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Friday, 06 April 2012

Nuclear Power Is Feeling A Chill

Where Do You Come From?

Washed Up

Familiy rockpooling

Beachcombing evokes images of balmy days with children marvelling at the wonders to be seen in a tide pool or an artist looking for drift wood as inspiration and material. Amid the jetsam and flotsam you might expect to find an old crate, a dead jellyfish, bits of timber – but certainly not a 45m (150ft) fishing vessel. The ship that approached the coast of Alaska without a crew, called Ryou-Un Maru, was sent on its way in Hokkaido on the other side of the Pacific Ocean on 11 March 2011. It received a push by the devastating tsunami that hit Japan that day after an earthquake. Entire islands of clothing, TVs, pieces of houses and more are following it across the water.

Before being sunk for safety reasons, the rusting hull was a decaying symbol for the devastating effects of a natural disaster that was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. The human cost was dreadful with more than 15,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Reports in the media described something that could only be called a worst case scenario, and yet it was regularly outdone by another horror vision: a nuclear meltdown. Three cores at the plant at Fukushima Dai-ichi had catastrophic failures due to human error and underestimated risks.

So, could it be that the debris that will be washed up on coasts along the eastern Pacific Rim will be more than household items and squid trawlers? Has the belief in the cheap, safe and clean loveliness of nuclear power been left high and dry?

Breeding Bombs

Nuclear reactors are nothing new. The foundations for their inner workings were laid when Ernest Rutherford achieved the disintegration of an atomic nucleus in 1919, followed by the first wholly controlled splitting, or fission, by his assistants John Cockroft and Ernest Walton 13 years later. Recent quarrels with Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons have kept the destructive force of the technology in the world’s nervous eye, but back in the 1940s and 1950s that was all everyone was interested in. While missile research in Germany had fizzled out the Manhattan Project in America was making progress that culminated in the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The problem is you cannot just pop out with a trowel, dig up a bit of Uranium and start a reaction – well, at least not the desired one. The fuel has to be prepared and the amount of reactive material increased, also called enriched. Build the machinery for that and what have you got? A nuclear reactor – or a breeder reactor to be more accurate. Almost all installations during and immediately after the Second World War were there to provide weapons-grade material. Of course, anyone who witnessed the effects of the reaction – cue the obligatory mushroom cloud - could not help noticing that immense energy was released. Some realised that the heat generated by nuclear fission could be turned into something more useful perhaps than contaminating South Sea atolls by way of test explosions or pulverising Japanese cities.

Your Radioactive Friend

The Good Atom

France, America, Britain and what was then the Soviet Union were the first to harness the potential to generate power. The mechanism is, in simplified terms, to heat water, which creates steam, and that drives turbines. ‘Ah’, you might say, ‘so it’s no different to coal then.’ Well, it is and it isn’t. The principle doesn’t differ but the fuels do. Uranium-235 is not just a fissile substance, which means that its nucleus can be split and is able to sustain a chain reaction. It is also 2,723,765 times more energy dense than coal. For each kilogram of the nuclear stuff you will need over 2,700 tonnes of its fossil counterpart.

No matter which way you look at it, that is an impressive feature in favour of nuclear power. Another is that it won’t run out of firewood for a while. Although Uranium deposits are said to be finished within 50 years that is a) by no means certain and b) due to other sources of fissile material that will matter much less than it looks at first glance. The even more reactive Plutonium can be produced in the aforementioned breeder reactors and also is a by-product of Uranium-driven power generation. Furthermore the much more abundant Thorium is now being touted as the new deliverer for the industry. On that side its future is secure for several hundred years.

Atom

Safety in Numbers?!                                                           

Next, whatever your stance is – whether pro- or anti-nuclear energy – you'll have to admit the safety record of this type of power generation isn’t half bad. Yes, of course we all know about the big ones – Three Mile Island (America), Chernobyl (Ukraine) and now Fukushima (Japan) – but in all fairness they receive a level of attention no mishap at another, conventional power station would ever get. There is evidence that all these and other, smaller accidents have claimed far fewer casualties than, for example, coal or gas.

Only, such numbers alone are not enough to quantify and qualify the existence of risks associated with nuclear fission, whether used for peaceful purposes or not. For a start, if something goes seriously wrong in a conventional power-plant, let alone renewable installations, the effects are normally localised and relatively easily remedied. As Fukushima Dai-ichi has shown again, despite being an extreme case, the same in a nuclear facility has far wider reaching and longer lasting consequences. Contamination is a lot more difficult to clean up and hazards will often persist for a long time.

One might argue that the carbon dioxide (CO2) spewed out by generators running on fossil fuels has long-term effects too and will be in the air for many years, therefore making a mockery of assumptions that these technologies are safer. However, methods to capture CO2 and reduce its effect are advancing rapidly. While nuclear power might be carbon-neutral, what are far more worrying are the properties of its waste products. They are a mixed bag with very different half-lives. That is the period in which they lose half their present radioactivity. Over time they become less and less radioactive and, therefore, dangerous. Let’s say a substance has a half-life of one hour. That means at the end of the day it has just 0.000006% of its activity left. Unfortunately, even that is relative, because those with a high rate of decay are much more active and damaging in the first place. Take iodine, for example. Its isotope I-131 loses half of its radioactivity every eight days. I-129, in contrast, takes a little over 15 million years (yes, you have read correctly) to do the same.

So there is no safety in these numbers. Neither is it reassuring that according to estimates of the International Panel on Fissile Materials 1440t of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and roughly 500t of Plutonium (about half of it weapons-grade) sit in stockpiles around the world. Those in America and Britain might be regarded as relatively safe. Countries such as Uzbekistan and Vietnam on the other hand – without wanting to be prejudicial – do not induce the same confidence. Even in trusted hands the question of where to store the residues of nuclear power generation is by no means solved. Deep mines often seem to be a good bet, but whether it is getting them to their final destination, guarding them or making sure the containers in which they are kept do not let any radioactive emission through the situation is loaded with substantial risks. Add to that the amounts that are unaccounted for and you might be forgiven for having a few bad dreams. Admittedly, the confiscation of illegal, radioactive material is a fraction of the amounts revoevered in the 1990s, when in some years more than six kilograms were found. Given that a few grams are enough to cause havoc that is not entirely good news. One does not need to be a conspiracy aficionado to think of terrorism in this context.

The buzz word these days is CO2, and we have to concede that a nuclear power plant does burden the environment with next to none of this greenhouse gas as far as the sheer generated electricity is concerned. It is good to concentrate on a target because that focusses efforts to deal with it. In the case of CO2, however, we are in danger of making it a blindfold that leaves us oblivious to other, often equally serious risks - and nuclear fission has plenty of those. With that in mind the questions is ...

What Does the Future Hold for Nuclear Energy?

The disaster that befell Japan in 2011 might have looked as the starting point for the end of the love affair with nuclear power. Germany and Switzerland pledged to switch off their reactors. Even France, one of the most earnest supporters of fission with over 80% of its energy produced in that way, is reassessing its position together with Britain and America. Countries such as New Zealand, Denmark or Austria have used the meltdown to reinforce their opposition to the technology. In reality, though, that affection had cooled off much earlier.

Nuclear energy has never been as much in the mainstream as the industry might like us to believe. Examples like France and Belgium with a strong commitment to it are the exception, not the rule. While supporters like to emphasise the zero-carbon status it has neither made a substantial impact on fossil fuels and their emissions nor has it stopped the advance of renewables. By the way, the latter overtook nuclear with regards to global capacity for the first time in 2010.

Its other downfall has been cost. Often you hear someone shouting about the doubtful financial viability of renewable sources, whereas nuclear power has been described as a bargain. But it is not cheap, it is subsidised to the hilt. Building new plants is exceedingly expensive, due to increasingly stringent regulations and the fact that it never has been the feted low-priced alternative. Factoring in expensive decommissioning in the future and financing the already mentioned storage of spent fuel rods make investments still less appealing.

That reactors are existent in many parts of the world is an effect of them being more a matter of national politics than economics. And politicians do like to change their minds according to where they think the wind is coming from, especially if they feel the voter wants to see some action. Take Britain, for example. 'We' are supporting nuclear power as a low-carbon way into the future, apparently, but the government has announced it wants to raise third part liability for operators sevenfold.

Down but Not Out

Of course, we have to be realistic enough to see that splitting the atom as an energy source still is attractive to many. China and India in particular will not want to give up on their plans to build dozens of nuclear power stations in their hunger for readily available electricity that does indeed come without the carbon baggage. However, it is highly unlikely that its overall share will increase significantly. That is good news for renewable energy, which is not the quick fix for the world’s energy needs or global warming either. What it does offer is the flexibility of its myriad of technological solutions and an answer to the growing conscious demand for safety and sustainability from cradle to grave. The half-life of a solar panel is as long as it takes to unscrew it and throw it into a skip.

 

“You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”

Frank Zappa

 

Amen to that

 

 

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