Monday, June 02, 2008

The Bright Shadow of New Nuclear.

Reviled for three decades, nuclear power is set to become an essential component of that final energy mix proposed in the Royal Society report as a result of a meeting of "experts", including me hence my use of parentheses! I referred to this in the very first posting on this blog, following the initial meeting on the subject of [providing] "Energy to 2050" at the Geological Society in London, the conclusions from which were unveiled at the Royal Society a couple of months later.

I was working in the former USSR immediately after the explosion of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, an odd experience in that there was no information available in Russia so it seemed, and we learned most about what had happened from our colleagues in the West - in Sweden, particularly, which was where the first alarm sounded - literally, for a nuclear worker on his way into a Swedish power station who had become contaminated while hiking in the hills during the weekend, from the radioactive cloud that drifted from Kiev, across western Europe, and as far as the eastern coast of the US. It is claimed that this manifestation of naked secrecy contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union just three years later, although the details of latter event are in fact very complicated. Another explanation is that the US persuaded the Saudis to lower the price of their oil so that the Russian economy was finally toppled by the according undermining of its own oil revenue - a considerable blow to the GDP.

I recall this simply because this is the image of nuclear power that the industry has had to contend with and it seemed practically impossible that any more civilian nuclear reactors would ever be built. However, the world energy situation has changed, and in the face of an inevitable and imminent shortage of energy, nuclear has returned to make its contribution. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are often flagged-up by anti-nuclear objectors, and there were a number of pretty bad incidents in the early days of nuclear power, e.g. Windscale in 1958 (later renamed Sellafield, probably in the hope that people would forget it was the same place), but on the whole the nuclear industry can confidently state that it has caused far fewer deaths than coal-mining say, which claims 6,000 lives each year - and that's just in China.

The real worry is what to do with the nuclear waste, although there are proposed strategies to store it underground out of harm's way sealed in metal canisters deposited in concrete bunkers, until the more active radioactive elements have cooled-down, until after around 300 years (that's 10 half-lives each for Sr-90 and Cs-137) the material is about as radioactive as natural uranium. The long-term consequences of this are indeed unknown. It is a conundrum, in the inevitable evolution of cultures - such as will survive the oil dearth era - over time, accompanied by the changing of the spoken and written language in a region, to wonder, how will these nuclear-dumps be marked? If written signs are to be used, will they be written in English, Russian, Chinese or what other script or hieroglyphics?

In the 1950's, "atomic energy" was hailed as being a source of "electricity to cheap to meter"... yeah, right! The real purpose was to make plutonium for nuclear weapons, and the electricity angle, useful though the commodity has proved to be, was a bit of spin. Windscale was, in reality, largely built to make plutonium by irradiating natural uranium an an "atomic pile" (reactor). I missed Queen Elizabeth's switching-on of the world's first civilian reactor, at Calder Hall there in 1956, being born a few years after that, but my parents tell me that it did feel like the dawn of a new age, and so well was the story spun, atomic energy was believed by the public to be purely in their interests by providing them with cheap electricity.

Similarly, nuclear power is now being hailed as a saviour technology, the main spin being to avert climate change by curbing CO2 emissions, but the more immediate reason is to compensate for the fact we are running short of available fossil resources, notably natural gas. During the next decades we won't have them to burn, or not at a cheap price, and nuclear power will be needed to bridge the energy gorge to that utopian somewhere of renewables or the nowhere of cold, dark houses and the abandoned tarmac that will be left when liquid fuels begin to decline.

Related Reading.
"Dawn of a new nuclear age," By Terry Macalister.


Anonymous said...

Our planet is fissured with hundreds, perhaps thousands of tectonic fault lines where one bit of the earth slides under another.
Could we not make use of this phenomenon for nuclear waste disposal? Locate a remote faultline and carefully lower safe nuclear disposal canisters onto the "sliding-under" edge, and have instruments watch them disappear, back into the earth from whence the uranium came.
Or some variation.
Peter Melia

sustain_ability said...

Finally, after 10 years, another demonstration; above article contains many worthy and scientific links.

But just how plentiful are the necessary materials?


energybalance said...

Hello Peter,

yes, this has been proposed for years. The problem is that rather than the waste being taken down into the bowels of the earth by subduction, it is more likely it would just be scraped off the top of the descending plate by the one above.

In principle you could drill holes into it and put the waste in there but it would take a bit of engineering to do that in deep water and I am always nervous about ideas of "geoengineering", i.e. drilling into rock that is being driven in motion by a huge force of molten magma - I always fear that Nature will bite us in the bum if we tamper with her too much!



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