Nuclear marketing failing, as problems increase, and renewables come online

The other serious problem faced by the marketers of nuclear energy is competition from renewable energy, which now has several mainstream technologies with huge growth rates, annual investments and job creation.

Nuclear Power – not the solution as a clean power source – Science Show – 23 October 2010 Mark Diesendorf: Over the past decade, the global nuclear power industry has ceased to grow, with the number of shut-downs exceeding the number of start-ups of new power stations. By the end of 2009, nuclear energy’s contribution to global electricity generation had declined to 13.7%, down from 17% in 2001. Even with China, Russia and South Korea constructing 36 new reactors between them, many existing plants are reaching retirement age and so the overall worldwide trend will probably continue to be downwards.

In an attempt to revive a sick and slowly fading industry, nuclear proponents have seized upon global climate change. The industry has poured millions of dollars into a global marketing campaign to change the image of the technology from one that is dirty and dangerous, to one that is allegedly clean and safe. In doing so, they have a serious problem to overcome; nuclear power stations operating in 2010 are essentially of the same types as were operating in the 1970s. They are still contributing to the growth in nuclear weapons capacity in several countries. They are still producing high-level radioactive wastes that have to be managed for 100,000 years or more. They still impose the risk of rare but potentially devastating accidents. Their capital costs are escalating at an extraordinary rate, with some estimates of doubling times around five to seven years. They suffer from a global shortage of high-grade uranium ore. Although there is plenty of low-grade uranium, its use is limited because of the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to mine and mill it, producing quite large carbon dioxide emissions.

The nuclear industry and its supporters are attempting to divert attention from these harsh realities by painting the picture of a ‘new generation’ of nukes that is allegedly ‘just around the corner’. They claim that these hypothetical reactors would be safer and would produce high-level wastes that only have to be managed for several centuries. In reality, none of these hypothetical reactors exists as a commercially available system and is unlikely to reach that stage for at least 15 years.

One type of these so-called ‘generation IV’ reactors is the thorium reactor, which doesn’t need scarce high-grade uranium ore. Instead it would use thorium, a more common element. But unlike uranium-235, which is used in conventional reactors, thorium cannot be split to release its nuclear binding energy. First it has to be converted into a type of uranium that can be split and so used in a nuclear reactor…or in nuclear bombs. India is developing a process to convert thorium into uranium by bombarding it with neutrons produced in a conventional uranium nuclear reactor. This system is quite complicated and so will inevitably be even more expensive than an ordinary uranium reactor.

The second type of generation IV reactor being touted is the so-called fast reactor, which is only operating on a demonstration scale. It uses uranium more efficiently than a conventional reactor and one type can actually ‘breed’ a lot more nuclear fuel, in the form of plutonium, than it actually uses. So the fast breeder could solve the problem of CO2; emissions from mining and milling low-grade uranium ore, but at a terrible price. It produces far more plutonium than a conventional reactor and so in the wrong hands it could provide the nuclear explosives for a huge armoury of bombs.

‘No worries,’ say the nuclear enthusiasts, ‘we have devised a system that could recycle all the long-lived spent fuel back into the reactor, without separating out the dangerous plutonium and making it accessible for bombs.’ In this experimental system, the long-lived nuclear waste, which is moderately radioactive and contains the plutonium, would be separated from the highly radioactive fission products. Then, in theory, the long-lived waste becomes nuclear fuel and the separated fission products get shipped off for 500-year management…somewhere.

It sounds plausible, doesn’t it, but there’s a catch. Once the highly radioactive fission products have been separated from the long-lived component of wastes, it would become much easier to break the rules and extract the plutonium from the long-lived wastes. In the hands of the wrong government, this system would become a serious proliferation hazard, and that’s why the US government discontinued research on this reactor.

The other serious problem faced by the marketers of nuclear energy is competition from renewable energy, which now has several mainstream technologies with huge growth rates, annual investments and job creation. In Europe, in both 2008 and 2009, wind power was the largest contributor to new electricity generating capacity. China has doubled its wind power capacity each year of the past five years. Solar and wind technologies can be grown very quickly because they are manufactured. Nuclear energy can only grow very slowly at best, because it involves gigantic construction projects.

The nuclear proponents have attempted to counter the successes of their principal competitor by rehashing their old claims that renewable energy is unreliable and cannot supply base-load, that is 24-hour, power. We’ve all heard it before: ‘The Sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.’ Well, this is no longer a problem. Base-load renewable electricity can be provided by concentrated solar thermal power with low-cost thermal storage in molten salt and other common materials. These systems are already operating at a semi-commercial stage in Spain.

In addition, bio-energy, from burning the residues of crops and plantation forests, is a fully commercial technology in several parts of Europe and also can provide base-load power. Even wind power, with a little partial back-up from gas turbines or hydro, can substitute reliably for some coal-fired power stations. And in the medium-term, there is huge potential for base-load, hot rock, geothermal power. Last but not least, efficient energy use and solar hot water can reduce the demand for base-load power…..

Nuclear Power – not the solution as a clean power source – Science Show – 23 October 2010

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