The Reactor in the Room: Time for Nuclear Power?

‘Despite long-standing public concern about the safety of nuclear energy, more and more people are realizing that it may be the most environmentally friendly way to generate large amounts of electricity’

National Center Org

Nuclear power: yes or no? This is a strangely counterintuitively political debate. It requires sincere evaluation from all sides, as emotionlessly, and detachedly, as possible. Is this possible? Maybe not.

It is strangely counterintuitive because, in the United States at least, it is the energy-flippant, environmentally unconscious Republicans who trump nuclear power. The so-called ‘political arm’ of the fossil fuel industry is also the party which supports measures which could destroy it.

‘The fission of 1 g of uranium or plutonium per day liberates about 1 MW. This is the energy equivalent of 3 tons of coal or about 600 gallons of fuel oil per day, which when burned produces approximately 1/4 tonne of carbon dioxide.’ –

LBL.gov

What are the key issues?

Oft-cited and more often mythologised are the disasters are Chernobyl and Fukushima, which enter into every child’s mind as a sort of preternatural boogeyman. Nuclear waste is also a potential issue, but modern developments in waste management, and nuclear reactors, provide promising evidence that this may be a problem of the past.

Two basic types of nuclear reactor in use today

Pressurised Water Reactor

These are the most common nuclear reactors in use today. They use enriched uranium fuel to heat highly pressurised water. This generates steam, which passes through a turbine and generates electricity. These reactors use water as a cooling device.

Boron is also added to help cool the reactors. Boron, a noble gas, is dissolve din the cooling water of power plants in order to contain the chain reaction. It absorbs neutrons, thus limiting excess reactivity in the cooling water.

Boiling Water Reactor

BWRs are similar, but simpler in design. As a result, they are cheaper, but produce irradiated steam. This means the turbine, and any maintenance within the reactor, requires radiological protection.

Fortunately, the water radioactivity is short-lived. Boron is also used in BWRs, either in the form of reactor control rods, or injected into the coolant when a higher level of neutron absorption is necessary.

Issues with PWRs and BWRs

Thermal reactors, like those described above, burn particular low-cost uranium isotopes. Put simply, reserves are not plentiful. It is predicted that the world’s reserves will be tapped out by the end of the century.

Moreover, the above methods of electricity production result in large quantities of highly radioactive waste. Some of this waste must be stored for at least 10,000 years, which is further than any of us can predict anything. The accumulated waste will at some point require additional storage facilities, besides existing waste accommodation sites, such as the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.

To add insult to injury, the majority of that uranium ore’s potential energy will sit inside that radioactive waste until disposition is safe.

To recap:

  • Reserves will run out;
  • Some of the waste remains radioactive long into the future;
  • Despite the large amount of energy produced, PWRs and BWRs leave huge amounts of energy in the energy source.

A third type: Fast Neutron Reactor

Many of the issues facing nuclear power historically – the impossibility of nuclear recycling, storing radioactive waste for 1000s of years, and exhaustion of the world’s reserves – pale in the realm of Fast Neutron Reactors.

‘The utilisation of a new, much more efficient nuclear fuel cycle—one based on fast-neutron reactors and the recycling of spent fuel by pyrometallurgical processing—would allow vastly more of the energy in the earth’s readily available uranium ore to be used to produce electricity. Such a cycle would greatly reduce the creation of long-lived reactor waste and could support nuclear power generation indefinitely.’

National Center Org

Fast Neutron Reactors (FNRs) are a ‘technological step beyond conventional power reactors’, yet are poised to become mainstream. Already they have gained 400 reactor-years of experience between them. International collaboration in the field has advanced considerably in recent years. Japan, France, Russia, China, South Korea and the United States are particularly notable for recent developments.

Future tech, happening now

In 2003, the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) representing 10 countries (many of the above, plus the UK and others) selected six reactor techs which they believe will shape the future of nuclear energy.

Central to FNR systems is the recycling of the used energy source. The recycling of spent fuel covers not only FNR outputs, but extends to the output of previous generation nuclear reactors. Projected forwards, in theory, such reactors could cycle through the waste materials produced by older reactors, hugely reducing the creation of long-lived reactor waste.

It is this facet to FNR technology which excites so many. According to its proponents, Fast Neutron Reactors render nuclear energy ‘essentially inexhaustible’, a source of energy that ‘could operate without contributing to climate change’.

There are currently over 400 nuclear power plants operating around the world. The United States, while not leading proportionally, has the largest electrical output from nuclear power.

‘France generates 76% of its electricity from nuclear power plants; Belgium–56%, Sweden–47%, Bulgaria—46%, Hungary—42%, Switzerland–40%, South Korea–36%,  Japan–33%, Finland–30%, and the United Kingdom–25%.’

LBL.gov

Will it capture the public imagination?

We the masses are easily manipulable. Public relations campaigns are scarily successful in swaying public opinion. As a result, level-headed scepticism is fundamental to progress.

Various gripes have entered into the mythology surrounding nuclear power. While some are, or at least have been, valid causes for concern, others are more far-fetched. The so-called ‘China syndrome’, for example, describes the result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components literally melt through their containment structures, and through the depth of the Earth, “all the way to China”. While obviously fictitious (the United States is not even opposite China), notions such as this do capture the public imagination more effective than their sensible counterparts.

Nuclear power vs nuclear energy

For decades, too, nuclear power and nuclear weapons have been falsely conflated. In 2017, a tunnel collapsed at a nuclear waste site in Hanford, Washington State. Anti-nuclear groups were quick to condemn nuclear (as in, power). The liberal news site Common Dreams condemned the incident as evidence of the nuclear power industry’s “global collapse”. However, as reported in The Hill, this was a facility dedicated to the production of nuclear weapons.

The whole debate taps into the dark meta-narratives, dystopia fantasies that have been written into science fiction flicks for nearly a century. Incidents at real life nuclear energy production facilities – like those at Fukushima and Chernobyl – are like Spielberg Sharks, casting horror and doubt into the wider public eye. Such incidents are undoubtedly horrific. But they were likely less horrific, quantitatively, than you think…

Some perspective on Chernobyl and Fukushima

In 1986, the worst nuclear accident in history occurred. (That is, if we don’t take into account either of the two times the nuclear bomb has been deployed.) Shrouded in secrecy for years, the National Geographic writes, ‘scientists estimate the zone around the former plant will not be habitable for up to 20,000 years’.

Except, it is inhabited. There are two general stores in operation, and even a tourist hotel. Radioactivity levels on the site of Chernobyl as substantially lower than they are at various other locations around the world with zero connection to nuclear power generation. Latent radioactivity is a fact of life. Radioactivity increases with altitude—in a plane, for example, the level of radioactivity you experience is substantial.

But they will all die of cancer! Won’t they?

‘Outside of the Soviet Union, there have only been two significant accidents in almost sixty years of operation by nearly 500 commercial plants. In neither case was anybody killed or injured and the resulting low-level exposure to radiation is not expected by public health officials to result in a measurable increase in the incidence of cancer or other chronic diseases.’

The Hill

How many people died as a result of the accident, directly? It’s lower than you might think. Remember, this was a nuclear facility which did not have a containment structure. Compared to modern facilities, which contain multiple layers of protection, the Chernobyl reactor was like an open flame next to a lightbulb. Within the first three months of the Chernobyl disaster, 31 people died as a result of acute radiation sickness. In the decades following, approximately 30 more have met the same fate. In the same time period, vending machines have killed more people.

Also worth noting is that it was only the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant which failed. The other undamaged reactors on the site continued to operate for 14 years.

Was Fukushima any different?

The Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster resulted in just one death from acute radiation syndrome (and a negligible increase in local cancer deaths—another popular myth). Additionally, it was caused by a natural disaster, which itself caused the deaths of over 15,000 people.

At the time of the Tōhoku earthquake, Fukushima’s Reactor 4 had been de-fuelled, while 5 and 6 were in cold shutdown anyway. Reactors 1-3 automatically shut down, and emergency generators cam online to keep up the supply of coolant. The tsunami that followed flooded the emergency generators. This cut the power to the pumps circulating coolant water through the nuclear reactor. Had the Japanese government promptly ordered the reactors to be flooded with seawater, they may have prevented the meltdown.

Nuclear power generators are not intrinsically dangerous

‘History suggests that nuclear power rarely kills and causes little illness.’

Washington Post

The biggest killer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, coal. Coal is responsible for…

  • Five times as many worker deaths from accidents
  • 470 times as many deaths due to air pollution
  • More than 1000 times more cases of serious illness.

Contrary to common belief, nuclear power is far, far safer than fossil fuels—even safer than many carbon-neutral energy sources. In Europe, it causes 250x fewer deaths than oil and 38x fewer than natural gas.

For a great infographic illustrating the relative death rates per TWh produced, visit Our World in Data.

Nearly 500 commercial nuclear power plants have been producing zero-carbon electricity in more than 30 countries for decades. Tech pioneers like Bill Gates and Peter Thiel have been making significant investments in nuclear start-ups in recent years. Yet it is still hugely misunderstood.

While the Cold War spectre still hangs over public opinion of nuclear energy, we are taking steps through the mire. Partisanship has always obfuscated questions like these. It is now more important than ever to let technologies succeed or fail based on intrinsic merit, rather than stamp them down because of perceived political implications.

Afterword

The astounding cynicism of fossil fuel barons was well documented in Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promise. It is saddening, though enlightening, to see oil companies push so unequivocally for solar power, trumpeting slogans like SOLAR NOT NUCLEAR. Why? Because solar power does not threaten the fossil fuel industry. Nuclear power is the real snake in that boot.

The great tragedy, Stone seems to argue, is that to oppose nuclear is to support the fossil fuel industry. And yet to oppose nuclear has been a flagship policy of environmentalists for decades.

Question this: Who stands to gain by the common voter being convinced that nuclear power is dangerous? Whither goes the money?

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