My apologies for being US-centric today, but I wanted to quickly bring your attention to this piece by an interesting blogger, drawing on material from 2 professionals.
Apart from the F-word and misleading conflation of reactors with bombs, inexorable baby-mutating 10,000 year waste is the most tired trump card whipped out by institutional environmentalists, at least in the forums I’ve been perusing of late. (The implied solution is to abandon nuclear. What the hell sense does that make? With 60-odd years worth of extant “waste”, we obviously need a technological solution, not anti-technology ideology.)
As detailed, the issue of spent nuclear fuel has become an exaggerated cost burden, one of many that turns the price tag of nuclear into yet another smug objection, at least in the US. Well, however fundamentally arbitrary, that is a financial burden. I’m more concerned about the entirely non-arbitrary climate burden of every additional year that we put off starting the big transition.
Each gigawatt-year of nuclear electricity produces approximately 20 tons of waste (note 20 tons x 40 years x 100 reactors = 80,000 MTHM: Dave, will you check my math?). Given the weight of these 20 tons, the volume is one-third the size of a reactor core: a countable number. One gigawatt-year of coal electricity produces 1,000,000 tons of CO2 (note: 1M tons x 40 years x 100 gigawatts = 4 billion tons of CO2; there are approximately 5 milligrams of CO2 in 12oz can of soda; therefore, we would need to bury 200,000 cans of soda to sequester 1 ton of CO2, i.e., 800 trillion cans of soda; Dave, please check my math). I exaggerate to make the point that Carbon Capture and Storage is a myth and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project is a reality. Finally, climate change is a reality, Hurricane Sandies don’t care whether you believe in climate change: they will flood the New York subway whether you believe in climate change or not. The issue is whether it is easier to manage spent nuclear fuel or CO2. What do you think?
~ Geoffrey Rothwell
It is interesting that he is so specific about the regulations involved, as this mirrors the first vital step which we need to achieve in Australia, namely the repeal of the prohibitive sections of the EPBC Act and the ARPANS Act (what was I saying about arbitrary regulations?). Apart from the AGW-related urgency, Australia, as a supporter of the NPT and a world leader in nuclear safety, should be leading by example in our region, not keeping our head in the sand.
We want our cars, we want our roads, we want to drive. Some of us ride when we can, or go by bus but we still need roads, as do the trucks which carry around the stuff we (one way or another) need. I won’t go into details.
Last year I enjoyed presentations from four professionals who presented quite different perspectives on the energy challenges we face in our immediate future, but the single aspect they all dramatically agreed on was electrification of our vehicles. They did not mention, as it is patently obvious, that charging and running our vehicles will need electricity whose generation must be emissions-free, or at least overall mitigates some of the emissions that combusting the petrol would have produced.
This still leaves a constant requirement for roads. Roads are like tap water… no, even better, like electricity, because sometimes the power goes out, just like roadworks slow or block particular streets. (Yeah, occasionally an old water main bursts but the main inconvenience is that it floods the road; the loss of water pressure might delay your laundry, but bottled water is ubiquitous.) We drive, and work, and indirectly (taxes) or directly (tolls) pay for the roads to be there. When the need is there, to a greater or lesser degree, to build more roads, we take it for granted that they’ll be built in a reasonable timeframe and a less-than-scandalous budget, with modern materials and attention to the sort of occupational health and safety requirements that I and all my generation can certainly remember being the norm (correct me if I’m wrong there, but when was the last time you saw a worker without hardhat and visy vest?) Similarly, once the roads are built, we can all drive on them, tacitly accepting the associated risks (if you didn’t accept them, you wouldn’t have comprehensive insurance). On the other hand, despite disapproval and corrective efforts a proportion of motorists will act to increase the risks, and road design and maintenance is never perfect.
Undeniably, roads allow our society and economy to function from day to day at a fundamental level. We take all this for granted and accept the risks while doing what we can as individuals and as governments to minimize them. And, most importantly for this blog post, ending the business-as-usual use of roads is not a thing anyone either expects or considers.
So what about the quantified risks and hazards of nuclear power? Well, yet another experienced nuclear professional lays it all out over at the American Nuclear Society. Why read it? Well, to keep up the metaphors, when you need your wiring inspected, you call in an electrician. (Sure, electricity is far more familiar than nuclear reactions, but even if you know enough to tell an anode from a cathode, or explain electron holes, many don’t.) It’s law, and it’s common sense. Electricity is an invisible force that the electrician is trained to understand and advise upon, but for the layman it can be hard to predict and deadly. Importantly, no-one’s planning on it going away! Even survivalist types who I know and respect have plans for off-grid, in situ electrical capacity.
Institutional environmentalists most certainly plan on nuclear energy going away. Except it’s not actually a plan. They just hate nuclear, and hate listening to the professionals who actually know about it, and when they have their way, we get to see Germany’s Energiewende begin to fail less than three years after the reactionary removal of nuclear from the mix, and California’s carbon dioxide emissions shoot up dramatically. This isn’t what should be happening, and because it is, the methods must change. The alternative approach must be soberly considered. Get those road workers to build a bridge over the perception gap which has only ever been widened by institutional environmentalists. Learn to manage the outrage. Get behind, or at least get out of the way of, the only full-scale deployable CO2-mitigating technology which might be just enough in time.
Yep, I’m playing the Dr Seuss card. I read it to my kids tonight and of course it worked a treat, but I confess to being pretty distracted throughout as I was identifying with the cheerful Sam-I-Am far more than usual.
Let Sam be people who have grasped at least the basic technical, environmental, societal and economic benefits of nuclear energy. I hesitate to group them under the label of a movement – in Australia, at least. I have seen them referred to as “the nuclear lobby” in comment threads, and more dismissively as “boosters”… Invariably in discussions where opposing arguments from ideology fail in, or simply avoid, addressing the sort of rapidly mounting evidence and analysis which originally set Sam on his path.
I hardly need specify that all these opponents can be represented by The Narrator, but during reading I was specifically picturing establishment environmentalists. These are the people who are employed full-time by ENGOs and to this day maintain the decades-old rejection of every aspect of nuclear technology (I’m still trying to find an instance of specific support for radiation and isotopic medicine, if there’s an obvious page I somehow missed, please post about it). The unavoidable question for such professionals is, when presented with the evidence which has and does convince nuclear supporters, on what basis do they reject it – do they have better counter-evidence, or are they worried about breaching their contracts?
So then there’s the oddly-paletted breakfast meal itself. Sam insists it’s good, that it would be suitable in a variety of distinct environs and with a diverse range of company, but is bluntly rebuffed. Our angry Narrator dislikes green eggs and ham, and this is reason enough to dismiss them regardless of where and with whom. Importantly, Sam is obviously knowledgeable in their preparation, and despite what we might presume to be a statistically small number of bad-tasting or even rancid servings in the past, both eggs and the ham survive the climactic traffic-train-maritime disaster without harming anybody.
Maybe it’s this stark demonstration of the quality of modern green eggs and ham, or maybe The Narrator is just pretty hungry by this point, but when he ultimately acquiesces…
“Thank you, Sam-I-Am!”
Mention nuclear testing in Australia, and I would hope most people would immediately think “Maralinga” (otherwise they probably have not heard anything regarding it at all). Maralinga was, in fact, the site ultimately chosen for the bulk of the UK’s testing in the 50s and 60s, after various other devices were tested nearby at Emu Field, also in the arid outback of South Australia, and in the Montebello Islands, Western Australia.
I hadn’t thought to wonder at the story behind this testing, or the origin of the designs and materials – a persistence, despite my research and advocacy, of the deep, programmed rejection of nuclear shared by many Australians, perhaps? UK weapons testing, in hindsight, is like something that was forced on Australia, and we’ll understandably always be pretty sore about it. But I recently followed a link to the story of Windscale.
The reactor was one of those monstrous first generation piles, built for breeding plutonium so that the UK could essentially keep up with the US in terms of nuclear weapons. The details of the waste, cooling design and disregard for safety margins is spine-chilling. It seems amazing that no one died during normal operation, let alone in the ultimate fire which released substantial contamination. But no one died, just like at Fukushima (despite the Youtube channel’s loaded sub-title).
In any case, give me Gen-III+ or IV passive safety any day. The rushed, flawed designs of the past are absolutely no excuse for dismissing the promise of modern approaches.
For a few years back in the 60s, Australia could have had one of those old reactors, and like Windscale, it would have been for the wrong reasons.* It is doubtful that the 500 MWe plant would have been connected for power transmission at all. Maybe, in time, it would have led to further civilian capacity, first hand experience of the relative safety of nuclear, avoidance of the proud but lazy anti-nuclear mental rut… but nuclear weapons are terrible (hindsight or no hindsight). One more country, our country, armed with these things, getting all the wrong kind of attention, possibly normalising it for our region, and for rather weak reasons in the first place.
Still no reason to dismiss modern reactors. The concluding remark of that Catalyst segment linked above is baffling. Our future is behind us? How does that make sense? Efficient gas generation is impressive, sure, but if that ends up being good enough then all that happens is the fossil fuel is burned more efficiently over a longer timescale, and is eventually released as GHG anyway. It has to be part of the (briefly deployed) transition technologies which help us meet the future’s energy needs without appreciable GHG release, not to mention the capability to recycle and mostly eliminate the radioactive legacy of yesterday – something that only advanced nuclear technology can do.
That could be our future. South Australia is part of nuclear history, arguably unwillingly, but it’s also a state of firsts, a state that has historically and progressively lead by example. It would be a shame if we left that behind too.