Wednesday, February 03, 2010

is it nuclear or newclear?

I like this approach to the global warming climate debate:

1) Rapid human economic development is good (not argued here) and inevitable (you aren't going to stop China, India etc. from developing)

2) The only valid alternative to fossil fuels for our energy needs is nuclear power. This is really a matter of doing the arithmetic. According to The Integral Fast Reactor – Summary for Policy Makers (IFR Summary article) , which is written from the POV of keeping CO2 under 450ppm, then we will need to produce 1 GWe per day of new clean power every single day for the next 25 years.

3) The integral fast reactor (IFR) is the safest and most efficient form of nuclear power about. It was invented by Charles Till in 1965 (Plentiful Energy and the IFR Story) who led a team which produced a small (non commercial) fast reactor which ran for 30 years without incident. Unfortunately, this program was shut down by Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994 for political reasons. In Congress, the main argument against (by John Kerry) was civilian nuclear proliferation (which I suppose is a valid concern today as well – although the end product of IFR is not suitable for weapon production I’m less certain about the fuel inputs, still researching)

4) So if you are a climate alarmist then you should support IFR (as James Hansen does, see Science Council for Global Initiatives)

5) If you are not an alarmist but support future human development then you should also support IFR, not so urgently but essential for the future.

There is a debate happening in Adelaide, Australia, this Friday presented by The Australian Solar Energy Society, Sustainable Populations Australia and The Zero Carbon Network, will see a debate on “Should we consider Nuclear Power as a response to climate change?” with Mark Diesendorf and Helen Caldicott for the negative and Barry Brook and Tom Blees for the affirmitive (The Nuclear Debate). I've booked a seat.

For more information about IFR do some reading from this page of Barry Brooks blog, Brave New Climate.

Tom Blees video, part 2 of 3:


Mark Miller said...

Interesting title you chose. My mother was into the nuclear freeze movement of the 1970s. She used to take me to the demonstrations when I was around 6 or 7 years old. I read a lot of the agitprop about nuclear power back then. When we were making signs to take to one of the anti-nuke demonstrations I wrote on one, "Let's create new clear energy," as a play on the word "nuclear".

I've since become a bit more educated about the risks and non-risks of nuclear material, and the history of how nuclear power was implemented in the U.S. From what I've read, one reason our reactors were risky was because of a bad design, which was adopted for political reasons, rather than on the merit of the design. A German designer had come up with a much safer design than we had implemented, in the 1950s.

I read an article, probably 10 years ago now, talking about a nuclear reactor design that was being used in China, which was purported to be much safer than what we had used. They encased the plutonium in graphite balls, and they rest next to each other in the reactor. They create enough heat to drive a generator, but they don't even really need a cooling system. They don't need control rods, either. The reactor design calls for a cooling system, but it's strictly for backup. The material is kept inside the graphite when it is spent. The graphite is not affected by the plutonium, so it prevents contamination. That's the idea anyway.

I agree with the idea of pursuing nuclear power again. The original idea was to create a plentiful and cheap source of energy. We got scared of it, partly because of a fear of the unknown, and partly because there was reason to be scared of the way it was implemented (bad design). If we care about having the energy society needs and polluting less then it should definitely be considered. Really what we have to get right is understanding what we're dealing with, and understanding how to use it safely. Advances have been made on the latter, but we have some ways to go on the former, in terms of what the public understands.

I heard just recently that Yucca Mountain, which was meant to be a long term storage facility for nuclear waste in the U.S. was shut down. We still seem to have confused notions of how to deal with nuclear waste safely.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I got the newclear play on words from a chapter heading in Tom Blees book, Prescription for the Planet

Fast breeder reactors in the USA at least would use all the plutonium from old nuclear weapons as a fuel and turn it into a much shorter life radioactive waste, a couple of centuries rather than thousands of years

Blees claims the chances of a meltdown are practically non existent and they also have thought about the proliferation issue. Here's a link to the Brook review of that section of Blees book.

There are other safety issues to do with the use of liquid sodium as a coolant. More detail here

There are books for sale at the debate tomorrow. I will buy Blees book then if I can.

Mark Miller said...

From what I remember, breeder reactors were supposed to be able to take spent fuel that was reprocessed and use it a second time. I have no idea if that was just theoretical or if it still has promise.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

Fast breeders extend the life of fissionable fuel many fold.

"The world’s estimated nuclear fuel reserves, at projected rates of nuclear energy utilization using the open-fuel cycle, is about 50 years, though with use of fast breeder reactors. a closed-fuel cycle could extend this period to thousands of years"
- Going nuclear

I am worried about nuclear proliferation - I see the threat of terrorists acquiring WMDs as very real - but the same article points out that you don't even need a nuclear reactor to produce weapons grade plutonium:

"High-speed centrifuge technology now allows nations to produce weapons-grade plutonium without a reactor. The only proven methods of keeping enriched nuclear materials out of the “wrong hands” are material accountability, physical security of nuclear facilities, containment and surveillance"