Future Nuclear, ROI, Sustainability and Risk Assessment …

Posted on July 26th, 2008

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Update 07/2011

Being involved in the advent of First Generation Nuclear as a young apprentice electrician, working at assembling custom control panels for the first Candu Reactor. I had great hopes and expectations for it’s safe peaceful use.

There are no Generation I power plants in service today, most are Generation II. Few Generation III are in use, and Generation IV are not expected to come into service before 2030. All these are fission reactors.

There is research and development underway to introduce fusion reactors trials by 2016. Working high capacity fusion reactors are not expected before 2050.

In looking at the question of nuclear we have to consider environmental sustainability, climate change, distribution, and reduction of CO2.

Atmospheric decay of CO2 is slow and it’s effect only realizable in decades to come. We need to consider we are entering a crisis period now and we need solution iterations that are cheap, effective, and immediately implementable.

The question is, can nuclear stand on its own as part of the solution?

Experience says no! “Since 1950 vast sums of money have been spent on research and development yet the global contribution to demand is only 6 percent of the worlds power and 17percent of the worlds electricity.”1 We can recount continuous safety and technical problems, waste disposal problems, and nuclear accidents; Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now the ongoing disaster at Fukashima, too name a few of the publicised events that clearly demonstrate nuclear as a risky business.

Today’s nuclear footprint includes 439 plants generating 372 GW, 31 plants are under construction, most are in Asia, and one is in Europe. Also, more than 150 naval vessels using nuclear propulsion have been built. In 2006 two new plants where attached to the European grid, and six where permanently shut down.

The continuing catastrophic dangers including; possible community destroying effects, damage to our lands, seas, and already diminishing food supplies. No romance with the technology, no matter how long spent courting its use, or how expensive in development, can justify growth as important to future world energy production.

Current boondoggling by the nuclear industry does not justify its assertion of ready, available, capacity for new growth. Due to financial losses, consolidation, decreased economic activity, scarcity of companies in the market; compounded by a lack of skilled workers, and production capacities; its unlikely a significant contribution can be considered as feasible before 2030.

“Nuclear is not CO2 free if the whole uranium fuel cycle is taken into consideration. Using current uranium ore grades (~ 2% concentration) results in 32g of CO2 equivalent (CO2eq) per kWh of nuclear electricity (kWhel) in Germany. In France, it is only 8g/kWhel, while it is higher in Russia and in the USA, 65g and 62g respectively. One reason for this is the quality of uranium: the lower the grade, the more CO2. A substantial increase of nuclear electricity generation would require the exploitation also of lower grade uranium ores and thus would increase the CO2-emissions up to 120g CO2eq/kWhel, which is much more than other energy technologies: natural gas co-generation 50-140g CO2eq/kWhel); wind power 24g, hydropower 40g; energy conservation 5g CO2eq/kWhel).”2

Uranium mining is also destructive to the environment and after use waste is dangerous to environment and humans and requires monitoring for thousands to millions of years.

Generation IV plants intend to recycle used fuel, although eventual storage is necessary. The assertion that fusion technology is radioactive waste free is a myth. The waste produced by fusion although less dangerous needs containment for possibly thousands of years.

It needs to be noted that fissile material can be reclaimed from any reactor including Generation IV and fusion. Therefore they are not weapon proliferation free.

Any commitment to place this technology in regions of world unrest can only be seen as irresponsible.

With the introduction of Generation III reactors we need to bear in mind current world opinion that current uranium reserves to operate these reactors will be depleted in the next 30 years.

Generation IV is presented as proliferation resistant, greenhouse gas emission neutral, and sustainable. The fact is, there is as yet no reactor concept for Generation IV that fulfills all aims.

The vested interests of the nuclear industry are happy to use climate change as the most important argument in the marketing of nuclear power. Many respected institutions one being the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT, see the assertion that the new generation of reactor is sustainable, economically viable, safe, reliable and terror resistant as unrealistic.

The 1987 Brundtland Commission defined sustainable as meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The mining of the vast amount of mass needed to produce the fuel, the resulting waste, and after use storage for millions of years, protected from water, heat, sabotage, and theft, render that a fiction. By attempting to image Generation IV reactors as sustainable and CO2 free, the nuclear industry tries to justify its claims using labels reserved for renewable.

“Today around 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is generated per year.”3

According to Antonia Wenisch and Richard Kromp of the Austrian Institute of Ecology as well as David Reinberger of the Viennese Ombudsoffice for Environmental Protection (WUA), who are all in agreement on the mater; “the educated opinion is, nuclear technology can not contribute to environmental protection”.

Renewable energy sources will never disappear. Reserves of the current important primary energy sources oil, gas, and natural uranium are scarce. Any delay moving to renewable energy sources can only benefit those with vested non-renewable interests. In a deregulated market, nuclear cannot be competitive with renewable sources.

“There is research looking into replacing uranium with thorium based fuel. It is claimed to be less likely to produce weapons grade waste.”4 This is another fiction, neutron bombardment of thorium isotopes can lead to isotope development capable of low critical mass usable for reactors and weapons. The thorium fuel chain is considered dangerous and difficult to control and only causes new problems.

In order to justify funding to explore 30 years of concepts not applied successfully, resent events and insecurities in energy supply, the 1990 oil crisis, the 2005 rapid oil price increase, the 2006 gas crisis, the 2006 adjustment of coal reserve, the 2007 peak oil warning, and the threat of climate change are often used.

A move to Generation IV breeder systems will only continue a growing scale of highly toxic radioactive isotopes being transported around the world.

Is the planned move to fusion reasonably economically feasible is difficult to answer at this time, with a waste problem that may remain unsolved forever?Moreover a move to fusion and tritium use reduces the possible production of nuclear weapons, but does not eliminate the possibility of waste use for weapons development.

Within the time frame necessary to address climate change and reduction of CO2, fusion power plants will be far too late.

“No small concern is the centralization of energy production, problems of security of supply and distribution grids, and lack of democratic decision process where energy source and availability is concerned. Globally the principle concern in the electricity business is regional energy deployment from small power plants is to often blocked .

They build big plants even using dirty lignite, dictate policy to governments, spend little to modernize or improve, restrict regional feeds into the power grid, and refuse local control over regional grids. Because they are stock market traded monopolies this gives them the ability to shut down plants, to create shortages, and maintain high prices.”5

It is possible for renewable source regional input grids attached to national grids to exchange surplus, also allowing for regional autonomy to supply electricity for isolated operation in the local network thus allowing for supplementing local public utility costs.

 All these considerations aside, the cost of nuclear technology, and need for specialized high level training, make this technology out of reach for most of the developing world.

  1. International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics. Retrieved July 20, 2007.: Europeans and Nuclear Safety Special Eurobarometer 271 / Wave 66.2 TNS opinion & social, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_271_en.pdf
  2. OEKO 2007: Fritsche, U. et al (2007): Treibhausgasemissionen und Vermeidungskosten der nuklearen, fossilen und erneuerbaren Strombereitstellung – Arbeitspapier, Öko-Institut e. V., Darmstadt (Institut of Applied Ecology e. V., Darmstadt, Germany)
  3. HIRSCH 2007: Hirsch, H. (2007): Radioactive Waste in LEBENSMINISTERIUM 2007 p. 93-108
  4. KAKODKAR et al 2006: Kakodkar, A.; Sinha, R. K. (2006): The Twin Challenges of Abundant Nuclear Energy Supply and Proliferation Risk Reduction – a View. Presentation at the 50th IAEA General Conference, Vienna
  5. Fact or Fiction, Is there a Future for Nuclear: Antonia Wenisch and Richard Kromp of the Austrian Institute of Ecology as well as David Reinberger of the Viennese Ombudsoffice for Environmental Protection (WUA)
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