The following is a compilation of trivia that I often drop on commentators during the various environmental discussions. It is not a ‘The Case for Nuclear’ but rather an attempt to add some badly needed balance to what has turned into an almost emotional debate
I am in no way an expert, just an interested onlooker who thinks that nuclear power might not be having a fair hearing (and because the Guardian never print my letters, so I’ll vent on you)
So, without further ado:
In April 1986, in a western state of a cold war superpower it was time to run safety tests on a nuclear reactor.
Everyone was nervous. This was new many of them and a lot was riding on the test, it could change the course of nuclear power.
They shut down everything. There were no fail-safes left to fail. Everything was disabled.
The reactor switched itself off.
A new era in nuclear power was afoot.
Until 2 weeks later when the Chernobyl safety test across the Atlantic in the USSR went utterly pear-shaped and ruined everything…
The aforementioned dream safety test was of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, the predecessor to the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) by Argonne Nation Laboratory which itself (the IFR program) was shut down by the Clinton administration in 1994 due to environmentalist concerns.
Very roughly, the USA has emitted approx. 600 million metric tonnes of CO2 per year since then (this fluctuates of course).
Now that we are suitably depressed, let’s soldier on:
1/ The Mushroom Cloud Myth
For most of us (including me until recently), when we think of things that can go wrong with nuclear power plants we think of the following as a possible outcome (skip to 0:35):
Well, it can’t.
The reactions and processes involved are very different from an A-bomb and much to my surprise the A-bomb process is strangely controllable (to an extent), to the point that some old American nuclear devices actually had a dial on the side to choose how many mega-tonnes the device would expel upon detonation.
So while I’m setting the bar low here, please remove unexpected mushroom clouds from your reasons to stay awake at night.
2/ The Waste
Again, if you’re like me your idea of nuclear waste is probably something like this:
Now, it is nasty, but it is also very ‘diverse’. There’s a wide range of material within nuclear waste with a range of potential means of disposal.
Usually, you will hear of how the waste lasts tens of thousands of years.
This is not untrue, Plutonium 239 has a half-life of over 20 000 years
“Open and shut case Johnson!”
The IFR for example burned most of the plutonium and other nasty stuff as fuel; this reduced the life span of the waste to perhaps 400 years and, importantly, reducing the size of the waste by at least 90%.
Consider the image that all of France’s harmful nuclear waste (only a minority of nuclear waste is harmful, remember) could fit into a swimming pool, if France’s nuclear network was then IFR based it would then all fit into an outdoor paddling pool in Portrush.
In the meantime, what do we do with modern waste? Here are some suggestions:
Put it in your house – Many smoke detectors (though increasingly banned due to alarmism) contain Americium 241 – a nuclear waste product.
Put it in your car (sort of) – Caesium 137 is used in oilfield drilling exploration (I used to be a nuclear source monkey offshore…), the fruit of this drilling goes into your car fuel tank.
Put it on your wrist – Though still in development stages, there’s heavy research into making watches powered from nuclear waste material
Reprocess it for further use – The French do this, the Americans do not, hence why the environmentalists over there have seized upon it.
Burn it all – As mentioned before the IFR can burn the plutonium and the ‘actinides’ which account for a lot of the nastiness
Dump it in the Sea – No, I’m not joking. Extensive research by various disbelieving agencies concluded that the deep, self-healing mud banks of an area 600 miles north of Hawaii are perfect for nuclear waste. The pressures are so extreme and the mud so deep that a single radionuclide would be unable to escape. But they also know the fuss this would cause so it was never even considered so Yucca mountain was chosen, but Yucca has been an on-off soap opera since the Regan administration.
Put it with the rest – 1/ We already have nuclear waste, so, whatever we decide to do with it, can we not add (much-reduced thanks to the IFR) future waste to it?
2/ We still produce nuclear waste from other industries, so, the problem still remains, so it’s a matter of scale
3/ Uranium Mining is Polluting –
Yes it is. All mining is. I used to work on the surface rigs on Australian coal mines. There’s a lot of diesel guzzling machinery and dust and earth chomping and personnel flying in from every corner of the globe.
For fear of whataboutery, this is similar for cable installation for wind turbines.
Renewables will require a lot of steel (turbines), copper & aluminium (wires, each turbine has to be laced to a grid), gas (back-up power stations), dysprosium, neodymium and praseodymium are required for the magnets in wind turbines; “A 5-megawatt direct-drive wind turbine with a permanent-magnet generator will use three tonnes of permanent magnets of which one tonne is rare earth oxide alloy or another rare earth compound”, says Gareth Hatch, head of business development at Adamas.”.
That’s a LOT of mining. In fact, The Royal Society of Chemists proffered that there may not be enough material on earth to satisfy our need for renewable energy composite materials. The Dutch compiled reports of a similar conclusion: “If the rest of the world would develop renewable electricity capacity at a comparable pace with the Netherlands, a considerable shortage (of metals) would arise.”
In fact SO MUCH mining that mining companies are likely to overtake fossil fuel companies in terms of profitability:
Furthermore, the current amount of nuclear waste and already mined uranium, in theory, could power the UK at least for 500 years if utilised in an IFR, so, in theory, no need for any more mining
This is without even looking at the option of extracting uranium from seawater (of which there has been some progress, but nothing show-stopping) https://www.pnnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=4514
4 – Nuclear Proliferation –
Most of the top 20 carbon-producing nations either already have nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants or are soon to receive nuclear power plants of their own e.g. Saudi Arabia.
So the countries most likely to get involved in WWIII already have nuclear technology, so that horse has already bolted.
Furthermore, if the top 20 polluters were to go nuclear instead of renewable then that’s a lot of material and resources left over for the developing nations. Presently the rich western nations are extracting these materials from developing nations and paying them enough to enable to them to have enough money to build more roads and coal fired power stations…
5 – Terrorism –
If you have the means, money and commitment to attack a nuclear station then the chances are that you’ll have some boffins working for you. Those same boffins will warn you against such a foolish task as the chances of success are slim and there are much easier targets with nuclear material stored therein. I’d rather not get into this topic for fear of being too convincing and Mick Fealty being questioned by MI5…
6 – Proximity to Nuclear Reactors –
If you don’t like the idea of being near land based, heavily shielded nuclear reactors then don’t live on the Irish east coast because the former scenario is almost luxurious by comparison; The UK’s nuclear submarine fleet is based in Faslane, Scotland, whose entry to the Irish sea is at the Firth of Clyde (unless they still do the old Viking overland trick at the Tarberts…)
This means that if you live in Belfast, the absolute maximum you can be from a metal encased reactor in a metal tube submerged in saltwater (adorned with nuclear warheads) is 80km. And that’s assuming that they skirt the Mull of Kintyre coast and never travel south into the Irish sea. (If they do then Belfast people are approx. a maximum 60km from these nuclear tubs, just saying).
7 – Chernobyl, TMI and Fukushima Daiichi
Chernobyl – Firstly, the IFR completed the same tests as Chernobyl 2 weeks before, with NO fuss. Secondly, Chernobyl had no dome/shield. Just a big metal plate with loads of manhole covers. This is like driving a car with no handbrake and parking it on a hill.
Three Mile Island – Yes, it was bad. However, since then the USA has had no serious accidents. The mixed blessing/curse of environmental activism means that there is a veritable legion of nationwide volunteers with radiation detectors and a network ready to leap upon the first radionuclide that they discover outside of a power station.
With an IFR, this high pressured scenario can’t happen. Neither can the hydrogen build-up as IFRs don’t use water as a ‘coolant’ (long story short – hydrogen was produced by the reaction of the Zirconium cladding and water which removed the oxygen, leaving only the hydrogen).
Fukishima – 7 miles inland from Fukushima are ancient petroglyphs written on sea rocks (washed to their current location centuries ago) that translate as roughly “don’t build anything from here to the coast”.
So, not a great place for a nuclear reactor, though, it must be noted that none of the other coastal reactors suffered a similar fate (In brief, the diesel backup generators were placed too low, so were washed out by the tsunami) and survived the tsunami relatively unscathed including the sister plant Fukushima Daini, 10km south of the unfortunate Fukushima Daiichi
The most oddly reassuring book on this topic is ‘Atomic Accidents’ by James Mahaffey: https://www.amazon.com/Atomic-Accidents-Meltdowns-Disasters-Mountains/dp/1605986801
8 – Time –
This is important. We are pressed for time, but, since the emergency light bulb has been screwed in we’ve made little progress. We were thrown a curved ball by the Covid lockdowns now we’re almost as bad as ever (https://africanminingmarket.com/miners-gear-up-global-rare-earth-projects-as-prices-surge/9410/ ).
Germany stubbornly went ahead with closing down its nuclear stations and now its carbon emissions have increased, as predicted.
No matter how many engineers or physicists tell us that closing these plants before renewables are ready will result in INCREASED CO2 emissions the decision-makers for some reason still give in and defeat their ultimate aim rather than waiting till they have their renewable ducks lined up in a row.
The chances of us hitting the 2050 target are slim. A 2060 nuclear target is more achievable. Had nuclear critics not been given so much clout back in the 90’s (or indeed 70’s) then we’d be billions of tonnes of CO2 better off.
We’re in danger of doing the same again.
9 – Expense –
Yes. It’s expensive. Maybe not even economic. But if you’re to pay over the odds for something should it not be this? There is also a line of people who think it is worth their money;
China – China has an ambitious nuclear plant building program (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2021/04/23/china-will-lead-the-world-in-nuclear-energy-along-with-all-other-energy-sources-sooner-than-you-think/?sh=456e83a2778c) and has even re-opened the avenue of thorium fuelled reactors (less risk but more mining than uranium reactors).
Bill Gates & Warren Buffet – https://www.forbes.com/sites/kensilverstein/2021/07/15/why-bill-gates-is-banking-on-small-modular-nuclear-reactors/?sh=1713c6594c9d – SMRs – Small Modular Reactors
Michał Sołowow – The Polish billionaire is spearheading Polish nuclear development (again, small modular reactors, like above) https://www.synthosgroup.com/en/synthos-group/news/news/najnowoczesniejsza-i-najbezpieczniejsza-energia-jadrowa-w-polsce
Saudi Arabia – https://www.energy.gov.sa/en/snaep/Pages/ov.aspx
Canada – https://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Canadian-government-invests-in-SMR-project (Again, SMRs but based on the kyboshed IFR from Argonne Labs)
Rolls Royce – SMRs again, and, Rolls Royce should have the edge here as it has been creating small modular reactors for the Royal Navy for decades
10 – Carbon Emitting Own Goals
William H Zimmer Power Plant, Ohio – A nuclear plant that was converted into a coal plant: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Zimmer_Power_Station
Zwentendorf, Austria – This Austrian plant was almost complete when the country had a referendum and the result narrowly opposed nuclear power. Had the plant been allowed to produce it would have allowed Austria’s power generation to be carbon free this past 30 years in that it would have supplemented the hydropower there. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwentendorf_Nuclear_Power_Plant
Carnshore, Ireland: The nuclear plant was opposed and a coal plant built instead. Were it to have been built Ireland would have been potentially carbon free in terms of power generation (and the turf powered power stations redundant)
Shoreham, Long Island: Completed but not allowed to generate power. Part of the anti-nuclear campaign against it was allegedly financed by a local heating oil company: https://atomicinsights.com/smoking-gun-part-18-an-oldie-but-a-goodie-oil-heat-institute-of-long-island-ad-using-scare-tactics-to-fight-shoreham/
(It is worth noting that two wind turbines were erected on the Shoreham site to much fanfare: “We stand in the shadow of a modern-day Stonehenge, a multibillion-dollar monument to a failed energy policy, to formally commission the operation of a renewable energy technology that will harness the power of the wind for the benefit of Long Island’s environment.” The two turbines supposedly produce 1/35000th the power of what the nuclear plant would have.)
Supposedly it would have prevented roughly 3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year had it been allowed to produce electricity.
11- The Anti-Nuclear Movement –
The Sierra Club – This group was started to oppose damming and flooding involved in massive hydro-projects. Since then they’ve switched to anti-nuclear and pro-renewables and one of the solutions to the renewable energy storage problem is hydro storage (pumping water back up into reservoirs during times of low demand and releasing it during times of high demand).
Hydro storage requires more damming and flooding, so now they’ve come full circle.
Friends of the Earth – Created after a split in the Sierra club on nuclear power. FOE was established as firmly anti-nuclear power, interestingly with the financial backing of an oil baron philanthropist, Robert O. Anderson to the tune of $200 000 (half a million dollars in 2019 terms)
Worldwide Fund for Nature – The WWF had as its chief the former Royal Dutch Shell heavyweight John Louden in the late 70’s
While these are not exactly smoking guns and it’s possible that oil barons had a change of heart it is nonetheless some food for thought regarding the theory that environmental groups were used as proxies in an effort to ‘take the bloom off of the nuclear rose’ and given the current increase in gas use in Germany at the expense of nuclear and the American LNG vs. Russian Nordstream II pipeline you can see how it was in the interest of fossil fuel companies to take nuclear out of the game.
Greenpeace – In a nutshell here is their stance: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/nuclear-power-climate-change-jonathon-porritt/
My problem with it is that they are an environmental charity yet this uncompromising stance on nuclear does not address the whack-a-mole issues associated with removing nuclear; increased mining, increased flooding & damming for hydropower, land use (in Europe and North America it often displaces farmland and each turbine requires a service road for the maintenance trucks) and recyclability of the renewable machinery e.g. battery banks, solar panels, plastic conduits (Joe Bloggs is oblivious to the thousands of kilometres of plastic piping underground needed to sheath the electrical cables) and whatever else may be required.
12 – Cui Bono? –
Who profits (literally?) from the demise of nuclear? We’ve touched on it before so let’s summarise:
Oil & Gas Companies – For example, already in Germany, new gas plants are being built to support renewables in addition to the hoo-hah between the US and Russia over the Nordstream II pipeline. And, unusually, the American Petroleum Institute blatantly came out against nuclear power in Ohio: https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/V-Gloves-are-off-in-fossil-fuel-fight-against-nuclear-0205171.html
Mining Companies – As explained earlier, the amount of mining required will be immense, hence the speculated future profitability of mining companies and the geo-political concern of ‘securing supply’ (just like we did with the oil supply…): https://www.iea.org/news/clean-energy-demand-for-critical-minerals-set-to-soar-as-the-world-pursues-net-zero-goals
Drilling Companies – The sheer amount of cabling and effort required to stitch together various wind turbines with the grid is eye opening.
Normally when drilling companies, oil companies and mining companies are all in agreement on policy then almost by default environmentalists* are against the policy, but, not on the matter of anti-nuclear.
If this has piqued your interest and you are to read only one book on the matter may I recommend the book ‘Power to Save the World; The Truth About Nuclear Energy’ by Gwyneth Cravens
Not only eye opening it is written by a woman of a non-scientific background. This means you are not subjected to the semi-autistic male barrage of boring facts (like above) rather you are gently taken by the hand and walked through every avenue of the nuclear debate, complete with memories, emotions and public sensitivities at particular times.
*NOTE: Not all environmentalists are against nuclear; quite a few have come to see nuclear power as a way out of the carbon mess. One of the more famous ones is Michael Shellenberger:
Found way down the food chain, a ‘middle of the road’ creature that is attacked by creatures from either side of the political jungle, from the bottom feeding ‘Republicanus hypocriticus’ better known as the ‘common shinner’ to the chameleonic ‘Unionisus opportunitisticus’, better known as a ‘Dooper’.
Known to feed on single celled organisms such as ‘Rangerophilus fanus’ and ‘neque Deditionem’ better known as ‘no surrenders’ and occasionally surfacing during rutting season to lock horns with ‘MOPEus Eternus’, better known by their moniker ‘MOPEs’.