The Nuclear Opportunity for Australia

Some sensible words from Gottliebsen.

The green movement in Australia has a deep hatred of nuclear technology. They are not wrong in pointing to the hazards of nuclear energy, but unfortunately carbon is a thousand times worse than any risks on the nuclear horizon. In addition the cost of building nuclear power stations has fallen dramatically. Nevertheless, it is also vitally important that we foster wind, solar and other renewables, plus clean coal. The world will need all these technologies if it is to reduce carbon emissions by the huge amounts scientists are demanding without going into a deep depression.

But the world needs to make sure that nuclear waste is properly stored and cannot be converted to nuclear weapons. Australia is unique in the world in being able to supply nuclear fuel from its vast reserves of uranium and then store the waste in stable remote regions such Martin Ferguson’s proposed nuclear fuel dump in the Northern Territory.

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8 thoughts on “The Nuclear Opportunity for Australia

  1. Sensible? You have to do a risk analysis; the likelihood of nuclear going wrong may be small but the outcome of something going wrong is beyond disastrous! Therefore the risk is still high!

    The word carbon dioxide brings on a sense of panic. So much so, that people are forgetting the rest of the environment….

    There’s no point in being rushed into making a worse decision – solutions to our environmental problems exist – I believe not nuclear.

  2. The cost of nuclear is not in commissioning it in a plant but in decommissioning. In england they are doing it and that cost is enormous. And yes nuclear waste is a problem which has no solution to this date.

  3. Nuclear waste is not a large problem, it is a small one that people scream about in polemics on nuclear energy. It’s like the common conflation between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The really harmful isotopes from power plants are decayed to background in a couple hundred years. A vast majority of this waste is trapped within ceramic cylinders about half the size of your little finger called fuel pellets. These are maintained within cladding within intact fuel assemblies. In a thousand years the amount of radiation with these assemblies will be close to the amount in the original ore. These structures are far more stable than the wooden chairs etc that came out of King Tut’s tomb 3000 years after they were placed there. The casks that the assemblies are stored in are engineered to be at least a little more robust than a chamber built by ancient people out of rock. This idea that there is a “problem” with waste is strange to me. Its manufactured by a puritanical mindset that ignores large common problems so as to focus on small exotic ones. A nuclear power plant actually sequesters its waste in a form that can be dealt with in a responsible manner. Australia’s coal fired plants spew mercury into the air which lands in the ocean and comes back to land inside tuna cans. Oh yeah, it lands on the soil too, so you don’t have to eat tuna to increase your heavy metal load. Each plant also releases thousands of tons of uranium into the atmosphere, not too worried about that. There is so much rad waste in the smoke coming from coal fired plants that near by nuclear plants have to shield their detectors lest the be blinded.

    The power plants that Vishal is referring to were designed in the 1960’s. There was little if any attention given to decommissioning in their designs. Generation II plants and the original fuels they burned were extremely inefficient. Generation III and III+ reactors have been designed with decommissioning as part of their life cycle. Don’t buy a car Vishal, with their lack of restraint systems you’ll be either thrown from the vehicle or against the in a crash. I’ll look up some highway fatality data from 1964 to bolster my point so that we can be debating from the same page. The plants currently being built also have a lifespan of 60 years. They will produce less than 10% of the waste their predecessors did at current efficiencies, they will last longer, they are safer and new fuel designs are constantly being developed that will further increase their power output per fuel input. If you were to charge the customer 0.1 cent per kwHr, I’d bet it would pay for decommissioning and leave huge sums left over. Over 60 years, this would be a mind blowing amount of money payed for by the people who benefited from the technology. That is what is done in the States and it seems reasonable. Generation IV reactors will be a large step up as well. With liquid fluoride thorium reactors that operate at atmospheric pressure and don’t have the capability of melting down while almost completely burning down all their actinide waste, which is a small amount to begin with when ever one uses thorium in the fuel design, you could potentially replace coal plants at their sites. Then Australia might actually start looking a tad bit eco-friendly rather than the fake green it does now. The future is going to be largely nuclear and the technologies that have been worked on over the last two decades are just now starting to come to market. Engineers and scientist have been working on the specific concerns of safety, efficiency and waste all that time. This has not been something that we will solve, it has been something that we have been solving. There are now fuel designs that burn down nuclear waste in order to generate power, such as the design by Thorium Power, that is nearing commercialization. There are groups working on LFTRs and advanced pebble bed reactors. For all the propaganda out there, nothing beats nuclear for being clean and powerful enough to do the required heavy lifting. Keep burning coal and dreaming of solar and wind, but when you boot up your computer or switch on your lights down under, you’re releasing CO2, acid rain, mercury and a host of other pollutants into the environment, many of which, unlike radioactive isotopes, really do stay there forever and can be more harmful to both the environment and to people then Sr90 sitting in an old fuel pellet in a sealed cask in a building and then after 50 years in a safe hole far away from water tables. Scare mongering about nuclear is ignoring the real alternatives and their much greater dangers.

  4. Wow Daniel, where do you get your sense of scale? Do you think that if a modern Gen III reactor were to have something go wrong, you would get Chernobyl? At worst you would get something like TMI, which only killed off the company that made the reactor and hurt investors. Nuclear is not only sensible, it is probably the best option bar none for the environment. You come off almost instantly as someone who doesn’t have the foggiest clue as to how much electricity we need. Either that or you are a shill for the coal companies. If something goes wrong… What are you talking about? I would like to know what you know, actually. As you end with the word “believe” you are admitting ignorance. What do you propose? Wind and solar? Damming every major river? Maybe installing terrawatt capacity of geothermal? Oh, your solution is burning more coal like the German’s have had to do.

    I can guarantee you that you have already consumed mercury compounds today from coal fired plants (unless you’ve just gotten up and haven’t brushed your teeth). In the US alone, 12,000 people die prematurely each year due to the pollution from coal fired plants (at least according to the current administration), That is as many as the upper figures give will eventually die from Chernobyl, a one time accident. I am not stating that Chernobyl was acceptable, I’m trying to put things in some perspective.

    Chernobyl was essentially a plutonium production design modified and forced into service as a power producing reactor. It was built on the cheap. It was essentially in an industrial barn, no containment structures. It had been refitted with backup motors to run the safety purge pumps that were supposed to kick in if the turbines failed so that the reactor could be cooled in the case of an accident. The guys running the reactor wanted to test this by shutting off the primary systems to see if the diesel engines would cut in on time. The day the test was scheduled the engineers in Kiev over-ruled Chernobyl because of unusual peak demand. The day shift left for the day leaving the test on the schedule. The night shift was almost completely staffed by people who had recently been transferred from coal fired plants and the only person with any real world experience with nuclear reactors was a guy who had trained on nuclear submarines. I won’t go into how different these two reactor types are. He decided to perform the test. Water formed a major part of the moderator for the reactor and the control rods were graphite. As the reaction heated up, Xeon started building up within the core absorbing neutrons and poisoning the reaction. Not knowing what was going on and thinking the reaction was just being sluggish, he ordered the graphite control rods be removed. This increased the level of xeon being produced and the reaction didn’t heat up like he expected. He ordered the remaining graphite moderator rods be removed manually. At this point all the water turned to steam and left with the xeon and the thermal output of the reactor bolted from 3 GW to 30. panicked, they tried to reinsert the control rods, but being made of graphite, they had splintered in the heat and lodged in the top of the core and could not be reinserted. At that point all hell broke loose. and the rest is well reported in the news.

    There has never been a commercial reactor built in the west as unsafe as the Chernobyl plant, not by a long shot (the VVER-1000 reactor built by the soviets were pretty safe as well.) None use non-metal control rods. We don’t staff our plants with such amazingly unqualified people. Both Chernobyl and TMI were designed at the dawn of the nuclear age, we have thousands of operational years experience now. The probability of something going wrong like what happened in the Ukraine 25 odd years ago with a reactor design so unsafe and untested manned by people who had no ability to know what they were doing is nuts. The people who own and operate these plants have multibillion dollar investments to protect, they have better training and management chains than any other industry on the planet. The plants and knowledge of how to operate them have been constantly improved. The efficiency of fuel utilization has improved to the point where we have probably already created most of the nuclear waste from energy production that we ever will.

    Do me a big favor and tell me what the disaster you think is so likely that leads to your preference for coal. Enlighten me on what the alternatives are. There may be arguments against nuclear power but you have failed to even attempt to make one.

  5. Sustainability, in a word. Nuclear power is not sustainable. Therefore it should not be considered as an option.

    There are predictions that uranium will start to run short by 2020 with current nuclear power demands. If bundles more nuclear power stations are built, it will make the current oil problem seem minor in comparison.

    The nuclear industry loves to say that there’s masses of uranium in rocks. True, but like oil shales and sands, the process of extracting alot of it makes it economnically unsustainable.

    For more info see The Nuclear Dossier (http://www.theecologist.org/pages/archive_detail.asp?content_id=935)

    And no matter how well sealed up the waste is, the fact remains that it is waste. We need to return to an economy where all are used and nothing is wasted. Find me a safe way of using all the by products of nuclear power and I will support it.

    Best Wishes

    Chris.

  6. Typo correction:

    We need to return to an economy where all are used and nothing is wasted. Find me a safe way of using all the by products of nuclear power and I will support it.

    should be

    We need to return to an economy where all by products are used and nothing is wasted. Find me a safe way of using all the by products of nuclear power and I will support it.

    sorry. Chris.

  7. Well, we have been having some interesting discussions here.

    Daniel, as Ken has suggested we do have some good technology in making nuclear power plants.

    Ken seems to know more about this than me in terms of the latest developments and technology behind the nuclear plants but here is my take.

    Chris wants to create a perfect world. I think that is not possible. Even though we would like to create energy without any waste etc, it is not possible to do that in the coming decades. When I mean not possible, not possible in the sense of providing the current and future energy needs, provide base load power, low carbon emissions and energy costs which are equal to the “chindia price”.

    If we believe that carbon is a problem, then Nuclear is a smaller problem that can solve the bigger carbon problem. Ever heard about using a thorn to remove another thorn. Well, this is not much different.

    We need to remember and understand the transition period which we will need to go through in the coming decades. My belief is that Nuclear will play a major role in that.

  8. Chris,

    Uranium 235 supplies at current levels of production are estimated to peak in 50 to 100 years. If you raise the price of production from the current $65 US a pound to $1000 a pound you can extract from sea water and the supply is virtually endless. You can also breed and use plutonium from the enormous stock piles of depleted uranium sitting around the world. Everyone stopped prospecting for the stuff in the 70’s. The nuclear fuel of the future is not U235 but Th232. This element is roughly as abundant as lead, produces little if any transuranic waste and the products that it does produce are decayed to background in less than 500 years. Look up Thorium Power Ltd.’s website, there are designs that use Thorium and Plutonium and produce a fraction of the long term waste currently produced, which by the way is a fraction of what was produced in older reactors with older fuel designs than are currently in operation. Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactors burn down their own waste during operation.

    Photo voltaic cell production produces waste, they are so inefficient that the impact on the environment per watt is probably higher than nuclear. I really don’t understand any of your points, not out of my ignorance of the issues but that they don’t mesh with reality. The amount of waste produced by one coal fired plant dwarfs the total waste (in terms of environmental hazard) of all the nuclear plants in the US combined. The waste stream externalized directly to the environment from a coal plant includes copious amounts of mercury, thorium, uranium, chromium, arsenic, copper and lead. It also contains huge amounts of sulfuric and nitric acid. Lost in all this is carbon dioxide. Against this back drop you are worried about fixed radiation inside zirconium ceramic pellets. Wow, even though this can be easily controlled by placing it inside overly engineered casks, its presence on the planet is enough to make you think it is too much of a risk, where dousing the planet with coal waste is not something to become too exercised about? Is that your point? We actually have millions of metric tons of waste from the very same reactions that occur in nuclear reactor cores on the planet by natural processes. The earth’s core is a huge thorium, plutonium, uranium breeder reactor. It keeps us all alive by keeping the core molten and thus supporting the magnetosphere. We have simply taken this natural process to the surface. If we take rad waste and sequester it in repositories deep in the ground what harm will it do?

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