Nuclear power at a crossroads
My Clean Break column this week picks up on the noticeable absence — or quietness — of the nuclear power lobby at the climate talks in Durban these past two weeks, and the declining fortunes of the industry. This is good or bad, depending on your perspective. If you’re a George Monbiot, you’re worried about the impact on our already impossible struggle against climate change. If you’re Greenpeace, you’re saying good riddance. Some believe in a post-Fukushima world that low natural gas prices and the high cost of conventional fission reactors are creating a rare opportunity for the emergence of better, safer and lower-cost nuclear technology designs. That may be so, if you’re an optimistic, but those will still take time to develop… ah yes, time. We could use more of that.
For years the nuclear power lobby has muscled its way into international climate negotiations and asserted itself as a critical part of any serious effort to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.
Not so much during climate talks in Durban, South Africa, these past two weeks. There were some media mentions and the occasional sound bite from industry officials, but the nuclear lobby — still suffering from a Fukushima hangover — stayed relatively quiet this time around.
Even Patrick Moore, Greenpeace [alleged?] co-founder turned nuclear booster, seems to have moved on. His gig these days is defending the oilsands, part of a recent advertising campaign from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The Fukushima disaster in Japan certainly served a blow to the nuclear power industry. The low price of natural gas and the global economic downturn — and reduced demand for electricity — hasn’t helped matters.
The economics of building new nuclear plants also remain in question. A report just released by the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association points out that even before the Fukushima accident, the decades-long trend of reactor projects being delayed and coming in dramatically over budget was still a reality, as recent experiences in Finland and France clearly show.
The Worldwatch Institute reported last week that generating capacity of the world’s nuclear power fleet dropped 2.4 per cent in 2011, causing nuclear’s share of the world energy mix to fall slightly.
The first 10 months of this year saw the closing of 13 reactors, contributing to a reduction in the total number in operation around the world to 433 from 441. Growth is happening in developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan, but these are far outweighed by reactor shutdowns in France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.
So much for the much-heralded nuclear renaissance. “These numbers can hardly encourage the (nuclear) industry,” said Worldwatch president Robert Engelman.
As much as the anti-nuclear lobby must be cheering, these numbers also beg the question: if not nuclear, then what?
Some environmentalists, while not particularly fans of nuclear power, do worry about the pullback and how it will impact what are already pitiful efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
If, for example, a decline in nuclear capacity means more countries — particularly China — burning more coal and natural gas instead of embracing more renewable energy, then we’re merely trading one risk for another (out-of-control climate change) with a more certain, broad-reaching outcome.
As U.K. Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot has said, “The choice between renewables and nuclear is a false one. We appear to need both” – as painful a reality as that might be.
If we accept this, then the question shouldn’t be about how to get rid of nuclear power, but about how to make it better and safer.
“For nuclear to gain significant share, it must change,” writes U.K. journalist Mark Halper in a recent report on emerging nuclear innovations, penned for Canadian cleantech consultancy Kachan & Co.
Fukushima gave the world cause for pause, according to the report, but it also created an opportunity to move the nuclear industry in a new direction. “There has never been a better time for mavericks to come forward with safer, better and less costly ways to split atoms or, in the case of the elusive but reachable notion of fusion, to meld them together.”
In Halper’s view, part of the problem is that the nuclear technology we have today was a poor choice from the start, given that it produces weapons-grade plutonium as its waste, is vulnerable to meltdowns, and can potentially release dangerous amounts of radioactive material if something goes horribly wrong.
There were many alternatives to choose from half a century ago, but the fission reactor design most in use today was the result of Cold War decision-making.
“As undesirable as plutonium waste is today, it was in demand during the atomic weapons build up of the Cold War, helping the water-cooled uranium reactor win the day in the 1960s,” Halper writes. “It was a VHS victory over several superior Betamax alternatives.”
Some Betamax alternatives, however, are trying to make a comeback. The Kachan report outlines a number of technology alternatives currently in play, some of them based on designs or ideas that have been around for several decades.
Included in this list are reactors that use thorium as fuel instead of uranium, or which are cooled using gas. Molten salt, pebble bed and fast-neutron reactors are also being seriously considered. And yes, even fusion technology, including a mechanical reactor from Vancouver-based General Fusion, is grabbing attention.
Some designs deal with the toxic waste and nuclear proliferation issues. Others improve significantly on safety, such as eliminating the potential for meltdown. This is all exciting news for those outside the old boys nuclear club.
Unfortunately, they don’t offer a quick fix. Our nuclear regulators, underfunded as they are, haven’t the resources and time to understand, let alone establish rules for, new nuclear reactor designs. It will take many years, perhaps decades, for competing technologies to take hold.
But time is something severely lacking when it comes to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. This, even with “old” nuclear technology in decline and better alternatives on the rise, is the conundrum we face.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.