It’s Pronounced “Nuclear”.

I can’t help but feel that there are some technologies out there that just get hit with a bad name once and are then driven underground because of it. Cold fusion was a great example of this since the scientists who were experimenting with it first didn’t follow proper scientific method but now any serious research into this area is immediately hit with disdain, even though there are some results that require further investigation. This becomes all the more painful when something that is proven to work gets the same sort of reaction. I am of course referring to nuclear power, or fission reactors.

Now what’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions nuclear power to you? Is it a clean source of energy or do you get images of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and nuclear weaponry? It seems the majority of the world is stuck in the latter mindset, only remembering the horrors that nuclear power brings to the world. The truth of the matter is that not only is nuclear power completely safe, it’s also a lot more friendly to the environment than any other fossil fuel based means of generating power.

The first round of questions I usually get concerning nuclear power is “Doesn’t it produce highly radioactive and toxic waste?” and the answer is yes, it does. However, per kilowatt of power produced a coal plant will release around 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment. Additionally most of the waste produced by a nuclear plant that comes out radioactive means it’s still usable as fuel for a reactor, it just requires some more handling. This is done using breeder reactors which I do admit carry with them a small risk of proliferation. This can be easily offset by modifying the breeder to render the weapons grade stuff unusable, keeping the risk well within acceptable levels.

One country that has been listening to people like me is France, producing well over 85% of their electricity from nuclear sources. They’ve also only had 2 incidents arising from their use of nuclear power and breeding reactors, giving them an amazing track record for safety. You would think that if there was such a high risk in using nuclear power that the French would have had a multitude of accidents, but they haven’t. Clearly nuclear power is a lot safer than what the general public believes.

To give you an idea of just how bad public opinion is here’s a graph showing the number of nuclear reactors over time:

794px-Nuclear_Power_HistoryImage used under the The Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License Version 2.5 from Global Warming Art.

The Three Mile Island incident was a pretty minor affair technically and nuclear power continued to grow afterwards. However Chernobyl tarnished the world’s view of nuclear power and it hasn’t really recovered since. The fact of the matter is the reactor responsible for that disaster was known at the time to be an unsafe design and modern reactors are quite capable of shutting themselves down before such a disaster can occur.

It’s the old saying of once bitten, twice shy. The world suffered through a major accident with nuclear power and from then on anyone peddling it as the solution to the world’s energy problems has to work past lobbyists, politicians and the society at large. It’s hard to convince everyone that the risks are far lower than what they used to be, and for some reason the mythical idea of a clean coal power plant seems like a better idea than proven nuclear technologies. Australia as a nation, who’s uranium reserves are the largest in the world, is well positioned to take advantage of this technology. With so much unarable land available there’s no reason for us not to set up large reactors away from major population centres, keeping the “risks” to the population even smaller still.

So hopefully the next time you talk to someone about nuclear power you won’t see the green glowing boogey man that seems so ingrained in everyone’s heads. One day nuclear will be one of our few options left, and it is my hope that we begin working on implementing a nuclear based power infrastructure before its our last option.

10 Comments

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  1. The problems I have with nuclear energy are threefold:

    1) The ways we are harnessing the energy from the fuel is still primative (we use the energy to boil water to turn fans that generate the energy). This is a horrible waste of the stored energy and I believe we are wasting what limited nuclear fuel we have.

    2) Fission power is not a renewable resource and will run out. Fission is a stopgap solution to the problems we are currently facing with regards to energy. The money would be better spent on research into renewable energy (and I do include cold fusion in this as it would be a kickarse tech).

    3) The waste from the reactors does have to go somewhere, and we are finding more and more that when you bury shit deep in the dessert that it really isn’t going away forever. The containers leak into underground water tables and other bad shit. Whilst the tech is there on the power generation side, it really isn’t there on the waste disposal side…. unless you want to go an make dirty bombs i guess.

  2. Unfortunately in the world of power generation it doesn’t get much better than turning a turbine. The product of all reactors is s truckload of heat and the most efficient method to turn heat into electricity is with a turbine. Per kilo of reaction fuel used nuclear is far better than anything else currently available, and the uses for nuclear material other than power generation are a small subset (medicine, weaponry and research). There’s no shortage of Uranium currently and if we were to reprocess the waste we have stored all over the place then its even less of an issue. We’re just stuck with the waste due to the non-proliferation acts in place, which are in need of review.

    Fission is far more efficient at converting our fossil fuels into usable energy. All forms of renewable energy are insufficient for providing base load capacity to the grid. Solar functions only during the day, wind fluctuates too much, hydro doesn’t scale and wave energy is still in research. The resource will eventually run out like anything else however we either face a critical energy shortage period (I.E. we cut our consumption dramatically, it won’t happen though) or we implement another technology. Renewables are still too far off to cater for the world’s energy demands, but they might be able to in the future.

    All waste that is highly radioactive (like much of what the US has) can be reprocessed into usable fuel. If you reprocess your fuel (breeder reactors) until its depleted you end up with waste that is only radioactive for 50 years or so, and is quite a lot easier to store than the current levels of waste. The regulations around nuclear waste storage are extremely stringent, and there have been few incidents where stored waste have made their way into the ground water. Most ground water contaminations come from accidents at the plant, not the storage facilities.

  3. Whilst there is some public fear (which labor played up last election in targeting Howards nuclear musings) the bigger problem is cost. Whilst it’s essentially clean and proven, its also prohibitively costly relative to other means of power generation. Nuclear power is a part of any sensible response to climate change, but until the cost is reduced it won’t be a big part.

  4. P.s Dealing with the waste is not too difficult. Places like central australia are perfect for burying it (no earthquakes, no people nearby) or even better, we simply shoot it into space. Either out into the great beyond or just straight into the sun.
    Costly, but once we get space elevators and the like it will be a sinch.

  5. Agreed on the cost, it’s about $10 billion for a new 1100 MWe plant (for an AP1000) and about $1.1 billion for a comparable coal plant. There’s no difference in maintenance costs however nuclear power plants generally last about twice as long (40-60 years) as their coal fired counterparts. Still it’s a hard sell, especially in the current economic climate.

  6. How would carbon credits ect offset the cost of the plant? What would be the lifetime cost of each plant?

  7. Depends on what the government of the day wants to give them. Since the Australian government is looking at a trading scheme they could reduce the cost of the plant significantly or by nothing at all. If we take NZ prices for emitting 1 metric ton of carbon (NZ$11, or about AUD$10) with most coal fired plants producing around 8~10 million tons per year there’s a possible saving of about $100 million each year, but that’s pretty speculative.

    The only accurate way I can seem to find to work out the cost difference over the lifetimes of the plant (no one seems to want to publish their operating costs, without having to drudge through their financial reports) is the cost per KW/hour they’re charging. Nuclear comes out at 8.4c/kW·h and coal about 5.5c/kW·h (based on some rough searches). So over the life of the plant you’d expect nuclear to be about 50% more expensive overall, but that doesn’t factor in emissions taxes.

  8. I’m against nuclear as an option not because I think it’s unsafe or it doesn’t work (as you point out, it certainly works and there is a lot of hysteria over safety). I’m against it because I don’t believe it can effectively combat climate change. Reactors are hugely expensive and the funds required would be far better allocated to developing new renewable sources and investing in existing renewable technologies (of which there are plenty).

  9. Whilst I support the development of renewable technologies the issue I have is that all of the base load technologies (solar thermal, biomass and geothermal) are still far off from their true production counterparts. For example the largest solar thermal station produces about 75MWe base load, biomass about 100 MWe and geothermal is about 35 MWe per plant. Geothermal has the greatest potential with the united states having one geothermal field that produces 750 MWe base load however that is spread over 22 stations and I can’t find a cost for the construction of those stations.

    We’re faced with a pretty hard decision, we either scale back our energy usage considerably so that renewables can cope with the load or we implement something else to provide the power required. Nuclear is the bridge to renewables that has the least amount of problems (apart from cost, but renewables suffer from that to) and funnelling cash into something that works now so we can continue our progress into things we want is the way to go.

    As François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) said: The perfect is the enemy of the good. We have a good solution now, let’s get it in and achieve perfection afterwards.

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