Despite my previous bitching, the nuclear industry does have a track record of delivering low-carbon electricity, at a scale so far unmatched by renewables. Given that climate change is going to hurt, given the absolute imperatives for rich nations to cut their carbon emissions by 80%, then any source of low-carbon electricity is needed. So despite my concerns, there still needs to be an ongoing discussion of whether nuclear power can help us. So, here’s where we have to get away from abstract arguments and talk about what nuclear options we do have, how much of a difference to emissions nuclear power can make, and at what cost.
I’ve raised abstract arguments against a resurgence of the nuclear power industry at a global level, but this industry is not global, it is fundamentally set of national industries. (How the industry got like that is a fascinating tale, for another day, but mostly it’s down to individual nations wanting to have their own capacity to make their own bombs.) Which nations are we talking about, and how well do I expect those industries to progress? We’ve seen today the Italians vote 95% in favour of rejecting nuclear power (although that 95% is also driven by Italians rejecting water privatisation and Italians rejecting Berlusconi).
We’ve also seen the Germans turn away from nuclear power, possibly after a long hard look at just how far over budget the new European generation III reactor has run. Then again, China is wanting to get from thirteen reactors to a hundred reactors by 2020 (or they were, before Fukushima). Every nation is different, but I’ll just discuss the US and the UK.
The US – Regulatory capture FTL:
How radioactivity damages your health, or maybe doesn’t:
Why can’t we agree on how many people were killed by the accident at the Chernobyl reactor? We’re not arguing over a narrow range here, we’re arguing about widely disparate numbers. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states the number of deaths from the radiation to be 62, the International Atomic Energy Agency predicts the number at 4000, Greenpeace put the number at between 100,000-300,000, and there’s a in-depth review by Russian scientists that puts the number at a million. So we’re not arguing plus or minus a few here, we’re talking four orders of magnitude here. So what gives?
Ah, thorium. Thorium will power the future, resulting in endless electricity for all… oh wait, or was that fusion power? Anyway, every man and his dog seems to be pushing to use thorium, instead of uranium or plutonium, with a seemingly endless stream of articles about how great it’s going to be. Apparently, it’s safer, more economic, it will never run out, and you can’t make bombs of out. Sadly, I think this is mostly hype.
There have been experimental reactors fueled by thorium, there will be more, but large scale, commercially viable reactors? In less than ten years? No chance.
Thorium “can’t be used to make an atomic bomb”
Thorium “can’t be used for making bombs”
“You CAN’T make bombs from thorium reactor fuels or wastes”
Wrong. We have made bombs from thorium. Bombs, again
Every technology starts by being too expensive. The production costs of solar cells started at US$250 per Watt, back in the 1950s, then $65 per Watt in 1976, and now they’re pushing $1.4 per Watt. Why?
Short innovation cycles:
People keep asking me about nuclear power. This might be down to living in NZ, where people who know anything about it are few and far between. Or it might be because they pay me to think about energy systems. I put together the Royal Society of New Zealand’s energy report in 2006 (although I’m speaking purely for myself here). And I have worked with a whole bunch of researchers who worked in the UK nuclear industry. And I don’t work for anyone who’s trying to sell you anything. So, here’s my quick thots, rather than an in-depth, months of research kind of analysis that you’d normally pay me a decent wage for. And it’s going to look like this:
1) What’s the issue
2) What’s wrong with nuclear power from a technological point of view
3) What’s wrong with nuclear power from a economic point of view
4) Why thorium isn’t as easy as you’ve been told
5) What’s wrong with nuclear power – in a real sense and why none of this matters to New Zealand
6) Why the UK has some hard choices to make
It turns out I’ve a fair amount to say on this topic, but the TL;DR version comes down to this: The Trojan nuclear power plant in Oregon was designed with potentially-explosive tanks of hydrogen mounted on the roof of the control room. How anyone ever thought that was a good idea, I’m baffled. But hey, given that the nuclear industry is so highly regulated and committed to safety, you’d think that someone would have spotted that little design flaw before building the plant, right? Wrong. You’d think that someone would have checked this before connecting the plant to the grid and turning it on? Wrong. In fact, it ran for thirteen years before anyone noticed, at which point I expect some harsh language was used.
Getting over technophilia and recognising how multifaceted this is: