ENERGY. US GADGET- loving geeks need it the same way most people need air. In fact, we all want cheap energy so badly that wars have been fought, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that plenty more are coming. Adding even more complexity to an already fraught situation, many electricity generation technologies also belch millions upon millions of cubic tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, and that argue the greenies, is not only creating global warming, but the mining of the coal or extraction of gas/oil also results in the destruction of habitats, species extinction and other environmental mayhem.
Us Kiwis may have the luxury of being able to generate most of our energy needs via renewable resources such as hydro, geothermal and wind power, but most of the world remains reliant on a mixture of coal, gas and nuclear power, each of which has some pretty serious environmental impacts, be it belching carbon into the atmosphere or leaving drums of nuclear waste that’ll remain toxic and radioactive for at least 100,000 years in what we hope is secure storage (a hundred thousand years is of course a very long time indeed).
Being legislated as nuclear free, New Zealanders have a deep distrust of atomic energy, even though many argue that it has next to no carbon output.
Wouldn’t it be great if some clever Trevor came up with an atomic reactor that created hardly any hazardous nuclear waste, or require fuel that was able to be reprocessed for use in an atomic bomb?
Well, the good news is that the boffins at Argonne National Laboratory in the US cracked it 30-plus years ago and created an atomic reactor that generated power using existing atomic waste, while outputting less waste with a radioactive half-life of 100 years instead of 100,000 years.
Sadly, their efforts were curtailed as the development of the technology was cancelled back in 1994 by the US congress (and say some, the lobbying of the coal, gas and oil industries). The reactor technology, known as the IFR, was a fourth generation sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor which also sported a waste reprocessing facility. The crop of nuclear reactors currently in use are based on designs that have remain unchanged for the better part of 50 years, and the IFR uses fast neutrons, which is why it is known as a “fast reactor.” Fast neutrons have the added advantage of “burning” the nuclear fuel so much more completely that left-over waste is only dangerous for a hundred or so years.
You’d also be mistaken for thinking that sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactors were bleeding-edge tech. The test-bed reactor, known as the EBR-II, ran flawlessly for 30 years until some short-sighted pencil-necked idiot in the US congress ordered it shut down in 1994.
Bizarrely, the IFR was proven to be safer than most conventional slow reactors already in use today. In an experiment conducted in the late 1980s, where the reactor was placed into a state that’d approximate a melt-down scenario with most conventional reactors, the IFR showed that it could protect itself from overheating, and because of the natural physical properties of the materials used in both its fuel and its construction, rather than by operator intervention or engineered safety systems (both of which can fail with catastrophic results as the Russians showed the world with Chernobyl).
Because the IFR also burns most of its own waste (as well as the waste products produced by older atomic reactors, and material from dismantled atomic weapons), it stood to solve some vexing political and environmental issues while also being incredibly economic to run.
The IFR’s creators argued that eliminating carbon emissions from the coal plants used worldwide will be required to prevent a climate catastrophe and that the carbon capture techniques used with conventional coal power also adds huge costs to power generation, making it impractical for most power plant owners to generate clean power. That the IFR could replace the burner in an existing coal plant and reduce costs didn’t seem to matter. Congress still ordered it shut down. See what I mean about the short-sighted pencil-necked bit?
The really sad bit about this is not only that we’re on a headlong trajectory to trashing the environment, but that doing so is going to cost you and I a bomb. Very few dispute that carbon emissions are a bad thing, but meeting national carbon caps and other environmental regulations is a notoriously expensive undertaking, one that is more often than not paid for by Joe and Joanne average through raised power prices and ever- increasing electricity bills.
Because the IFR used nuclear waste as fuel, it was incredibly economical to operate and compared to today’s nuclear reactors, is in theory vastly cleaner. The waste product from IFR was minimal and its toxicity and radioactivity was short-lived (conventional nuclear waste can have a toxicity/radioactive shelf-life of at least 100,000 years – give or take a few bank holidays – whereas the amount of waste from the IFR was significantly smaller) .
Even more importantly the IFR does not create a nuclear weapons proliferation risk because it cannot be used to separate out weapons grade plutonium. This said, even if the most paranoid politicians had have approved IFR production on the proviso that IFR reactors were only exported to countries which already had nuclear power, a staggering 93 percent of global carbon emissions could still be theoretically eliminated and our grandchildren would not end up inheriting a polluted dustbowl. This would of course be incredibly ironic as Greenpeace could effectively end up about as useful as a fifth wheel once global warming is greatly diminished thanks to the widespread use of nuclear energy.
Using nuclear waste as fuel could have also delivered some potentially compelling benefits to the ailing US economy. Because the IFR would effectively burn existing nuclear waste as fuel, countries like the USA could in effect kill (erm… nuke?) two birds with one stone. The US’s existing nuclear waste stockpile is at best an administrative nightmare and more realistically a ticking toxic time-bomb waiting to unleash the environmental equivalent of radioactive Armageddon. Calculating the net worth of the nuclear waste stock-pile if it was to be used as fuel effectively transforms a multi-billion dollar political and environmental liability into an asset worth a staggering $30 trillion US dollars.
Not a bad return on investment for a one-off US $3 billion investment to jump-start IFR. Sadly however, the geniuses in congress mothballed IFR and in the process, threw away the one real opportunity for the world to get cheap and clean energy. Should IFR have been approved, it would have been able in theory to meet the growing energy needs of the US for the next 1500 years – without any additional environmental damage resulting from the mining of uranium by simply burning “waste” that is already costing the taxpayers billions of dollars annually to look after.
Ironically, the argument for IFR may still pan out over the long term. In nations where there are not enough viable renewable energy options, going nuclear is all but inevitable to meet the growing energy appetite of their populations. More atomic energy utilisation means a growing hunger for uranium atomic fuel (and the creation of more radioactive and toxic waste products). Unsurprisingly, this also means that the world will run out of affordable nuclear fuel for existing reactors by around 2030 (which will doubtless be when the civilised world will find itself on the verge of a major energy crisis, becoming something out of a poorly cast Mad Max movie in the process).
No uranium also means the world will most likely revert back to conventional carbon belching energy sources which will of course have massive environmental consequences. Avoiding this means finding a way to generate at least 13,000 Gigawatts of carbon-free power over the next 25 years (this figure is if anything conservative given the massive growth in electricity consumption globally). In essence, that means humanity has to install a generating capacity of roughly 1 Gigawatt (which is of course enough to power the flux capacitor on a Delorean) per day of clean power every single day for the next 25 years. As Doc would tell you, this is not a minor undertaking and is the theoretical equivalent of one large nuclear reactor, or 1500 wind turbines, or a staggering 80,000, 37-foot diameter solar dishes covering 100-square miles being installed each and every day. We are of course never going to get anywhere near to that installation rate with renewable energy.
The average power delivered in 2008 by solar panels worldwide was only 2 Gigawatts . Funnily enough a growing number of informed greenies (including Al Gore) have realised what is at stake and acknowledge that clean nuclear energy has to play a role in solving the energy crisis if our current standard of living is to continue into the future.
So should we be worried? In a nutshell, yes we should. Though the IFR has been shelved by the US congress for the last 15 years and the US department of energy has no plans to change that, the looming environmental catastrophe is becoming more real each year while an energy crisis that we could be facing by 2030 isn’t going to go away by itself any time soon. PAT PILCHER