Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Chernobyl Shows a Green Light for Nuclear.

Unthinkable though it would have been 20 years ago, the lights have changed from red to amber and look set to turn green for nuclear power mainly because, catastrophic as the Chernobyl event in 1986 undoubtedly was, there has been no serious nuclear incident since then, despite a prediction made at the time that we could expect a calamity on an equivalent scale roughly every 10 years. This, and more decisively the desperate thinking about how we are to provide for our future energy in the light of "Peak Oil" shortages of cheap petroleum fuel, and an increasing lack of political certainties in those countries where our fuel originates (Iraq, Iran and Saudi) have passed the buck back to "nuclear" which is perceived as the more certain and most cost effective option, against a potentially shaky and expensive fossil fuel market.
Personally, I don't understand an argument that smacks to me of short-term economics. As I have explained in previous postings of this blog, even setting aside for a moment all the nuclear industry's less charming and well documented characteristics - loads of nuclear waste to dispose of securely in the long-term, including an "olympic sized swimming pool" of plutonium and uranium mix dissolved in concentrated nitric acid "found" unexpectedly at Sellafield that had poured from a fractured pipe for nine months without arousing suspicion, and is so radioactive that no one dare go anywhere near it to clean it up (so I guess it will just sit there in perpetuity); threats of terrorism; that another such Chernobyl incident could happen especially in more maverick regions of the world, and maybe we've just been lucky since Chernobyl etc. (that nothing else has "gone-up" since then) - uranium is a finite resource which will be used-up within 40-60 years, depending on the quality of the ore we are finally left with to mine, mill, process and fabricate into nuclear fuel. If the world were to go "all-out" for nuclear, we would use it all up in about 10 years or less!
The alternative is to "burn" the 99% majority isotope of uranium (uranium-238) by converting it into plutonium (239) in fast breeder reactors, a route that the French who produce nearly 80% of their nation's electricity from nuclear power plan to take in the longer term. Fast breeders have not been popular, mainly because they are perceived as less safe to operate than conventional fission reactors which "burn" the minority isotope (uranium-235), which constitutes only 0.7% of natural uranium and normally requires enrichment (using a centrifuge or gaseous diffusion) to 3.5% of uranium-235 in the nuclear fuel, unless "heavy water" rather than ordinary "light water", as comes from the tap, is used as the coolant and moderator.
Among the worrying aspects of breeder reactors are the necessity to handle plutonium which is highly toxic and that they use liquid sodium metal (which explodes on contact with water and ignites in air) as the moderator and coolant since unlike the nuclei (protons) in ordinary ("light") water, the sodium nuclei provide a poor moderator material and so do not slow down (moderate) the flux of "fast neutrons" that is required to "breed" plutonium (239) from uranium-238.
All a terrorist would need to wreak great terror and the consequent evacuation of a city such as London is a few grams of plutonium and a hand-grenade - he wouldn't need the 8 kilograms of plutonium required to make an atom bomb - a small "dirty bomb" would do just fine as a means for eliciting terror. Even the U.K. government's own Sustainable Development Committee has weighed it in the balance and found "nuclear" wanting on several counts (see my previous posting "No to Nuclear!").
Despite all of this clean and unequivocal evidence, and with the visceral thrust of Chernobyl comfortingly blunted by time, nuclear is back on the agenda as part of the energy portfolio that the U.K. government has in mind. As I have pointed out before, our emphasis must be on energy saving - less cars, more thermally efficient buildings, sea power (wave and tidal stream), micro-generation (even Her Majesty the Queen, with whom I celebrated a joint birthday on 21 April, has had a couple of hydroelectric turbines installed in the River Thames, below Windsor Castle), getting the majority of cars off the road by living in sustainable small (20,000 population) communities and so forth. This would relinquish probably 60% of the nation's annual energy demand in total and 90% of its reliance on oil - the fuel of wars and all kinds of human tragedy. Whether we like it or not, if we believe that burning oil causes global warming or not, we are shortly to be forced into a "low carbon lifestyle" by Peak Oil, who's wedge we are already seeing the thin end of, in the alarming price of oil which hit $75 a barrel a few days ago.
There are excuses being made for this, but frankly we need to be aware that oil is a precious and limited resource not to be squandered. There is nothing I can think of that isn't provided by oil either as a fuel or a chemical feedstock or both (including the fabrication of the keyboard I am typing this text on), and once it is gone it is gone for good. Certainly there is money to be made, and there are those lining their pockets by selling oil and cars, but it is future generations that will bear the cross of such foolish and selfish short term thinking. "We all need an SUV - 4x4"; well no we don't unless we live on a farm with limited transport access, but not just to take the kids to school. Transportation is the most immediate excess that humankind can tackle; forget about nuclear.

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