Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nuclear power's great leap forward

The Climate Spectator has yet another article spruiking the fantasy of the nuclear renaissance, with all the usual wild claims being made about Gen IV reactors (only 20 years away - we need to get on board right now !) - Nuclear power's great leap forward.
The Chinese Academy of Science announced on January 26 that it planned to finance the development of a program to develop thorium fuelled molten salt reactors (TFMSR). This is the first of four "strategic leader in science and technology projects" that the Chinese Academy of Science will be supporting. ...

The Academy stated that"The scientific goal is to develop a new generation of nuclear energy systems [and to achieve commercial] use [in] 20 years or so. We intend to complete the technological research needed for this system and to assert intellectual property rights to this technology."...

So, can we expect to see the Chinese announcement catalyze the countries and researchers who have been working on TFMSR’s for years to put together a team to deliver a second TFMSR program?

Given the intellectual capital developed 50 years ago by the talented team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, under the leadership of the visionary Dr Alvin M Weinberg, it would be surprising if a team were not assembled and funded to deliver a second TFMSR program.

Well - I'm sure the reason it failed the first time around is no longer applicable - so we'll see if these reactors can compete with solar and wind in 20 years or so time.

The CS has another article criticising a lot of the fantasising going on by the nuclear lobbyists - Behind nuclear's new face.
With Martin Ferguson calling for a nuclear power debate at the ALP National Conference and the Weekend Australian’s front page headline reading, "Nuclear power's friendly new face," it's looking like the nuclear lobby has been busy.

Of course that’s what lobby groups do – lobby. Except in this case the lobbying is being done by the Minister responsible for Australia’s renewable energy portfolio and the story in The Australian was written by a reporter, not a lobbyist.

It would be tempting to think that, after four weeks of fire, floods, and historic storms, the national debate would be focusing on how to make our country more resilient with tough, flexible housing options, infrastructure designed for the 21st century and a sustainable, cheap, low-risk energy mix.

But no. The months leading up to the Labor Party's National Conference will now be filled with environmentalists calling on the Prime Minister to clarify her position on nuclear power – with all the accompanying leadership speculation that will encourage. And it will be necessary to spend precious time and resources once again outlining the reality of nuclear power.

If it remains on the agenda, it looks like nothing but a train wreck for federal Labor. However the issues raised by The Australian need to be addressed well before the National Conference in late July.

As the headline suggests, the story is about the possibilities still open to a nuclear power industry – nuclear power as friendly and small. But there are five central assertions made by the nuclear industry in the article that, in the interests of an informed debate, need closer examination.

The first is contained in the opening lines: “Nuclear electricity generation is undergoing expansion in some countries and intensified research as nations seek to restrict carbon output and diversify their sources of power.”

Wrong. Nuclear power is declining in market share. In fact, while expansion is happening in China, Korea and Russia, in the rest of the world, the number of reactors are stagnating or decreasing. In Europe, for example, there has been a net decrease of nuclear capacity by 7,200 MW since year 2000. Twenty years ago, in 1989, there were 177 reactors in what is now known as the EU-27; today there are only 144. What we see is a decline of nuclear power, not an expansion.

Secondly, there is the suggestion that "mini reactors may be one way to go, supplying specific locations."

Mini nuclear plants are the stuff of science fiction. None of them have even developed enough on paper to be seriously considered for construction. None are licenced, which by itself is a process that takes many years.

Thirdly, the article raises the potential of Generation IV reactors, saying they are "now under research for possible future development." The Generation IV project covers several technologies that now lie more in the realm of theory, such as gas-cooled fast reactors, and others that would be helium-cooled instead of the present water-cooling.

Nobody seriously thinks about deployment of Gen IV before 2030 – including the International Energy Agency in its most recent scenarios (World Energy Outlook 2010, or Energy Technology Perspectives 2010).

The article‘s fourth point is that nuclear power "has gained support among some environmentalists and many long-standing opponents as an effective way to reduce global carbon emissions and combat climate change."

This is nonsense. The fact is, no established environmental groups support nuclear power, quite the opposite. During the climate conference in Poznan in 2008, more than 300 NGOs signed a declaration against nuclear power and its inclusion in the CDM – including every large group such as WWF, Friends of the Earth, CAN, etc.

The fifth point they make is that "Finland has several plants already and is expanding its complex at Olkiluoto from two to three plants."

The third reactor of Olkiluoto has been a disaster for Europe’s “nuclear renaissance”. Promoted as a flagship of brand new, improved, reliable and economic Generation III+ reactors, the project was passed through the Finnish parliament in 2002 with a price tag of €2.5 billion. When the construction started in 2005, the contract was already at €3.2 billion. Since then, thousands of technical problems have caused massive delays, so the construction is now officially four years behind schedule (the reactor should have started in May 2009 but will not be in commercial operation before 2014), and the cost has climbed up to €6 billion so far, with more troubles, delays and extra costs very likely to come.

Next, the article asserts that "a true environmental cost-benefit analysis is difficult because of the uncertainty inherent in the long-term storage and disposal of waste.“

"Uncertainty" is the operative word. What we do know is the UK government is preparing to pay well over $A110 billion to clean up some of its old installations. Though it’s fair to say that while no one knows how much it costs to safely store nuclear waste for over 100,000 years, it‘s probably a lot.

Finally, the article says that: "Nuclear power provides an environmental benefit by almost entirely eliminating airborne wastes and particulates generated during power generation. This is offset by the relatively small volumes of radioactive wastes that are produced that must be managed prior to ultimate disposal."

This is not true. The largest volumes of nuclear waste are generated during the fuel chain, ie. during uranium mining, processing, enrichment and fuel fabrication. Very roughly, operation of one reactor of 1,000 MW capacity results in hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste in the front end of the cycle (ie. before the fuel eventually reaches the reactor), then has routine emissions during operation (namely tritium – and this is not negligible, there are solid and strong epidemiological studies proving increased incidence of childhood cancer in the neighbourhood or nuclear reactors).

The most dangerous waste, however, comes in the form of spent fuel: One 1000 MW reactor generates about 20 tonnes of spent fuel every year. This is enough to poison millions of people, and will remain deadly for over 100,000 years. Those 20 tonnes of spent fuel also contain 200 kg of plutonium – enough to build 20 nuclear bombs.

The nuclear energy debate in Australia is diverting attention away from the real need to plan how we harness our unparalleled renewable resources. The real question is, in whose interest is it? One thing is for certain, it’s not the Australian public.

The ABCs The Drum Unleashed ran an article by Vassilios Agelidis (Director of CERPA and Prof. School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications UNSW) back in December addressing this issue - Too late for nuclear.
Once again the call has arisen for Australians to debate whether the nation should adopt nuclear power as part of our energy mix.

It's a divisive issue that can arouse deep passions among those for and against. But instead of diving into this old argument yet again, we really need to ask whether it is in fact too late and the nuclear option has already passed Australia by.

[The] course of events in Australia up till now means that, even if we opted for nuclear tomorrow, it will not be possible any time soon, and the reality is it should not be pursued at all because it's simply not our best option.

[The] Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering considers the new energy technology choices available to the nation and finds nuclear may be cost-competitive with wind or a combination gas turbine-and-carbon capture model (CCGT-CCS) in 20 to 30 years time. By 2040, it rates CCGT-CCS, geothermal, solar thermal and nuclear as cost-competitive.

But the ATSE considers each of these technologies only in isolation. A viable and realistic model, however, will be based on integrated renewable energy sources and energy storage systems working together in a complementary, hybrid system.

Meeting our future energy needs is going to be expensive, but we can choose where we spend. Investing in technologies where Australia has significant intellectual property and expertise will not only provide the platform for future hybrid renewable energy generation systems (wind and solar for instance, which are shown to have complementary availability), but will would allow us to develop energy technologies rather than import them.

Nuclear is not a cheap option. [Costs] on the Olkiluoto nuclear plant, being built by French firm Areva, have blown out to almost double the initial 3 billion euro price tag and the reactor remains years from completion (see above). Let’s not forget... that nuclear power is based on a finite resource and requires enormous amounts of cooling water, limiting possible locations within Australia to our already crowded coastlines. Dry cooling or hybrid systems do exist but [may not be] suited to hot climates such as ours.

If we were to adopt nuclear energy, our investments will instead benefit the countries that invested in nuclear earlier than us, such as France and South Korea, and have a lead of many decades in technology and infrastructure.

Those countries that have already taken the lead to address their own energy needs need not be the beneficiaries of our poorly thought-out investment decisions if we consider carefully what sort of energy future we can build for ourselves.
The discussion thread following the article runs to 204 comments of frequently bitter claim, counter claim and accusation. Observing this and other discussion threads I notice some confusion and misunderstanding among seemingly intelligent people. Just because the words "thorium", "breeder" and "reactor" can be formed into a string that passes the linguistic requirements of grammatical sentence structure does not instantly mean the object a/. exists or b/. is a viable "solution". Placing the roman numerals "IV" after the abbreviation "Gen" does not make a planned or developmental technology instantly mature and rapidly deployable. Notice the words "planned" and "scheduled" from the Chinese Academy above.

The Economist notes that large scale reactors may indeed be a thing of the past - Thinking Small:Mini nuclear reactors. With referecne to the troubled Finnish reactor...
Combining several small reactors based on simple, proven designs could be a better approach than building big ones.

But despite the best efforts of EDF and Areva, which are building the reactors, both are behind schedule and, at over $5 billion apiece, well over budget. With results like these, it is little wonder that the vaunted “nuclear renaissance” has failed to materialise.

A global race is under way to develop small-reactor designs, says Paul Genoa of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry body in Washington, DC. He estimates that more than 20 countries have expressed serious interest in buying mini-reactors.

Regulatory and licensing procedures are lengthy, so little will be built until around 2017, he says. But after that the industry is expected to take off. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that by 2030 at least 40 (and possibly more than 90) small reactors will be in operation.

Russia is an early adopter. Rosatom, the state nuclear-energy giant, is building a floating, towable power station in a St Petersburg shipyard. The Akademik Lomonosov, due to set sail in 2012 for waters near Russia’s far-east town of Vilyuchinsk, will be followed by at least four other floating nuclear plants for the country’s Arctic regions.

And at a mere $550m a pop they cost a fraction of what a traditional reactor does (though they also provide less power).

One advantage of small reactors is their modularity. Extra units can be added to a plant over the years, incrementally boosting output as capital becomes available and electricity demand rises. Moreover, a modular facility would generate revenue as soon as the first reactor is fired up, after a few years of construction. A big reactor traditionally takes a decade to erect.

Not all nuclear nations have entered the fray. France has studied micro-reactors’ potential in spaceship propulsion, but for generating power on Earth, big reactors are best, says Christophe BĂ©har, in charge of nuclear energy at the country’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Sceptics fear that these small, cheap reactors will not be enough to revive the nuclear industry. Mycle Schneider ... says licensing and building small plants will take far too long to be profitable. As the costs of solar, wind and biogas power continue to fall, investors will increasingly favour household energy-producing kit and transmission technologies that let consumers sell excess production to neighbours and utilities, he says. South Africa’s decision in September to abort construction of a small reactor, even though about $1.3 billion had been spent, illustrates the sort of financial risk the sector faces.
But proliferation fears remain, and may even be worse with small scale reactors like those described above. The interesting thing is the move by team nuclear towards modularity which has been a key concept among team renewables for some time.

Cross posted from Peak Energy with additional material by SP.

1 comment:

Chaucer said...

Dogmatism prevents us from funding anything new such as

Maybe, just maybe not everything is understood on the quantum level.

My God is the God of the Yawning Chasms.

I wonder if the Dodo was dogmatic?