of a nervous issue (with BWRs for example you have serious trouble if a number of fuel rods fail – have to shut down, cool down, inspect etc.).

Canada doesn’t have a lot of big pressure vessel manufacturing capabilities. Canada doesn’t have nuclear weapons either:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction

Yet Canada was building CANDUs just fine (15 GWe, impressive for a small GDP country), and then some idiots, stimulated by Chernobyl, decided that nuclear was a bad idea and instead continued burning coal and gas is a great idea:

Click to access CAELEC.pdf

This is truely unfortunate, as the experience in Sweden and Switzerland shows that hydro+nuclear is a 90+ percent electricity supply solution:

Click to access SEELEC.pdf

Sweden got to about half nuclear, from almost nothing, in under 15 years. No nuclear weapons!

Similar story in Switzerland:

Click to access CHELEC.pdf

These are among the cleanest countries in the world!!

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Notice that Sweden’s nuclear expansion stopped in 1986. That doesn’t sound like a coincidence! Furtunately the anti nuke crazies were unable to stop the plants already spinning and as a consequence Sweden has among the lowest CO2, particulate, NOx and SOx in Europe. It makes Germany look like the fossil fuel hellhole that it is:

Click to access DEELEC.pdf

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@Cyril R – Canada’s nuclear program has suffered more from the low cost of domestic gas, and the availably of hydro than antinuclear driven fears. Yet Ontario, which has decided to burn no more coal, will build more reactors at at least one of the existing stations to cover base load.

For the record CANDU’s come in 700 MWe (CANDU 6E) and 1300 MWe (CANDU 9) models, although they are currently run in Canada at 600 MWe and 900 MWe respectively.

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Neil Howes, on 30 April 2011 at 3:18 PM — As best as I can determine it becomes quite difficult to have a reliable grid with a penitration of wind/solar above 10% of annualized average power requirements.

To say nothing of the costs.

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Sweden’s referendum on nuclear power -actually in 1980, pre-Chernobyl – was interesting, not to say anti-democratic. The options were effectively “no”, “no”, and “hell, no!” The reason for having two “no” options was probably to split the “no” vote to give the crazy “hell, no!” option a run. It worked, but not quite well enough for “hell, no!” to win, so the plants continued to operate on a slow phase-out basis – until the government came to its senses and reduced then reversed the decision, last year. Even so it is not clear that any expansion would be allowed under the current law.

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@Tom Keen

“A draft version of the UN’s Chernobyl Forum last year suggested up to 4,000 deaths could be linked to the incident.

Dr Dillwyn Williams and Dr Keith Baverstock
But this figure was based on the 600,000 people exposed to high levels of radiation.

The full report suggested another 5,000 of the 6.8 million people exposed to lower levels would also die – but this figure did not appear in the 50-page executive summary.

All of this data was from a 1996 study.

Explaining why the 4,000 figure was given prominence in the report, Melissa Fleming, a press officer for the International Atomic Energy Agency told Nature that it was to counter the much higher estimates which had previously been seen.

“It was a bold action to put out a new figure that was much less than conventional wisdom.”

It is much lower than the 93,000 figure given by Greenpeace in its evaluation of the Chernobyl impact published this week. ”

9000 is the WHO estimate.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4922508.stm
“That link I sent you quoted estimated fatalities from various NPP accidents ranging from a few thousand to 850,000. I was hoping that the absurdity would be obvious to you!”

Yes I am aware that the figures are controversial, but even in controversy one should be able to shut off the noise.

Coulter says nobody died as a result of radiation (only “Explosions”)
Moinbot says only ~50 died
WHO says 9,000
….
Greanpeace says 93,000
Caldicott says 985,000

Yes its not very precise, but the least we can do is not repeat the talking points of Coulter, Moinbot and Caldicott. Its not “middleground fallacy”, but simple objectivity.

The minimum is 9000.

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Objectivity is based on proof, and if you can’t prove that 9000 people died as a result of Chernobyl, then you don’t have an objective argument.

What is more, there is not much point in this sort of quibbling. No-one is building reactors like Chernobyl anymore. Those are reactors with strong positive void coefficients, strong initial reactivity insertion control rods, and bad containments. Even then the operators had to screw everything up and the government did a terrible job in not evacuating and covering things up, plus sending in people with real bad radiation protection (often not even proper breathing protection) and despite all of that worst-case scenario stuff, that killed only as many people as air pollution from fossil fuels kills every two or three days!!

It shows that nuclear technology is inherently not an apocalyptic technology.

Indeed despite all abuse that nuclear plants had to take, it is by far the safest form of electricity generation.

http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/lifetime-deaths-per-twh-from-energy.html

Burning stuff kills.

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@ DV82XL, I’m interested in your opinion on CANDU-6 versus CANDU-9. It seems a question of more experience for the former versus more economy of scale for the latter, right?

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@David Benson, 1May, 9.43am,
I can see how it would be possible to conclude that no more than 10% wind plus solar could be handled by a grid.
The factors that are important are(i) the geographical size of the grid, primarily dispersion of wind and solar(ii) capacity of hydro operating from storage reservoirs(iii) amount of pumped hydro( both operating capacity and storage ) (iv) type of CST and amount of thermal storage; solar towers or trough collection(v) other generation components; nuclear, coal, OCGT,CCGT, geothermal.
The main limitation on having a high % of wind power is the need to save excess power during windy periods (1-2 day periods) or spill a lot of energy, as well as the need for back-up during 1->5 day low wind periods. The main problem of having a high % CST with short term storage is prolonged periods of high cloud cover especially during winter months.
North America has considerable advantages in using a high proportion of both wind and solar. It has very different weather systems on W and E coasts, arctic and gulf coasts and mid-west. A very large grid( even if poorly connected between the 5 major regions), 4h time zone shift, very large long term hydro storage suitable for balancing season solar variations, large hydro capacity with a lot more potential to up-rate and build more new capacity. Furthermore there is presently a large natural gas peaking capacity that operates at a low capacity factor, more than adequate to back-up rare continental wide low wind or low solar events, providing that daily peak demand can be handled by up-rated hydro and pumped hydro capacity and short term CST thermal storage. But even small countries such as Spain with an area 2% the size of N America indicates that solar plus wind is going to be capable of supplying >10% electrical power. Now if we consider a region that has poor solar resources, poor wind and very little access to hydro storage, 10% wind plus solar may be excessive.
The major disadvantage of having high wind plus solar would be the need to use a relatively small amount of natural gas( or build a lot more hydro storage). It seems that NG is going to be used for electricity production for at least the next 50 years whatever replaces most oil, NG and coal use(lower CO2 emissions than coal or oil, low capital cost, high flexibility,existing NG power plants are much newer than coal (or nuclear).

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Environmentalist:

It clearly distresses you that pro nuclear campaigners put what you regard as too low a figure on Chernobyl-associated deaths (or deaths still to come). Is this because you believe that wider acceptance of the Greenpeace figure would convince more people to set their faces against more widespread deployment of nuclear power? Alternatively, are you merely seeking objectivity?

It might be worth trying to understand why there is such disparity in the figures rather than selecting a median figure, having thrown in Caldicott.

Remember that the WHO report to which you accurately refer concluded that that, in the highly affected areas, one might expect an extra 4000 deaths and, globally, yet a further 5000. Many of these deaths haven’t happened yet, but we know that sooner or later, we’re all going to die. The radiation biologists conducting the study were basing their judgements on officially accepted LNT theory.

Every year, about 60 million people die and more than double that number are born. Let’s leave aside that you, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, should find the discrepancy between deaths and births highly alarming and, instead, revert to your concern over radiation-associated deaths. Of the 60 million people dying annually, about 10 million deaths will be ascribable to cancer (many of which would have been ascribed to old age before it became important to medical practitioners to avoid acknowledgement that old age, of itself, could be followed by death). Thus, using LNT theory, the WHO’s authors came up with a figure of 9000 premature deaths. Let’s spread them over 25 years – though we could use a longer timeframe- and conclude that, during this period, 360 extra deaths were added to the existing 10million figure.

Even were one to accept the Greenpeace figure as being more authorative than that of WHO, how do you think a health economist might repond? Put crudely, he is in the business of keeping as many people from dying as possible with a finite pot of resources. Do you believe that he would conclude that nuclear power be banned? He might, but only if he believed that a growing population could be more economically sustained with alternative power sources. This might lead him towards a comparative study in which he looked at other causes of cancer which he could influence for less cost to get his death rate down or, alternatively, he could study the extra deaths associated with other forms of energy use. As you would no doubt concur, fossil fuel use results in vastly more premature deaths than does nuclear power production. In the case of coal, this applies even before one considers premature radiation-associated deaths. Would you care to speculate how many such coal-associated deaths a WHO team of experts, using LNT theory, would arrive at? I venture to suggest that it would dwarf the Chernobyl figure, the consequence of a severe and unusal accident, given that radiation emission is the routine consequence of burning coal.

Having attempted to put your concerns in perspective, I should go further and add that the consequences of Chernobyl surprised most of the radiation experts who had expected far more problems than were, in fact, measurable and resulted in many to questioning the validity of the LNT approach.

Of course, you might wish to eliminate both fossil fuel and nuclear power sources and campaign for a renewables only approach. In fact, perhaps you do. You may not accept the fact that scientists such as David MacKay and many others say that current populations cannot be self sustaining on renewable energy alone. Alternatively, perhaps you do accept this, but as an environmentalist, would like to see a major population crash sooner rather than later, but don’y like to say so overtly.

It would be helpful if you could let us know how you think we should be energising the global population in 2050 and whether you think this a) should be and b) will be 3, 7 or 10 billion.

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environmentalist: In 2008, the combined new cancers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were about 607,000. With historical population estimates you can work out
the cumulative number going back 25 years … 10 million perhaps. The bean counters can work out odds of getting a cancer from a radiation exposure, but they can’t work out the odds of getting another cancer before the radiation cancer hits. What I’d like to see is an estimate of the number of suicides, depressions, alcoholism and the like because people are panic stricken about a really really small
risk. Imagine giving everybody who gets on a plane a little in flight 30 minute lecture about what cosmic
rays can do to your DNA and the possible outcomes. Combine it with all kinds of fear mongering about “unknown risks” and how your children will be far more at risk of flying because of young cells. etc etc. And make sure that in the in-flight talk you never mention any relative statistics that might allow people to put stuff into perspective.
Couple that with the captain giving in flight counts of how many of your cells have been damaged at regular intervals.

With a well designed campaign we could worry the
hell out of more than a few people and reduce air travel by quite a bit!

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@Cyril R. – The Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6) is the newer and more advanced design. China thought it the better choice, and it fits into AECL’s philosophy of building multi-unit nuclear power stations. There is no international market for the CANDU 9 it would seem.

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Thanks DV. Do you think there’s any possibility that CANDU-6s can be marketed here in the Netherlands? Its a bit of a long shot, given the fact that the only electricity reactor here is a PWR, and there’s domestic gas centrifuge enrichment that would support a newer higher enrichment PWR, so the path of least resistance likely will be an EPR or AP1000.

However, the increased fuel efficiency of natural uranium fuelled CANDUs will appeal here, as there appear to be strong concerns of resource efficiency.

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Douglas Wise,
Thanks for a well reasoned response to “Environmentalist”. One of the consequences of the absurdities of the LNT theory is a growing demand for studies of the benefits of ionizing radiation.

The link on airline deaths posted by “Cyril R” mentions the reduced mortality in Taiwan following exposure to Cobalt 60. I know I have posted this before but “Environmentalist” probably missed it:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2477708/figure/F1/

Of course this is controversial and will remain so pending more studies but everyone should be aware that radiation in small doses may be beneficial.

While Botulinum toxin type A is one of the most toxic substances known (300 nano-grams can kill a 100 kg human if inhaled), many people cheerfully use related compounds for cosmetic purposes. For some reason the public can accept the questionable “benefits” of Botox more readily than the benefits of low level radiation.

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