I’ve been my usual busy self over the summer, both with holidays and of course work commitments so not been the most active blogger. One of those distractions over the summer included attending an event hosted by the UK nuclear industry (with some political brass added in, how I of all people ended up on the guest list?…long story!). It served to reinforce to me the fact that there is in effect two nuclear lobby’s.
The first I suppose we could refer to as “the old school” nuclear lobby. This tends to be made up of the mainstream nuclear energy supporters, many of whom work in the industry or are professionals, politicians and academics with a passing interest. While not adverse to research into new ideas, they tend to be fairly solidly behind the replacement of the existing nuclear capacity with LWR’s largely because they understand the enormous pressures the industry is under.As the latest figures from the IEA and recent status reports both show, globally the world’s nuclear capacity, both in terms of installed GW’s, TWh’s generated and as a share of the global electricity mix, nuclear is now in decline. And as I’ve previously discussed the install rate of nuclear (again whether we choose to use the GW/yr or TWh capacity/yr) installation rate is well behind that of renewables (by a factor of 9) and barely 3% of what’s needed to offset dangerous climate change. Specifically within the UK by the time the much debated Hinkley Point C plant goes online the UK will be down to between 3 and 1 working reactors. It would take little short of a miracle to see the UK’s peak of nuclear installed capacity (about 14 GW’s in 1990 and 9.1 GW’s today) replaced before then, nevermind any significant expansion of the industry.
Opening Pandora’s box
Meanwhile in the red corner is the “alt-nuke” lobby. These tend to involve mostly armchair supporters of nuclear power from the blogosphere. They instead tend to favour more advanced reactor technologies (Molten Salt Reactors, Thorium, reviving the Breeder Reactor programs of the past, etc.). Not only do they want to replace the existing nuclear capacity with these alternative (and largely untested) technologies, but envisage megalomaniac levels of expansion, well beyond anything that even the IAEA believes is possible.
These views are perhaps best represented by the recent film “Pandora’s Promise”. While this film does make some valid points about the dangers of climate change, the movie ignores what I would regard as the core obstacles to nuclear energy. Namely the slow rate of reactor construction (as mentioned earlier), the high costs and the practical issues of managing an energy grid. Indeed the film preposterously suggests that all of these problems could be solved by swapping from the LWR’s favoured by the industry to Fast Breeder technology, which has generally been shown to be unreliable (the Monju Breeder Reactor, has famously produced only 1 hour’s electricity in 20 years) and an order of magnitude more expensive.
Of course, the obvious question would be that if all of these alternative reactor designs were the brilliant idea its supporters claim, why is the mainstream nuclear industry so fixated with sticking with what we know?
I mean one can vaguely assume that nuclear industry experts know something about “nuke stuff” and yet whenever they are asked their opinion on these alternatives (the NNL’s position papers are a good example, the former head of the NNL addressed LFTR technology itself here) the industry experts tend to pour cold water on such notions, pointing to them as long term research concepts that need to be fleshed out first. And that’s when they are being polite!
Indeed the only time I heard anyone mention the word “Thorium” at this nuclear event in question was when I brought the matter up in discussions afterwards (the response was much as above, nice idea yes, we are looking into it, but not a viable alternative at the moment).
The LWR conspiracy
Inevitably the alt-nuke types paper over these obvious cracks by either shouting down their opponents and going into massive trollish tirades (a few good examples of this can be found here and here) or resorting to conspiracy theories of the Alex Jones variety.
They will often claim for example, that main stream nuclear industry is “biased” against alternatives because they fear being “frozen out”. Indeed they will even claim that the failure of such experiments on these alternatives back in the past (e.g. the decision to shut down America’s MSRE program in the 1960’s) was because LWR’s were favoured because they could be used to make Plutonium for nuclear bombs.
Unfortunately all such conspiracy theories betray is how little some in the Alt-nuke camp know about the very thing they are advocating. And of course expressing a belief in conspiracy theories is hardly a way to win over decision makers (who as a rule tend not to be in the business of entrusting billions to tinfoil hat wearing cranks!).
Let’s pick apart this idea that LWR’s were favoured because they can make Plutonium. And where is all this US Plutonium generated by LWR’s?….why its still locked up within the spent fuel rods! The vast majority of America’s commercial nuclear plants have operated on a once thro fuel cycle and hence little if any effort has been made to reprocess any of this plutonium. The bulk of America’s Plutonium stockpiles actually came from purpose built military breeder reactors, which was always going to be the cheapest and easiest way of making Pu. It would seem odd that “they” would go to such extraordinary lengths to create all this Plutonium and then not try to extract any of it.
A more realistic appraisal of why breeder programs were shut down can be found by understanding the reasons why these projects were undertaken in the first place. From the earliest days of the nuclear age there was speculation that as Uranium is a finite resource (and a fairly scarce one at that), the world might one day run out of Uranium, possibly before the end of the 20th century. I have a book in my collection, Into the Atomic Age by Journalist Chapman Pincher (published in 1947) and even then, just a few years into the nuclear age, such concerns were being voiced. Naturally solutions were sought, which included using alternative fuels to Uranium (e.g. Thorium), breeding fuel (fast-breeder reactors) or simply finding more Uranium.
However by the 1960’s such fears had largely subsided as fears of a nuclear fuel shortage had transformed into a glut (figure 6). The install rate of nuclear plants had run well below expectations, which reduced demand for Uranium. Reserves of Uranium had also been bolstered by an aggressive campaign of geology which had found several large deposits in convenient locations such as Canada and Australia. In essence the case for the breeder reactor was at least temporarily at an end (of course as a finite resource Uranium would and indeed will run out some day, as I discuss in more detail here but such issues are less of a concern now as it used to be).There was seen as still a case for some research into breeder reactors (such as the IFR), notably those that could produce Plutonium, not just for military reasons, but because it was still felt that a commercial market for Plutonium as a fuel for LWR’s might emerge in the future (as discussed in Chapter 11 of W. Patterson book Going Critical (1985)). Although even these programs died a death as the technical obstacles involved began to emerge, as well as the not inconsiderable economics hurdles. So in this context it’s easy to see why programs such as the EBR II or MSRE were cancelled. No big conspiracy, just politics as well as economic and technical factors at play.
As for this suggestion that the nuclear industry will not support alternative reactor designs because the “LWR builders fear being frozen out”, again this is an easily debunked conspiracy theory. I mean who are these mysterious “LWR builders?” They sound like the Kamino from Star Wars 🙂
The truth is that building a nuclear reactor is far too complex a job for any one company these days. Go through the attendee list of any nuclear energy conference and you’ll be confronted by a bewildering array of names representing the numerous companies and arms of government (research and political) involved in the complex business of planning and building such plants. And again this one of my criticisms of nuclear energy, it is not contusive to mass production in the same way renewables are (as discussed earlier).
But I digress, these firms including the likes of GE, Avera, Hitatchi, Toshiba or Westinghouse, who often do a lot more than simply build nuclear reactors. As much of a nuclear power plant for example uses much of the same steam plant and switching gear that a conventional power station uses, large parts of it will be built by firms such as Alstom (who will almost certainly build the steam turbines for Hinkley C) or Babcock (likely to feature in the revived Horizon deal), as well as firms such as Japanese Steel Works on Hokkaido Island (who will almost certainly get the reactor core forging contract).The bottom line is that these companies have a fairly diverse portfolio of interests, often building far more than LWR’s. If we started using an alternative reactor design, far from being “frozen out” many of these same firms would almost certainly get the contracts to build them. After all they have the experience, the factories, the staff and perhaps more importantly, the financial and political connections in the corridors of power to push such projects through. They might have to do some re-tooling and play catch up, but such firms are used to reinventing themselves and they have the cash reserves to do it.
Now I’m not suggesting these companies are a bunch of angels. Clearly there is some resistance from within the nuclear industry towards alternatives (such as CHP, renewables or increasingly shale gas, which has largely killed off the nuclear industry in the US). And I do suspect that there is some engrained element of “not invented here” syndrome at play within the old school of nuclear energy with regard to alternative designs. Although it should be remembered within the UK, the bulk of our reactors are not LWR’s but gas cooled reactors (so some of that NIH is also directed at LWR’s!).
But this is perhaps countered by an unhealthy dose of “grass is always greener syndrome” on the part of the alt-nuke’s. We know everything that can go wrong with LWR’s as these are more mature technologies, so alternatives to this paradigm only look better because these concepts aren’t as technically mature, as we haven’t figured out what the real problems will be yet!
Clearly though any conspiracy theory that involves the world’s major engineering corporations conspiring NOT to make money is sort of a non-starter. Indeed given the grave danger the nuclear industry is under, the idea that they would try to block any alternative that might rescue the industry, is simply bonkers.
Reinventing the Industry
And even this is not to say that the nuclear industry opposes research into alternatives. Far from it, indeed there are long term research programs looking at alternatives to the LWR (with a deployment time scale in the order of 2030’s to 2040’s). Indeed with regard to Thorium fuel, there are several small research units worldwide investigating these ideas, notably in China and Norway. Indeed I noticed recently that quite a few good papers on the concept of Molten Salt reactors have begun to come out of the Chinese Thorium Research program, so while they are taking their time, they are getting somewhere.So clearly there are good professional scientists working on radical new ideas in nuclear energy. And hence we need to draw a distinction between them and the bloggers. But equally it’s essential to appreciate the timelines involved here and the risks of such research not producing a commercially viable alternative (given that such programs have failed to deliver in the past). It’s also important to understand the concept of what we engineer’s call “technical readiness”. And it’s also important to remember that this is hardly the first time someone has proposed a radical solution to our energy problems (anyone remember Cold fusion? or OTEC?) which hasn’t quite worked out as planned. It is a fact of technical history that the benefits of new technologies are often overestimated and the technical difficulty in implementing them is often underestimated in the early days. Either way I think we can call off Mulder and Scully, land those black helicopters and debunk any suggestion of a conspiracy against alternatives to the LWR. Its just life is about priorities, and clearly the nuclear industry has other priorities right now (namely survival!). There is little point in them proposing something that they know is simply not at present a practical alternative.
From flower power to glower power
I would argue that part of the problem here is that quite a number (although not all) of the “alt-nuke” activists were originally anti-nuclear. Examples would include the likes of George Monbiot, James Hansen, Mark Lynas or Baroness Worthington. Unfortunately this means they’ve brought many of the same misconceptions and prejudices from their anti-nuclear activist days with them.
Hence they’ve blurred the lines between the civilian nuclear industry and the military nuclear program and assumed both have always been linked (and again Pandora’s Promise is a good example of this). They seem to think that the only reason for LWR’s was to produce Plutonium for bombs or to power nuclear submarines.
They’re limited knowledge of nuclear power means that many of the alt-nuke cheerleaders often don’t actually understand how reactors work. e.g. Many advocates of thorium I find seem to unaware that you don’t need an MSR to utilise Thorium. Gas-cooled reactors and CANDU’s have successfully operated using Thorium in the past and would be the logical starting point today. Advocates of Breeders and reprocessing seem to be unaware of the fact that it amounts to a modest (thought expensive) reduction in HLW at the expense of a significant increase in the amounts of ILW and LLW.And as discussed, many in the alt-nuke camp don’t seem to trust the nuclear industry experts. Like the Tea Party they instead tend to rely on whatever they can dig up on the internet or on blogs, rather than what the scientific literature says. Now while a healthy dose of scepticism is perhaps a good idea in regard to the nuclear lobby (they certainly lied to us in the past), but clearly arguing that the industry would cut off its own nose to spite they’re face, particularly in such desperate times is just ludicrous.