The Storm Before the Norm

The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant was completed by 1986, but was never operated for electrical generation following regime change and the shocking events of Chernobyl. Geographically, it is the closest plant to Australia.


A Westinghouse PWR, it is the most complete non-functioning reactor in the world. According to Mark Cojuangco, BNPP achieved pre-OSART 2 in late 1985 after testing of turbine power, heat and pressure systems. It was to supply 621 MW of electricity. Let’s assume an 80% capacity factor, and round down to 4.3 TWh of clean electricity per year since 1986 – that’s 28 years. Given the 2011 IPCC figures for emissions intensities, if this had displaced coal combustion the Philippines would have abated over 118 million tons of CO2 emissions to date.

plant 007

Atmospheric carbon wasn’t so widely understood to be a problem back then of course, despite warnings from scientists. Bataan was largely built in reaction to the same oil crisis to which France responded so successfuly. But given current, stubborn opposition to considering nuclear power in the face of far clearer evidence, it’s doubtful this would have been a consideration.


This opposition has its roots in the fear that crystallised from Chernobyl, and one must concede that fostering public support for commissioning Bataan back then would have been impossible. But this is now, when the actual impacts have been thoroughly investigated (as opposed to estimated, often wildly and irresponsibly), after the carefully maintained plant building has weathered earthquakes, typhoons and a volcanic eruption, and after Phillipino electricity output has roughly tripled – mainly from coal.

There is a laudible effort to finally commission Bataan, which would be cheaper and faster than installing a new, similar-sized coal plant. Three decades later, and the Phillipines is sadly still in The Storm. Though its carbon-mitigating contribution would be proportionally small, this reactor would be the first, and it would rapidly help Philippinos understand that they need not hesitate any longer. Further reactors of even better design could be constructed. Decades later than ideal, but better than never, modern clean electricity could become the Norm for the Philippines.

Here in Australia we are also feeling the first gusts and squalls of the Storm before the Norm. Advocates can point to the testimony of renowned scientists, environmentalists and professionals as well as solid, comprehensive analysis that demonstrates that the  advances in renewable technologies, exciting by themselves, will not touch the sides of the urgent task of decarbonisation. Opponents, like all conservative groups, resist calls to reconsider their views in light of new evidence and recent events, and rely on comfortable, entrenched attitudes and believe that the majority shares their opinion. The spectrum between, occupied mostly by ordinary people who don’t really care where their electricity comes from but who have mostly had their view of nuclear power thoroughly coloured for so long, can now sort all the information for itself and question the narrative through the magic of the internet.

If we can keep the signal up against the noise, I think that’s ideal. Australians shouldn’t really be forced to care how their electricity’s produced, but neither do they tolerate misinformation for long. If the failed  narrative gives way to the reality of comparatively safe, non-polluting, reliable modern energy from high-tech, internationally-overseen power plants that provide secure employment (for an example, look at the US nuclear sector), then all that’s left would be commissioning the first reactor and bringing Australia’s future up to criticality.

The proposal to build a coal plant on the grounds of Bataan, instead of finally fuelling and commissioning the reactor, goes to the very heart of the energy problem that we face. There the power plant stands, maintained, perfectly intact after earthquakes, typhoons and volcano – if ever a nuclear plant was thoroughly pretested, Bataan is it. Inoperative, it has been instructive. That time is over: let it do what is was really built for.


The Cavalry

Last year’s imploring open letter to environmental groups by renowned climate scientists Ken Caldeira, Tom Wigley, Terry Emmanuel and James Hansen was given limited coverage at the time, and faced emphatic rejection from its target audience. Conservative environmentalists responded with what can only be described as quantity rather than quality, ignoring the proferred evidence and reiterating their decades-old misconceptions, relying on weight of numbers to drown out what they had no wish to hear.

This obstinacy perhaps indicated an expectation that the nuclear debate would somehow consequently go away. On the contrary, though, our four authors have the support of a majority of their peers.

RQ2-2014Q5-36These are not salaried representatives of NGOs, relying on donor-bases with intractable, unaccountable interests in their official positions. These are the same scientists who contribute to the consensus understanding of climate change. “The Vision Prize is an online poll of scientists about climate risk.  It is an impartial and independent research platform for incentivized polling of experts on important scientific issues that are relevant to policymakers.

In addition to supporting the call for inclusion of nuclear energy, the majority also agrees that renewable energy technologies alone cannot play a major role in satisfying growing demand for electricity.

RQ2-2014Q4-38Deniers of climate change science will have no issue here – doubtless it comes as a source of great amusement. But these conclusions put renewable energy-only advocates in an untenable position, as, by definition, the whole purpose of their favoured technology is to mitigate climate change, a global phenomenon formalised by the work of professional climate scientists. Those that reject the inclusion of nuclear capacity as part of this effort face the cognitive dissonance of effectively denying the majority view of climate scientists. Additionally, it provides a damning context for Germany’s ideological approach to climate change, and its failure to address emissions while stubbornly demonizing the cleanest, safest, most lauded generation technology it ever possessed – and which, for now, still supplies more clean electricity than solar and wind.


The Lanthanide Age

So what do Australia’s new fighter jets and nuclear power have in common?

The current nature of US regulation does not favour reactor designs that deviate from conventional pressurised, water-cooled and moderated, once-through uranium fueled varieties, and even these are expensive in terms of licensing and compliance. This is obviously an impediment to the refinement and deployment of commercial thorium-fueled molten salt reactors, which were being pursued at Oak Ridge National Lab until the 1970s and the termination of funding. The Thorium Energy Alliance has been working for years to build political support to once again pursue this technology in the US.


It is not merely the abundance of thorium in the Earth’s crust and the relative simplicity of refining it into fluoride salt fuel that holds appeal, but the fact that the optimal reactor for extracting fission energy, e.g. Flibe Energy’s LFTR, is a breeder reactor which will utilise practically all of the thorium or other actinides it is loaded with. Yet, even this potential has failed to gain much political traction outside YouTube, social media and semi-regular technology columns in magazines. The Thorium Energy Alliance has instead focussed its effort on the rare earth elements – critical for modern electronics – that are invariably mixed up with thorium in minerals such as monazite. It is the radioactive, regulated thorium which complicates utilisation of indigenous rare earths in the US, to the extent that China now has complete market control. Accordingly, legislation was proposed to change this.

The whole presentaiton is very interesting but essentially the intention is to establish a governmentally chartered cooperative that would expand US rare earth element production and securely stockpile the separated thorium, while targeting chemical, industrial and energy-focused utilisation of the actinide in parallel. James Kennedy puts it best in this presentation to the IAEA last month.

The F35 Joint Strike Fighter and its Chinese-made components are just one example of a current suite of problems with rare earth elements. Political opposition to TEA’s elegant solution is at best baffling, when at stake is nothing less than a potential source of super-deployable, emissions-free electricity and industial heat, hand-in-hand with the feed-stock of our modern communications as well as most other technology.

Indeed, we are most certainly already locked into the Lanthinide* Age. Their responsible use should be expanded to connect the whole world, and the next generation of nuclear is the clean energy with which to power it.


There is hope, as one Senator has heeded the call and proposes to pass the National Rare Earth Refinery Act bill. We will know by December if sanity will prevail.


*Plus scandium and yttrium, of course.

I Remember Thinking That

I’m good with both sides of things. Take grammar,

I do – take it seriously, that is, and strive to get it right. But I also agree with Stephen Fry, who has amused me throughout my life at least as much as has Weird Al.

What else is polarised on the Internet? Yes, alright, virtually everything, but the discussion around nuclear power is a really important example because we need so much more of it. Those for the negative have what can only be described (in the context of nuclear’s proven potential to mitigate carbon emissions) as a litany of objections, but behind it is a common failure to grasp a fundamental perspective on the issue. Most proponents were not always proponents, and to varying degrees we also suffered from fear and misinformation about nuclear: the impacts of Chernobyl and Fukushima, reports of cancers and mutations, corrupt corporations ignoring safety, the lack of any solution to nuclear waste. Et cetera.Proponents get what opponents are saying, but we are past that. They don’t realise they aren’t going to convince us with the old narrative, the one that isn’t yet so stale to them. Maybe we need to remember the perspective we left behind, if we want to convince them. Because, when the stars align, it does happen.When the common goal is primarily to address climate disruption, it boils down to a single main difference between our two camps: the nuclear advocates are prepared to listen to one more group of experts than the opponents are. Refusing to hear a single word from purportedly biased, untrustworthy, lying physicists, engineers and professionals is unadulterated motivated reasoning.


Fertile Opportunity

In 2009 an episode of Spooks (at around the 51 minute mark) provided what possibly sounded like a science fiction version of a nuclear reactor, the Integral Fast Reactor, as a solution for the Iranian nuclear issue. It was indeed real, but apart from a small community of serious, environmentally-conscious campaigners, the last time Australians would have heard of anything like it was in the early nineties, when paranoia was running high regarding breeder reactors. I know I distinctly remember hearing about them, but always in the context of weapons plutonium production, and therefore nuclear proliferation. That misunderstanding led not only to sloppy journalism, but to termination of funding in the US.


Last month, Russia celebrated the start up of it’s latest BN-800 sodium-cooled fast reactor. This technology can consume weapons material and used fuel from any conventional reactor, and will allow Russia to close its nuclear fuel cycle. Given the staggering density of energy available via fast spectrum fission, what will it mean for the far future, where fossil fuels are either constrained or depleted, if no other nation competes?

Australia could step up. We have vast uranium resources, more than we could use domestically. With the current depressed global price and demand, immediate utilisation is difficult for both national wealth and global clean energy goals. But embracing modern nuclear energy with our clean slate means our informed, freshly-minted operating framework can be geared towards providing a destination for foreign used nuclear fuel to be used as an energy resource, without the over-burdened inertia so obvious in the regulations of other countries. Seizing this market niche could provide the confidence these other nations need to enhance their nuclear energy sectors as clean replacement for coal or gas, thus generating the market for our uranium. If this idea sounds familiar, it’s because Ben Heard already had it.

We need not miss another opportunity to think big and bold, while tackling air pollution, emissions and fossil-fuel dependence in a historically-proven manner.

And yes, that’s 300 years, not tens or hundreds of thousands. Solid waste storage, irrelevant to the potential dangers of climate disruption, need not be on science fiction timescales.