Friday, January 21, 2011

Give Nukes a Chance

Many ordinary environmentalists have been conditioned to recoil at the mere mention of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.  Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the bombs - pretty powerful stuff indeed.

Unfortunately our minds were locked up long ago.   The Chernobyl disaster in 1989 was the icing on the cake.

Fortunately the public's wariness of nuclear power failed to prevent the development of third and fourth generation nuclear technology, the "fast reactors."  Let's put it this way, they're not your father's nuclear reactors.  In fact they may be your best hope of arresting global warming before we reach tipping points.

The common complaints I hear about nuclear energy are that it's dangerous, can be used in the process of creating weapons grade material and leaves all those spent fuel rods that have to be stored for countless thousands of years.   Those were all good points, emphasis on "were."

Australian professor Barry Brook has a blog, Brave New Climate at   If you're not current with developments in nuclear technology it's a good place to catch up.

Brook explains why the latest generation of reactors are so much better than their predecessors.   The main reason is that previous nuclear plants were based on technologies developed for military purposes.

All of those fuel cycles were derived from technologies developed to meet special military needs: naval propulsion, uranium enrichment, weapons-plutonium production, and plutonium separation. Waste disposal has been approached as “someone else’s problem.” The IFR concept is directed strictly to meeting the needs of civilian power generation. It is an integrated, weapons-incompatible, proliferation-resistant cycle that is “closed”—it encompasses the entire fuel cycle, including fuel production and fabrication, power generation, reprocessing and waste management.
“Fuel cycle” refers to all the steps involving nuclear fuel that are needed to generate electricity: mining, milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor operation, reprocessing and waste management. Depending on the fuel cycle, some of those steps might not be needed. The three major fuel cycles of current interest are: thermal without reprocessing (“once-through,” or “throw-away”), thermal with reprocessing and IFR. The IFR will eliminate the need for mining (for centuries), and milling and enrichment (forever).

Whereas early generation reactors generate plutonium and those never really spent fuel rods that have to be safely and expensively stored forever and ever, amen, IFRs actually eat that stuff.   The can consume it as fuel.   They can also turn weapons grade material into fuel.  It's sort of like turning nuclear swords into electrical ploughshares.

I have only a layman's knowledge of nuclear energy and, until recently, harboured the same biases against it that are common today.  It was only when James Lovelock came out as a strong advocate of nuclear power that I started to take a second look.  I was frankly surprised at how civilian-oriented, nuclear technology has evolved.

It may just be time we gave nuclear power, the fast reactor kind, a chance.

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