The Bright Side

How many times has the media’s fixation on calamity been bemoaned when it comes to accurate reporting about nuclear energy? Sure, you haven’t heard much about Fukushima contamination recently, or the “perilous” transfer of fuel assemblies. But the media spectacle of a triple meltdown certainly outshone the natural disaster and its unspeakable human toll at the time and well after professional evaluation concluded  there’d be no radiation deaths.

So I’d like to highlight Today’s recent visit to ANSTO’s OPAL facility – a refreshing, positive view of Australia’s nuclear work. Bravo, I say!


Is it telling that the majority of the segment is routine market report and analysis of the everyday concerns of petrol price rises? All while Mr Greenwood stands little more than 13 metres from a 25 kg core of low enriched uranium, shielded by water.

Meanwhile, another common gripe is the reluctance of nuclear-supplied power companies and technology vendors to effectively market their product. I like to think that’s also changing.

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A Young Person’s Guide to Nuclear Advocacy

This article is now a page here, where it will be updated to include further useful resources.

So you want to advocate for nuclear power? You liked the look of thorium, did  your research, and have concluded that conventional nuclear power has been unfairly maligned since the 70s? You saw Pandora’s Promise and can’t fathom why we don’t have the IFR? Or maybe you lie in bed at night wondering what sort of climate-disrupted, energy-starved world your young children will have to face in twenty years time?

Everyone’s reasons and journeys are different, but the necessity of nuclear energy will effect us all the same way. You already have allies in physics and history, and the call for rational energy planning grows steadily stronger.

lego

THE ENERGY

Before doing anything else, you need to get comfortable with your units. I prefer terawatt hours per year (TWh/yr) because a) everyone’s heard of kilowatt hours, and b) it is an equivalent of the more familiar megawatts (MW – there’s a million MWs in a TW) that electricity generators supply, but it indicates that average yearly supply and capacity factor have been considered. You already understand capacity factor – it’s one of the many vital metrics where nuclear energy excels. So, when considering the average annual electricity a given plant, like Vogtle 3 & 4, will supply, we can reasonably assume a capacity factor of 0.9 or 90%, multiplied by the combined AP1000 units’ nameplate capacity of 2308 MW (= 2077.2 MW average) then by conversion factor of 8766. The product is 18.21 TWh/yr, and through similar arithmetic nuclear and alternatives can be somewhat levelised for comparison as sources of electricity.

That capacity factor is the kicker. While nuclear plants can be operated at lower capacities, the negligible fuel costs (a consequence of the sheer potential energy density of actinide nuclei) dictate that economy is maximised by minimising downtime for maintenance and refueling. Finland, a nation that embraces nuclear for its growing energy needs as well as effective carbon abatement, boasts a 95% capacity factor for its reactors over the last decade. There isn’t another scalable source of low-emissions power that can provide such reliability – not even hydroelectricity, which is strictly constrained by suitable location. This isn’t to say that load-following is unfeasible, indeed it is becoming a noted feature of newer reactor designs.

frenchramp

French reactors load-following at 70 MW per minute back in April.

THE MESSAGE

While it is not unknown for opponents to be swayed through online discussion, your arguments are largely for the benefit of current and future readers more than the sake of changing your immediate opponent’s mind. This is because Facebook pages and comment sections are public and searchable. It speaks to how oblivious some opponents are regarding their bias that it won’t occur to them to take the debate to private email. Invariably, their selective arguments will merely be opportunities for you to respond with appropriate examples, analysis, literature, infographics or conclusive factual rebuttals and the casual forum reader can judge for themselves. Remember, you have both physics and history as allies.

This is most pronounced on twitter. Despite the fast pace and length limitations of the discussions, even when you’ve been muted or blocked by obstinate opponents, the fact that you have clearly put your case is preserved.

twi

The dominant narrative in Australia has been:

  1. Being Green, alternative or otherwise environmentally aware is to be anti-nuclear by definition;
  2. The wisdom of physicists, engineers and other nuclear-related experts – even international peak bodies –  is naturally dismissed as corrupted and of similar reliability as testimony from fossil fuel or chemical corporations;
  3. Radiation is exceptionally dangerous, end of story. We cannot risk the imagined catastrophe of a nuclear accident in Australia (no matter how small the risk, or how large the contrasting benefits).

This sort of thinking was kind of forgivable in the 80s, after Chernobyl, when the consequences of such an accident (actually impossible with reactors of Western design) were still unknown; when the science and early signs of climate disruption weren’t yet on the public radar; and when the example of France had not yet proved that rapid exit from national fossil fuel use for electricity was entirely feasible.

geoff russell

But it doesn’t cut it any longer. Chernobyl didn’t cause the carnage predicted at the time. Fukushima even less so. And the psychological harm to an affected population by fearmongering in place of evidence-led education directly results in panic, despair and destroyed families.

There is no obligation whatsoever to let bad information stand.

And the Bomb? Conventional electricity-generating power reactors are not used to make bomb material. Fact.

THE RADIATION

radioactiveme

I won’t lie – this is the tricky part. Nuclear radiation may fundamentally be a natural phenomenon, but it is still something that human senses simply can not perceive. If you look around, you can concentrate and be aware of everything around you… but can you feel the negligible fraction of a microsievert of natural, background beta and gamma radiation hitting you at this moment? Ionising radiation, including also X-rays and ultraviolet, is like that. You don’t feel its effects in your cells, but you may know later if you had too much exposure, such as peeling skin after too much sunshine.

Conventional understanding since the 50s has dictated that all this harm – the cell death or DNA damage – is cumulative and that there’s no safe dose. On this assumption, stringent and expensive regulations are levied upon nuclear power, medicine and other uses, and the natural response to mishaps or even the fear of accidents is to tighten them further.The formulae for estimating dose get misapplied to predicting deathrates from radiological release – perfect ammunition for those unscrupulously opposed to nuclear energy.

Again, possibly a forgivable assumption decades ago, but the Taiwan Apartments, the Goiânia accident, the Sands of Guarapari and many other examples including vast medical experience are the exceptions that appear to be the reality of the situation. While the biochemistry is fascinating and the multitudes of isotopes and applications are exciting, scientific understanding is secondary to the overwhelming message here: radiation is probably safe at low doses and is definitely not the devil we’re told it is. Precautions are sensible, but don’t freak out! But certainly, as long as you’re interested it is a good idea to get comfortable with becquerels and sieverts, their common magnitudes, their various sources, and the difference between a negligible and a dangerous dose rate.

This is the idea that we were born in a sea of radiation, we evolved in a sea of radiation, we should expect that our bodies should have some sort of underlying protection from radiation…

So given radiation isn’t an exceptional danger, why oppose properly regulated, oversighted, peaceful nuclear power and medicine?

THE RESOURCES

Atomic Insights – maintained by Rod Adams, the “favourite uncle” of nuclear blogging.

Hiroshima Syndrome – maintained by Leslie Corrice, with a focus on busting myths about radiation and the Japanese situation.

Brave New Climate – vast nuclear information resources with an Australian perspective from Barry Brook and guests, with particular emphasis on the IFR.

Patrick L. Walden at TRIUMF – many factual references from a nuclear physics professor.

Pandora’s Back Pages – Ed Leaver provides citations for all the information presented in Pandora’s Promise.

I have to include PopAtomic Studios and Suzy Hobbs Bakers’ artistic, human-focused inspiration.

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but I present it as the material I often rely on when putting my case. I must also recommend purchasing copies of Radiation and Reason and Greenjacked! Please feel free to add further references in the comments.

Now go forth and change some minds! However, I mean human minds, just like yours. Facts, analysis, commentary and reasoning will take you far, but it is vital, crucial that you also understand the other side.

The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.

This is advocacy, not a propaganda. Use rhetoric, not polemic. And don’t challenge anyone if you’re not prepared to challenge yourself even harder.

Location, Location

The West Wind project on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island is an array of 62 2.3 megawatt Siemens turbines. It generates 550 gigawatt-hours per year for Wellington to the east, indicating an average capacity factor of 44% – one of the highest in the world for onshore wind, which is obvious considering the geography. New Zealand’s rich hydro capacity can be ramped to compliment West Wind’s contribution. The farmland isn’t greatly impacted by the towers and roads. This is exactly what I’m thinking of when I profess in-principle support for wind-power: right location, right conditions, right technology mix.

400px-Project_West_Wind,_from_the_air
I also feel a bit of an emotional connection to this project as I was honeymooning at Princess Charlotte Sound around the time it was being constructed across the water. I saw a staging yard from the road that contained the huge tower segments, presumably being prepared for transport by barge. I may be making spurious connections here but the timing fits.

A rough scale comparison. Image adapted from here and here.

But… we are well on track to a long-speculated future featuring small modular reactors. The NuScale naturally circulating, inherently safe reactor will stand 24.4 metres tall in its containment, compared to an average turbine tower height of 50 metres. This SMR integrates its steam generator within its pressure vessel, but even adding the size of an appropriate turbine, it is still “smaller” than a single wind turbine. Sure, the associated plant is spread over more area… but one 50 MW NuScale unit running for a year will provide 440 gigawatt-hours of fully dispatchable electricity – 80 percent of West Wind’s entire variable output. The SMR is intended to be built and installed by the dozen, in an area of 44 acres, with a design life of sixty years. It is mostly steel and concrete – but far less than what is needed for wind farms, per kilowatt-hour.

The approximate scale comparison of the two generation technologies.

Everything about this approach to providing electricity is more, and in a more compact package.

Now, this hardly constitutes a feasibility study into nuclear power for New Zealand. I’d be surprised if the North Island ever needs a whole 600 MW plant. I’m with @millysievert: I talk about the potential for plentiful energy but 100% nuclear power nearly anywhere is probably not going to happen. What is vital is to maintain perspective on the realistic proportions of future energy offered by different technologies.

 

 

Gentle Fire

OPAL and its predecessor HIFAR are commonly known as research and isotope production reactors operated by ANSTO, but I had not heard about Australia’s third reactor until today. Watch the unprecedented and professional decommissioning of Moata in the video above.

As with every other electrified nation, operation of nuclear power plants has never emitted any carbon dioxide in Australia. But despite not benefiting from actual electrical generation, we do have a legacy of nuclear waste that needs to be addressed, as well as that which has been properly processed by our international partners. In my opinion, and judging by the regulatory standards on display, it is no cause for any sort of alarm. Establishing a centralised repository has unfortunately become one of those aspects of nuclear which struggles against concerted fearmongering, and I think has taken far longer than it should have because of this.

elcabril

Read about El Cabril, and relax about nuclear waste.

“…but do you have concerns about your health?”

“…’health’?”

The laudably well-informed Mr Armstrong, interviewed by Bush Telegraph, would welcome this facility on his land. Ben Heard‘s opponent seems to suffer from a curious but often-encountered and persistent paranoia that human capabilities will not improve in even a hundred-year timeframe. There is much cause to expect that they indeed will, and, I wager, beyond whatever we might care to imagine. I suppose some sort of collapse of civilisation might rather hamper our advancement, but that couldn’t be the thinking here, surely.

Even the warnings of toxicity ring hollow. What exceptional risks are we running here, compared to any number of examples of ubiquitous, mundane, and indeed eternally persistent materials – lead, for instance? The BBC’s excellent podcast series illustrates the toll levied by using lead through the ages. We still think nothing of spending a portion of each day within a metre of some highly concentrated, acid-soaked lead and a chamber of exploding petrol. And when things go wrong there, we hardly worry about a leaking battery. The best defense against unnecessary alarm is perspective. And what if the low level radiation from this material in fact poses no danger at all?

mitcritique1from BNC

Even high level waste, principally Reusable Nuclear Fuel, is manageable with the right expertise. Accessible storage for future energy production is a linchpin of Promethean Environmentalism. Supreme energy density without mining or greenhouse gas emissions – how could fire be made any more gentle?