Mar 012010

Opinion polls as well as the actions of politicians show that the public’s views on climate change have shifted quite dramatically in the past year, and not for the better. Kevin Rudd no longer wants to use the ETS as a double dissolution trigger, and the dissentients are definitely in the ascendant (does this mean I can suggest that Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley is in the seventh house?). Clive Hamilton has described some of the rather nasty tactics being used by deniers in a multi-part series starting here (the rest are appearing here) while Bill McKibben likens the current debate to the O.J. Simpson trial, where the process rather than the evidence was successfully attacked.

Regardless it looks as if we are going back to worrying about Paris Hilton et al rather than the fate of our species for a while longer. The chances of getting anything comprehensive through the US Houses look increasingly small, and I suspect Australians will be offered a choice between very little and almost nothing in the election later this year.

This makes it rather more likely that we panic at some future time when the evidence become obvious enough, and therefore that we are forced into short term compromises such as current style nuclear power rather than true renewables or more effective nuclear power. This whole area is a minefield of emotion, with very polarised views on all sides of the debate. is and will be focusing on this and has a number of interesting articles on renewable versus nuclear costings here and here. They point out that, at best, nuclear is much cheaper than solar thermal or wind, both in dollars and in concrete and steel. They correctly portray renewables as a poor source of baseload power and argue that a quick switch to nuclear will save considerable emissions versus a longer attempt to get renewable baseload power working effectively. I feel a few of their costs (for nuclear) are optimistic but it is one of the few places where numbers rather than emotions are debated.

To my eyes nuclear hinges on two key areas, waste, and the political difficulties of building nuclear in the “developed” countries.

Waste first. There are two fundamental types of nuclear reactors; almost all current reactors are light water reactors (LWR) which burn enriched uranium very ineffectively. To run a 1GW reactor for a year will require 170 tons of uranium ore which is enriched to produce about 20 tons of fuel and 150 tons of depleted uranium which is disposed of or used for munitions as it’s heavier than lead. At the end of the year somewhere between 0.5% and 0.8% of the energy in the ore has been extracted and 20 tons of waste is produced which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

The second type of reactor which has been run for several decades but not used commercially is an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) which “burns” almost all the energy in the uranium ore and therefore needs much less. As a rough rule a 1GW IFR will use 1 ton of uranium ore in a year, producing 1 ton of waste that is dangerous for only 300 odd years. As a bonus an IFR can be fuelled by the waste from current reactors (though I am not sure this has actually ever been done), it are intrinsically safer than current designs, and is less likely to allow diversion of fuel and waste for bomb making purposes. This article is a good starting point for more information on IFR vs LWR.

The second concern is the political difficulties in building nuclear reactors in a democracy that has come to accept that they are all intrinsically dangerous, despite evidence from France where more than half of their energy has been nuclear for decades without major accident. The costs of all recent reactors built in the west have blown out massively, while the results are not yet in from building programs in India and China. Thus it is almost impossible to get a realistic estimate of how nuclear and renewable costs compare and enthusiasts on all sides can easily find numbers that suit their point of view.

In my view we should not continue to run current reactors until we can reuse or breakdown their long lived waste products, and so the answer seems obvious. We should build a test commercial scale IFR and reprocessing plant and trial its ability to reuse our current waste stream. Some are been built in India and China, but no one else seems interested.

Depressingly this mirrors the situation facing baseload renewables, where we also need to spend seed money which won’t pay off in the short term.

Quite separately I am obviously becoming “radicalised” by the environment up here in the bush in that I am increasingly of the opinion that most of our problems result from the assumption that a corporation, company or commercial organisation should have the same rights as a human being. This was probably a reasonable assumption early in the piece, but seems completely incorrect now. I have been collecting some very unscientific stats on the subject and might encourage you to try the same thing. Each time you read of a commercial versus human conflict, whether it’s special pleading by big energy users, fights over development applications here in NSW, the desperate rearguard actions of the tobacco companies or even the energy companies funding the deniers that we started with, try and estimate what the whole population would decide if it was put to a vote. Then note down what actually happened. I suspect you will find, as I am finding, that a large proportion of cases go against the best interests of most of us, and that this metric is getting rapidly worse.

Lastly I have been reading Jared Diamond’s “The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee” which is a look at our behaviours and their likely animal antecedents. This book also suggests that many more of our behaviours are innate than we would like to believe (as per the New Scientist article on “costly signalling theory” which I referred to in We have met the enemy and he is us). The book is well worth reading and while sometimes a bit simplistic contained a lot of “that’s why we do…” moments. It also implies that we will continue to ignore the obvious problems until they are too late.

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