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
- 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. 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.
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.