Griffith Hack Clean & Sustainable Technologies


what about nuclear? by Griffith Hack

Some of the politicians in the current debate about the emission trading scheme have raised the topic of nuclear power as a possible source of low carbon power.

Nuclear power is a proven technology, and in France provides 80% of electricity used at the lowest power prices in Europe. Nuclear power has its share of Australian supporters, such as Professor Barry Brook, Sir Hubert Wilkins Professor of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.  While in Australia even talk of a nuclear power plant is anathema to local politicians,  in France local municipalities compete to get a nuclear power plant due its ability to generate high technology jobs and lower regional taxes. Australia has enough nuclear reserves to last for many years, and improvements in nuclear technology may further extend the usable life of our reserves

Many questions remain. Nuclear power plants can be very expensive, and use a very large amount of concrete and steel in their construction, which in turn generate a lot of CO2 in their production. However nuclear power may have applications in other technologies. The Economist magazine published a letter in March 2009 by a heart patient who had an experimental plutonium 238-powered pacemaker implanted in 1976. It was about the size of a small can of tuna fish, and was still operating at near 98% efficiency some 33 years later. While nuclear powered pacemakers raise a number of questions, it does make you wonder what other unexplored innovation opportunities for nuclear power might be out there.  As but one example of this, in 2004 Hyundai filed a patent for a nuclear fusion powered internal combustion engine.

Figure 1: Korean concept for nuclear fusion power internal combustion engine.
One possible option could be for smaller scale nuclear plants. Toshiba and the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI) are jointly developing a 10 MW reactor, claiming that this reactor will be “self sustaining and can last for up to 30 years without refuelling, producing electricity for only 5 cents per kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy”.

An Australian subsidiary of Toshiba even filed an Australian provisional patent application titled “Applications of Small Nuclear Reactors in Power Generation Systems”, but this appears to have lapsed.

Does nuclear power deserve to regarded as a clean and sustainable technology?  Apart from the question mark about the CO2 produced in their construction, there is little CO2 produced thereafter.  The big issues are probably nuclear waste and what to do with the decommissioned reactor many years in the future.  Quantities of nuclear waste tend to be very small, and there is scope to burn some types of nuclear waste in fast generation reactors. The decommissioned reactor problem may be a larger issue though.  Many current nuclear power plants are being run for longer than their initial planned lifetimes, but eventually they will become uneconomic to run, and decommissioning costs may be large.

Of course all energy production technologies may cause problems. Wind farms can upset neighbours, but a decommissioned windmill should be of value to steel recyclers. Wave or geothermal power may need to be located a long way from power users, leading to unsightly high tension power lines running across the country. Hydro-dams can flood attractive valleys, as we saw with the Franklin dam proposal. Solar panels appear to be recyclable but also cause CO2 to be emitted in their production. Ethanol production from biomass in the US is controversial, but less so in Brazil.

So getting back to my original question, does nuclear power deserve to regarded as a clean and sustainable technology?  There are strong arguments either way, but perhaps nuclear power should not be dismissed out of hand.

Mike Lloyd

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1 Comment so far
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Interesting post Mike but to be honest, I see issues with nuclear being a clean and also sustainable technology.

A lot of people think that its going to be impossible to build any where near enough nuclear plants to make a serious contribution to offsetting carbon emissions in the time frame available. Improving energy efficiency will make a bigger impact and in a much compressed time scale and much more cheaply. Wind power is also economical now.

There are serious doubt’s about the sustainability of using uranium. There have been reports that at current rates of burning uranium we have a few decades worth of fuel and certainly no where near enough to burn if we want to make a serious impact on climate change. (See David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air and a recent New Scientist article is you want to know more.)

There a serious issues with nuclear proliferation, ie weapons, which is of particular concern given that a lot of people seem hell bent on killing others (ie. rogue states, terrorists). I understand building a weapon is actually straightforward once you have the material.

What do we do with the waste? We can store it but it lasts a long long time and can we guarantee it will be secure for thousands of years? With this approach we are replacing our carbon waste problem with a radioactive waste problem.

Prof. Jacobson of Stanford University has assessed and reported the impact of various clean and sustainable energy technologies on climate, health and energy security. On balance, his ranking of the technologies from best to worst are wind power, concentrated solar power, geothermal power, tidal power, solar photovoltaic, wave power, hydroelectric power and then equally (and distantly) nuclear power & coal carbon capture and sequestration. The original article is here: http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/Journals/EE/article.asp?doi=b809990c.

Comment by Justin Blows




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