nuclear power not an option

Conventional nuclear is dying – why is nuclear power not an option?  Current projects just kick the can down the road. We do not have 30 years for nuclear.  Over time, if we can get fusion and solve forever then that is worthwhile but the money that is currently focused on nuclear should be invested in existing, clean, safe renewable energy today for a thousand times better return.

History

Russia’s first nuclear power plant, and the first in the world to produce electricity in 1954, was the 5 MWe Obninsk reactor. (67 years ago) and closed 48 years later. There are about 400 nuclear power plants globally, mostly built in the 60’s and due to be decommissioned by 2050. There is only 1 new construction in Europe – 15 years, 24B and rising at the Hinkley C stationWith low enrichment, plants require to be taken offline and refueled about every 10 years – costing hundreds of millions and taking up to 18 months. 

Back in the 50’s people assumed nuclear could supply 20% of the world’s energy, and grow to over 50% but it did not materialise.

  • Ongoing accidents which often were severe enough to cause widespread damage
  • The conversion by multiple countries to turn their reactors into military uses and created atomic bombs and military use
  • Failure to sort out waste.
  • Waste takes 10,000 years to degrade
  • Social license, widespread pollution from military testing in the Pacific, USA, Australia has soured the social license

Subsidies have been thrown at nuclear. The Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb, employed more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$ 2 billion (equivalent to US$ 23 billion in 2007 dollars). Today, the energy from new plants cost from 30% to over 1.5 times cost of the “nominal cost” to build with subsidies that are buried in Government grants and R&D and ultimately comes out of taxpayers pocket.

France’s history with nuclear power runs deep. The country runs 58 nuclear power plants, which sprang up largely as a response to the oil crisis in the 1970s. France began shutting down its oldest nuclear plant in 2020 after 43 years of operation, the first in a series of closures the government has proposed though the the country won’t altogether abandon its reliance on nuclear power. The closures are part of a broad energy strategy to rely more on renewable energy sources. That strategy would see French dependence on nuclear energy from supplying three-quarters of its electricity to about half by 2035.

Global Use

The approximately 400 nuclear power figures for 2010-2020 can be seen in  IAEA PRIS, World Nuclear Association Reactor Database (for Table see here). There are about 250 research reactors in the world as well for research and pharmaceutical products.

The generating capacity has not increased much over the past 20 years, as stations are retired.  Growth has primarily been update of existing reactors.

Issues Why Nuclear is Not An Option

Nuclear power generation has multiple problems. The following sections lay out some of the concerns.

  • Social License
  • Waste
  • Technology
  • Accidents
  • Water Use
  • Cost
  • Lack of Development
  • Designs
  • Carbon Emissions / Renewable
  • Fission not fusion.
  • Summary

Technology

The technology has not really changed over 64 years. While one would expect mature technology, there is little sign, particularly with dealing with waste or improving safety. 

 While France is the poster country and have over 60 plants with about 80% of their power coming from nuclear they have decided to move away and reduce dependency. Fundamentally, technology or new technology is little changed since the 50’s. There have been a few new designs and warships still use reactors not much different from 1950s

The largest improvement has been the refurbishment of existing plants and and increasing their output. 

Much is made of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) with the view that manufacture in consistent design in factories will be cheaper than bespoke large systems. However, there are over 17 different types of SMR designs, reactors and there are still none past demonstration units. 
Conventional large reactors are unique builds and still use designs from decades ago. 

China should be the natural leader. They are with Renewable energy. Their population is close to water. (see water demands) and have been doing nuclear since 1980, first with the French, then Germany. Pilots with first one and then another. What is supposed to be mature technology

They have 51 plants and have 16 of the 54 nuclear plants under construction globally. 

They have just commissioned a pilot thorium reactor in Gobi desert. 

The reactor uses thorium and molten salt. The salt becomes the fuel. Thorium is a widely available product. The absence of water means that it avoids a situation where meltdown is a risk. The technology means it does not need water, so they have positioned the plant in the Gobi desert

There is another problem.  The plant creates U233 which can be used to build atomic bombs

Probably unable to scale the plant. Given that the USA shut down their thorium reactor in the 1960’s this may not be a success. 

Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion is a dream, with ubiquitous power and no pollution. 100 m years after big bang, there was the first fusion stars. In fusion, small particles get bigger, unlike fission large atoms, tjat get smaller. This has been in research since 1940’s and requires sophisticated engineering. There is no C02 and no waste.  No space is needed. Various research groups are working on the technology, and recently the USA pilot experiment just did 23 times more than previous. Getting close. 

Currently it is only  about proving, and minimal energy  is produced  – enough to boil a kettle. This is a decades long quest.

RE is cheap so we should use the dollars from conventional nuclear development and from gas exploration.

3 times more RE to make 1.5 achieve

Hinkley C Nuclear Plant

Hinkley C is due to open in June 2026 and will cost between £22bn and £23bn and latest estimate is at £25bn . The planned twin unit UK EPR is capable of generating 3,260MW of secure, low carbon electricity for 60 years. It will be the most expensive nuclear plant in the world. Planning started in 2007. It’s three times over cost and three times over time where it’s been built in Finland and France,” says Paul Dorfman, from the UCL Energy Institute. “This is a failed and failing reactor.”

The UK has a history of failed reactors. As part of the development of the atomic bomb (the Manhattan project), the UK built about 35 reactors and was well equipped in science and technology. Thatcher tried to privatise in 1987, but no private company wanted the risk to operate or the decommissioning liability. With a bailout of 3 billion in 2002 British Energy did not want to build new ones. By 2005 after intense lobbying by the nuclear energy, the UK Govt decided to build more and by 2008, Hinkley C was the first to be approved. British Energy was sold to the French EDF and EDF decided on a European pressurised reactor (EPR) which already had 3 x cost overruns elsewhere. 

In 2012, the guaranteed price – known as the “strike price” – was set at £92.50 per megawatt hour (MWh), which would then rise with inflation. 

So currently RE solar or Wind costs less than $50 per MWh. £25 billion ($USD33B) would buy 

66,000 GWh (or 20 times more. take less than 5 years and provide power for 10 to 15 years even before the nuclear was built 

Water for Cooling is Major Challenge

Most nuclear plants are built near the sea or in rivers due to the huge amount of cooling required. The Chinese Thorium reactor is built in the Gobi desert as it relies on molten salt and does not require water to operate.  The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that, per megawatt-hour, a nuclear power reactor consumes between 1,514 and 2,725 litres of water. Once-through water use is 25,000 to 60,000 litres per MWh, and recirculating consumption is 600 – 800l so Hinkley would need about 2m litres per hour. The hot water released (not the steam) can be a serious problem in downstream waterways. 

Waste

Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. The waste from power plants is about 10,000 years where the radiation is about the same as the originally mined uranium ore. 

Very few countries have found ways to store waste acceptable to the environment and population. Mostly waste is stored on site. 

Australia has been trying to establish a site  – even for medical nuclear waste and recent efforts are now in court. 

In the USA,  all of the nuclear waste that a power plant generates in its entire lifetime is stored on-site in dry casks. A permanent disposal site for used nuclear fuel has been planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, since 1987, but political issues keep it from becoming a reality.

An example recently is that the State of Texas just voted to stop creating a further waste site. A month later, the Federal Govt enacted a law to store nuclear power waste in Texas  – similar to existing systems. 

France with 59 nuclear reactors  produces more nuclear waste per-capita than any other country. With almost 72 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy—the most in the world—it generates 2 kilograms of radioactive waste per person each year

Following recycling operations, 96% of spent nuclear fuel (95% uranium + 1% plutonium) can be reused to manufacture new fuel, which will then supply more electricity in turn. High-level radioactive waste (4%) is vitrified, then conditioned in stainless steel canisters and stored at the La Hague site, pending disposal. No solution for the steel canisters has been found, 

Accidents

Accidents happen. By their very nature “Black swan events” cannot be predicted. Most reactor designs are such that if a system fails (eg cooling pump, rods) then what happens you get a run away reaction from the reactor.

As of 2014, there have been more than 100 serious nuclear accidents and incidents from the use of nuclear power. Fifty-seven accidents or severe incidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster, and about 60% of all nuclear-related accidents/severe incidents have occurred in the USA. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_and_radiation_accidents_and_incidents

The Chernobyl accident in 1986 occurred during a safety test on the steam turbine of an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. A combination of operator negligence and critical design flaws had made the reactor primed to explode. Instead of shutting down, an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction began, releasing enormous energy. The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the environment, with the deposition of radioactive materials in many parts of Europe. According to the official, internationally recognised death toll, just 31 people died as an immediate result of Chernobyl while the UN estimates that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster. In 2005, it predicted a further 4,000 might eventually die as a result of the radiation exposure.

With Fukushima in 2011 it was a  root cause that the seawall was not built another 5m tall to deal with the 15m (1 in 1000 ) tsunami wave.  Deemed too costly when they built the plant. The emergency pumps were in  the bottom of the reactor and not watertight so the ingress of water stopped them. Once the pumps failed, the cores started to overheat, high levels of Hydrogen built up and then exploded. Poor training (operations) also contributed. There are no direct causes of death, but the estimated toll from mass evacuation and relocation is as high as 2200 and there are beginning to have elevated cancer rates. The clean up of land and plant is expected to take a further 30 more years and $76 billion to remove intact nuclear fuel, recover resolidified melted fuel debris, dismantle the reactors, and dispose of contaminated water. Removing the fuel debris is a tougher task, with no target completion date yet.

The accident to unit 2 at 3 Mile Island happened at 4 am on 28 March 1979 when the reactor was operating at 97% power. It involved a relatively minor malfunction in the secondary cooling circuit which caused the temperature in the primary coolant to rise. This in turn caused the reactor to shut down automatically. Shut down took about one second. At this point a relief valve failed to close, but instrumentation did not reveal the fact, and so much of the primary coolant drained away that the residual decay heat in the reactor core was not removed. The core suffered severe damage as a result. The operators were unable to diagnose or respond properly to the unplanned automatic shutdown of the reactor. Deficient control room instrumentation and inadequate emergency response training proved to be root causes of the accident was a combination 

Military Use

Countries that have adopted nuclear for power production have inevitably used their nuclear facilities to build out military expertise

Nuclear Weapons

  • United States
  • Russia (successor to the Soviet Union)
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • China

States declaring possession of nuclear weapons

  • India
  • Pakistan
  • North Korea

States indicated to possess nuclear weapons

  • Israel

Countries with nuclear power plants include:

But China is Different?

One would expect China to be different. Their story is that for the first decade, they used French technology.  German technology followed then now they have done it themselves. As of 30 June 2020, China has 47 operational nuclear power units and 11 nuclear power units under construction. Nuclear power accounted for 4.88% of the total electricity mix in 2019, and two units (Yangjiang-6 and Taishan-2) were connected to the grid in 2019. (IEAE Report) They have more wind and solar power installed in in 2020 installed about 10GW of thermal power plants and 112GW of renewable power generation.

China has ordered power transmission firms to connect a minimum of 90 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar capacity to the grid this year, the National Energy Administration said on Thursday, as part of a new policy initiative aimed at meeting its low-carbon targets.

The NEA also said it will set targets for the transmission of renewable power rather than the construction of new capacity in a bid to avoid waste and ensure that wind and solar plants can sell all their electricity on the market.

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has vowed to increase its non-fossil fuel energy consumption to around 20% of primary energy use by 2025 and to around 25% by 2030. (Reuters 2021)  As of end 2020, China had total installed solar and wind capacity of 535 GW, but only 48GW of nuclear. 

While often touted as a proponent of nuclear, they are faced that it is expensive, not renewable and slow to build. 

Nuclear is Finite – but Low Emissions?

Nuclear power is not renewable power.  Uranium is the main fuel for nuclear reactors, and it can be found in many places around the world. In order to make the fuel, uranium is mined and goes through refining and enrichment before being loaded into a nuclear reactor. The vast majority of nuclear power reactors use the isotope uranium-235 as fuel; however, it only makes up 0.7% of the natural uranium mined and must therefore be increased through a process called enrichment. This increases the uranium-235 concentration from 0.7% to between 3% and 5%, which is the level used in most reactors.

For more information read here

Nuclear fuel pellets, with each pellet – not much larger than a sugar cube – contains as much energy as a tonne of coal. (ie. about 25 MW)

The pellets need to be replaced every few years. 

The reduction of carbon emissions will be only achieved by lowering the carbon footprint of the following

  • Concrete and steel used in construction
  • Mining
  • Refinement
  • Waste 

Alternative Investment – Nuclear Vs Renewable

In the current Net Zero by 2050, nuclear has no role. Too slow, too expensive, too much risk of military use and 30 times the waste problem

NuclearSolar + Firming
Capital Cost£25 billion ($USD33B) $38B
Generation Capacity3 GW760 GW
Lifetime6030
LCOE (per MWh)$148(existing plants)$45
Years to Construct202

Sources

Notes from The Angry Green Energy Guy (https://theangrycleanenergyguy.com/podcast/episode-53/)

International Atomic Energy Agency https://www.iaea.org

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