Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, awareness is growing that there is some incredible new technology in nuclear power; Generation IV uranium reactors, and thorium fuelled reactors. These technologies bring significant advantages above and beyond the best commercially available and near –commercially available nuclear technology today. Neither is theoretical, both have been proven and demonstrated. India is building the first Generation IV plants now with the prototype fast breeder reactor plant (PFBR) to be completed at the end of this year. The advantages of the new technology over the current are basically these:

  • Remarkable passive safety
  • Extraordinary amounts of energy per unit of fuel
  • Truly negligible quantities of much shorter lived waste
The thermal baffle being lowered into the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor in India, May 2010. Generation IV nuclear is not a myth.

For those less familiar with the technology to which I am referring, this article by Tom Blees will bring you nicely up to speed.

The basic issue with the technology is that it is very new to commercialisation (in the case of Generation IV uranium reactors), or a little way off commercialisation (in the case of thorium). That means we have some time to wait before manufacturing, marketing and selling of the technology is ramped up, and we might expect a few teething problems along the way. That says nothing about the technology; it’s the normal pathway of such things.

But the basic concepts are so good that it is enough to get even hardened nuclear opponents thinking twice, and leads to the refrain that is becoming more common, “We should use nuclear power, Generation IV”. I have heard that quite a bit now from a number of different people. The unstated (or sometimes very clearly stated!) implication being, we should not use what could be bought off the shelf and built more or less immediately.

I disagree, and I’m using the diagram below to explain why. I’ve mentioned before that diagrams are not my strong suit. Be nice.

 

What I am saying here is that currently available nuclear power technology is basically 99 times better than coal, when some sort of average is taken across the range of criteria we might call “the Bad”: impacts from energy sources that are undesirable. That accounts for greenhouse gas, other air pollution, mining impacts, health and safety, environmental impacts, and water security. Across the board, currently available nuclear is about 99 times less bad than coal. So the square above for Generation III+ nuclear is 1/100th the size of that for coal.

Let me put a few numbers behind that basic assertion of “99 times less bad”.

  • The rate of greenhouse gas emitted from South Australia’s filthiest power stations is about 1,100 g CO2 per kWh for full fuel cycle. The greenhouse gas from nuclear operated in Australia (best estimate) for full lifecycle is 60g CO2e/kWh (University of Sydney, 2006).  Only a 97.8% improvement there, but if coal was done for lifecycle nuclear would romp it in well past 99%.
  • Radiation pollution to the surrounding environment is about 100 times greater from a coal fired power plant than a nuclear plant Scientific American 13 December 2007
  • Other pollution from coal includes:
    • Sulphur dioxide (SO2 ), which contributes to acid rain
    • Nitric oxides (NO and NO2), contributing to harmful ozone smog and acid rain
    • Carbon monoxide (CO), which is highly toxic
    • Particulate air pollution which is responsible for the slow and painful deaths of around 700,000 people per year according to WHO (1997), reported in UNEP 2002.
    • Heavy metals (lead cadmium, mercury) that enter and that persist in the food chain
    • Arsenic
    • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs, yet another highly toxic chemical)

 All of this is dumped into the environment for us to deal with. Nice.

Coal pollution. Nice.
  • On the nuclear side of the waste ledger, we basically have high level nuclear waste (HLW) that distinguishes the power source. I used to be essentially horrified by the thought of this stuff. Having now learned a bit about it, I have to be really careful in articles like this not to be dismissive of other people’s concerns. I hope I get it right here. High level waste is produced in very small amounts. It is cooled, and then stored, safely, from whence it does no harm[1]. Its behaviour is not complex or mysterious, it is entirely predictable. It does not leach or leak, or otherwise negatively interact with the environment or people. Much like a noise source that can damage your hearing, but that you can’t turn off, we manage radioactive material it by putting dense material and some distance between it and us; enough that it can’t hurt anyone. Basically, it’s that simple.  I suppose it’s a value judgement in the end, but I comfortably ascribe that at least 99 times less harm than the mountain of crap that is emitted from a coal fired power station onto all of us every year. I don’t like HLW, I don’t want it, but I can certainly live with it being contained and safely managed.

Dry cask storage for 28 years and 110 billion kWh worth of HLW from Conneticut Yankee Power Station. Is HLW undesirable? Certainly. Is storing it safely a big deal? Frankly, no. 
  • In terms of mining impact, the energy content of black coal is 30 GJ/t (World Energy Council Conversion Factors). Here in South Australia, we burn brown coal, which is less energy dense than that at only 10-20 GJ/ton. The energy content of uranium (once through a light water reactor):  is 420,000- 675,000 GJ/t (World Energy Council Conversion Factors). Seriously, I’m not kidding. That’s not Generation IV, that’s a humble light water reactor in operation today. While some more work needs to be done here in comparing the different mining processes, it’s clear that mining impacts per unit of energy provided are orders of magnitude lower for nuclear power than coal, for the simple reason that we need do so much less mining.

The Leigh Creek Coal Mine in South Australia. Spot the environmental impact.
  • The Energy Related Severe Accident Database from the Paul Scherrer Institute has already told us clearly that nuclear power is the safest of all the major power sources. That’s taking the performance of the whole industry, old reactors and new, for the last 40 years. A Generation III+ reactor that would be built today is orders of magnitude safer again than its predecessors. There is really no competition here between coal and nuclear.
  • Finally, as discussed in a previous article, nuclear power as a replacement for coal has the potential to gift back to Australia great quantities of fresh water for more beneficial purposes.

So there you have it: 99 times less of “The Bad”.

Now, Generation IV nuclear, by consuming nuclear waste (which is around 99% Uranium 238) is, in some respects, about 100 times less bad again; less waste, less mining etc. But what I have illustrated above shows that extra 100 fold reduction in the bad only actually translates to a 0.9% improvement on our current situation compared to that which could be achieved using a Generation III+ reactor. By holding out for this technology instead of using what is available today, we are saying “no” to fixing 99% of the problem right now. We are saying “no” to all of those health and safety benefits listed above, instead insisting on a 99.9% solution to those problems further in the future.

That’s not smart, especially when the problems are critically urgent. There are not many situations I can think of where we say “no” to 99% solutions to pressing environmental and social problems. We need to get sensible about this and say “yes, I would like those energy related problems to be 99% resolved as quickly as possible”.

Consider this. Assume we in South Australia insisted on holding out for Generation IV nuclear. Assume that with all best efforts, the very soonest South Australia could make a whole sale energy change over to Generation IV nuclear is eight years later than we could do it with Generation III+ (that number is a bit of a stab in the dark, but seems reasonable). If Decarbonise SA get’s its way then we are talking about, at the very least, closing Playford, Northern and Torrens Island A and B. That eight year delay would mean about 65 million tCO2-e dumped in the atmosphere (along with all the rest of the crap) by 1 million South Australians. Repeat this exercise for regions around the world, and you realise that eight years of emissions, when in these dire straits, matter! To avoid catastrophic climate change we are dealing with a finite global carbon budget. I don’t think we have a right to mess around with it, mostly in the name of avoiding a problem in high level waste that is pretty straightforward to manage already, and that has a known solution in the pipeline. In relatively short order, some Generation IV plants will come on line (8 years later? 15? Doesn’t really matter) and the accumulated “waste problem” would become the “fuel source”.  But we would have had clean, secure energy sooner. I truly believe that is the right decision for South Australia, particularly since our power generation is so desperately in need of replacement and upgrade. We need not hesitate in the name of Generation IV nuclear. I feel to do so would be to afford ourselves luxury that flies in the face of an urgent response to climate change.

The 1960 Thomas Playford Power Staion (Pt Augusta, South Australia), and the 1960 Ford Falcon. One of these is still licensed to operate in South Australia. Neither comes with seatbelts as standard.

You may wonder though if I am arguing against the urgent development of these new nuclear technologies. Certainly I am not, and I will show you why with the inverse diagram looking at “the Good” from these power sources. The principal “Good” in question is the amount of energy they provide from a unit of fuel. What does that look like?

 

Current generation nuclear technology produces vastly more energy than coal, but only consumes about 1% of the uranium as fuel. New generation nuclear consumes 100% of the fuel, so you will see that “The Good” for the new generation nuclear is 100 times bigger than for the Generation III+. This time around, instead of the 100 fold difference between the nuclear technologies delivering a mere 0.9% variance on current circumstances, it delivers a 99%+ change for the better. Coal on the other hand is so relatively weak in energy density that in this chart it has disappeared all together. So it should, to be consigned to history as the 18th century power source that somehow fudged its way into the 21st.

This chart is a nice illustration of how I feel about Generation IV nuclear. Basically, I think of it less in terms of solving the problems with current energy sources. I think Generation III+ does a 99% job of that. I think of it more in terms of opening up wonderful opportunities for humanity to solve even bigger problems and do even more wonderful things. Like, off the top of my head:

  •  Ending energy scarcity, and moving even more people from poverty, more quickly and more sustainably.
  • Powering the desalination that we are going to need to dodge one of the biggest bullets of the 21st century, water supply for 9 billion people.
  • Powering chemical solutions to actively draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and prevent dangerous temperature tipping points.
  • Decarbonising transport.
  • Powering the clean up other legacy pollution issues.
  • Growing enough food.
  • Recycling weapons material and radioactive waste as fuel
  • Probably 1,000 other incredible things to make the world a better place that can be achieved when energy is this plentiful.

So I say bring it on, and bring it on fast, the faster the better. My simple caution is against using Generation IV as an excuse to avoid solving our urgent problems with the solutions we can deploy right now. We South Australians have more than consumed our share of the global atmospheric commons by delaying the decarbonisation of our energy supply. It’s time to get on with it.  

The AP 1000 Reactor (being constructed in large numbers in China right now), and the mPower Small Modular Reactor (being moved decisively for design approval by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Two of several very impressive Generation III+ designs that would fit South Australia’s energy needs very well.

[1]It’s important to recap the events at Fukushima in relation to what I have just said. The outcome there both reinforces and challenges my assertion about the safety of spent fuel. The spent fuel cooling ponds at Daiichi have been a major problem, because they lacked full containment. At the newer Daiini plant, there was no problem at all. At both plants, the spent fuel that was in dry storage (finished its time in cooling and transferred to barrels for secure storage) has been perfectly secure and caused no problems.

22 comments

  1. Hi Ben,

    Thanks again for the catch up some weeks ago whilst I was back in Adelaide. I’ve since returned to Fukushima to continue with things here…

    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve shared a link to this site through my facebook + added a link to the “Fukushima Info” page (a facebook page/group that we use to share information regarding the situation here).

    Good work with your site and efforts there mate. Keep the information coming. So important for the ‘non-scientists’ among us to have information and explanations regarding climate change, new nuclear energy production, etc. that we can read and understand.

    Thanks again mate,

    Nic

    1. Hi there nitsuku,

      Thanks so much for that, I really appreciate you posting the links, and thanks for the nice feedback on the site. Glad you made it back to Fukushima, I’m sure your Japanese friends are glad to see your face again.

      Take care buddy. Hope the golf lessons are going well 🙂

      1. Haha, yes…

        The golf is sadly on hold at the moment mate, secondary to injury.. 😦

        I hope to be back at it before too long!

  2. Just to play the devil’s advocate whilst also to give you something else to respond to…

    Nobody likes change that they perceive will or could affect them negatively. I think getting a critical mass of people on board with the mission to averting climate change lies in enabling people to personally identify how climate change will negatively, significantly and directly affect their lives or the lives of those they care about. Until people do this on a ‘personal’ level they might find it difficult to take action regarding climate change.

    With this in mind, people could be all ‘for’ building a nuclear power plant in South Australia – especially when convinced that it’s cleaner, more efficient and safer for us and the planet than our existing plants that use fossil fuels. But before anyone would personally agree to have a nuclear based plant built in our state and send people to live near it or work in it you would have to satisfy the following questions:

    “What’s the worst case scenario should the plant have a nuclear accident?” and…

    “Considering the worst case scenario, what kind of danger would our people and environment be subject to?”

    Especially considering the state of mind the world is in following the Fukushima nuclear accident with it’s ongoing problems, I don’t think the average South Australian will be happy to have our state’s first nuclear power plant built unless satisfied with given answers to the above questions. Right or wrong, logical or not – no matter how well grounded in science or logic as it relates to climate change, danger or the concept of ‘relative risk’ the argument ‘for’ nuclear actually is – I think people will be reluctant to exchange what we do and have now (albeit problematic) for something new… that is, should they consider the dangers of ‘the new’ to be potentially unknown or severe.

    Answer above said questions in a way that reassures Jane and Joe SA citizen and I think we’ll be that much closer to seeing the beginning of nuclear energy production in South Australia. I think the key to doing this successfully is as much a matter of communicating with people effectively as it is a matter of due diligence as it relates to science and industry.

    1. Nic – perhaps you can help answer the “worst case” question by sharing more about the current situation in Fukushima. The press breathlessly reports every hiccup, every hotspot that anyone happens to find, and every example of “exposure” they can glean from utility and government reports.

      What press reports are not talking about are any radiation induced illnesses or any radiation induced deaths. That is not because they do not want to talk about those effects, but because those effects never occurred.

      The antinuclear movement technique now is to attempt to maintain the fear by spreading fantasy stories about the long-term effects, but the reality is that anyone who cheerfully uses a cell phone, watches color television, hangs out with people who smoke, lives in a home with granite countertops or eats naturally radioactive food like bananas is not really all that worried about the long term effect of small doses of radiation. (Nor should they be worried.)

      I have a difficult time imagining anything happening to a nuclear plant that is much worse than being shaken by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, being overrun by a tsunami, having all of the infrastructure nearby decimated, and having power transfer switches located in a non seismically qualified building because of a short-sighted decision taken 45 years ago that was never rectified because of the expense of moving the switch. (It was rectified for plants built just a few years later than the first five Fukushima reactors.)

  3. So very true. The Devil We Know is a powerful force for inertia. The advantage I have in my goal is that SA is going to be forced to have the conversation soon because our power infrastructure is just so decrepit. How effectively we have the conversation though, it another story, and you are right; hazard (for which we use science to understand) vs people’s perception of “risk” (which is a mixture of science and a whole grab bag of other psychological and emotional triggers) are often poles apart, and it takes pretty skillful communication to bring them closer together.

  4. Another comparison of Coal to Uranium in a pure economical sense. In South Australia we produced 3.5Mt of Coal from Leigh Creek, and 0.002Mt of Uranium from Olympic Dam, and Beverley (2nd half last year).
    The value of all that coal was $63.4 million, and $162.1 million for Uranium. You get more bang for your buck (probably a bad analogy) for Uranium than you do for Coal. Or in other words per ton you receive $17 for Coal and $61,900 for Uranium.

    Futhermore that picture of Leigh Creek in the above post highlights the impact of coal mining on the landscape. Take Beverley Uranium mine where they use In-Situ Leach and there is hardly a footprint; just a few well heads, a few small diameter pipes, and a small processing plant. However Olympic Dam’s expansion pit (the size of Adelaide’s CBD) is a significant hole. But Olympic Dam is primarily a Copper and Gold mine rather than Uranium. Uranium is the economically beneficial by-product of the particular ore body. So it’s not an entirely true indicator of the landscape impact.

    Playford Power Plant is becoming an issue. It seems that a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach is being taken publically. I can’t comment on what happens behind doors. Maybe they are developing a plan and making sure they have enough info to release it…?

    1. Love that economic comparison, how very telling! As for uranium mining, there are images of the Beverley set up in my presentation which is linked through the “New to Nuclear Power?” page on this site. It is remarkably low impact mining, brilliant stuff. Ranger doesn’t look so lovely, but then I have been told that one small mine provides 1% of the electricity fuel for the entire world!!! Looks a bit prettier when you realise that!

      And yep, be warned. Opponents regularly point to Olympic Dam and attribute all the impacts to uranium in their calculations, even though it is the tertiary product of the mine after copper and gold. It’s a very cheap and dirty trick.

      Playford? I think there is little true leadership in politics, just occasionally good people trying to hit the sweet spot between leadership and certainty. That’s probably what is happening now. We can help them by building the certainty of a positive response among a greater number of South Australians to nuclear being considered.

  5. Good luck with convincing your state apparatchiks to go the nuclear road.
    As you are no doubt aware the current febrile flavour of the month nationally is a carbon tax.
    Like the late,unlamented CPRS,this tax will do precisely nothing to remove coal from electricity generation in Australia.It is certain to create all sorts of harmful economic distortions and probably some hardship in certain parts of society which are defenceless. And this is at a tax level which is derisory of any meaningfull reduction in carbon pollution.

    Meanwhile in QLD and NSW,the coal seam gas industry is the current answer to a maidens prayer.A bit cleaner than coal (never mind the environmental damage). Chuck in some virtually useless renewable scheme for a front and we’re doing our bit for the world – yeah,sure.

    1. “this tax will do precisely nothing to remove coal from electricity generation in Australia”. At low prices, I agree with you entirely, and we have the truly stupid situation of introducing a carbon price but refusing to consider the technology that would be most responsive to it- nuclear power. Daft. I happen to believe though that a carbon price is an important enabler for the changes we need, but it is NOT a substitute for taking a direct look at the problem and crafting a plan to fix it. I simply don’t believe that market forces, in isolation from any direction, are capable of mobilising the very large sums of money required to upgrade the energy generation of a whole state or nation in a way that is at all efficient or will deliver the best outcome for the people. It requires planning. Barry (Brook) mentioned to me the other day that he thinks the market has proven to be pretty good at efficiently maintaining a mature energy system that is not growing, but not at all good at delivering large infrastructure investments. I think he’s right; it takes a degree of central planning. By the same token, it would be foolish not to send a signal through the market to help the process and somewhat redress the uncosted externalities (pollution). I think they plan to let the RET run its course to 2020, forcing generators to buy energy from renewable sources, and let the carbon price rise in the mean time. I would rather no RET, a higher carbon price from the start, and a supportive environment for the introduction of nuclear power. In that situation I think we would actually see change happen relatively quickly.

      Ben Heard Director

      ben.heard@thinkclimateconsulting.com.au M- 0411 808 202 W- http://www.thinkclimateconsulting.com.au

  6. There is much truth in what you (and Barry Brook) say,Ben.

    However I see the fundamental problem as being an ideological mindset in the present political power structure.I use political in the broader sense.Like all ideologies there is a profound contrast between reality and what is considered desireable in the narrow constraints of the ideology.This leads to cognitive dissonance which tends to cripple rational decision making.

    You don’t have read a lot of history to see how ideologies,including religion,have resulted in not only bizarre and self destructive behaviour in individuals but have set entire nations on the path to self destruction.

    I see this situation in Australia (and other nations) at the moment.This is one of the the reasons why we are seeing this ineffectual running around in circles with a lot of accompanying noise while pretending to address major problems like climate change,energy,population,economic systems and environmental degradation.

    I see no political party in Australia which has a rational approch to solving the above problems.They are all prisoners of the conventional “wisdom”.

  7. Ben,
    As I noted in earlier article you are making an error in quoting Carma figures for CO2 intensity, ( lbs NOT Kg) so need to divide by 2.2, highest intensity is <1.3 tonnes Co2/MWh not 2.7

    1. I will post a useful image soon and some of the key design aspects, but in brief and from memory:
      Gen I, the first bunch, designs up to about 1960
      Gen II, designs up to about early 1990s, most of the operational reactors in the world today incl. Fukushima. Quite a range of quality in that time period
      Gen III, post early 1990s, demonstrating a re-design philosophy of simplification, safety and cost reduction
      Gen III+, best of available today, even better simplification, modular, greater range of sizes, introduction of passive safety features
      Gen IV, a proven but non-commercial technology. Fast reactors, require no moderator, consume all uranium isotopes and plutonium, so leave virtually no waste, liquid metal coolants and metal fuel provide ultimate passive safety, can consume current spent fuel (high level waste) as fuel as well as depleted uranium. LOADS of energy.

      All others feel free to chime in and improve that. Also, visit http://www.bravenewclimate.com, you should find ample information there.

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