Nuke Energy: The Next Casualty of Japan

March 17th, 2011 at 10:01 pm | 12 Comments |

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It’s like watching a Japanese Monster B-Movie: Battered by two epically-scaled natural disasters and now a human-made emergency in the form of an ongoing nuclear crisis, the only thing missing from the unfolding Japanese scenes, it seems, is the eruption of Mount Fuji and a rubber-suited monster emerging from the summit and rampaging towards Tokyo.

The situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is already factoring into any number of nightmare reports and prognostications, a new and potent Japanese symbol of our collective fears about science. Fukushima is further demonizing — or monsterizing — an industry which might actually offer the only clean, sustainable energy source for a world simultaneously preoccupied with Godzilla-sized carbon footprints and climate change.

The 1979 partial reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster which set the previous benchmark for nuclear annihilation anxieties, served to curtail public and political debate on atomic energy in the United States. Not a single new nuclear power plant has been built here for decades. This unofficial moratorium came about not just because of concerns about the safety of reactor designs and the difficulties associated with disposing of waste material but also as a result of the costs. Astronomical costs.

Second-generation commercial nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima and all of the stations built in the US in the 1960s and ’70s pushed the engineering capabilities of the day further than they should have been pushed. They also shoved cost efficiency into the realms of fantasy. Generating electricity at second-generation nuclear plants costs twice what it does to produce power at oil- or coal-fired facilities. In the US as in other countries, only vast state subsidies make existing nuclear power programs possible (this is particularly true of France, dependent for almost 80 percent of its electricity on second-generation plants).

But science has changed markedly in recent years. And so has the safety and cost-effectiveness of nuclear power. In engineering terms, the fourth-generation nuclear plants now being developed are as far removed from their expensive, awkward second-generation progenitors as a B1 bomber is from the second generation of motorized box kites which sputtered over the Western Front during World War One. The technology hasn’t so much been refined as re-invented.

New designs must satisfy four essential criteria: no accident, systems failure or human error can set off a technological chain reaction culminating in the release of radioactive material; the uranium used cannot be enriched to weapon grade-level; spent fuel must be easier to dispose of than the current unwieldy and unsafe radioactive rods; and, the costs of producing electricity must be substantially cheaper than those associated with plants using fossil fuels.

There are a number of emerging reactor designs which fall under the fourth-generation umbrella. Graphite-moderated pebble bed reactors, in particular, might one day fulfill nuclear energy’s long-held promise of providing virtually unlimited, cheap and clean electrical power. Heating helium gas to temperatures of 900C to power turbines, there’s an orders of magnitude difference between the electrical generating efficiency of pebble bed reactors and second-generation water-cooled reactors.

Compact by the standards of today’s “Metropolis”-scaled nuclear plant machinery (a pebble bed reactor can fit into a shipping container), a single 200 megawatt device could power a large town. Multiple reactors run from a single site could provide a large city’s electrical supply. Enough of them could help countries in the developing world make the leap to fully developed infrastructures without becoming dependent on carbon fuels: aside from meeting their electrical needs, gas-cooled reactors would also be ideal for mass producing the type of hydrogen fuel cells which could power everything from homes to automobiles — allowing emerging economies to bypass oil and coal just as cell phones have allowed them to bypass land lines.

The technology is not entirely risk-free — no technology ever is. But as Dr. James Martin, founder of Oxford University’s interdisciplinary James Martin 21st Century School, has said, extensive use of fourth-generation nuclear power would be incomparably safer than allowing the public to drive cars.

Prototype pebble bed reactors — so-called because they use billiard ball-sized and -shaped uranium fuel elements — are being built to standards which their designers like to call “walk-away safe”. In other words, should anything go wrong, the control staff can literally walk off and a system as close to being fail-safe as it’s possible to engineer will automatically prevent a meltdown.

At a nerve-jarring 2004 demonstration for journalists, the operators of a small Chinese pebble bed reactor abruptly closed down its coolant system. And then quite literally walked away. At Three Mile Island a minor cooling system malfunction led to the near-catastrophic emergency; Fukishima is providing a real-time case study. When a cooling system failure occurs at a conventional nuclear plant, the fuel rods overheat, radiation levels spike and the nightmarish prospect of a meltdown goes from being a remote theoretical possibility to a distinct probability.

In Beijing, slack-jawed reporters watched as gauges showed the temperature in the pebble-bed reactor soaring to 1600C. Then it began to fall back to normal levels. No human intervention had taken place. None was necessary.

Each of the billiard ball “pebbles” in the reactor contained thousands of tiny, ball bearing-type uranium pellets, each sealed in silicone-carbide shells which serve as individual containment domes of sorts. The pebbles’ outer casings provide further protection. The uranium — just nine percent enriched and impossible to weaponize — is processed to slow neutron production if the reactor temperature begins to rise, automatically dampening the chain reaction. Pebble bed reactors are, in effect, meltdown-proof.

The fourth-generation technology is still a work in progress. But it’s demonstrably no longer a theory-based concept. And it’s certainly not an example of mad science as its critics — ranging from professional eco-warriors to professional lobbyists for the coal and oil industries — have claimed.

The hysterical aftershocks being produced by the Japanese earthquake are making themselves felt around the world. Nuclear energy programs are being suspended with knee-jerk swiftness and little or no forward thought. If the funding and development of fourth-generation technology is disrupted or even ended, this might prove be the second man-made nuclear disaster to result from last week’s tragedy.

Recent Posts by Tim Hodgson

12 Comments so far ↓

  • rbottoms

    You forgot how it’s all Al Gore’s fault somehow.

  • anniemargret

    Nuclear power will never be ‘clean’ nor ‘safe’ because acts of God and human error are intrinsic to life on this planet. And an act of terrorism is not an impossibility – no one would bet on the odds of that either.

    Does the fourth generation technology have waste material? If so, where does it go?

    No one is suggesting nuclear power should go away anytime soon, but newer, efficient, cleaner and *safer* energy sources must be researched and financed.

  • Gramps

    Hawt damn…Mr. Hodgson…
    So now you tell us…

    Where dah hell have yah been…
    All our “half lives”…?


  • ChallengingFrum

    With all due respect to FF, please change the picture for this story. Given what the Japanese people are going through, its not appropriate.

  • valkayec

    Okay, I gather you, the author of this article, are pro-nuclear energy. Fine. I’ve no problem with that position. What I have a problem with is your circus-like opinion of those who disagree with you.

    Frankly, if you wish to win me over don’t throw out cartoon analogies but give me research proven facts. The rest is nothing more than hyperbole…and I really hate hyperbole!

  • greg_barton

    See this link for info on the waste profile of a 4th generation reactor, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor:

    From that page: “Waste–In theory, LFTRs would produce far less waste along their entire process chain, from ore extraction to nuclear waste storage, than LWRs. A LFTR power plant would generate 4,000 times less mining waste (solids and liquids of similar character to those in uranium mining) and would generate 1,000 to 10,000 times less nuclear waste than an LWR. Additionally, because LFTR burns all of its nuclear fuel, the majority of the waste products (83%) are safe within 10 years, and the remaining waste products (17%) need to be stored in geological isolation for only about 300 years (compared to 10,000 years or more for LWR waste). Additionally, the LFTR can be used to “burn down” waste from an LWR (nearly the entirety of the United States’ nuclear waste stockpile) into the standard waste products of an LFTR, so long-term storage of nuclear waste would no longer be needed.”

  • PatrickQuint

    I’ll agree with ChallengingFrum. The picture is not outright offensive to me, but it does not hold up the standard of respect and decency that I expect from FrumForum. It’s too early for this sort of thing.

    greg_barton, your bit on the liquid fluoride thorium reactor sounds too good to be true. In my experience, this suggests that there’s something I’m not being told about.

    Tell me, how would a reasonable person argue specifically against a liquid fluoride thorium reactor? I’d be pleasantly surprised if you played the part of the fair-minded journalist, to demonstrate that you are making this case in good faith.

  • Carney

    Reading and nodding along until I tripped over this: “gas-cooled reactors would also be ideal for mass producing the type of hydrogen fuel cells which could power everything from homes to automobiles”

    Yikes. Even if these new reactors produce electricity in such abundance and cheapness so as to make hydrogen via water electrolysis remotely affordable, hydrogen would STILL be an extremely bulky, dangerous, impractical fuel.

  • armstp

    yeah… that is what we need, ton more nuclear reactors dotting the landscape.

    Besides the environmental disaster of nuclear power plants, nobody is going to finance these things without massive tax payer subsidies.

    How about this? Lets let the market decide what makes the most sense. Let get rid of the nuclear industries liability exemptions and then see what happens. Lets get rid of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, which limits the industries accident liabilities to $12.6 billion. Lets let the market decide if they will finance this industry if they face unlimited liability, like every other industry does in this country. That would be the conservative thing to do. Free market, invisible hand stuff.

    What is it with all these comparisions to driving cars? “incomparably safer than allowing the public to drive cars.” Are you kidding? Great, car accidents are more common, but it only takes one accident to cause the tremendous damage that a nuclear plant is capable of. Why did the industry need a liability cap and a shift of risk over to the taxpayer?

    Tim Hodgons, I guess you have no problem if they build one of these “new generation” nuclear power plants in your backyard? I wonder what will happen to your property value.

    As for your pebble reactor:

    “I am not sure why the Pebble Bed modular reactor (PBMR) is being touted as the great solution to problems with nuclear power. It uses a once through, virtually non-reprocessible fuel. It produces a high volume of waste consisting not only of the fuel but the casing/moderator which has about 50 times the volume of the fuel and 20 times its mass. It is essentially a uranium hogging once-through thermal reactor, but with a bigger waste problem. The graphite moderator in each pebble could also be a fire hazard. If the graphite moderator in the pebbles should catch fire, there could be a catastrophic release of radiation.

    Its chief advantages seem to be the high efficiency due to its ability to use the helium coolant that is in the core to drive turbines directly. Supposedly, there will be no radioactivity in the helium coolant. I am not so sure about that.

    It seems to me that the PBMR is a vastly overrated reactor. ”

    “The demise of the pebble bed modular reactor”

    * After years of investment, South Africa has abandoned its plan to develop a fleet of electricity-generating pebble bed modular reactors (PBMR), once hyped as the future of nuclear power.
    *Problems with the PBMR aren’t new; a 2008 German report chronicles Germany’s own problems developing the reactor since 1967.
    * China, still developing PBMR-based power reactor designs, has taken a slow approach and it is unclear if they have run into problems as well.

    Pebble-bed nuclear reactor gets pulled

    “Although many scientists had hoped that the safety system of the pebble-bed design would win over opponents of nuclear power, a 2008 report from the Jülich Research Centre cast doubt on those claims, suggesting that core temperatures could rise even higher than the safe threshold.”


  • johnnyb93

    If you believe in free markets what are you doing supporting nuclear energy? After fifty years nuclear power is not viable without subsidies from YOU, as we read in this article, published just last month from the Union of Concerned Scientists titled aptly “After 50 Years, Nuclear Power is Still Not Viable without Subsidies, New Report Finds”.
    We discover in this report that over thirty government subsidies support the nuclear power industry every step of the way from the mining of radioactive materials to the long term storage of radioactive waste materials. Nuclear power represents the purest form of corporate socialism. Let us also not forget that the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act puts the government (in effect, the people) on the hook for liability over a set amount ($12.6 billion in 2011, not bad when estimated damages for a meltdown are as much as $500 billion) when the nuclear power industry has that inevitable “unfortunate accident” which is always a confluence of events that no one could ever foresee.

  • anniemargret

    One other aspect to this argument….. the new 4th gen reactors are still almost 20-30 years away and as with all new technologies the risk is high that someone or other will make a mistake as the learning curve improves over time. There is still radioactivity.

    As long as there is radioactivity, it is neither ‘clean’ nor ‘safe’…the magnitude of a human error and/or mixed with an act of God or terrorism is too grave to dismiss lightly. I am still not convinced this is the way to go for the future.

    How about this?
    “Researchers from Harvard University and Tsinghua University have found that the People’s Republic could meet all of its electricity demands from wind power by 2030..”'s_Republic_of_China

    Why not put more monies here for the US? Why not diversify to the point where nuclear energy becomes last on the list rather than first? Why not put our college and post-college students to work in new areas of industry in renewable energy..more grants, more interest, more studies, and more advancement in truly ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ energy policies?

  • balconesfault

    Well, it seems that this list is filled with free-market types … so if these 4th generation technologies are so promising, why do we not see private industry proposing them all across the country, instead of new coal fired and gas fired combustion units?

    Is the desire for government to subsidize development of these technologies a frank admission that the free market does not really work to promote our long-term interests?