Nuclear Power - from the age of Howard

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This article was written long ago, during the time of Howard, and updated ( I think) in 2008. Hopefully it is of interest, to see some contrast with earlier controversies and issues put forward. If you look elsewhere on this this site ... I certainly have my criticisms of Abbott. When it comes to nuclear power, however, this is where it is more complex, and whatever the 'real' story, you can sure see distortions from those criticising nuclear power

There's a lot of claims made which are critical of nuclear power. While you can make an argument, too many claims I see just fly in the face of the facts. I see this article not so much as pro- nuclear, but rather anti- anti-nuclear propoganda.

Some claims can be made contingently - but not in the broad sweeping way they are originally made. No claims about nuclear power in general circulation seem to survive scrutiny unscathed, and many are blown away completely. A few observations about other necessary actions in the short and long term hold some weight, but not in the way they are normally put forward.

Contents

1. There's only 60 years of Uranium left

2. Nobody has figured out a way of storing waste

3. Radioactive waste is active for hundreds of thousands of years !

4. The Pro-Nuclear people all have vested interests.

5. nuclear power Plants generate lots of CO2 during construction

6. nuclear power Plants are not CO2 effective

7. nuclear power distracts us from other necessary short term actions

7a. Counter-Point : Focusing on Solar and Wind distracts us from hot rocks and burning or otherwise processing garbage and other waste

7b. Agree : An important issue is how much potential a technology has, and how developed it is.

8. Howard wasn't actually serious - he was just making a wedge for Labor on Carbon emissions

9. Nuclear reactors are too risky ! And the market won't insure them, what does that tell you about their risk ?

9a. Counter-point : I'm not a a free market fundamentalist, nor am I just bashing away at the Soviets and Communism

10. We need to take other actions than putting in Nuclear Reactors. We need to reduce our energy usage, our run-away consumptive society, not find ways of feeding our increasing desire for energy.

11. Nuclear Reactors proliferate Weapons - and we shouldn't accept overseas nuclear waste to store in Australia.


1. There's only 60 years of Uranium left

This depends on geological estimates, and how easy it is to extract. There could be a lot more than 60 years of it - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power. It is a gross distortion to say that 'there is only a very limited amount left'.

But, this limited supply is just one isotope of uranium. The other uranium isotope could be converted into plutonium using breeder reactors (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor). We have about 60,000 years of supply of this other isotope.

Yes plutonium is weapons grade - but you can generate weapons grade uranium too. I'd be happier if such reactors were run by an arm of the UN under contract to National Governments. We need to separate out the issues. We do have lots of uranium, depending on how we want to use it. How we want to use it has other issues, but they are entirely separate to how long our uranium reserves will last.

Further, coming to grips with Nuclear Technology does prepare the way for UN-run Breeder Reactors. You have to start somewhere.

There's the claim that in the future the uranium will be become more difficult to extract, at a higher CO2 cost ( eg. page 22, http://energyscience.org.au/energyscience%20response.doc ). However, That's a separate argument to how much is "there" in broader terms. Regardless, the CO2 cost of mining is a small part of the total CO2 generated by running a reactor (as evidenced by the assessments at http://www.energy.ca.gov/2007publications/CEC-100-2007-005/CEC-100-2007-... )


2. Nobody has figured out a way of storing waste

There is synroc, which is an effective method developed in Australia. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synroc ) It is slowly penetrating the market, and will be used as a "demonstration" to dispose of fuel at the English Sellafield plant.

Why is it not used overseas ? As compared to glass vitrification (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitrification). process, or extended liquid waste storage ? Glass vitrification is effective - it is a simple method to bury the waste (Colin Keay, personal communication; see also http://www.uic.com.au/wast.htm ).

It means burying it deep underground. I do not see this as problematic, and it is in fact a "known method" for storing the waste. It is not a problem because the rock is going to remain where it is for longer than the time which the waste remains radioactive. That rock would have otherwise remained something hidden away which we were totally un-aware of otherwise. I appreciate that it may be aesthetically spoiling the earth, but it really is a lot less than lots of other things we are doing to it.

Its also worth noting that there have been historical concentrations of Uranium large enough to initiate nuclear reactions (the so called Oklo reactor - http://geology.about.com/od/geophysics/a/aaoklo.htm ), so these components have been stored in times past.

Further, Fourth Generation reactors will be able to break the waste down to short lived isotopes, which will decay in decades (http://news.softpedia.com/news/New-Nuclear-Reactors-Will-Produce-Less-and-Shorter-Lived-Radioactive-Waste-43961.shtml ; http://www.uic.com.au/nip16.htm ) . OK, nobody has made fourth generation reactors yet. Maybe it is reasonable to wait until then. But it is certainly unfair to dismiss the practical possibilities for storing waste.


3. Radioactive waste is active for hundreds of thousands of years !


Well, even if it were, rock structures are stable for longer than this.

Even so, calculations are that the waste will have greatly decreased radioactivity after 1,000 years, and will be the same as the original uranium in 10,000 years - hardly the picture the propaganda paints. (from the Switkowski report, page 67 - available at http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/umpner/docs/nuclear_report.pdf )

This has been criticised as "speculative" (page 22 of the energyscience review of the Switkowski report, available at http://energyscience.org.au/energyscience%20response.doc ), but it is everything but. Individual atoms decay at known rates - it is what is behind carbon dating - and we can know how radioactive the waste will be in 10,000 years with as much accuracy as we can radioactively date something 10,000 years old ( http://www.ndt-ed.org/EducationResources/CommunityCollege/RadiationSafet... ).

However, the major way this game is played is to quote the half life of something like plutonium. Yes, plutonium has a long half life. Its not that radioactive - its radiation does not even penetrate the skin. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium#Toxicity )Sure, some materials will radioactively "injure" you if all you do is sit next to them, but plutonium's radiation is only dangerous if it gets into your system - apart from which it is chemically toxic like heavy metals such as lead.

So, quoting radioactive half life is not terribly informative. In fact, the longer the half life, the less radioactive something is, other things equal. It "puts out" a lot less radiation and "burns itself up" a lot more slowly.( http://homepage.mac.com/dtrapp/eChem.f/labN4.html )

Further, you have the principle that fourth generation nuclear reactors can burn the waste down to short lived isotopes that will be benign after decades. Materials with short half lives are in fact the easiest to deal with - their radioactivity dies away rapidly.


4. The Pro-Nuclear people all have vested interests.

This is a strange view. As Jesus would say, looking towards the speck in someone else's eye while ignoring the log in your own.

Point is, you can identify many pro-nuclear commentators who have no particular financial interest in nuclear power. I certainly don't, I don't believe that Colin Keay at Newcastle University has. In my own case, I find it fascinating to try to be objective in times when others are getting emotional, and the claims are flying thick and fast.

Rudyard Kipling :

"If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs"

Yes, there are also financially driven lobby groups as well. We can debate their significance.

But, to say that anti-nuclear commentators all have no vested interest either is being hypocritical. I'm sure there are some passionate people in the anti-nuclear camp who do not gain financially. Equally, a lot of people in the anti-nuclear groups have positions where they gain financially and their being against nuclear power supports their identity and gives them a place to be.

An article in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2138824,00.html#article_continue ), for example, is critical of nuclear power - and was written by a founder of a solar cell manufacturing company. The point here is that accusations of vested interest cut both ways. In fact, they're not terribly useful. Logically speaking, someone could be both correct and have a vested interest in what they say. That includes someone writing critically about nuclear power who has also founded a solar cell manufacturing company, as much as someone in the nuclear industry writing about nuclear power.

If we are going to talk about vested interests, we need to analyse it carefully and in a balanced way.


5. Nuclear power plants generate lots of CO2 during construction

This is a strange way of looking at construction and how it takes place, as though a steam belching engine slowly extrudes a nuclear plant over ten years.

In fact, a nuclear plant has a certain amount of contained carbon in its structure, but it does not assemble itself. Things have to be moved to the right location, welded, drilled, bolted, sealed, cabled, tested and so on. Just like a regular skyscraper - there's a certain amount of material involved, but it does not just construct itself - this takes time and effort. Now, you can label the people running around, the labour source, as carbon generators, but it is weird way of looking at things - particularly if you focus on that group of people as compared to everyone else who is eating food and generating CO2.

But the reality is that the major CO2 cost of any building, be it a Nuclear Plant or otherwise - is the cost of the structure, not the cost of construction (Colin Keay, personal communication).


6. Nuclear power plants are not CO2 effective

Well, in broad terms we can say that in terms of running them, a coal fired power station puts out about 1 kg of CO2 per KWh, while processing the fuel and getting it to the nuclear power station, and apportioning some of that for commissioning and decommissioning the reactor, means an output of 100g of CO2 per KWh, assuming the worse case available figure to be indicative. It could be a lot less - and in any case it is a significant saving.

Figures ranging from 5g to 100g of CO2 per KWh can be extracted from the presentation by Vasilis Fthenakis, and Kim Hyung-Chul at http://www.energy.ca.gov/2007publications/CEC-100-2007-005/CEC-100-2007-005-F.PDF ; these authors have also published an article in "Energy Policy", but this is not readily available on the internet.

US figures for the years around 1999 of CO2 emissions per kWh for coal fired power stations can be found at : http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/page/co2_report/co2report.html#table_1 ; these charts provide of about 2 pounds per kWh, which I consider to be broadly indicative of such efficiencies.

Some debate lies in the CO2 cost of construction and decommission. But, these really don't change the overall picture much. Colin Keay notes that the CO2 cost of nuclear reactors is in fact much less than that for coal based power stations. Further, compared to wind farms for generating the same power, he also notes that nuclear power stations use about a tenth of the total metal (and CO2 load) to construct.


7. Nuclear power distracts us from other necessary short term actions

Well, er ... yes, that's quite possible. Yes, in the short term, we need to use demand management, and reduce usage. But, in the longer term, we need to use nuclear power.

Its not clear why things we need to do in the future should stop us from doing stuff now. Sure, there may be a propaganda element at work here, but that is separate to whether or not we should put nuclear power in the future.

It is also true that power generation is not the only thing generating CO2 - there's a lot of other human activity, and we need to attend to that too. But, if we do something about electricity generation - well, it is a significant step on the way. Which is not to deny we need to worry about those other CO2 sources too.


7a. Counter-Point : Focusing on Solar and Wind distracts us from hot rocks and burning or otherwise processing garbage and other waste

These are both valid base load forms of renewable energy, and I don't think they get enough attention. Unlike Solar and Wind (as useful as they can be), they don't fluctuate in output. While the Greens don't seem to promote such electricity generation methods that prominently, I do give credit to the energyscience organisation for doing so.

7b. Agree : An important issue is how much potential a technology has, and how developed it is.

Elsewhere in this document I mention "fourth generation" nuclear reactors. OK, that's a future technology. It is not yet developed. But, in this debate, we throw around a lot of future technologies : Fourth Generation Nuclear, Clean Coal, CO2 Sequestration, Solar, Wind, Hot Dry Rocks, and we do get a mention of Fusion Power at times.

Focusing on Fusion Power for a moment : This is a future development, and at times is much promoted by anti nuclear (fission) proponents. But, it seems to me that Fourth Generation Nuclear Reactors is a lot much more developed concept than is fusion power.

But we can make the same comparisons with other technologies. How developed is "Clean Coal" as compared to solar and wind ? Perhaps we should be pursuing solar and wind because they are a lot further developed than is clean coal ... or, indeed, fourth generation nuclear.

However, along with the technological development of a given technology, you have to also consider how much benefit it could deliver "in principle" if it worked. That's a function of thermodynamics rather than technology as such. A viable technology might not in fact deliver much benefit.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that how feasible and practical a technology is, is an important issue to take into account. However, it needs to be done in a balanced and impartial way.


8. Howard wasn't actually serious - he was just making a wedge for Labor on Carbon emissions

Well, now that Howard is out of the picture, things are a little more historic. There are some policy issues for Australia, like whether and how we export Uranium, separately to whether we run nuclear reactors. But more on that later.

It really is difficult to figure out exactly what Howard was up to, or if he had a real agenda of subterfuge. The thing I can do is say that Howard "had a lot of balls in the air at once".

One theory is that Howard was just trying to wedge the Labor party over their commitment to Uranium mines, but it did not work. However, we do see some signs of Howard's "more than just window dressing".

  • He expanded funding to the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation (ANSTO) (http://www.ansto.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/15821/nuclear_resear...).
  • He initiated "clean coal" research. Well, some say coal can never be clean. It is an approach which does have problems. Perhaps we should be focusing on other things than coal. But I don't want to dismiss the gains that could be made here, either - even if they would take a long time to come on line - though hopefully less time than Nuclear.
  • He introduced energy efficiency into the Australian Building Codes.

Considering this last point - it's not the "front end" of the economy - where we mine and export coal, where it seems Howard well and truly kept his mitts off. Perhaps because he was genuinely concerned about the economy, or perhaps it was just vested interests. Take your pick.

But, Howard did change the building codes. So long as the building codes don't "bite" too hard, builders will embrace them as a defensive measure - "I did it by the codes", and Howard did take advantage of this to implement some measures which reduced the CO2 related to buildings.

Later on, however, it seems he lost credibility that he was taking greenhouse gases seriously. But he did something. Contrary to what critics say, its not like he did nothing. But yes, you can argue he did not do enough, and that's a more elaborate argument.

Certainly, one thing Howard didn't seem to move on was demand management - any acknowledgement of the need to actively cut back consumption. Perhaps that's an ideological matter. Or perhaps its the vested interests determining his policy. Take your pick.

But, was Howard "serious" or was he "just wedging" ? I think the best answer is - he was doing everything. Howard was "serious" about nuclear power. He put money into it. He also thought it would distract the public away from short term issues. And he also thought it would be great to wedge labour if he could. We make the mistake of assuming politicians do things for just one reason.


9. Nuclear reactors are too risky ! And the market won't insure them, what does that tell you about their risk ?

Nuclear Reactors and the associated mining kill fewer people per unit of energy produced than coal (page 82, Switkowski report). Fissile uranium is a much more "concentrated" form of energy than coal. You need to move a lot less of it about to get your energy - a lot less.

Chernobyl was more a function the Soviet system, with people doing stupid things, rather than nuclear technology. Even with all the fuss over fatalities, we're still killing more people through coal.

While there might be a point to the argument about insurance, remember that the same people who are critical of nuclear power will often criticise the market for its problems. It is possible nuclear reactors cannot be insured because the market is "irrationally conservative" and does not properly take the value of the lives lost in coal fired power stations compared to alternatives, rather than the market working properly and insuring nuclear reactors where perhaps it should.

But, there are different ways in which the market might fail to insure a risk. One is that it really is too risky. Another is that the market is not behaving rationally in not insuring a risk which is worth insuring. A last is that the risks cannot be sufficiently spread out (Daryl Bollard - personal communication) - in the sense that there are too few nuclear reactors of similar design in a given area. So, the reason for a difficulty in insuring reactors might not be in the nature of reactors, but rather whether there are a sufficient number of known similar reactors in operation .

But, of course, turn your back on the market and guarantee it through government and you might be doing something the market should be doing - or you might just be stupid, a slave to irrationality and vested interests, an irrationality which is the flip side of an "irrationally conservative" market. The sin of irrationality can cut both ways.

However, on pragmatic grounds, it may be sensible for a national government to say "we're not insuring them and you need free market insurance to start". And if they don't start, fair enough. In that case, we just have to put our resources into ensuring a proper regulatory framework.

However, I recall a personal anecdote from the administrator of nuclear reactor, who said he was paid by the signature, not by the hour. In a given day he signed 500 bits of paper. Now look - nuclear reactors are potentially dangerous. They need to be regulated. Yes. But at some stage regulations can part company from reason and become, just, well,
silly. Yes, we need good regulation. It does not mean that is what we'll have.

The issue is perhaps more the regulatory framework rather than nuclear power as such.


9a. Counter-point : I'm not a a free market fundamentalist, nor am I just bashing away at the Soviets and Communism

While you think may I'm just having a serve at the Soviets and Communism - I'm very impressed with the Cuban health system. Cuba does run something of an ... er ... regime - less freedom - no denying that - but they've one hell of a health system.

Nor am I particularly saying that the market will necessarily result in good outcomes. I'm aware of a lot of perverse outcomes. Hoteling's beach, etc. etc (see my paper at http://www2.economics.unsw.edu.au/nps/servlet/portalservice?GI_ID=System... ). However, it does seem that some critics of nuclear power question market outcomes except when it is convenient to them - they suddenly assume that the insurance market works perfectly, while elsewhere they'll assert the market is dysfunctional.

I'm in fact very sympathetic to Andrew Conway's observations (personal communication) about who runs nuclear reactors : if they are run by private concerns, they have an incentive to dump nuclear waste and get rid of it administratively. He reports worrying cases of nuclear waste somehow finding its way to the bottom of rivers. This is in contrast to those who store nuclear waste, and have a much more principled outlook on their work (though it is also a function of those hoary old "incentives").

Howard's view that Nuclear Power stations should be run by private concerns does seem naive. At least, we need to have serious oversight from the regulatory authority - but not make the administrators sign 500 documents a day !

Yes, toxic waste is bad if it leaks, be it chemical or nuclear. The issue is not whether or not it exists, but what is done with it.


10. We need to take other actions than putting in Nuclear Reactors. We need to reduce our energy usage, our run-away consumptive society, not find ways of feeding our increasing desire for energy.

Yes, there's a point here. We do need to, however, articulate just how we're going change our society to result in less energy use. And, we can at least reduce CO2 generation through nuclear power. Well, I am sympathetic to these sort of arguments. I do want, however, some projections and scenarios - I'll discuss those possibilities with those who want to.

There will be a crunch where our quality of life diminishes. We need to figure out how much that will be, and relate to it strategically. I expect nuclear power will be a crucial part of that overall strategy.


11. Nuclear Reactors proliferate Weapons - and we shouldn't accept overseas nuclear waste to store in Australia.

Well, actually these two things contradict. If we insisted that we receive nuclear waste equal to the uranium we export, then we subvert the possibility of our uranium being used in weapons. Or, at least they'd only get the first shipment if they were doing that.

In fact, it is ethically strange to be willing to export the raw material but wash our hands of the waste, saying it is not our problem. In any case, we can charge for nuclear waste storage.

Now, maybe people just don't want to have nuclear waste generated at all, well fair enough (though I have covered that particular issue earlier) - but don't start talking about weapon proliferation in the same sentence.

Well, actually I'll admit the picture gets more complex the more bits you throw in. If we store the waste from current reactors, we will constrain proliferation. But, if you use fourth generation reactors, the waste you get back would not be that radioactive - there will hardly be any point in "storing" it in the way we do now. Still, you might be able to receive the waste at the end of its radioactive period and so be confident of its origin. Strangely, with fourth generation reactors generating waste differently to how we think of it, things get more subtle.