Film review: ‘The New Fire’ and the old Gen IV rhetoric

Jim Green, Nuclear Monitor #866, 24 Sept 2018, https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/866/nuclear-monitor-866-24-september-2018

The New Fire is a pro-nuclear propaganda film directed and produced by musician and film-maker David Schumacher. It’s similar in some respects to the 2013 film Pandora’s Promise.1,2 The New Fire premiere was held in October 2017 and it can be streamed online from 18 October 2018.

Promotional material claims that the film lacked “a supportive grant” (and celebrity endorsements and the backing of a major NGO) but the end-credits list numerous financial contributors: Berk Foundation, Isdell Foundation, Steven & Michele Kirsch Foundation, Rachel Pritzker, Roland Pritzker, Ray Rothrock, and Eric Uhrhane.

The film includes interviews with around 30 people (an overwhelming majority of them male) interspersed with footage of interviewees walking into buildings, and interviewees smiling. The musical underlay is a tedious drone ‒ a disappointment given Schumacher’s musical background. A highlight is hearing Eric Meyer ‒ an opera singer turned pro-nuclear activist ‒ bursting into song at various locations around the COP21 climate conference in Paris in December 2015, while he and his colleagues handed out free copies of the pro-nuclear book Climate Gamble.

Interviewees are mostly aging but the film’s main message is that young entrepreneurs may save the planet and its inhabitants with their Generation IV reactor projects. The film’s website states: “David Schumacher’s film focuses on how the generation facing the most severe impact of climate change is fighting back with ingenuity and hope. The New Fire tells a provocative and startlingly positive story about a planet in crisis and the young heroes who are trying to save it.”3

Schumacher writes (in the press kit): “These brilliant young people – some of the most gifted engineers of their generation, who in all likelihood could have cashed in for a fortune by doing something else – believe deeply that nuclear power could play a key role in saving the planet. And they are acting on that conviction. They did the research. They raised the money. They used cutting edge computer technology to perfect their designs. They are the new face of nuclear power, and to me, the newest and most unlikely climate heroes.”

These climate heroes are contrasted with anti-nuclear environmentalists. One interviewee says that “people of our generation are the first ones that have the opportunity to look at nuclear power without all the emotional baggage that previous generations have felt.” Another argues that anti-nuclear environmentalists are “very good, decent, smart people” but the “organizational DNA … that they have inherited is strongly anti-nuclear.” Another argues that environmental organizations “have been using nuclear power as a whipping boy for decades to raise funds”. Another interviewee attributes opposition to nuclear power to an “irrational fear of the unknown” (which surely poses a problem for the exotic Generation IV concepts promoted in the film) and another says that “once people sort of understand what’s going on with nuclear, they are much more open to it”.

The film trots out the usual anti-renewables tropes and falsehoods: 100% renewables is “just a fantasy”, renewables can contribute up to 20% of power supply and the remainder must be baseload: fossil fuels or nuclear power.

In rural Senegal, solar power has brought many benefits but places like Senegalese capital Dakar, with a population of one million, need electricity whether the sun is shining or not. A Senegalese man interviewed in the film states: “Many places in Africa definitely need a low cost, reliable, carbon neutral power plant that provides electricity 24/7. Nuclear offers one of the best options we have to do that kind of baseload.” The film doesn’t explain how a 1,000 MW nuclear plant would fit into Senegal’s electricity grid, which has a total installed capacity of 633 MW.4 The ‘microreactors’ featured in The New Fire might help … if they existed.

Accidents such as those at Fukushima and Chernobyl get in the news because they are “so unusual” according to interviewee Ken Caldeira. And they get in the news, he might have added, because of the estimated death tolls (in the thousands for Fukushima5, ranging to tens of thousands for Chernobyl6), the costs (around US$700 billion for Chernobyl7, and US$192 billion (and counting) for Fukushima8), the evacuation of 160,000 people after the Fukushima disaster and the permanent relocation of over 350,000 people after the Chernobyl disaster.9

“Most people understand that it’s impossible for a nuclear power plant to literally explode in the sense of an atomic explosion”, an interviewee states. And most people understand that chemical and steam explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima spread radionuclides over vast distances. The interviewee wants to change the name of nuclear power plants to avoid any conflation between nuclear power and weapons. Evidently he didn’t get the memo that the potential to use nuclear power plants (and related facilities) to produce weapons is fast becoming one of the industry’s key marketing points.

Conspicuously absent from the film’s list of interviewees is pro-nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger. We’ve taken Shellenberger to task for his litany of falsehoods on nuclear and energy issues10 and his bizarre conversion into an advocate of worldwide nuclear weapons proliferation.11 But a recent article by Shellenberger on Generation IV nuclear technology is informative and insightful ‒ and directly at odds with the propaganda in The New Fire.1

So, let’s compare the Generation IV commentary in The New Fire with that in Shellenberger’s recent article.

Transatomic Power’s molten salt reactor concept

The film spends most of its time promoting Generation IV reactor projects including Transatomic Power’s molten salt reactor (MSR) concept. [Note: Transatomic abandoned its molten salt R&D shortly after this film review was written – and before the film was publicly launched!]

Scott Nolan from venture capital firm Founders Fund says that Transatomic satisfies his four concerns about nuclear power: safety, waste, cost, proliferation. And he’s right ‒ Transatomic’s MSRs are faultless on all four counts, because they don’t exist. It’s doubtful whether they would satisfy any of the four criteria if they did actually exist.

Shellenberger quotes Admiral Hyman Rickover, who played a leading role in the development of nuclear-powered and armed submarines and aircraft carriers in the US: “Any plant you haven’t built yet is always more efficient than the one you have built. This is obvious. They are all efficient when you haven’t done anything on them, in the talking stage. Then they are all efficient, they are all cheap. They are all easy to build, and none have any problems.”

Shellenberger goes on to say:12

“The radical innovation fantasy rests upon design essentialism and reactor reductionism. We conflate the 2-D design with a 3-D design which we conflate with actual building plans which we conflate with a test reactor which we conflate with a full-sized power plant.

“These unconscious conflations blind us to the many, inevitable, and sometimes catastrophic “unknowns” that only become apparent through the building and operating of a real world plant. They can be small, like the need for a midget welder, or massive, like the manufacturing failures of the AP1000.

“Some of the biggest unknowns have to do with radically altering the existing nuclear workforce, supply chain, and regulations. Such wholesale transformations of the actually existing nuclear industry are, literally and figuratively, outside the frame of alternative designs.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” a wise man once said. The debacles with the AP1000 and EPR are just the latest episodes of nuclear reactor designers getting punched in the face by reality.

Shellenberger comments on MSR technology:12

“New designs often solve one problem while creating new ones. For example, a test reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory used chemical salts with uranium fuel dissolved within, instead of water surrounding solid uranium fuel. “The distinctive advantage of such a reactor was that it avoided the expensive process of fabricating fuel elements, moderator, control rods, and other high-precision core components,” noted Hewlett and Holl.

“In the eyes of many nuclear scientists and engineers these advantages made the homogeneous reactor potentially the most promising of all types under study, but once again the experiment did not reveal how the tricky problems of handling a highly radioactive and corrosive fluid were to be resolved.”

In The New Fire, Mark Massie from Transatomic promotes a “simpler approach that gives you safety through physics, and there’s no way to break physics”. True, you can’t break physics, but highly radioactive and corrosive fluids in MSRs could break and rust pipes and other machinery.

Leslie Dewan from Transatomic trots out the silliest advantage attributed to MSRs: that they are meltdown-proof. Of course they are meltdown-proof ‒ and not just in the sense that they don’t exist. The fuel is liquid. You can’t melt liquids. MSR liquid fuel is susceptible to dispersion in the event of steam explosions or chemical explosions or fire, perhaps more so than solid fuels.

Michael Short from MIT says in the film that over the next 2‒3 years they should have preliminary answers as to whether the materials in Transatomic MSRs are going to survive the problems of corrosion and radiation resistance. In other words, they are working on the problems ‒ but there’s no guarantee of progress let alone success.

Dewan claims that Transatomic took an earlier MSR design from Oak Ridge and “we were able to make it 20 times as power dense, much more compact, orders of magnitude cheaper, and so we are commercializing our design for a new type of reactor that can consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste.”

Likewise, Jessica Lovering from the Breakthrough Institute says: “Waste is a concern for a lot of people. For a lot of people it’s their first concern about nuclear power. But what’s really amazing about it is that most of what we call nuclear waste could actually be used again for fuel. And if you use it again for fuel, you don’t have to store it for tens of thousands of years. With these advanced reactors you can close the fuel cycle, you can start using up spent fuel, recycling it, turning it into new fuel over and over again.”

But in fact, prototype MSRs and fast neutron reactors produce troublesome waste streams (even more so than conventional light-water reactors) and they don’t obviate the need for deep geological repositories. A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ‒ co-authored by a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ‒ states that “molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors – due to the unusual chemical compositions of their fuels – will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues.”13 It also raises proliferation concerns about ‘integral fast reactor’ and MSR technology: “Pyroprocessing and fluoride volatility-reductive extraction systems optimized for spent fuel treatment can – through minor changes to the chemical conditions – also extract plutonium (or uranium 233 bred from thorium).”

Near the end of the film, it states: “Transatomic encountered challenges with its original design, and is now moving forward with an updated reactor that uses uranium fuel.” Transatomic’s claim that its ‘Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor’ could “generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor” was severely downgraded to “more than twice” after calculation errors were discovered. And the company now says that a reactor based on the current design would not use waste as fuel and thus would “not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel”.14,15

So much for all the waste-to-fuel rhetoric scattered throughout The New Fire.

Michael Short from MIT claims MSRs will cost a “couple of billion dollars” and Dewan claims they will be “orders of magnitude cheaper” than the Oak Ridge experimental MSR. In their imaginations, perhaps. Shellenberger notes that “in the popular media and among policymakers, there has remained a widespread faith that what will make nuclear power cheaper is not greater experience but rather greater novelty. How else to explain the excitement for reactor designs invented by teenagers in their garages and famous software developers [Bill Gates / TerraPower] with zero experience whatsoever building or operating a nuclear plant?”12

Shellenberger continues:12

“Rather than address the public’s fears, nuclear industry leaders, scientists, and engineers have for decades repeatedly retreated to their comfort zone: reactor design innovation. Designers say the problem isn’t that innovation has been too radical, but that it hasn’t been radical enough. If only the coolant were different, the reactors smaller, and the building methods less conventional, they insist, nuclear plants would be easier and cheaper to build.

“Unfortunately, the historical record is clear: the more radical the design, the higher the cost. This is true not only with the dominant water-cooled designs but also with the more exotic designs ‒ and particularly sodium-cooled ones.”

Oklo’s sodium-cooled fast neutron microreactor

The New Fire promotes Oklo’s sodium-cooled fast neutron microreactor concept, and TerraPower’s sodium-cooled fast neutron ‘traveling wave’ reactor (TerraPower is also exploring a molten chloride fast reactor concept).

Oklo co-founder Jacob DeWitte says: “There’s this huge, awesome opportunity in off-grid markets, where they need power and they are relying on diesel generators … We were talking to some of these communities and we realized they use diesel because it’s the most energy dense fuel they know of. And I was like, man, nuclear power’s two million times as energy dense … And they were like, ‘Wait, are you serious, can you build a reactor that would be at that size?’ And I said, ‘Sure’.”

Which is all well and good apart from the claim that Oklo could build such a reactor: the company has a myriad of economic, technological and regulatory hurdles to overcome. The film claims that Oklo “has begun submission of its reactor’s license application to the [US] Nuclear Regulatory Commission” but according to the NRC, Oklo is a “pre-applicant” that has gone no further than to notify the NRC of its intention to “engage in regulatory interactions”.16

There’s lots of rhetoric in the film about small reactors that “you can role … off the assembly line like Boeings”, factory-fabricated reactors that “can look a lot like Ikea furniture”, economies of scale once there is a mass market for small reactors, and mass-produced reactors leading to “a big transition to clean energy globally”. But first you would need to invest billions to set up the infrastructure to mass produce reactors ‒ and no-one has any intention of making that investment. And there’s no mass market for small reactors ‒ there is scarcely any market at all.17

TerraPower

TerraPower is one step ahead of Transatomic and Oklo ‒ it has some serious funding. But it’s still a long way off ‒ Nick Touran from TerraPower says in the film that tests will “take years” and the company is investing in a project with “really long horizons … [it] may take a very long time”.

TerraPower’s sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor remains a paper reactor. Shellenberger writes:12

“In 2008, The New Yorker profiled Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive, on his plans to re-invent nuclear power with Bill Gates. Nuclear scientist Edward “Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor,” Myhrvold explained. “No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple.”

“Gates and Myhrvold started a company, Terrapower, that will break ground next year in China on a test reactor. “TerraPower’s engineers,” wrote a reporter recently, will “find out if their design really works.”

“And yet the history of nuclear power suggests we should have more modest expectations. While a nuclear reactor “experiment often produced valuable clues,” Hewlett and Holl wrote, “it almost never revealed a clear pathway to success.” …

“For example, in 1951, a reactor in Idaho used sodium rather than water to cool the uranium ‒ like Terrapower’s design proposes to do. “The facility verified scientific principles,” Hewlett and Holl noted, but “did not address the host of extraordinary difficult engineering problems.” …

“Why do so many entrepreneurs, journalists, and policy analysts get the basic economics of nuclear power so terribly wrong? In part, everybody’s confusing nuclear reactor designs with real world nuclear plants. Consider how frequently advocates of novel nuclear designs use the future or even present tense to describe qualities and behaviors of reactors when they should be using future conditional tense.

“Terrapower’s reactor, an IEEE Spectrum reporter noted “will be able to use depleted uranium … the heat will be absorbed by a looping stream of liquid sodium … Terrapower’s reactor stays cool”.

“Given that such “reactors” do not actually exist as real world machines, and only exist as computer-aided designs, it is misleading to claim that Terrapower’s reactor “will” be able to do anything. The appropriate verbs for that sentence are “might,” “may,” and “could.” …

“Myhrvold expressed great confidence that he had proven that Terrapower’s nuclear plant could run on nuclear waste at a low cost. How could he be so sure? He had modeled it. “Lowell and I had a month-long, no-holds-barred nuclear-physics battle. He didn’t believe waste would work. It turns out it does.” Myhrvold grinned. “He concedes it now.”

“Rickover was unsparing in his judgement of this kind of thinking. “I believe this confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between the academic and the practical,” he wrote. “The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of ‘mere technical details.'””

www.newfiremovie.com

www.facebook.com/NewFireMovie/

www.twitter.com/newfiremovie

www.vimeo.com/240644902

www.youtube.com/channel/UCda0hiEct_t1dNnoX5BNH2g

References:

  1. Nuclear Monitor #764, ‘Pandora’s Promise’ Propaganda, 28 June 2013, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/764/pandoras-promise-propaganda
  2. Nuclear Monitor #773, ‘Pandora’s Propaganda’, 21 Nov 2013, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/773/pandoras-propaganda
  3. https://newfiremovie.com/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_Senegal
  5. Ian Fairlie, 2 April 2014, ‘New UNSCEAR Report on Fukushima: Collective Doses’, www.ianfairlie.org/news/new-unscear-report-on-fukushima-collective-doses/
  6. 24 April 2014, ‘The Chernobyl Death Toll’, Nuclear Monitor #785, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/785/chernobyl-death-toll
  7. Jonathan Samet and Joann Seo, 2016, ‘The Financial Costs of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster: A Review of the Literature’, www.greencross.ch/uploads/media/2016_chernobyl_costs_report.pdf
  8. Nuclear Monitor #836, 16 Dec 2016, ‘The economic impacts of the Fukushima disaster’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/836/economic-impacts-fukushima-disaster
  9. World Health Organization, 13 April 2016, ‘World Health Organization report explains the health impacts of the world’s worst-ever civil nuclear accident’, www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2006/pr20/en/
  10. Nuclear Monitor #853, 30 Oct 2017, ‘Exposing the misinformation of Michael Shellenberger and ‘Environmental Progress”, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/853/exposing-misinformation-michael-shellenberger-and-environmental-progress
  11. Nuclear Monitor #865, 6 Sept 2018, ‘Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger learns to love the bomb, goes down a rabbit hole’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/865/nuclear-monitor-865-6-september-2018
  12. Michael Shellenberger, 18 July 2018, ‘If Radical Innovation Makes Nuclear Power Expensive, Why Do We Think It Will Make Nuclear Cheap?’, www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/07/18/if-radical-innovation-makes-nuclear-power-expensive-why-do-we-think-it-will-make-nuclear-cheap
  13. Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane, 2018, ‘Burning waste or playing with fire? Waste management considerations for non-traditional reactors’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:5, pp.326-334, https://tandfonline.com/doi/10.1080/00963402.2018.1507791
  14. James Temple, 24 Feb 2017, ‘Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises’, www.technologyreview.com/s/603731/nuclear-energy-startup-transatomic-backtracks-on-key-promises/
  15. Nuclear Monitor #849, 25 Aug 2017, ‘James Hansen’s Generation IV nuclear fallacies and fantasies’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/849/james-hansens-generation-iv-nuclear-fallacies-and-fantasies
  16. NRC, ‘Advanced Reactors (non-LWR designs)’, www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/advanced.html, accessed 16 Sept 2018
  17. Nuclear Monitor #800, 19 March 2015, ‘Small modular reactors: a chicken-and-egg situation’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/800/small-modular-reactors-chicken-and-egg-situation

Australian Civil Society Letter re Domestic Nuclear Power

August 2019

Our nation faces urgent energy challenges. Against a backdrop of increasing climate impacts and scientific evidence the need to adopt clean energy is clear and irrefutable. Australia must transition from fossil fuels to low carbon electricity generation.

This transition to clean, safe, renewable energy can also re-power the national economy. The development and commercialisation of manufacturing and infrastructure and new energy thinking can provide skills and sustainable employment opportunities, particularly in regional Australia.

There should be no debate about the need for this energy transition, however choices and decisions are needed on how best to achieve it. The federal government has initiated an Inquiry into whether domestic nuclear power has a role in this energy transition.

Our organisations, which represent a diverse cross section of the Australian community, strongly maintain that nuclear power has no role in Australia’s energy future.

Nuclear power is a dangerous distraction from real movement on the pressing energy decisions and climate actions we need. We maintain this for a range of factors, including:

  • Waste: Nuclear reactors produce long-lived radioactive wastes that pose a direct human and environmental threat for many thousands of years and impose a profound inter-generational burden. Radioactive waste management is costly, complex, contested and unresolved, globally and in the current Australian context. Nuclear power cannot be considered a clean source of energy given its intractable legacy of nuclear waste.
  • Water: Nuclear power is a thirsty industry that consumes large volumes of water, from uranium mining and processing through to reactor cooling. Australia is a dry nation where water is an important resource and supply is often uncertain.
  • Time: Nuclear power is a slow response to a pressing problem. Nuclear reactors are slow to build and license. Globally, reactors routinely take ten years or more to construct and time over-runs are common. Construction and commercialisation of nuclear reactors in Australia would be further delayed by the lack of nuclear engineers, a specialised workforce, and a licensing, regulatory and insurance framework.
  • Cost: Nuclear power is highly capital intensive and a very expensive way to produce electricity. The 2016 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission concluded nuclear power was not economically viable. The controversial Hinkley reactors being constructed in the UK will cost more than $35 billion and lock in high cost power for consumers for decades. Cost estimates of other reactors under construction in Europe and the US range from $17 billion upwards and all are many billions of dollars over-budget and many years behind schedule. Renewable energy is simply the cheapest form of new generation electricity as the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded in their December 2018 report.
  • Security: Nuclear power plants have been described as pre-deployed terrorist targets and pose a major security threat. This in turn would likely see an increase in policing and security operations and costs and a commensurate impact on civil liberties and public access to information. Other nations in our region may view Australian nuclear aspirations with suspicion and concern given that many aspects of the technology and knowledge base are the same as those required for nuclear weapons. On many levels nuclear is a power source that undermines confidence.
  • Inflexible or unproven: Existing nuclear reactors are highly centralised and inflexible generators of electricity. They lack capacity to respond to changes in demand and usage, are slow to deploy and not well suited to modern energy grids or markets. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are not in commercial production or use and remain unproven and uncertain. This is no basis for a national energy policy.
  • Safety: All human made systems fail. When nuclear power fails it does so on a massive scale. The human, environmental and economic costs of nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have been massive and continue. Decommissioning and cleaning up old reactors and nuclear sites, even in the absence of any accidents, is technically challenging and very costly.
  • Unlawful and unpopular: Nuclear power and nuclear reactors are prohibited under existing federal, state and territory laws. The nuclear sector is highly contested and does not enjoy broad political, stakeholder or community support. A 2015 IPSOS poll found that support among Australians for solar power (78‒87%) and wind power (72%) is far higher than support for coal (23%) and nuclear (26%).
  • Disproportionate impacts: The nuclear industry has a history of adverse impacts on Aboriginal communities, lands and waters. This began in the 1950s with British atomic testing and continues today with uranium mining and proposed nuclear waste dumps. These problems would be magnified if Australia ever advanced domestic nuclear power.
  • Better alternatives: if Australia’s energy future was solely a choice between coal and nuclear then a nuclear debate would be needed. But it is not. Our nation has extensive renewable energy options and resources and Australians have shown clear support for increased use of renewable and genuinely clean energy sources.

The path ahead: Rather than fuel carbon emissions and radioactive risk through domestic coal power plants and the export of coal and uranium, Australia can and should do better. We need to embrace the fastest growing global energy sector and become a driver of clean energy thinking and technology. Renewable energy is affordable, low risk, clean, and popular. Nuclear is simply not. Our shared energy future is renewable, not radioactive.

Nuclear Power & Climate Change

Friends of the Earth Australia Statement

August 2019

www.nuclear.foe.org.au

To download this statement as a PDF please use this link.

  1. Introduction
  2.  Nuclear Power Would Inhibit the Development of More Effective Solutions
  3. The Nuclear Power Industry is in Crisis
  4. Small Modular Reactors
  5. Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Nuclear Winter
  6. A Slow Response to an Urgent Problem
  7. Climate Change & Nuclear Hazards: ‘You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.’
  8. Nuclear Racism
  9. Nuclear Waste
  10. More Information

1. Introduction

Support for nuclear power in Australia has nothing to do with energy policy ‒ it is instead an aspect of the ‘culture wars‘ driven by conservative ideologues (examples include current and former politicians Clive Palmer, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi, Barnaby Joyce, Mark Latham, Jim Molan, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, and David Leyonhjelm; and media shock-jocks such as Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Peta Credlin). With few exceptions, those promoting nuclear power in Australia also support coal, they oppose renewables, they attack environmentalists, they deny climate change science, and they have little knowledge of energy issues and options. The Minerals Council of Australia ‒ which has close connections with the Coalition parties ‒ is another prominent supporter of both coal and nuclear power.

In January 2019, the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists and other policy experts, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be”. The statement continued: “Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water”.

Friends of the Earth Australia agrees with the Climate Council. Proposals to introduce nuclear power to Australia are misguided and should be rejected for the reasons discussed below (and others not discussed here, including the risk of catastrophic accidents).

2. Nuclear Power Would Inhibit the Development of More Effective Solutions

Renewable power generation is far cheaper than nuclear power. Lazard’s November 2018 report on levelised costs of electricity found that wind power (US$29‒56 per megawatt-hour) and utility-scale solar (US$36‒46 / MWh) are approximately four times cheaper than nuclear power (US$112‒189 / MWh).

A December 2018 report by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that “solar and wind generation technologies are currently the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity for Australia, compared to any other new-build technology.”

Thus the pursuit of nuclear power would inhibit the necessary rapid development of solutions that are cheaper, safer, more environmentally benign, and enjoy far greater public support. A 2015 IPSOS poll found that support among Australians for solar power (78‒87%) and wind power (72%) is far higher than support for coal (23%) and nuclear (26%).

Renewables and storage technology can provide a far greater contribution to power supply and to climate change abatement compared to an equivalent investment in nuclear power. Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, wrote in January 2019: “As for nuclear the 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle [in the US] is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage. For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries. That is why nuclear is irrelevant in Australia.”

Dr. Ziggy Switkowski ‒ who led the Howard government’s review of nuclear power in 2006 ‒ noted in 2018 that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed”, that nuclear power is no longer cheaper than renewables and that costs are continuing to shift in favour of renewables.

Globally, renewable electricity generation has doubled over the past decade and costs have declined sharply. Renewables account for 26.5% of global electricity generation. Conversely, nuclear costs have increased four-fold since 2006 and nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation has fallen from its 1996 peak of 17.6% to its current share of 10%.

As with renewables, energy efficiency and conservation measures are far cheaper and less problematic than nuclear power. A University of Cambridge study concluded that 73% of global energy use could be saved by energy efficiency and conservation measures. Yet Australia’s energy efficiency policies and performance are among the worst in the developed world.

3. The Nuclear Power Industry is in Crisis

The nuclear industry is in crisis with lobbyists repeatedly acknowledging nuclear power’s “rapidly accelerating crisis”, a “crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West” and “the crisis that the nuclear industry is presently facing in developed countries”, while noting that “the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies” and engaging each other in heated arguments about what if anything can be salvaged from the “ashes of today’s dying industry”.

It makes no sense for Australia to be introducing nuclear power at a time when the industry is in crisis and when a growing number of countries are phasing out nuclear power (including Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan and South Korea).

The 2006 Switkowski report estimated the cost of electricity from new reactors at A$40–65 / MWh. Current estimates are four times greater at A$165‒278 / MWh. In 2009, Dr. Switkowski said that a 1,000 MW power reactor in Australia would cost A$4‒6 billion. Again, that is about one-quarter of all the real-world experience over the past decade in western Europe and north America, with cost estimates of reactors under construction ranging from A$17‒24 billion (while a reactor project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of at least A$13.3 billion).

Thanks to legislation banning nuclear power, Australia has avoided the catastrophic cost overruns and crises that have plagued every recent reactor project in western Europe and north America. Cheaper Chinese or Russian nuclear reactors would not be accepted in Australia for a multitude of reasons (cybersecurity, corruption, repression, safety, etc.). South Korea has been suggested as a potential supplier, but South Korea is slowly phasing out nuclear power, it has little experience with its APR1400 reactor design, and South Korea’s ‘nuclear mafia‘ is as corrupt and dangerous as the ‘nuclear village‘ in Japan which was responsible for the Fukushima disaster.

4. Small Modular Reactors

The Minerals Council of Australia claims that small modular reactors (SMRs) are “leading the way in cost”. In fact, power from SMRs will almost certainly be more expensive than power from large reactors because of diseconomies of scale. The cost of the small number of SMRs under construction is exorbitant. Both the private sector and governments have been unwilling to invest in SMRs because of their poor prospects. The December 2018 report by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator found that even if the cost of power from SMRs halved, it would still be more expensive than wind or solar power with storage costs included (two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro storage).

The prevailing scepticism is evident in a 2017 Lloyd’s Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. They predict that SMRs have a “low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive”.

No SMRs are operating and about half of the small number under construction have nothing to do with climate change abatement ‒ on the contrary, they are designed to facilitate access to fossil fuel resources in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere. Worse still, there are disturbing connections between SMRs, nuclear weapons proliferation and militarism more generally.

5. Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Nuclear Winter

“On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does.” ‒ Australian academic Dr. Mark Diesendorf

Nuclear power programs have provided cover for numerous covert weapons programs and an expansion of nuclear power would exacerbate the problem. After decades of deceit and denial, a growing number of nuclear industry bodies and lobbyists now openly acknowledge and even celebrate the connections between nuclear power and weapons. They argue that troubled nuclear power programs should be further subsidised such that they can continue to underpin and support weapons programs.

For example, US nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger previously denied power‒weapons connections but now argues that “having a weapons option is often the most important factor in a state pursuing peaceful nuclear energy”, that “at least 20 nations sought nuclear power at least in part to give themselves the option of creating a nuclear weapon”, and that “in seeking to deny the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the nuclear community today finds itself in the increasingly untenable position of having to deny these real world connections.”

Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summarised the problem:

“For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings the debate back to climate change. Nuclear warfare − even a limited, regional nuclear war involving a tiny fraction of the global arsenal − has the potential to cause catastrophic climate change. The problem is explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

“[W]e now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade − more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct. By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally.”

Nuclear plants are also vulnerable to security threats such as conventional military attacks (and cyber-attacks such as Israel’s Stuxnet attack on Iran’s enrichment plant), and the theft and smuggling of nuclear materials. Examples of military strikes on nuclear plants include the destruction of research reactors in Iraq by Israel and the US; Iran’s attempts to strike nuclear facilities in Iraq during the 1980−88 war (and vice versa); Iraq’s attempted strikes on Israel’s nuclear facilities; and Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria in 2007.

6. A Slow Response to an Urgent Problem

Expanding nuclear power is impractical as a short-term response to climate change. An analysis by Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin concludes that it would be “virtually impossible” to get a nuclear power reactor operating in Australia by 2040.

More time would elapse before nuclear power has generated as much as energy as was expended in the construction of the reactor. A University of Sydney report states: “The energy payback time of nuclear energy is around 6.5 years for light water reactors, and 7 years for heavy water reactors, ranging within 5.6–14.1 years, and 6.4–12.4 years, respectively.”

Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia … and then only assuming that nuclear power displaced fossil fuels.

7. Climate Change & Nuclear Hazards: ‘You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.’

“I’ve heard many nuclear proponents say that nuclear power is part of the solution to global warming. It needs to be reversed: You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.” ‒ Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum.

Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms.

At the lower end of the risk spectrum, there are countless examples of nuclear plants operating at reduced power or being temporarily shut down due to water shortages or increased water temperature during heatwaves (which can adversely affect reactor cooling and/or cause fish deaths and other problems associated with the dumping of waste heat in water sources). In the US, for example, unusually hot temperatures in 2018 forced nuclear plant operators to reduce reactor power output more than 30 times.

At the upper end of the risk spectrum, climate-related threats pose serious risks such as storms cutting off grid power, leaving nuclear plants reliant on generators for reactor cooling.

‘Water wars’ will become increasingly common with climate change − disputes over the allocation of increasingly scarce water resources between power generation, agriculture and other uses. Nuclear power reactors consume massive amounts of cooling water − typically 36.3 to 65.4 million litres per reactor per day. The World Resources Institute noted last year that 47% of the world’s thermal power plant capacity ‒ mostly coal, natural gas and nuclear ‒ are located in highly water-stressed areas.

By contrast, the REN21 Renewables 2015: Global Status Report states:

“Although renewable energy systems are also vulnerable to climate change, they have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions. System modularity, distributed deployment, and local availability and diversity of fuel sources − central components of energy system resilience − are key characteristics of most renewable energy systems.”

8. Nuclear Racism

The nuclear industry has a shameful history of dispossessing and disempowering Aboriginal people and communities, and polluting their land and water, dating from the British bomb tests in the 1950s. The same attitudes prevail today in relation to the uranium industry and planned nuclear waste dumps and the problems would be magnified if Australia developed nuclear power.

To give one example (among many), the National Radioactive Waste Management Act dispossesses and disempowers Traditional Owners in every way imaginable:

  • The nomination of a site for a radioactive waste dump is valid even if Aboriginal owners were not consulted and did not give consent.
  • The Act has sections which nullify State or Territory laws that protect archaeological or heritage values, including those which relate to Indigenous traditions.
  • The Act curtails the application of Commonwealth laws including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Native Title Act 1993 in the important site-selection stage.
  • The Native Title Act 1993 is expressly overridden in relation to land acquisition for a radioactive waste dump.

9. Nuclear Waste

Decades-long efforts to establish a repository and store for Australia’s low-and intermediate-level nuclear waste continue to flounder and are currently subject to legal and Human Rights Commission complaints and challenges, initiated by Traditional Owners of two targeted sites in South Australia. Establishing a repository for high-level nuclear waste from a nuclear power program would be far more challenging as Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan has noted.

Globally, countries operating nuclear power plants are struggling to manage nuclear waste and no country has a repository for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. The United States has a deep underground repository for long-lived intermediate-level waste, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). However the repository was closed from 2014‒17 following a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel. Costs associated with the accident are estimated at over A$2.9 billion.

Safety standards fell away sharply within the first decade of operation of the WIPP repository ‒ a sobering reminder of the challenge of safely managing nuclear waste for millennia.

10. More Information

Victoria’s Nuclear Power Inquiry

Media Release ‒ Friends of the Earth ‒ 15 August 2019

Responding to the announcement that a Victorian Parliamentary inquiry will investigate the suitability of nuclear power, Dr Jim Green, national anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia, said: “Nuclear power has priced itself out of any serious debate about Australia’s energy options but it has become part of the culture wars driven by conservative ideologues.”

Dr Ziggy Switkowski, who led the Howard government’s review of nuclear power in 2006, acknowledged last year that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed” and that nuclear power is no longer cheaper than renewables with costs continuing to shift rapidly in favour of renewables.”

“The 2006 Switkowski report estimated the cost of electricity from new reactors at $40–65 per megawatt-hour. That’s one-quarter of current estimates. In 2009, Dr Switkowski said that the construction cost of a 1,000-megawatt power reactor Australia would be $4‒6 billion. Again, that’s about one-quarter of the $17‒24 billion cost of all reactors under construction in Europe and the United States,” Dr Green said.

As a result of catastrophic cost overruns, nuclear lobbyists acknowledge that nuclear power is in “crisis” and are debating what if anything can be salvaged from “the ashes of today’s dying industry”.

“Claims that small modular reactors will rescue the nuclear industry from its crisis are unfounded. Experience with small modular reactors under construction suggests they will be hideously expensive, hence the deep reluctance of both the private sector and governments to invest in them,” Dr Green said.

Dr Switkowski recently noted that the debate about small modular reactors is “for intellects and advocates because neither generators nor investors are interested because of the risk” and that “nobody’s putting their money up.” A December 2018 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator found that power from small modular reactors would be more than twice as expensive as that from wind or solar with storage costs included (two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro storage). CSIRO and the AEMO concluded that “solar and wind generation technologies are currently the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity for Australia, compared to any other new-build technology.”

In January, the Climate Council ‒ comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists and other policy experts ‒ issued a policy statement noting that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be” as they are “a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water”.

“The Victorian Parliamentary inquiry will be a waste of time unless its terms of reference are broadened to include issues associated with transitioning to a clean, safe, reliable energy system based on renewables and energy efficiency,” Dr Green concluded.

Contact: Dr Jim Green 0417 318 368

More information:

Friends of the Earth statement: Nuclear Power – No Solution to Climate Change

Friends of the Earth briefing paper on nuclear power’s economic crisis (new reactors in north America and western Europe cost A$17-24 billion!) and the implications for Australia

Nuclear Power – No Solution to Climate Change

Friends of the Earth Australia Statement on Nuclear Power & Climate Change (August 2019)

Climate Council, 2019, ‘Nuclear Power Stations are Not Appropriate for Australia – and Probably Never Will Be

Briefing paper on nuclear power’s economic crisis (July 2019)

More information on nuclear/climate debates.

Get involved – Contact your local anti-nuclear group

In January 2019, the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists and other policy experts, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be”. The statement continued: “Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water”.

Many Australian civil society groups agree with the Climate Council. Proposals to introduce nuclear power to Australia are misguided. Rather than fuel carbon emissions and radioactive risk through domestic coal power plants and the export of coal and uranium, Australia should embrace the fastest growing global energy sector ‒ renewables ‒ and become a driver of clean energy thinking and technology. Renewable energy is affordable, low risk, clean, and popular. Nuclear is simply not. Our shared energy future is renewable, not radioactive.

 

BHP Olympic Dam Tailings: an “Extreme Risk” to Workers and to the Environment

Article by David Noonan B.Sc., M.Env.St., Independent Environment Campaigner, 30 June 2019

The world’s largest miner BHP proposes a major new Tailings Storage Facility (17 June 2019) at the Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine in outback South Australia.

Tailings Storage Facility (TSF) 6 is intended to be larger in area than the CBD of Adelaide – at 285 hectares, and up to 30 metres in height – equal to the height of the roof over the Great Southern Stand at the MCG. BHP states the total footprint area of TSF 6 is intended to be 416 hectares.

BHP are seeking federal government approval of TSF 6 under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), prior to a warranted comprehensive Tailings Safety Risk Assessment of all BHP tailings waste across the entire Olympic Dam operation.

This BHP application follows on from a BHP Tailings Facilities Disclosure (07 June 2019, p.11-12) stating three Olympic Dam tailings facilities are at the highest “extreme risk” hazard category based on the consequences of a potential catastrophic failure of the radioactive tailings waste facilities.

BHP and the mining industry are in serious trouble internationally over catastrophic mine tailings dam failures in South America at the BHP and Vale joint venture mine at Samarco in Brazil in 2015 and the nearby Vale Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in early 2019.

In response, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has teamed with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to conduct a comprehensive Independent Tailings Review (24 April 2019) to draw up a new international safety standard for the management of tailings storage facilities. This important report and new tailings storage safety standard are due at the end of 2019.

BHP’s “ESG Briefing: Tailings Dams” (June 2019, p.17) states the “Principal Potential Impact” in a ‘most significant failure’ of extreme risk Olympic Dam tailings waste facilities is that of “Employee impacts” – with the potential loss of life of BHP employees at Olympic Dam reported at 100.

The Canadian Dam Safety Guidelines “extreme risk” consequences category shows impacts: at a potential loss of life of more than 100; an extreme loss of infrastructure and economics; and a major permanent loss of environmental and cultural values – with restoration stated to be impossible (In: BHP’s “ESG Briefing: Tailings Dams”, p.10).

BHP are seeking federal environmental approval for TSF 6 prior to availability of the new ICMM and UNEP international safety standard for the management of tailings storage facilities. With BHP stating a preferred schedule for TSF 6 to start construction in Nov 2019 and to operate in early 2020.

BHP are also seeking federal approval for TSF 6 to be held prior to and separate from a required federal and state assessment of a major proposed expansion in the scale of underground mining at Olympic Dam. With copper production to increase from 200,000 to 350,000 tonnes per year.

The SA “Olympic Dam Major Projects Declaration” (SA Government Gazette, 14 Feb 2019, p.461-462) has already “excluded” the three “extreme risk” Olympic Dam tailings waste facilities, and the proposed major new  TSF 6 and associated Evaporation Pond 6, from the scope of a required public environmental impact assessment process on BHP’s proposed Olympic Dam mine expansion.

To exclude, or to fail to apply, environmental assessment and public consultation on fundamental environmental impacts of uranium mining at Olympic Dam is contrary to the public interest, and works against transparency, scrutiny, public confidence and basic modern community expectations.

The new Federal Environment Minister the Hon. Sussan Ley MP must require a public environmental impact assessment process on BHP’s EPBC Act Referral 2019/8465 Tailings Storage Facility 6 under federal responsibilities to protect Matters of National Environmental Significance (see: ENGOs Briefing Uranium Mining Triggers “Protection Of The Environment” Under the EPBC Act, June 2019).

This EPBC Act public assessment must include a core comprehensive Tailings Safety Risk Assessment of TSF 6 and of all BHP tailings waste across the entire Olympic Dam operations, especially the three “extreme risk” tailings waste facilities, before any potential approval or advance of major new BHP radioactive tailings waste facilities or increase in tailings waste production output.

The Minister must not approve this major new Tailings Storage Facility on the basis of limited non-independent BHP Referral input. Significant safety and environment protection issues can-not be left to BHP to decide. BHP must be made accountable for the three “extreme risk” tailings waste facilities at Olympic Dam and made to apply the most stringent safety standards in this case.

BHP Olympic Dam radioactive tailings waste present a significant, near intractable, long-term risk to the environment (see: ENGOs Tailings Briefing Paper, June 2019).

The tailings at Olympic Dam contain approximately 80% of the radioactivity associated with the original ore and characteristically also retain around one third of the uranium from the original ore.

Olympic Dam radioactive tailings wastes retain the radioactive decay chains of uranium, thorium and radium and should be isolated from the environment for over 10,000 years.

Since 1988 Olympic Dam has produced around 180 million tonnes of radioactive tailings, intended to be left in extensive above ground piles on-site, imposing ongoing risks – effectively forever.

In October 2011 the federal government recognised BHP tailings risks are effectively perpetual, Olympic Dam Approval Condition 32 Mine Closure (p.8) sought to require environmental outcomes: “that will be achieved indefinitely post mine closure”. However, these conditions were not applied to Olympic Dam as BHP abandoned a proposed open pit mine expansion project in 2012.

Existing BHP radioactive tailings waste facilities at Olympic Dam are extensive, covering an area totalling 960 hectares (ha) or 9.6 km2 – an area far larger than the Melbourne City Centre of 6.2 km2.

One of two active “extreme risk” tailings waste facilities at Olympic Dam, TSF 4 started tailings slurry waste operations in 1999 and is already over 30 metre in height, equal to the height of a ten-storey building at the centre of the tailings pile. TSF 4 covers an area of 190 ha – over 100 times the playing area of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the iconic MCG.

In 2015 federal approval was granted to BHP to extend the period of operations of TSF 4 into the mid-2020’s and to increase the height of TSF 4 to up to 40 metres. The federal government should now require BHP to decommission this “extreme risk” facility and not to extend its use.

Earlier TSF No.1, 2 and 3 are now classified as a single “extreme risk” inactive facility, totalling 190 ha in area and up to 30 metres in height. These TSF are from a 1980’s design and no longer receive tailings slurry waste but BHP has failed to close or to cover these radioactive waste piles.

BHP Olympic Dam is an out of date “extreme risk” mining operation in sore need of high standards.

Federal environmental protection standards for the management of radioactive tailings waste have been set at the Ranger uranium mine in the NT “to ensure that:

  • The tailings are physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years;
  • Any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impact for at least 10,000 years.”

This prudent approach and public interest requirement must also now be applied at Olympic Dam.

Federal Environment Minister Hon. Sussan Ley MP faces a key decision test on the consistency and integrity of EPBC Act powers and responsibilities in BHP’s TSF 6 Referral and proposed uranium mining expansion at Olympic Dam.

The Minister’s tests include acting consistently with important Department of Environment Recommendations in the September 2011 “Olympic Dam expansion assessment report EPBC 2005/2270” (7. Existing operation, p.62), that:

“…conditions be applied to the existing operation so that the entire Olympic Dam operation (existing and expanded) is regulated by a single approval under the EPBC Act”.

The Minister’s 2019 decision must adopt Olympic Dam Approval Condition 32 Mine Closure (Oct 2011) as a requirement on BHP for a comprehensive Safety Risk Assessment covering all radioactive tailings at Olympic Dam, including that the tailings plan (p.8) must:

contain a comprehensive safety assessment to determine the long-term (from closure to in the order of 10 000 years) risk to the public and the environment from the tailings storage facility”

Further, the Minister must enforce Fauna Approval Conditions 18 – 21 (EPBC 2005/2270) to help protect Listed Bird Species and 21 Listed Migratory Bird Species found in the area from mortality caused by BHP’s toxic acid liquor Evaporation Ponds – that kill hundreds of protected birds each year (see: ENGOs Briefing Migratory Birds at Risk of Mortality if BHP Continues Use of Evaporation Ponds, June 2019). These strong federal EPBC Act Conditions required that BHP:

must not construct Evaporation Ponds (for the purpose of the expanded mine)” (C.19);

And to: “phase out the use of Evaporation Ponds as soon as practical” (C.21)

The Minister should also mandate a 100% non-negotiable bond on BHP to cover rehabilitation liabilities across the entire Olympic Dam operation – including the three “extreme risk” radioactive tailings waste facilities. BHP has avoided paying this multi-hundred million dollar bond since taking over Olympic Dam mine in 2005 (see: ENGOs Briefing BHP Must Lodge a Bond to Cover 100% of Rehabilitation Liabilities at Olympic Dam, June 2019).

For further information, see: https://nuclear.foe.org.au/olympic-dam/

Olympic Dame mine – proposed expansion

Short briefing papers written by David Noonan in June 2019 regarding the proposed expansion of the Olympic Dam mine:

BHP Olympic Dam Tailings: an “Extreme Risk” to Workers and to the Environment – June 2019 article by David Noonan

Feb. 2019 proposed Olympic Dam expansion – briefing paper by David Noonan

 

 

High-temperature gas-cooled reactors inc pebble-bed modular reactors

The checkered history of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors

Academic M.V. Ramana has written a useful summary of the troubled history of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGR) including the pebble-bed reactor sub-type. In the past, both Germany and the United States spent large amounts of money to design and construct HTGRs, four of which fed electricity into the grid. Other countries have also invested in HTGR technology. Ramana’s analysis is of more than historical interest as several countries are either considering the construction of new HTGRs or pursuing research into the field.

Ramana writes:

“Proponents of HTGRs often claim that their designs have a long pedigree. … But if one examines that very same experience more closely – looking in particular at the HTGRs that were constructed in Western Europe and the United States to feed power into the electric grid – then one comes to other conclusions. This history suggests that while HTGRs may look attractive on paper, their performance leaves much to be desired. The technology may be something that looks better on paper than in the real world …

“Although Germany abandoned this technology, it did migrate to other countries, including China and South Africa. Of these, the latter case is instructive: South Africa pursued the construction of a pebble-bed reactor for a decade, and spent over a billion dollars, only to abandon it in 2009 because it just did not make sense economically. Although sold by its proponents as innovative and economically competitive until its cancellation, the South African pebble-bed reactor project is now being cited as a case study in failure. How good the Chinese experience with the HTGR will be remains to be seen. …

“From these experiences in operating HTGRs, we can take away several lessons – the most important being that HTGRs are prone to a wide variety of small failures, including graphite dust accumulation, ingress of water or oil, and fuel failures. Some of these could be the trigger for larger failures or accidents, with more severe consequences. … Other problems could make the consequences of a severe accident worse: For example, pebble compaction and breakage could lead to accelerated diffusion of fission products such as radioactive cesium and strontium outside the pebbles, and a potentially larger radioactive release in the event of a severe accident. …

“Discussions of the commercial viability of HTGRs almost invariably focus on the expected higher capital costs per unit of generation capacity (dollars per kilowatts) in comparison with light water reactors, and potential ways for lowering those. In other words, the main challenge they foresee is that of building these reactors cheaply enough. But what they implicitly or explicitly assume is that HTGRs would operate as well as current light water reactors – which is simply not the case, if history is any guide. …

“Although there has been much positive promotional hype associated with high-temperature reactors, the decades of experience that researchers have acquired in operating HTGRs has seldom been considered. Press releases from the many companies developing or selling HTGRs or project plans in countries seeking to purchase or construct HTGRs neither tell you that not a single HTGR-termed “commercial” has proven financially viable nor do they mention that all the HTGRs were shut down well before the operating periods envisioned for them. This is typical of the nuclear industry, which practices selective remembrance, choosing to forget or underplay earlier failures.”

M. V. Ramana, April 2016, ‘The checkered operational history of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2016.1170395

Accident Scenarios Involving Pebble Bed High Temperature Reactors

Matthias Englert, Friederike Frieß and M. V. Ramana, Feb 2017, ‘Accident Scenarios Involving Pebble Bed High Temperature Reactors’, Science & Global Security, Vol.25 Iss.1, pp.42-55, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08929882.2017.1275320

Proponents of high temperature gas cooled reactors argue that the reactor type is inherently safe and that severe accidents with core damage and radioactive releases cannot occur. The argument is primarily based on the safety features of the special form of the fuel. This paper examines some of the assumptions underlying the safety case for high temperature gas cooled reactors and highlights ways in which there could be fuel failure even during normal operations of the reactor; these failures serve to create a radioactive inventory that could be released under accident conditions. It then describes the severe accident scenarios that are the greatest challenge to high temperature gas cooled reactor safety: ingress of air or water into the core. Then, the paper offers an overview of what could be learned from the experiences with high temperature gas cooled reactors that have been built; their operating history indicates differences between actual operations and theoretical behavior. Finally, the paper describes some of the multiple priorities that often drive reactor design, and how safety is compromised in the process of optimizing other priorities.

PEBBLE BED MODULAR REACTORS (PBMR)

2013 summary by Friends of the Earth Australia

Pebble Bed Modular Reactors (PBMR) are helium-cooled and graphite-moderated and intended to be built in small modules (Thomas, 1999; Harding, 2004; Hirsch et al., 2005). Pressurised helium heated in the reactor core drives turbines that attach to an electrical generator.

While the PBMR is in some respects innovative, it also shares features with high temperature gas cooled reactors (HGTR). The HTGR line has been pursued until the late 80s in several countries; however, only prototype plants were ever operated (in the USA, UK and Germany), all of which were decommissioned after about 12 years of operation at most.

A South African nuclear utility has been at the forefront of developing pebble bed reactors but the project was postponed indefinitely as a result of economic factors as well as technical factors, some with safety consequences. Unless the South African project is revived, that leaves only China developing pebble bed concepts (with one small prototype operating and one 200 MW ‘demonstration reactor’ planned or in the early stages of construction).

These articles discuss the demise of PBMR technology in South Africa:

PBMR proponents claim major safety advantages resulting from the heat-resistant quality and integrity of the small fuel pebbles, many thousands of which are continuously fed from a silo. Each spherical fuel element has a graphite core embedded with thousands of small fuel particles of enriched uranium (up to 10% uranium-235), encapsulated in layers of carbon.

The safety advantages of PBMR technology include a greater ability to retain fissile products in the event of a loss-of-coolant accident. While this configuration is potentially advantageous compared to conventional reactors, it does not altogether avoid the risk of serious accidents; in other words, claims that the system is ‘walk-away safe’ are overblown. The safety advantages can be undermined by familiar commercial pressures; for example there are plans to develop PBMR reactors with no containment building.

In relation to weapons proliferation (Harding, 2004):

  • The nature of the fuel pebbles may make it somewhat more difficult to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel, but plutonium separation is certainly not impossible.
  • Uranium (or depleted uranium) targets could be inserted to produce weapon-grade plutonium for weapons, or thorium targets could be inserted to produce uranium-233.
  • The enriched uranium fuel could be further enriched for weapons – particularly since the proposed enrichment level of 9.6% uranium-235 is about twice the level of conventional reactor fuel.
  • The reliance on enriched uranium will encourage the use and perhaps proliferation of enrichment plants, which can be used to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons.

References:

Harding, Jim, 2004, “Pebble Bed Modular Reactors—Status and Prospects”, www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid171php#E05-10

Hirsch, Helmut, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, April 2005, “Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century”, Report prepared for Greenpeace International, www.greenpeace.org/international/press/reports/nuclearreactorhazards

Thomas, Steve, 1999, “Arguments on the Construction of Pebble Bed Modular Reactors in South Africa”, www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/environment/research/pbmr.html

Fast neutron/breeder reactors

2013 Friends of the Earth summary

Fast neutron reactors generally use plutonium as the primary fuel. They do not require a moderator as the fuel fissions sufficiently with fast neutrons to maintain a chain reaction. The various possible configurations include ‘breeders’ which produce more plutonium than they consume, ‘burners’ which do the reverse, and configurations which both breed and burn plutonium. (World Nuclear Association, 2005.)

There are various possible configurations of breeder systems. Most rely on irradiation of a natural or depleted uranium blanket which produces plutonium which can be separated and used as fuel. (Hirsch et al., 2005, pp.33-35; von Hippel and Jones, 1997.)

Small R&D programs are ongoing in a few countries (e.g. India, Russia, France) but in other countries the technology has been stalled or abandoned (e.g. the UK, the US, and Germany) or never developed in the first place. Japan’s plans for breeder reactors have been limited and delayed by accidents including the sodium leak and fire at the experimental Monju reactor in 1995. (Leventhal and Dolley, 1999.)

One reason for the limited interest in plutonium breeder power sources has been the cheap, plentiful supply of uranium. That situation may change, but while breeder technology certainly holds out the promise of successfully addressing the problem of limited conventional uranium reserves, it is doubtful whether the wider range of technical, economic, safety and proliferation issues can be successfully addressed.

Breeder technology is highly problematic in relation to proliferation because it involves the large-scale production and separation of plutonium (although separation is not required in some proposed configurations). (Feiveson, 2001.) The proliferation of reprocessing capabilities is a likely outcome.

Interest in breeder and reprocessing technology in South Korea and China is arguably driven in part by concerns over Japan’s plutonium policies (which involve the large-scale separation and stockpiling of plutonium). (Burnie and Smith, 2001.)

References:

  • Burnie, Shaun and Aileen Mioko Smith, May/June 2001, “Japan’s nuclear twilight zone”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 57, no.03, pp.58-62, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00963402.2001.11460458
  • Feiveson, Harold, 2001, “The Search for Proliferation-Resistant Nuclear Power”, The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, September/October 2001, Volume 54, Number 5, www.fas.org/faspir/2001/v54n5/nuclear.htm
  • Hirsch, Helmut, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, April 2005, “Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century”, Report prepared for Greenpeace International, www.greenpeace.org/international/press/reports/nuclearreactorhazards
  • Leventhal, Paul, and Steven Dolley, 1999, “The Reprocessing Fallacy: An Update”, presented to Waste Management 99 Conference, Tucson, Arizona, March 1, 1999, www.nci.org/p/pl-wm99.htm
  • von Hippel, Frank, and Suzanne Jones, 1997, “The slow death of the fast breeder”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.53, No.5, September/October.
  • World Nuclear Association, 2005, “Fast Neutron Reactors”, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/fast-neutron-reactors.aspx

The slow death of fast reactors

Jim Green, 2 Nov 2016, ‘The slow death of fast reactors’, EnergyPost, energypost.eu/slow-death-fast-reactors/

Generation IV ‘fast breeder’ reactors have long been promoted by nuclear enthusiasts, writes Jim Green, editor of Nuclear Monitor, but Japan’s decision in September to abandon the Monju fast reactor is another nail in the coffin for this failed technology.

Fast neutron reactors are “poised to become mainstream” according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). But data provided by the WNA itself gives the lie to the claim. The WNA lists eight “current” fast reactors, but one of them hasn’t begun operating, and another (Monju) has just been put out of its misery. Let’s say there are six ‘operable’ fast reactors (one isn’t operating but might in the future ‒ hence the term ‘operable’). Here’s the historical pattern based on WNA tables:

1976 ‒ 7 operable fast reactors
1986 ‒ 11
1996 ‒ 7
2006 ‒ 6
2016 ‒ 6

Of course there’s always tomorrow: the WNA lists 13 fast reactor projects under “active development” for “near- to mid-term deployment”. But a large majority of those 13 projects ‒ perhaps all of them ‒ lack both approval and funding.

Fast reactors aren’t becoming mainstream. One country after another has abandoned the technology. Nuclear physicist Thomas Cochran summarises the history: “Fast reactor development programs failed in the: 1) United States; 2) France; 3) United Kingdom; 4) Germany; 5) Japan; 6) Italy; 7) Soviet Union/Russia 8) U.S. Navy and 9) the Soviet Navy. The program in India is showing no signs of success and the program in China is only at a very early stage of development.”

Japan wastes billions

The latest setback was the decision of the Japanese government at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting on September 21 to abandon plans to restart the Monju fast breeder reactor.

Monju reached criticality in 1994 but was shut down in December 1995 after a sodium coolant leak and fire. The reactor didn’t restart until May 2010, and it was shut down again three months later after a fuel handling machine was accidentally dropped in the reactor during a refuelling outage. In November 2012, it was revealed that Japan Atomic Energy Agency had failed to conduct regular inspections of almost 10,000 out of a total 39,000 pieces of equipment at Monju, including safety-critical equipment.

In November 2015, the Nuclear Regulation Authority declared that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency was “not qualified as an entity to safely operate” Monju. Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said on 21 September 2016 that attempts to find an alternative operator have been unsuccessful.

The government has already spent 1.2 trillion yen (US$12bn) on Monju. The government calculated that it would cost another 600 billion yen (US$6bn) to restart Monju and keep it operating for another 10 years.

Decommissioning also has a hefty price-tag ‒ far more than for conventional light-water reactors. According to a 2012 estimate by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, decommissioning Monju will cost an estimated 300 billion yen (US$3bn).

So Japan will have wasted over US$15 billion on the Monju fiasco. Perhaps those responsible will argue that the figure pales into insignificance compared to the estimated long-term costs of around US$500 billion arising from the Fukushima disaster.

Allison MacFarlane, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently made this sarcastic assessment of fast reactor technology: “These turn out to be very expensive technologies to build. Many countries have tried over and over. What is truly impressive is that these many governments continue to fund a demonstrably failed technology.”

Japan neatly illustrates MacFarlane’s bemusement. Despite the Monju fiasco, the Japanese government wants to stay involved in the fast reactor game, either by restarting the Joyo experimental fast reactor (shut down since 2007 due to damage to reactor core components) or pursuing joint research with France.

Why would Japan continue its involvement in fast reactors? Most likely, the government has no interest in fast reactors per se, but giving up would make it more difficult to justify continuing with the partially-built Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Providing plutonium fuel for fast reactors was one of the main justifications for Rokkasho.

Rokkasho has been an even more expensive white elephant than Monju. Its scheduled completion in 1997 has been delayed by more than 20 times due to technical glitches and other problems, and its construction cost is now estimated at 2.2 trillion yen (US$22bn) ‒ three times the original estimate.

Japan has wasted around US$37 billion on Monju (US$15bn) and Rokkasho (US$22bn) and plans to continue to throw good money after bad. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, if Rokkasho operates it is expected to increase the electricity bills of Japan’s ratepayers by about US$100 billion over the next 40 years.

India’s failed program

India’s fast reactor program has also been a failure. The budget for the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) was approved in 1971 but the reactor was delayed repeatedly, attaining first criticality in 1985. It took until 1997 for the FBTR to start supplying a small amount of electricity to the grid. The FBTR’s operations have been marred by several accidents.

Preliminary design work for a larger Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) began in 1985, expenditures on the reactor began in 1987/88 and construction began in 2004 ‒ but the reactor still hasn’t started up. Construction has taken more than twice the expected period. In July 2016, the Indian government announced yet another delay, and there is scepticism that the scheduled start-up in March 2017 will be realised. The PFBR’s cost estimate has gone up by 62%.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has for decades projected the construction of hundreds of fast reactors ‒ for example a 2004 DAE document projected 262.5 gigawatts (GW) of fast reactor capacity by 2050. But India has a track record of making absurd projections for both fast reactors and light-water reactors ‒ and failing to meet those targets by orders of magnitude.

Princeton academic M.V. Ramana writes: “Breeder reactors have always underpinned the DAE’s claims about generating large quantities of electricity. Today, more than six decades after the grand plans for growth were first announced, that promise is yet to be fulfilled. The latest announcement about the delay in the PFBR is yet another reminder that breeder reactors in India, like elsewhere, are best regarded as a failed technology and that it is time to give up on them.”

Russia’s snail-paced program

Russia’s fast reactor program is the only one that could be described as anything other than a failure. But it hasn’t been a roaring success either.

Three fast reactors are in operation in Russia ‒ BOR-60 (start-up in 1969), BN-600 (1980) and BN-800 (2014). There have been 27 sodium leaks in the BN-600 reactor, five of them in systems with radioactive sodium, and 14 leaks were accompanied by burning of sodium.

The Russian government published a decree in August 2016 outlining plans to build 11 new reactors over the next 14 years. Of the 11 proposed new reactors, three are fast reactors: BREST-300 near Tomsk in Siberia, and two BN-1200 fast reactors near Ekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, near the Ural mountains. However, like India, the Russian government has a track record of projecting rapid and substantial nuclear power expansion ‒ and failing miserably to meet the targets.

As Vladimir Slivyak recently noted in Nuclear Monitor: “While Russian plans look big on paper, it’s unlikely that this program will be implemented. It’s very likely that the current economic crisis, the deepest in history since the USSR collapsed, will axe most of the new reactors.”

While the August 2016 decree signals new interest in reviving the BN-1200 reactor project, it was indefinitely suspended in 2014, with Rosatom citing the need to improve fuel for the reactor and amid speculation about the cost-effectiveness of the project.16

In 2014, Rosenergoatom spokesperson Andrey Timonov said the BN-800 reactor, which started up in 2014, “must answer questions about the economic viability of potential fast reactors because at the moment ‘fast’ technology essentially loses this indicator [when compared with] commercial VVER units.”

China going nowhere fast

Australian nuclear lobbyist Geoff Russell cites the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in support of his claim that China expect fast reactors “to be dominating the market by about 2030 and they’ll be mass produced.”

Does the WNA paper support the claim? Not at all. China has a 20 MWe experimental fast reactor, which operated for a total of less than one month in the 63 months from criticality in July 2010 to October 2015. For every hour the reactor operated in 2015, it was offline for five hours, and there were three recorded reactor trips.

China also has plans to build a 600 MWe ‘Demonstration Fast Reactor’ and then a 1,000 MWe commercial-scale fast reactor. Whether those reactors will be built remains uncertain ‒ the projects have not been approved ‒ and it would be another giant leap from a single commercial-scale fast reactor to a fleet of them.

According to the WNA, a decision to proceed with or cancel the 1,000 MWe fast reactor will not be made until 2020, and if it proceeds, construction could begin in 2028 and operation could begin in about 2034.

So China might have one commercial-scale fast reactor by 2034 ‒ but probably won’t ‒ and Russell’s claim that fast reactors will be “dominating the market by about 2030″ is jiggery-pokery of the highest order and the lowest repute.

According to the WNA, China envisages 40 GW of fast reactor capacity by 2050. A far more likely scenario is that China will have 0 GW of fast reactor capacity by 2050. And even if the 40 GW target was reached, it would still only represent around one-sixth of total nuclear capacity in China in 2050 according to the WNA ‒ fast reactors still wouldn’t be “dominating the market” even if capacity grows 2000-fold from 20 MW (the experimental reactor) to 40 GW.

Travelling-waves and the non-existent ‘integral fast reactor’

Perhaps the travelling-wave fast reactor popularised by Bill Gates will come to the rescue? Or perhaps not. According to the WNA, China General Nuclear Power and Xiamen University are reported to be cooperating on R&D, but the Ministry of Science and Technology, China National Nuclear Corporation, and the State Nuclear Power Technology Company are all skeptical of the travelling-wave reactor concept.

Perhaps the ‘integral fast reactor’ (IFR) championed by James Hansen will come to the rescue? Or perhaps not. The UK and US governments have been considering building IFRs (specifically GE Hitachi’s ‘PRISM’ design) for plutonium disposition ‒ but it is almost certain that both countries will choose different methods to manage plutonium stockpiles.

In South Australia, nuclear lobbyists united behind a push for IFRs/PRISMs, and they would have expected to persuade a stridently pro-nuclear Royal Commission to endorse their ideas. But the Royal Commission completely rejected the proposal, noting in its May 2016 report that advanced fast reactors are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future; that the development of such a first-of-a-kind project would have high commercial and technical risk; that there is no licensed, commercially proven design and development to that point would require substantial capital investment; and that electricity generated from such reactors has not been demonstrated to be cost competitive with current light water reactor designs.

A future for fast reactors?

Just 400 reactor-years of worldwide experience have been gained with fast reactors. There is 42 times more experience with conventional reactors (16,850 reactor-years). And most of the experience with fast reactors suggests they are more trouble than they are worth.

Apart from the countries mentioned above, there is very little interest in pursuing fast reactor technology. Germany, the UK and the US cancelled their prototype breeder reactor programs in the 1980s and 1990s.

France is considering building a fast reactor (ASTRID) despite the country’s unhappy experience with the Phénix and Superphénix reactors. But a decision on whether to construct ASTRID will not be made until 2019/20.

The performance of the Superphénix reactor was as dismal as Monju. Superphénix was meant to be the world’s first commercial fast reactor but in the 13 years of its miserable existence it rarely operated ‒ its ‘Energy Unavailability Factor’ was 90.8% according to the IAEA. Note that the fast reactor lobbyists complain about the intermittency of wind and solar!

A 2010 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists summarised the worldwide failure of fast reactor technology: “After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of about $100 billion, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled. … The breeder reactor dream is not dead, but it has receded far into the future. In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating this decade. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050.”

While fast reactors face a bleak future, the rhetoric will persist. Australian academic Barry Brook wrote a puff-piece about fast reactors for the Murdoch press in 2009. On the same day he said on his website that “although it’s not made abundantly clear in the article”, he expects conventional reactors to play the major role for the next two to three decades but chose to emphasise fast reactors “to try to hook the fresh fish”.

So that’s the nuclear lobbyists’ game plan − making overblown claims about fast reactors and other Generation IV reactor concepts, pretending that they are near-term prospects, and being less than “abundantly clear” about the truth.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia, and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter published by the World Information Service on Energy.

Fusion

2013 Friends of the Earth summary

Fusion fuel ‒ using different isotopes of hydrogen ‒ must be heated to extreme temperatures of some 100 million degrees Celsius, and must be kept dense enough, and confined for long enough to enable fusion to become self-sustaining.

A major fusion R&D program is underway called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. (www.iter.org) It involves the European Union, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Russia, and the USA. An experimental plant is under construction at Cadarache in France.

Fusion power remains a distant dream. According to the World Nuclear Association (2005C), fusion “presents so far insurmountable scientific and engineering challenges”.

Australian proponents of fusion claim it is “intrinsically clean” and “inherently safe” (Hole and O’Connor, 2006). However, in relation to radioactive waste issues, the World Nuclear Association (2005C) states: “[A]lthough fusion generates no radioactive fission products or transuranic elements and the unburned gases can be treated on site, there would a short-term radioactive waste problem due to activation products. Some component materials will become radioactive during the lifetime of a reactor, due to bombardment with high-energy neutrons, and will eventually become radioactive waste. The volume of such waste would be similar to that due to activation products from a fission reactor. The radiotoxicity of these wastes would be relatively short-lived compared with the actinides (long-lived alpha-emitting transuranic isotopes) from a fission reactor.”

In relation to safety issues, the World Nuclear Association (2005C) points to potential problems identified by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “These include the hazard arising from an accident to the magnetic system. The total energy stored in the magnetic field would be similar to that of an average lightning bolt (100 billion joules, equivalent to c45 tonnes of TNT). Attention was also drawn to the possibility of a lithium fire. In contact with air or water lithium burns spontaneously and could release many times that amount of energy. Safety of nuclear fusion is a major issue. But the AAAS was most concerned about the release of tritium into the environment. It is radioactive and very difficult to contain since it can penetrate concrete, rubber and some grades of steel. As an isotope of hydrogen it is easily incorporated into water, making the water itself weakly radioactive. With a half-life of 12.4 years, tritium remains a threat to health for over one hundred years after it is created, as a gas or in water. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested. Inhaled tritium spreads throughout the soft tissues and tritiated water mixes quickly with all the water in the body. The AAAS estimated that each fusion reactor could release up to 2×1012 Bequerels of tritium a day during operation through routine leaks, assuming the best containment systems, much more in a year than the Three Mile Island accident released altogether. An accident would release even more. This is one reason why long-term hopes are for the deuterium-deuterium fusion process, dispensing with tritium.”

Some proponents of fusion falsely claim that fusion power systems pose no risk of contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In fact, there are several risks (Gsponer and Hurni, 2004; WISE/NIRS, 2004; Hirsch et al., 2005):

  • The production or supply of tritium which can be diverted for use in boosted nuclear weapons.
  • Using neutron radiation to bombard a uranium blanket (leading to the production of fissile plutonium) or a thorium blanket (leading to the production of fissile uranium-233).
  • Research in support of a (thermonuclear) weapon program.

Fusion power R&D has already contributed to proliferation problems. According to Khidhir Hamza (1998), a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq’s weapons program: “Iraq took full advantage of the IAEA’s recommendation in the mid 1980s to start a plasma physics program for “peaceful” fusion research. We thought that buying a plasma focus device … would provide an excellent cover for buying and learning about fast electronics technology, which could be used to trigger atomic bombs.”

References

  • Gsponer, A., and J-P. Hurni, 2004 “ITER: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Implications of Thermonuclear-Fusion Energy Systems”, Independent Scientific Research Institute report number ISRI-04-01, http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0401110
  • Hamza, Khidhir, 1998, “Inside Saddam’s secret nuclear program”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October, Vol.54, No.5, www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=so98hamza
  • Hirsch, Helmut, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, April 2005, “Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century”, Report prepared for Greenpeace International, www.greenpeace.org/international/press/reports/nuclearreactorhazards
  • Hole, Matthew and John O’Connor, June 8, 2006, ” Australia needs to get back to the front on fusion power”, www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/we-need-to-get-back-to-the-front-on-fusion/2006/06/07/1149359815047.html
  • WISE/NIRS, February 13, 2004, “The Proliferation Risks of ITER”, WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, #603, https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/603/proliferation-risks-iter
  • World Nuclear Association, 2005C, “Nuclear Fusion Power”, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-fusion-power.aspx

Fusion scientist debunks fusion power

Nuclear Monitor #842, 26 April 2017, ‘Fusion scientist debunks fusion power’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/842/fusion-scientist-debunks-fusion-power

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published a detailed critique of fusion power written by Dr Daniel Jassby, a former principal research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab with 25 years experience working in areas of plasma physics and neutron production related to fusion energy.1

Here is a summary of his main arguments.

Jassby writes:

“[U]nlike what happens in solar fusion ‒ which uses ordinary hydrogen ‒ Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium reactions.

“Now, an energy source consisting of 80 percent energetic neutron streams may be the perfect neutron source, but it’s truly bizarre that it would ever be hailed as the ideal electrical energy source. In fact, these neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239 ‒ thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

“In addition, if fusion reactors are indeed feasible ‒ as assumed here ‒ they would share some of the other serious problems that plague fission reactors, including tritium release, daunting coolant demands, and high operating costs. There will also be additional drawbacks that are unique to fusion devices: the use of fuel (tritium) that is not found in nature and must be replenished by the reactor itself; and unavoidable on-site power drains that drastically reduce the electric power available for sale.”

All of these problems are endemic to any type of magnetic confinement fusion or inertial confinement fusion reactor that is fueled with deuterium-tritium or deuterium alone. The deuterium-tritium reaction is favored by fusion developers. Jassby notes that tritium consumed in fusion can theoretically be fully regenerated in order to sustain the nuclear reactions, by using a lithium blanket, but full regeneration is not possible in practice for reasons explained in his article.

Jassby writes: “To make up for the inevitable shortfalls in recovering unburned tritium for use as fuel in a fusion reactor, fission reactors must continue to be used to produce sufficient supplies of tritium ‒ a situation which implies a perpetual dependence on fission reactors, with all their safety and nuclear proliferation problems. Because external tritium production is enormously expensive, it is likely instead that only fusion reactors fueled solely with deuterium can ever be practical from the viewpoint of fuel supply. This circumstance aggravates the problem of nuclear proliferation …”

Weapons proliferation

Fusion reactors could be used to produce plutonium-239 for weapons “simply by placing natural or depleted uranium oxide at any location where neutrons of any energy are flying about” in the reactor interior or appendages to the reaction vessel.

Tritium breeding is not required in systems based on deuterium-deuterium reactions, so all the fusion neutrons are available for any use including the production of plutonium-239 for weapons ‒ hence Jassby’s comment about deuterium-deuterium systems posing greater proliferation risks than deuterium-tritium systems. He writes: “In effect, the reactor transforms electrical input power into “free-agent” neutrons and tritium, so that a fusion reactor fueled with deuterium-only can be a singularly dangerous tool for nuclear proliferation.”

Further, tritium itself is a proliferation risk ‒ it is used to enhance the efficiency and yield of fission bombs and the fission stages of hydrogen bombs in a process known as “boosting”, and tritium is also used in the external neutron initiators for such weapons. “A reactor fueled with deuterium-tritium or deuterium-only will have an inventory of many kilograms of tritium, providing opportunities for diversion for use in nuclear weapons,” Jassby writes.

It isn’t mentioned in Jassby’s article, but fusion has already contributed to proliferation problems even though it has yet to generate a single Watt of useful electricity. According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq’s weapons program in the 1980s: “Iraq took full advantage of the IAEA’s recommendation in the mid 1980s to start a plasma physics program for “peaceful” fusion research. We thought that buying a plasma focus device … would provide an excellent cover for buying and learning about fast electronics technology, which could be used to trigger atomic bombs.”2

Other problems

Another problem is the “huge” parasitic power consumption of fusion systems ‒ “they consume a good chunk of the very power that they produce … on a scale unknown to any other source of electrical power.” There are two classes of parasitic power drain ‒ a host of essential auxiliary systems that must be maintained continuously even when the fusion plasma is dormant (of the order of 75‒100 MW), and power needed to control the fusion plasma in magnetic confinement fusion systems or to ignite fuel capsules in pulsed inertial confinement fusion systems (at least 6% of the fusion power generated). Thus a 300 MWt / 120 MWe system barely supplies on-site needs and thus fusion reactors would need to be much larger to overcome this problem of parasitic power consumption.

The neutron radiation damage in the solid vessel wall of a fusion reactor is expected to be worse than in fission reactors because of the higher neutron energies, potentially putting the integrity of the reaction vessel in peril.

Fusion fuel assemblies will be transformed into tons of radioactive waste to be removed annually from each reactor. Structural components would need to be replaced periodically thus generating “huge masses of highly radioactive material that must eventually be transported offsite for burial”, and non-structural components inside the reaction vessel and in the blanket will also become highly radioactive by neutron activation.

Molten lithium presents a fire and explosion hazard, introducing a drawback common to liquid-metal cooled fission reactors.

Tritium leakage is another problem. Jassby writes: “Corrosion in the heat exchange system, or a breach in the reactor vacuum ducts could result in the release of radioactive tritium into the atmosphere or local water resources. Tritium exchanges with hydrogen to produce tritiated water, which is biologically hazardous. Most fission reactors contain trivial amounts of tritium (less than 1 gram) compared with the kilograms in putative fusion reactors. But the release of even tiny amounts of radioactive tritium from fission reactors into groundwater causes public consternation. Thwarting tritium permeation through certain classes of solids remains an unsolved problem.”

Water consumption is another problem. Jassby writes: “In addition, there are the problems of coolant demands and poor water efficiency. A fusion reactor is a thermal power plant that would place immense demands on water resources for the secondary cooling loop that generates steam as well as for removing heat from other reactor subsystems such as cryogenic refrigerators and pumps. … In fact, a fusion reactor would have the lowest water efficiency of any type of thermal power plant, whether fossil or nuclear. With drought conditions intensifying in sundry regions of the world, many countries could not physically sustain large fusion reactors.”

Due to all of the aforementioned problems, and others, “any fusion reactor will face outsized operating costs.” Whereas fission reactors typically require around 500 employees, fusion reactors would require closer to 1,000 employees. Jassby states that it “is inconceivable that the total operating costs of a fusion reactor will be less than that of a fission reactor”.

Jassby concludes:

“To sum up, fusion reactors face some unique problems: a lack of natural fuel supply (tritium), and large and irreducible electrical energy drains to offset. Because 80 percent of the energy in any reactor fueled by deuterium and tritium appears in the form of neutron streams, it is inescapable that such reactors share many of the drawbacks of fission reactors ‒ including the production of large masses of radioactive waste and serious radiation damage to reactor components. …

“If reactors can be made to operate using only deuterium fuel, then the tritium replenishment issue vanishes and neutron radiation damage is alleviated. But the other drawbacks remain—and reactors requiring only deuterium fueling will have greatly enhanced nuclear weapons proliferation potential.”

“These impediments ‒ together with colossal capital outlay and several additional disadvantages shared with fission reactors ‒ will make fusion reactors more demanding to construct and operate, or reach economic practicality, than any other type of electrical energy generator.

“The harsh realities of fusion belie the claims of its proponents of “unlimited, clean, safe and cheap energy.” Terrestrial fusion energy is not the ideal energy source extolled by its boosters, but to the contrary: It’s something to be shunned.”

References:

1. Daniel Jassby, 19 April 2017, ‘Fusion reactors: Not what they’re cracked up to be’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://thebulletin.org/fusion-reactors-not-what-they%E2%80%99re-cracked-be10699

2. Khidhir Hamza, Sep/Oct 1998, ‘Inside Saddam’s Secret Nuclear Program’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 5, www.iraqwatch.org/perspectives/bas-hamza-iraqnuke-10-98.htm

Fusion scientist debunks ITER test reactor

Nuclear Monitor #859, 15 March 2018, ‘Fusion scientist debunks ITER test reactor’, https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/859/fusion-scientist-debunks-iter-test-reactor

The Guardian’s science correspondent reported on 9 March 2018 that the dream of nuclear fusion is on the brink of being realized according to a major new US initiative that says it will put fusion power on the grid within 15 years.1 Prof Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice-president for research, said that the development could represent a major advance in tackling climate change. “At the heart of today’s news is a big idea ‒ a credible, viable plan to achieve net positive energy for fusion,” she said. “If we succeed, the world’s energy systems will be transformed. We’re extremely excited about this.”

Sadly, is can be said with great confidence that the MIT is talking nonsense. Fusion faces huge ‒ possibly insurmountable ‒ obstacles that won’t be solved with an over-excited MIT media release.

In Nuclear Monitor #8422 we summarized an important critique3 of fusion power concepts by retired fusion scientist Dr Daniel Jassby. He has written another article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, this one concentrating on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction in Cadarache, France.4

Jassby notes that plasma physicists regard ITER as the first magnetic confinement device that can possibly demonstrate a “burning plasma,” where heating by alpha particles generated in fusion reactions is the dominant means of maintaining the plasma temperature. However he sees four “possibly irremediable drawbacks”: electricity consumption, tritium fuel losses, neutron activation, and cooling water demand. 

Electricity consumption: The “massive energy investment” to half-build ITER “has been largely provided by fossil fuels, leaving an unfathomably large ‘carbon footprint’ for site preparation and construction of all the supporting facilities, as well as the reactor itself.” ITER is a test reactor and will never generate electricity so that energy investment will never be repaid.

And when ITER is operating (assuming it reaches that stage), a large power input would be required. For a comparable power-producing reactor, a large power output would be necessary just to break even. Power inputs are required for a host of essential auxiliary systems which must be maintained even when the fusion plasma is dormant. In the case of ITER, that non-interruptible power drain varies between 75 and 110 MW(e). A second category of power drain revolves directly around the plasma itself ‒ for ITER, at least 300 MW(e) will be required for tens of seconds to heat the reacting plasma while during the 400-second operating phase, about 200 MW(e) will be needed to maintain the fusion burn and control the plasma’s stability.

Jassby notes that ITER personnel have corrected misleading claims such as the assertion that “ITER will produce 500 megawatts of output power with an input power of 50 megawatts.” The 500 megawatts of output refers to fusion power (embodied in neutrons and alphas), which has nothing to do with electric power. The input of 50 MW is the heating power injected into the plasma to help sustain its temperature and current, and is only a small fraction of the overall electric input power to the reactor (300‒400 MW(e)).

Tritium: “The most reactive fusion fuel is a 50-50 mixture of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium; this fuel (often written as “D-T”) has a fusion neutron output 100 times that of deuterium alone and a spectacular increase in radiation consequences. … While fusioneers blithely talk about fusing deuterium and tritium, they are in fact intensely afraid of using tritium for two reasons: First, it is somewhat radioactive, so there are safety concerns connected with its potential release to the environment. Second, there is unavoidable production of radioactive materials as D-T fusion neutrons bombard the reactor vessel, requiring enhanced shielding that greatly impedes access for maintenance and introducing radioactive waste disposal issues.”

Tritium supply is likely to be problematic and expensive: “As ITER will demonstrate, the aggregate of unrecovered tritium may rival the amount burned and can be replaced only by the costly purchase of tritium produced in fission reactors.”

Tritium could be produced in the reactor by absorbing the fusion neutrons in lithium completely surrounding the reacting plasma, but “even that fantasy totally ignores the tritium that’s permanently lost in its globetrotting through reactor subsystems. “

Radioactive waste. “[W]hat fusion proponents are loathe to tell you is that this fusion power is not some benign solar-like radiation but consists primarily (80 percent) of streams of energetic neutrons whose only apparent function in ITER is to produce huge volumes of radioactive waste as they bombard the walls of the reactor vessel and its associated components. … A long-recognized drawback of fusion energy is neutron radiation damage to exposed materials, causing swelling, embrittlement and fatigue. As it happens, the total operating time at high neutron production rates in ITER will be too small to cause even minor damage to structural integrity, but neutron interactions will still create dangerous radioactivity in all exposed reactor components, eventually producing a staggering 30,000 tons of radioactive waste.”

Water consumption: “ITER will demonstrate that fusion reactors would be much greater consumers of water than any other type of power generator, because of the huge parasitic power drains that turn into additional heat that needs to be dissipated on site. … In view of the decreasing availability of freshwater and even cold ocean water worldwide, the difficulty of supplying coolant water would by itself make the future wide deployment of fusion reactors impractical.”

The pumps used to circulate cooling water will require a power supply of as much as 56 MW(e).

Conclusions: Jassby concludes with some critical comments on conventional, fusion and fast breeder reactors:

“Critics charge that international collaboration has greatly amplified the cost and timescale but the $20-to-30 billion cost of ITER is not out of line with the costs of other large nuclear enterprises, such as the power plants that have been approved in recent years for construction in the United States (Summer and Vogtle) and Western Europe (Hinkley and Flamanville), and the US MOX nuclear fuel project in Savannah River. All these projects have experienced a tripling of costs and construction timescales that ballooned from years to decades. The underlying problem is that all nuclear energy facilities ‒ whether fission or fusion ‒ are extraordinarily complex and exorbitantly expensive. …

“ITER will be, manifestly, a havoc-wreaking neutron source fueled by tritium produced in fission reactors, powered by hundreds of megawatts of electricity from the regional electric grid, and demanding unprecedented cooling water resources. Neutron damage will be intensified while the other characteristics will endure in any subsequent fusion reactor that attempts to generate enough electricity to exceed all the energy sinks identified herein.

“When confronted by this reality, even the most starry-eyed energy planners may abandon fusion. Rather than heralding the dawn of a new energy era, it’s likely instead that ITER will perform a role analogous to that of the fission fast breeder reactor, whose blatant drawbacks mortally wounded another professed source of “limitless energy” and enabled the continued dominance of light-water reactors in the nuclear arena.”

References:

1. Hannah Devlin, 9 March 2018, ‘Carbon-free fusion power could be ‘on the grid in 15 years”, www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/09/nuclear-fusion-on-brink-of-being-realised-say-mit-scientists

2. ‘Fusion scientist debunks fusion power’, 26 April 2017, Nuclear Monitor #842, 26/04/2017, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/842/fusion-scientist-debunks-fusion-power

3. Daniel Jassby, 19 April 2017, ‘Fusion reactors: Not what they’re cracked up to be’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://thebulletin.org/fusion-reactors-not-what-they%E2%80%99re-cracked-be10699

4. Daniel Jassby, 14 Feb 2018, ‘ITER is a showcase … for the drawbacks of fusion energy’, https://thebulletin.org/iter-showcase-drawbacks-fusion-energy11512