Nuclear power has a bad reputation, and many environmental organisations are so strongly opposed to it that they resort to rather extreme measures. For example, Greenpeace consider any use of nuclear power to be an affront to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which seems a bit of a stretch.
Even the World Wildlife Fund is blatantly fabricating numbers to make nuclear power look bad. You can see that in their ‘G8 Climate Scorecards‘, where they state that they use numbers from fossil-fuels to replace numbers from nuclear power in calculating a nations’ emissions. The WWF scorecards rank France third, for example, despite the fact that it has far lower emissions than England or Germany, which they rank as better! If a company were to use similar methods on their annual reports, we would call it fraud, and expect someone to go to jail.
To be fair, not all environmentalists are against nuclear power. Mark Lynas, author of ‘Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter Planet‘, has declared his support for it. He says the environmental stance is based on myth and dogma, not facts.
So why is it that some environmental organisations are willing to go to such extreme measures and risk tarnishing their reputations to criticise nuclear power? The main reason, of course, is fear, but fear of what? Radiation, perhaps?
Nuclear power can, in principle, lead to radiation exposures in a variety of ways:
- nuclear accidents, meltdowns, failures of safety systems, leaks large or small
- long-lived radioactive waste that will be here until well after the human race has gassed itself to extinction with fossil fuels
- proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, using radioactive materials produced by nuclear reactors
- terrorists, either attacking a nuclear power plant or stealing radioactive material to make bombs
That list can be summed up in two groups: harm caused by the reactor or associated machinery (provoked or accidental), or harm caused by the waste produced during normal operation of the facility.
So what if it were possible to build a reactor that could not malfunction in a harmful manner? That would solve one problem. What if that reactor produced only short-lived nuclear waste which was easy to manage and not useful for making bombs? That would solve the other problem. Surely that would make nuclear power more attractive to everyone?
As it happens, you can produce nuclear power safely, with minimal and manageable waste. Oh and it’s not difficult either, it’s been done already, about 30 years ago. It’s called an ‘Integral Fast Reactor‘ (IFR), and there’s a very good summary of it by Barry Brook in ‘Brave New Power for the World‘, or an easy Q&A summary by George Stanford at The National Center for Public Policy Research.
IFRs are specifically designed to address those two major problems, safety and waste. They also happen to be extremely efficient, cost-effective, and easy to construct. If they’re so good, you might wonder why the world hasn’t heard much about them? The project to develop the Integral Fast Reactor was shut down by the Clinton administration in 1994, and since Bill Clinton’s energy secretary at the time was a former lobbyist for the fossil-fuel industries, that more than likely has something to do with it. In Tom Blees’ book, ‘Prescription For The Planet‘, there’s an account of the history and operation of IFRs. The Department of Energy actually issued a directive that the technology was not to be publicised, which you might interpret as the need to keep it a secret. Odd, then, that the chief engineer for the project, Leonard Koch, was awarded an international prize by Vladimir Putin for the work he had done. No state secrets there!
Back to those two big questions, first, why do I say that IFRs are safe? Their safety does not come from redundant backup safety systems, highly trained operators, or anything like that. Their safety comes from the laws of physics. We use the laws of physics every day in all sort of mundane safety systems. The fuse in your television, the emergency-release valve on your pressure cooker, and even the thermostat on your central heating system, these are all things that guarantee your safety by using the laws of physics to stop bad things happening in your home.
IFRs have their own built-in thermostat in the fuel itself. As the reactor heats up, the fuel expands in the heat, which in turn causes the nuclear reaction to slow down. The reactor cannot overheat, so it cannot possibly meltdown. In addition, the reactor core is cooled by a liquid metal (sodium), which does not actually need to be pumped in order to cool the core. Turn off the cooling pumps, the liquid sodium will still circulate by convection, and the core will still be kept under control.
This is not theoretical, these tests have actually been done with a real nuclear reactor running at full power. Cooling systems were turned off, the normal safety systems were disabled, and the reactor was left to itself. It shut itself down safely with no human intervention, in as little as 5 minutes. Sorry to disappoint the Star Trek fans out there, there will be no warp-core breaches in an IFR!
Incidentally, those tests were performed just three weeks before the Chernobyl disaster happened. Chernobyl had none of these inherent safety features. Condemning IFRs because of Chernobyl would be like condemning air-travel because of the Hindenburg.
On to the second question, what about the waste from IFRs? Long-lived nuclear waste is produced by reactors that do not burn their fuel efficiently, they only extract a tiny fraction of the energy from it, about 1% or less. IFRs, on the other hand, burn their fuel almost entirely, so that they actually consume the material that other reactors would produce as waste. In fact, you can power an IFR with waste from other types of reactor, burning it completely, and thereby solve the problem of what to do with all the waste we already have! It’s like the difference between a garden fire that smoulders gently and releases a lot of toxic smoke, compared to an incinerator that burns the same stuff to ash in a far cleaner manner.
The waste that does come out of an IFR is radioactive for far less time than the waste that comes out of other types of reactor, precisely because the fuel is burnt so efficiently. Instead of remaining radioactive for tens of thousands of years, the waste from an IFR is radioactive for only about 300-500 years. That’s about one tenth of the age of the pyramid at Giza, so building something to contain it while it decays should be easy enough. The plastic we throw away will take longer to decay than that. IFRs also produce much less waste than other reactor types, so there’s less volume to handle.
What about the bomb-question, can IFRs be used to make weapons-grade plutonium? In principle, yes, since they do produce plutonium inside the core (and then burn it), there is plutonium to be had. In practise, it is far harder to process the fuel from an IFR to extract weapons-grade plutonium than it is to obtain such plutonium by any other means. For more information, see this Q&A by Steve Kirsch (search for “non-proliferation efforts”). Meanwhile, ask yourself this: which government are you trying to prevent from getting their hands on the plutonium?
There are many countries that already have nuclear power. Many of these have signed a non-proliferation treaty, and allow international oversight to verify that they are in compliance. If they were to convert their installations to IFRs, compliance would be easier to verify, and they could even consume the stockpiles of plutonium that they have amassed by using it as fuel in those same IFRs. This ‘nuclear club’ also happens to account for 80% of the worlds emissions of greenhouse gasses, so even if you restricted IFR technology to them alone, you would be able to make the world a safer and more habitable place, on several fronts.
Of the countries that don’t have nuclear power, many want it. The big question is, do they want it for weapons, or for electricity? Not telling them how to build nuclear power stations isn’t going to make them go away. Do we really think nations that want nuclear power for themselves will not get it sooner or later? Maybe it’s better to help them towards proliferation-resistant nuclear power instead of just leaving them to their own devices? Politically, as well as technically, IFRs can be a tool for reducing proliferation.
That leaves terrorism as a consideration. Stealing fuel from an IFR would be extremely difficult, because while it is in the core it is lethally radioactive. The reactor itself can be protected by several layers of containment vessels and concrete bunkers, over-topped with earth if you like, so it would be impervious to a missile attack (or an aircraft crashing into it, for example). Frankly, there are easier targets, and terrorists have shown that they are imaginative enough to find them.
So, at the end of the day, I’m puzzled as to why many environmental groups are ignoring the facts and taking such an anti-nuclear position. IFRs emit no greenhouse gasses. They provide constant power, not relying on variable sources like wind, waves, or sunshine. They can be made cheaply, because they can replace coal-fired power stations in-situ, using the existing generators and distribution infrastructure. They can eliminate our stockpiles of nuclear waste, and solve the nuclear-waste problem. They are inherently safe. And they can power the world for millennia.
So why aren’t we building them?