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Nucleur Power: Not so bad as Feared, report says

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Summary: Energy-related issues are causing rich countries to act in non-economic ways. The drivers of this are concerns about supply security, on the one hand, and pollution on the other. We have yet to work out the means by which to maintain economic balances where all trading nations do not act in concert. The potential for bad temper and accidents in this arena is high, and growing.


Energy is going to cost more than it has historically. This disadvantages the poor countries, which anyway need to spend enormous sums on energy-related infrastructure. If roughly half the world’s population are to live in ways which are not damaging to the environment and security of the relatively wealthy remainder, then considerable investment will be needed. However, such investment must wait upon the emergence of credible institutions within the poor nations.


. . .

Nuclear power has one huge advantage, which is that it emits no greenhouse gases during operation, and by substitution for coal fire power, ‘pays for’ the carbon released during its construction in around one year of operation. Nuclear plant are extremely expensive to build and decommission when compared to gas fired stations, but their all-in cost of operation is comparable with clean coal and much lower than most renewable sources. (Nothing can beat hydroelectricity, of course, but sites are now all but exhausted.)


Nuclear power has two great negatives associated with it. First, the Uranium (or Thorium) on which it relies is in quite scarce supply, and a major development of nuclear power would not be sustainable. However, the ‘useless’ isotope of Uranium can be transmuted into Plutonium, using what is called a fast breeder reactor. There would then be quite enough Uranium for all. Unhappily, Plutonium is extremely dangerous, in that it is easy to purify to a weapons grade material, and could be used to make bombs. There are well-developed schemes to carry out Plutonium breeding under conditions of strict security, and to dilute the product in ways which make its reprocessing much more difficult. These schemes have yet to be proven, and a mass Plutonium trading scheme would be hard to manage with complete confidence.


The second issue of nuclear power is that of safe containment and waste disposal. The worst escape to date is that of Chernobyl in 1986, where something in the order of 8 Curies of radioactive material were dispersed in a plume. We now have access to enormous amounts of data about the impact of this escape. It can be compared to additional data, from East German doctors who meticulously recorded the life histories and exposure of Uranium miners two decades of USSR exploitation. These studies point to risk, to be sure, but much lower risk than might have been anticipated from earlier studies. The chart shows that deaths in the parts of the Ukraine that were affected by Chernobyl were in fact less than in control regions. (The upward overall trend is due to increased poverty and to an aging population.)




These studies have received remarkably little publicity. Indeed, commentary on the Chernobyl study largely asserted the opposite to what the figures in fact showed. Where comment was rational, it dwelt on areas where morbidity was higher than in the control area, such as thyroid cancer. Our approach to risk is hopelessly flawed. It should be noted that burning coal and oil releases quite large amounts of naturally-radioactive materials, and that digging a normal foundation for a house on granitic soils will ensure that the structure is permeated by Radon.


Waste disposal is often cited as a major difficulty for nuclear power, and so it is. However, the amount of high level waste created by all European reactors through the course of their lives could be fitted into five London buses. The technology of local containment (vitrification) and overall management (deep burial and geologically-stable structures with appropriate ground water states) is also well understood. Finland, for example, buries waste in geologically-ancient granite, 700m below the surface at the end of a 7 Km tunnel. Nuclear power faces problems, but they are problems more of perception than of fact. We can expect a limited nuclear revival, although the full, global implementation of the Plutonium cycle may be so impractical as to limit this to a marginal role.


...MORE: http://www.chforum.org/scenarios/new/energy1.html

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