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Fukushima Events Offer Bad Perspective on Nuclear Power: Dump It or Continue Making Technology Better?

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Image (c) National Geographic

I wanted to give people an insight to read these days about nuclear power, how clean it is if it works properly and how dirty and “sinful” it is when things like an earthquake and a tsunami both hit the respective power plants at the same time.

Let’s face it, the Japanese are experts in earthquakes, because in their location they happen so often that they don’t even feel many of them. Their buildings are made so they stand up in an earthquake situation… all in all, they’ve been prepared.

I wonder what would have happened if the quake didn’t occur in Japan, but in Europe, including Russia. I guess we would have been dead already in much higher numbers than the Japanese were. I don’t think Europe is prepared for the next big earthquake, and neither are the nuclear power plants.

Now the Swiss may have postponed starting to build some nuclear plants after what happened in Japan, and some conferences on the same theme may have been canceled just to show some respect to the moment, but the thing is we really need different approaches as to how we should build such things in the future and how we should operate them in these circumstances. Just like the Montblanc tunnel has been fixed thoroughly after that horrible incident, all of the world (Japanese included) should take measures after this aftermath is gone.

The Chinese are learning from their neighbors. The Shaw Group, a company building nuclear plants in China, the U.S. and the U.K., has just hit the news with a press release bragging that their technology is far better and more advanced than the one used at the Fukushima plant, so it wouldn’t have been affected by the earthquake, in which case they’ll continue building the next 28 nuclear plants. China has important goals in this business, since they want to escape the coal’s burden.

Meanwhile, a technology that can make spent nuclear fuel deposits safer in on its way. A Bristol University research team have devised a system that can last for at least 100 years and that could power sensors telling future humans how the residues are doing, without going in with cables that may represent a point of failure.

Either way, nuclear power is still a controversial subject and will always be. Japan’s main power source is nuclear, so these people won’t give up on it too soon, because they don’t have other resources. Let’s face it, this is a problem we all have to deal with – and if that means harder work, better testing and engineering geniuses, we already have lots of them. Nuclear is not clean enough by any chance – let’s make it cleaner!

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8 COMMENTS

  1. @kurt, Yeah, it’s good that we are getting so many options. Wouldn’t work to have just one, hoping that it works. (I don’t understand the bickering so many people do, “Mine’s the Only True energy solution”, “No, you’re an idiot, mine is much better”, “Oh yeah, well you’re a stupid pimple-head!” OK, calm down kiddies, you’ll all get to play.)

    LFTRs generate enough heat to split water and CO2, we know how to make gasoline from that (it’s the heat that is currently expensive), and hydrogen on demand sounds useful no matter how many wind/solar/LFTR/etc installations we get. We’ll always want transportable power, we always want on demand; can you imagine having to pick out individual albums to throw a dance party, instead of just taking your 100GB of music?

    LFTR for where we need the power density; solar and wind for remote locations and extra power; wave power for cities on the sea; hydrogen for the bazillion little uses (in other words, we’d probably want more total power from hydrogen-on-demand than any other source). “I NEED my portable holographic movie projector, to watch on the beach! And don’t forget the water-desalinator.”

    About those 170Kg of LFTR waste per gigawatt-year. When you’re evaluating risk, you have to look at “compared to what”. There are people who weigh more than 170Kg. Wind turbine manufacturing plants (or solar, or auto, or computer, or…) would make more waste than that, don’t you think? For a coal plant, that’s a rounding error. And remember, the stuff that has a radioactive half-life of a year is More radioactive than the stuff with a half-life of 350 years.

  2. @george: “less than 1 ton from a LFTR. And 83% of that 1 ton is completely benign in 10 years, the 17% is benign in under 350 years”

    Yes, I’ve been reading about LFTRs a bit and find them very promising. A lot of the operational risks appear to be addressed by that approach. The 17% over 350 years bit still concerns me, given what I feel are the low chances of political continuity over that time to ensure proper management of the wastes. And with widespread use, there would still be a lot of tons of waste to manage.

    Personally, I’m partial to Hydrogen On Demand. It has no long term risks and very few operational risks, and is up-scalable for industry, yet residentially sized systems could get most people off the power utilities quite easily. Not to mention transport applications. With so many catalytic, ultrasound and other methods available now for generating hydrogen at the point of use, storage and transport become moot and, ta-da, a rosy future may be had by all… well, hopefully!

    Thanks for your thoughtful post and the link, George.

  3. @kurt, @kevin:
    There is a different type of reactor, invented by the same person who has the patent on the pressurized water reactor (most reactors in use today are either PWR or light water reactors). We ran one, in the 1960s.

    Instead of fissioning 1-2% of the fuel and the rest is waste, a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor fissions up to 99.5% of its fuel. Instead of fission byproducts being trapped in fuel rods so the fuel can’t be used, a LFTR has molten fuel that circulates through the reactor and fission byproducts easily are filtered out.

    LFTR uses coolant that remains a liquid at temperatures much higher than the temperature in the reactor. That means there are no high pressures to contain, no high pressures to explode. (In PWR or LWR, high pressure keeps water liquid to cool the reactor, but that requires massive reactor walls and huge reinforced concrete containment dome to contain the steam if the reactor breaks; and for Fukushima, even that wasn’t enough.)

    That also means, no loss of coolant accidents. The radioactive materials (both uranium and fission byproducts) are strongly chemically bound to the liquid fluoride salts used as coolants, and the coolant won’t evaporate away. The coolant doesn’t react with air or water, doesn’t dissolve in water. No water needed for the reactor at all (though we’ll probably generate electricity, at least at first, by taking heat from the reactor to turn standard steam generators).

    And since the fuel and coolant are liquid, if there’s a problem, a frozen plug (a cooled section of pipe making the fluoride salts solid) melts and the fuel drains to tanks where nuclear reaction is impossible, and passive air cooling happens. Even if there is no power, no water, no human intervention needed.

    We built and operated a Molten Salt Reactor Experiment in the 1960s, but the PWR and LWR people convinced us not to build them. Well, we could. There’s advantages for building with improved materials, at higher temperatures, using designs that we’d have to test and make all the engineering decisions; but we could also just do what they did in the 1960s.

    About the nuclear waste from our current reactors? Or from nuclear weapons, or the tons of depleted uranium to make a ton of enriched uranium? Or the uranium from every coal mine? Put these in a LFTR and fission all of it.

    LFTRs don’t need uranium enrichment, no fuel rods, no fuel rod assembly. Can fission Any isotope of uranium, plutonium, or can breed uranium from common thorium (there’s several grams in almost every cubic meter of the earth’s crust, and we already dig it up every time we mine rare earth metals.) Hard to get uranium out of the pellets in the fuel rods, but we know how (France does it.)

    Instead of 250 tons waste for 1 giga-watt power in a PWR, less than 1 ton from a LFTR. And 83% of that 1 ton is completely benign in 10 years, the 17% is benign in under 350 years. Simply from the liquid fuel circulating in a LFTR, all the uranium and transuranic material gets fissioned, so there isn’t any 1,000 to 1,000,000-year waste.

    For much more detail how it works, the other benefits of the design, what it would take to build them, the economics of building them, technical solutions to the few problems that weren’t resolved in the 1960s but we have figured out since then, how they would fare in accidents or terrorist attacks, go to http://liquidfluoridethoriumreactor.glerner.com/

  4. What to do about the “poisonous” by products is an easy one; Uranium and Plutonium are not magically created by man… they are mined and refined (meaning increasing the concentration by filtering everything else out).
    Why don’t they just recombine the waste ore (not uranium) from the mining process with the spent fuel, thus diluting it and then return it to the ground in old mines? The radiation was already there hence the usefulness of radioactive elements so it will not cause undue harm to the environment we took it from. I propose returning spent fuel pellets to a more natural state and returning underground once its usefulness is finished.
    Don’t forget the so called clean energy is manufactured, transported to sites, assembled by industries that rely on fossil fuels. Nuclear energy should have a very low carbon foot print (though I admit I haven’t researched this).

  5. @Vidar: haven’t had a chance to look at the atomic stuff on GO, but will soon. meanwhile, i still wonder about the two main problems: what to do with the poisonous byproducts of the process and how not to have disasters when it breaks? why not just put our efforts into something that doesn’t kill people when it fails? the not so hidden costs, including human costs, of 3-mile/chernobyl/fukushima seem pretty hefty to me. if those are factored in honestly, i just wonder, would fission look at all reasonable? thanks for your thoughts.

  6. #2 – Kurt said “if the same billions spent on a single nuke plant were instead spent on solar, wind, wave, magnetic motors, hydrogen on demand we would develop any or probably all of them so far that we’d be off oil in no time, comparatively speaking!
    it’s so obvious.”

    Not so obvious as you may think. The cost for a certain sea based windmill project was estimated to cost app. 10 billion Euro to realize for a peak power of 12TWh. Comparatively speaking, the new Finish atomic power plant is estimated to cost app 3.2 billion Euro, for a peak power of 14TWh. Nominal power will be a bit less normally. Atomic power plants do not stop producing energy when the wind falls below or above a certain level though…

    Also, we spend millions on this technology because it is a very promising technology. Just take a look at other atomic projects at GreenOptimistic.

  7. why spend billions on a tech that still has so many insoluble problems: what to do with the poisonous byproducts of the process and how not to have disasters when it breaks? oh and also the insane security risks. why buy a bill of goods that comes with so many built penalties? the failure modes are so extremely risky and so deadly that no one in their right mind would dream of it today, except the big bucks of centralized energy are slavering at their traces to rake it in like the good old days of modern “progress” from the 50’s.

    if the same billions spent on a single nuke plant were instead spent on solar, wind, wave, magnetic motors, hydrogen on demand we would develop any or probably all of them so far that we’d be off oil in no time, comparatively speaking!

    it’s so obvious.

  8. My biggest question is not whether A-craft is safe or not but why they did not prepare for a Tsunami? I mean, it was a well known fact that this may occur after a giant earth quake and it is simpler to protect against a 10m wall of water in a rush than forces that moves a whole country more than 2 metres in seconds. Nevertheless, I do not blame them for anything, I would have done just the same mistake if I had the chance.

    This is not only a leap backwards. but also a step forward. Except for the loss of cooling the a-craft industry has proven its safety. As usual it is we, the humanity that fails. However, lets hope there will be no meltdown at reactor 2 as is what they fear at the moment. Just now the pollution from the blown up oil refinery, all the pollution from wrecked cars, houses etcetera, not to forget the danger of rotten corps and possible epidemics, loss of health care and pollution of the drinking water, all these will for a long time posses a greater threat to the people in Japan more than the broken reactors.

    Safe journey, Japan. Live long and prosper!

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