Australia’s nuclear lobby: Barry Brook pushing Integral Nuclear Fast Reactors

Australia’s nuclear propagandists are at it again, although Ziggy Switkowski, the usual leader of the pack, has been very quiet lately. However, Professor Barry Brook, and his acolyte, Terry Krieg of Australian Nuclear Forum, seem to be taking up the torch now.

The Australian reported Barry Brook, speaking in Adelaide last week, as saying that Australia ‘would have no choice but to embrace nuclear power and would focus on next-generation nuclear technology that provided safety, waste and cost benefits.’ He said an attractive sustainable nuclear technology for Australia was the Integral Fast Reactor. “Integral Fast Reactors can be operated at low cost and high reliability.”They are also inherently safer than past nuclear reactors due to passive systems based on the laws of physics.”

To quote from The Australian:

Professor Brook said that by 2025 the first contracts would be issued for small nuclear reactors built on outback mining sites and by 2030 small amounts of nuclear-generated power will start to flow into the national electricity grid.

By 2050 larger nuclear power plants will be located at a dozen energy parks and in various remote areas, and by 2100 Australia will have 100 gigawatts of installed nuclear power, he predicted.

Now let’s dissect this:

Climate Change

I should start from Barry Brook’s own starting point. He is the director of climate science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute, – so his main argument is that nuclear power is needed to counteract climate change – to replace greenhouse gas- emitting fossil fuels, coal and gas. This position is in itself debatable. Given that climate scientists are warning that climate change is near to becoming irreversible, one might well ask – will all the nuclear reactors be built in time to prevent this, even if they are not greenhouse gas producers? (And in the total cycle from uranium mining to waste disposal, nuclear power IS a greenhouse gas producer).

Safety

Let’s examine the facts on the Integral Fast Reactors:

It’s true that with these liquid fuel reactors, because it’s molten fuel, there won’t be a meltdown. But the volatile fission products evaporate from the molten salt. You have to trap them. They are put into another chamber – they make steam, very hot gases,to run a turbine that will generate electricity,

Liquid sodium is used to cool them. It’s the sodium circuits that have given lots of problems – “. sodium reacts explosively with either air or water, necessitating elaborate safety controls in places where it must get close to water in order to create steam to turn a turbine to make electricity, such as steam generators. As a result of numerous fires from leaking systems, operating sodium-cooled fast reactors to date have been shut down more than they have run”. – David Biello, writing in Scientific American

This safety aspect impinges on costs and reliability. Very tough materials are required – running at very high temps. It’s the cost and durability of these materials that have not been not tested – in relation to the heat exchangors – rather than the reactor itself.

Weapons proliferation

Barry Brook seems to have missed this point. At present, people worry about the risks of plutonium or weapons grade uranium being obtained from nuclear waste storage facilities, or from uranium enrichment plants. These are relatively few in number, world-wide, and they are distant from the nuclear reactors, which are much greater in number. They are also very large, expensive, and detectable facilities.

But fast neutron reactors require a reprocessing plant nearby. Why? Because their fuel, either uranium 238 or thorium are not fissile materials – they can’t sustain a nuclear reaction, but need to have plutonium or uranium 235, which are fissile, to make the chain reaction happen.. They need a nearby facility from which to get these fissile materials.

In Barry Brook’s scenario, there would be many reactors, including many small reactors, each with its reprocessing plant close by, providing weapons grade materials – plutonum and uranium 235,. The Thorium reactors themselves produce Protactinium-233 – from which uranium 233 a bomb grade material can be made. So, these new, supposedly safer reactors, in fact multiply the risks of weapons proliferation.

Wastes

Brook claims that there are “waste” benefits from Integral Fast Reactors. The nuclear wastes may be less, in volume, but they are still produced, and still last a long time. The enthusiasts for thorium reactors boast about the wastes from these reactors being very toxic for “only 300 years” ! Just the mere 300 years? The lifetimes of these toxic wastes include Cesium-137 and strontium-190, hundreds of years, just like today’s reactors. Cesium-135 and iodine-129, millions of years half-life. Technetium-99, 200,000 years. Protactinium-233 has a half-life of 32760 years, and is highly radioactive – it has to be reprocessed and stored as uranium 233.

Security

This would turn out to be a nightmare, all the more so with small thorium reactors. The on site reprocessing. would necessitate the accounting of plutonium Now how do assess how we control every reactor that can make bomb material? Plutonium is not the only problem. Because of the chemistry of the molten salt reactor, Protactinium-233 results from the decay of thorium-233 as part of the chain of events used to produce uranium-233 by neutron irradiation of thorium-232 . – it’s a security problem as well as a waste problem and weapons proliferation risk.

Costs

Barry Brook claims that there would be “cost benefits” for Australia to adopt these generation IV nuclear reactors. This is a bald statement. As far as I can tell, nobody at present is able to estimate the costs. Particularly when it comes to the small reactors. One thing is accepted: the only way that these could ever be commercially viable would be if they were to be manufactured and sold in large numbers. The likelihood of this happening, of a mass production and sale of small reactors is dubious.

For fast neutron reactors, large or small, Barry Brook himself admits that there are currently none in commercial operation.

David Biello comments:

Fast-neutron reactors would not improve the economics of nuclear power based on past experience, ….

As far back as 1956, Adm. Hyman Rickover, who oversaw both the Navy’s nuclear-propulsion efforts as well as the dawn of the civilian nuclear power industry, cited such sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors as “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” That judgment remains despite six decades and $100 billion of global effort, according to physicist Michael Dittmar of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who wrote, “ideas about near-future commercial fission breeder reactors are nothing but wishful thinking.

Investment

When trying to get a grip on the nuclear issue, a memorable quote from All The President’s Men applies here provides a helpful tip “Follow the money”. The nuclear industry has a world-wide problem in that it can get private investment only where the government subsidises it, and also takes on the costs of nuclear disasters and permanent radioactive waste disposal. This is made even more difficult now by the strong swing towards investment in renewable energy. Total investment in renewable energy, from both private and public sources, reached $211 billion in 2010, and continues to climb.

Time

Just as we learn that a new solar farm at Broken Hill will be operational in 2015, we might ponder on the hurdles that Barry Brook’s nuclear reactors will be needing to overcome, before a bunch of them might be operational by 2050.

Solar and wind energy projects are going apace in the world right now. And that’s where private investment is going, too, not into nuclear power. I would say that hurdle No 1 would be in persuading people to invest in nuclear power – and that’s a big hurdle. Hurdle 1a would be in getting the government to subsidise nuclear power, as is happening to some degree, but not very successfully, in democracies such as Britain and USA.

India is a whole different story – with repression of anti nuclear activists there, India’s status as a democracy is looking wobbly.

Even assuming that, somehow or other, Australia does decide for these nuclear reactors, then there are a series of hurdles. New federal and state legislation would be needed. Local acceptance would need to be gained. Detailed designs would have to be submitted to government, covering all sorts of aspects – Site characteristics: population, meteorology, geology, hydrology, plant accident scenarios, qualifications to operate the plant, radiological discharges to air, water, safety analysis.emergency response plans. All that sort of stuff before any work is begun on the proposed sites.

As far as the new Integral Fast Reactors are concerned – at present there are none in operation. So, who knows how long it would take to get even one built in Australia? Generation IV reactors (Gen IV) are a set of theoretical nuclear reactor designs currently being researched. Most of these designs are generally not expected to be available for commercial construction before 2030. Small modular reactors are also still in the design stage.

I suspect that even in Australia, solar and wind power systems, both centralised and small, will be well established by 2050, and nuclear power will be a forgotten dream.

Noel Wauchope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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