Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nuclear power- time to give up?

There is talk again of expanding nuclear power globally, with the World Nuclear Association looking to an extra 1000 GW of capacity globally by 2050. This is nothing new. In the past there have been plans for global programmes of nuclear roll out, as in the 1950s Atoms for Peace initiative backed by the USA. More recently, in the 2000s, President George W. Bush promoted a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) under which the US (and maybe others) would help to service civil nuclear developments globally, including possibly with fuel supply and waste processing.
In one variant of this approach, the US or other vendors might install reactors, possibly Small Modular Reactors, in developing countries, to be run on a franchise basis, the reactor modules being leased, and the fuel /waste being controlled, by the vendor. For example, the US might repatriate the spent fuel capsules and reprocess the spent fuel to extract plutonium for use it is own reactors. Certainly at one time there was talk of SMRs being rolled out across the developing world, with micro projects being seen as well suited to countries without well developed grids. Echoing the rhetoric of the Atoms for Peace initiative, at one point US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman claimed that ‘GNEP brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe’: http://energy.gov/articles/department-energy-announces-new-nuclear-initiative
 However, given the changed security climate after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the USA, and increased concerns about the risks of proliferation of nuclear weapons material, GNEP seems subsequently to have been sidelined. The GNEP programme did not prosper under President Obama. Instead there has been an expansion of more conventional commercial approaches. For example, France, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea are seeking to export their nuclear technology around the world.
 There is certainly no shortage of promotion of nuclear expansion, with some exponents clearly still projecting confident views based on allegedly new technologies like SMRs. In direct opposition, renewable energy lobbyist argue that nuclear is a distraction which cannot help much to limit climate change, whereas, despite claims to the contrary, renewables can: http://thebulletin.org/commentary/nuclear-distraction
 With renewables now supplying around 25% of global electricity and expanding fast, with costs falling rapidly, while nuclear seems stuck at 11%, with costs rising, their case is strong. Nuclear power has certainly not lived up to the perhaps unrealistic expectations raised in the early days, with for example, US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, in a 1954 address to science writers, claiming that ‘it is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter’: www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1613/ML16131A120.pdf  He was not specific about whether that was via fission of fusion, but it is clear that, either way, he has been proven wrong.
 In terms of technology, the substantial and long running efforts of many highly qualified and motivated people notwithstanding, while there have been some notable successes and reactor systems which have gone on to provide many years of relatively reliable service, there have also been some major disasters with commercial projects and repeated technological failures as new ideas were explored. One result has been a loss of faith in nuclear technology amongst increasing numbers of people. As might be expected, that includes most environmentalists.
 Their objections often go beyond just concerns about environmental impacts and safety, important though they are: the basic technological trajectory is seen as flawed, with nuclear power being viewed as an unreliable way to respond to climate change. The environmentalist criticism also extends to the more specific technological development issues covered in this text. For example, leading UK environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt, has commented that ‘the consistent history of innovation in the nuclear industry is one of periodic spasms of enthusiasm for putative breakthrough technologies, leading to the commitment of untold billions of investment dollars, followed by a slow, unfolding story of disappointment caused by intractable design and cost issues. Purely from an innovation perspective, it’s hard to imagine a sorrier, costlier and more self-indulgent story of serial failure.’ http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/-2015-.html
 That may be put a little aggressively, but a widely shared view is that the nuclear lobby is forever offering ‘jam tomorrow, but never today’, as the late Lord (Walter) Marshall, one- time head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, once wryly admitted in the context of hoped-for cost reductions, adding: ‘The British Public have never had the cheap electricity that we have always promised from nuclear power’: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=1987-10-30a.585.1  That seems to have been a general pattern: the next reactor system will be better, cheaper, safer! After 70 years or so of development, regular assertions like that begin to ring a little hollow.  It remains to be seen whether the next iteration will do any better. On past performance, it is hard to be optimistic.
 Some countries will continue to press ahead with, and rely on, nuclear power, as a minority (30 countries out of the 196 global total) do at present, but it is likely that most will not want to go down this route and more that have already done so will back off.  Some would see that as tragedy, given the huge effort that has been put into nuclear power development over the years.  It would certainly be painful to admit failure. But there would be some useful spin off, both technologically (there is some expertise overlap with other energy options) and policy-wise. For example, the long tortuous history of nuclear power may provide a useful warning for those of us that hope and believe that renewables can do much better. Technological innovation is not easy and we can expect similar up and downs, though hopefully with fewer major disasters and more technical and economic success. There is a way to go, but, along with energy saving, that does seem likely to be a more productive route forward.
The above is extracted from the new book ‘Nuclear Power: past, present and future’, which looks at the early days of nuclear power and how some of the ideas that emerged then are being re-explored as Generation IV: http://bit.ly/2pIIX9Q  It may open up what could be a useful debate on how to ‘de-nuclearise’ e.g. how can existing nuclear workforces be transferred, perhaps with retraining, to find productive roles in the new energy system.  It shouldn’t be hard finding them jobs: for example, renewables now employ over 7 times more people in the USA in electric power generation than nuclear and they are growing there, as elsewhere. The US solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment increased by 32%. www.ecowatch.com/solar-job-growth-2197574131.html
For a very different view see ‘Making Sense of Nuclear’. This new report recycles the familiar pro-nuclear case under the guise of looking at ‘what’s new’. Not much actually- its the same old story.  
It hasn’t been as bad as you think, and anyway new nuclear will be cheaper and safer: http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/making-sense-of-nuclear/

On its backer, ‘Sense about science’, see this: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jan/05/sense-about-science-celebrity-observations

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