Australia joins international forum to develop new Gen IV nuclear reactors

This first appeared on Independent Australia

Yes, I bet that you’ve never heard of the GIF, either. I hadn’t, until just this week, when by chance, I heard of The Australian Parliament’s Treaties Committee’s Inquiry into the “Charter” or  Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems. The Committee consists of 9 Liberal MPs, 6 Labor, and one Green.

That inquiry is being held now, and the Committee calls, or more correctly, whispers, for submissions by 28 April 2017.

It is all about the GIF – The Generation IV International Forum     The Australian Government signed up to this, In 2016, without any public discussion

What is The Generation IV International Forum (GIF)?

An international collection of 14 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, the UK and the USA ( original charter members 2005) Switzerland, Euratom, China, Russia and Australia (signed later)  . The World Nuclear Association describes the collection as countries for whom nuclear energy is significant now or seen as vital in the future.

 What is the 2005 Framework Agreement aka ‘the Charter’?

According to the World Nuclear Association the 2005 Framework agreement “formally commits them (signatories) to participate in the development of one or more Generation IV systems selected by GIF for further R and D.” Australia signed the ‘Charter’ on 22 nd June 2016 – by Dr Adi Patterson COE of the Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. (pending this JSCOT review). ANSTO is to be the implementing agent.

When the Australian government quietly signed up to the GIF, it made no commitment to any particular action towards developing new nuclear reactors.  Other countries, including Japan, Canada, France, South Korea, have committed to working on particular types ofGeneration IV reactors Australia might be expected to not only fully sign up as a member of the Charter, but perhaps also to provide funding and resources to develop one or more types.

Australia’s signing of the GIF

Media reports indicate Australia made a bid or approach to join GIF. The active seeking out of such an agreement that is at odds with public opinion, at odds with the current Governments policy position on nuclear power and is inconsistent with Australian laws which prohibit the use of this technology is astounding.

What the Gov’t said in 2016 in relation to joining GIF: Christopher Pyne, said:

Australia’s invitation to join this important global project marks an exciting opportunity to be at the forefront of global innovation in the nuclear industry.” He added, “Inclusion in the GIF further strengthens Australia’s position as a nation that has the research muscle to deliver innovations on the global stage. It reinforces the governments 1 $billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, encouraging our best and brightest researchers to collaborate with international experts.

Julie Bishop said in relation to joining GIF:

 Australia has firm non-proliferation goals and nuclear safety objectives, and   contributing to the global conversation on this level is an opportunity to assist in the research that is making nuclear technologies safer around the world in the long term.

What are Gen IV (Generation 4 reactors)

Generation IV reactors describe 6 models/concepts of reactors that claim to solve many of the problems with nuclear power – waste, proliferation risks, safety. There are six reactor technologies described as Gen IV. A 2014 industry update on the road map for development of these 6 technologies can be seen at seen at Technology Roadmap Update for Generation IV Nuclear EnergySystems

In short all 6 technologies are in the ‘viability’ (conceptual) or ‘performance’ (engineering) phase. The earliest prediction for the development of a prototype would be 2022, but it’s expected it will take much longer.

ANSTO makes a number of questionable assumptions about Australia joining in developing new nuclear reactors. For example ANSTO claims that it would “Further Australia’s non-proliferation and nuclear safety objectives” , and “Further strengthen our claim as the most advanced nuclear country in SEAP”, and will position Australia to develop Generation IV reactors.

There are so many questions about this – one hardly knows where to start:

  • Why was there no public discussion about this and yet it is a departure from existing energy policy in Australia – for a technology that is currently prohibited – a prohibition which is supported by all major parties in Australia?
  • What conversations between ANSTO and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Science were had about the signing of the 2005 Framework?
  • What exactly was the intention behind signing the ‘Charter’ what does Australia hope to gain from being involved?
  • What capacity or resources are being allocated for involvement in GIF?
  •  if the objective on joining the GIF is to strengthen non-proliferation and safety – why is ANSTO the implementing agent not the Australia Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office?
  • Given that Australia has clearly and repeatedly made the assessment that nuclear energyis not an option for Australia, why is our active participation – using Australian taxpayers resources for the development of nuclear power technology, in our interest?
  • National Interest Analysis states that Australia had “to demonstrate that it could contribute to the research and development goals of the GIF in a unique and substantive way” – how did Australia do that – and what contributions is ANSTO advocating Australia make towards the research and development goals of the GIF?
  • What are the anticipated costs of such contributions?  Over what period of time?  For what guaranteed outcome?
  • What are the Government and ANSTO’s intentions  in relation to advancing or positioning Australia to develop nuclear energy (a technology which is currently prohibited under Australian laws)?

Nuclear Power has continually been dismissed as an energy option for Australia. Recent Reports from Pro nuclear or neutral orgs on nuclear – all excluding nuclear as an energy option for Australia.  Some examples :

Nuclear power cannot be approved under either The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 EPBC Act or the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998.

In 2017 the “conventional” nuclear industry, with the leading companies AREVA, Toshiba, Westinghouse, is beset by financial problems.  At the same time new renewable energy systems are flourishing, and coming down in price. It seems absurd that the Australian government should now want to venture into development of new nuclear reactors, that exist only in the design phase, that have problems in getting private investment or insurance.

 

Pro nuclear submissions to South Australian Parliament show the primary interest is in promoting “new nuclear”

This article first appeared on Independent Australia  [where links are included]

THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN government’s promotional campaign for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (NFCRC) continues to stress the economic gain to the State through importing nuclear wastes.

However, recent pro-nuclear submissions to the South Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission have instead focussed on the benefits of “new nuclear” technology, particularly “small modular reactors” (SMRs) — note how the word “nuclear” is left out since people distrust it.

The global nuclear lobby is keenly interested in the South Australian government’s plan to import nuclear waste, because it would solve the waste problem for nuclear companies wanting to sell reactors and particularly, new types of nuclear reactors, to Asian countries.

This idea was pioneered by Australians and spelt out early in 2015, just as the NFCRC was starting, in an ABC Radio National talk by Oscar Archer. Since then, we haven’t heard any more about this, as the whole emphasis in SA government propaganda, has been on the billions supposedly to be made by that state from importing nuclear wastes. The idea of developing new nuclear technology is mentioned in the NFCRC report (p56 and p63) but very much played down and not recommended for South Australia.

Still, for foreign nuclear companies, the underlying aim is to further, or more correctly, to save, the nuclear industry by setting up new nuclear reactors, in particular SMRs.

It is vital for the nuclear industry to have a nuclear waste disposal plan. The industry has pretty much given up on selling nuclear reactors to countries that already have nuclear power and they are struggling with the waste problem. The big hope is to sell to “new” countries.

They are clearly looking to South Asia, as shown at the conference, The Prospects for Nuclear Power in the Asia Pacific Region, held in August, in Manila. The deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mikhail Chudakov said that IAEA sees South Asia as a region where nuclear energy is “high on the agenda” and could be one of the drivers for global nuclear power deployment.

The thing is, no country is going to embark on the nuclear power path – for small or large reactors – unless they have a prior plan for the disposal of radioactive wastes. This is vital for the nuclear industry — which is where Australia comes in.
I was surprised that out of 55 submissions to the South Australian Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, only five were pro-nuclear.

However, despite the NFCRC’s distinct lack of enthusiasm for new nuclear technology, three of those five submissions were focussed, not on waste importing, but on new nuclear reactors.

Ben Heard’s whole argument is directed at new reactors:

Our research indicates that South Australia could make a significant contribution in this technology development beginning at a modest reinvestment of revenues from used fuel.

Many nations in this region already exploit nuclear technology however this use is constrained by lack of a back-end solution…… The availability of a multinational solution for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle could change these investment decisions profoundly.
Heard backs up his argument by playing the climate card of nuclear being “low carbon” and so on.

Dayne Eckermann writes:

‘The main motivation for myself and others to embrace and openly support this technology is its immense power output from a relative small facility.’
And the South Australia Chamber of Mines and Energy’s (SACOME’s) view:

Australia’s well-equipped political, legal and educational structures mean that a reactor program could – with the support of experienced international partners – be started swiftly

SACOME strongly believes that the advances in small modular reactors and advanced reactor designs will provide the necessary facilities to be able to service remote mine clusters and townships where economical to do so.

Of the remaining two submissions, one from Leighton Smith was short — a very few lines of general support for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission waste import plan. And the other submission from Graeme Weber, was confined to a recommendation of the Gawler Range Volcanics as a site for waste facility.

I understand that, for the Parliamentary Committee, all submissions were actually published. This is in contrast to the NFCRC process, in which submissions from interested parties such as foreign nuclear companies were kept confidential.

While Premier Weatherill’s propaganda campaign rolls on with a somewhat simplified story on the nuclear waste import plan, the serious players in the Australian nuclear lobby, are holding their fire for now, with only those three submissions to the Parliamentary Committee. Like Oscar Archer, at the beginning of the NFCRC saga, they are primarily keen for “new nuclear”, with the waste import as a necessary prelude. Still, all of them realise that the first steps are to change laws and associated regulations, such as:

State Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000.
Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 2000,
Customs Act 1901
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1999
Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987

 

Why Australia is important to the ‘Small Nuclear’ Lobby

Originally published on Independent Australia

Quietly, pretty much under the media radar, a dispute is going on in the global nuclear industry between the advocates of “Generation III ” – big nuclear reactors, and “Generation IV”- small nuclear reactors.

The best illustration of this is what’s going on in Britain right now. There are numerous articles in UK press on the growing unease about the costs and feasibility of Britain’s Hinkley C nuclear project. Some critics of this big nuclear power project are nuclear power enthusiasts, such as Mark Lynas, who just happen to promote small nuclear reactors.

In USA, too, the proponents of Small Nuclear Reactors are lobbying hard to compete with the conventional large nuclear reactors. There are billions of dollars at stake, depending on which side gets contracts for sale of nuclear technology.

However, The nuclear lobby’s spiel to Australia is something different, and very original. No dispute – because the argument is that small reactors would further the large reactor industry. First articulated by Oscar Archer on ABC Radio National, March 2015, the idea is that Australia, in setting up Small Nuclear Reactors, would enable the conventional nuclear industry, and uranium mining, to flourish. At maturity, Australia would be running on PRISM(Power Reactor Innovative Small Module) reactors fuelled by the used fuel we would be receiving, while the world would running on a much larger number of Generation III+ reactors, which we would supply with uranium under a fuel leasing model. The transition to PRISM worldwide would take place on the back of Australia’s pioneering embrace of the technology.

As Archer says, Australia would indeed be the pioneer for the new technology.

And that’s what the USA “new nuclear” lobby desperately needs. They need this, because they’re finding it impossible to go ahead in America. Why? Well it’s those pesky safety regulations imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

What the “Small Nuclear” lobby needs is a “nuclear friendly” country, one with less stringent safety regulations, to set up their nuclear reactors on a test site, . Hence the enthusiasm of those lobbyists for the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission, as shown, for example, in a recent Royal Commission Hearing speech by Thomas Marcille of Holtec nuclear company.

Companies like Transatomic Power, TerraPower, Moltex Energy, Tri-Alpha Energy, and Terrestrial Energy would prefer to start the process in America. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has proved to be a real nuisance, since it tightened regulations for the licensing process, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The new nuclear marketers have had to go overseas, first to China, then perhaps to Australia?

Former chairman of the NRC (2011 -2015) Allison MacFarlane, is no help. The long time lines, safety concerns, and high capital cost of building nuclear plants all require a regulatory process that is thorough, painstaking, and costly. “Nuclear is a different beast,” Macfarlane said at the recent pro nuclear Solve Conference. “The problem is not the NRC,” she said at the conference. “It’s the economics” of nuclear power.

The Small Nukes” lobby looks to Australia to take a more sympathetic attitude.

Strange timing to suggest a LEGO nuclear future for Australia

By 2022, could Australia have many “Lego-like” small nuclear reactors in operation, dotted about the nation?

This is being proposed now, not just by the long-term fervent believers in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), but in formal submissions to the coming Energy White Paper. Last month, the Department of Industry’s submission to the Energy White Paper pitched Small Modular Reactors as an energy solution for isolated areas in Australia, where there is no access to the electricity grid. The Energy Policy Institute of Australia (EPI) agrees ‘suggesting small modular reactors (SMRs) as being particularly suitable for use in mines and towns in remote locations in many parts of Australia.’
The BHP-funded Grattan Institute’s submission envisages a string of these little nuclear reactors, connected to the grid, along Australia’s Eastern coast.
Keith Orchison reports on the Grattan Institute submission: “The Abbott government is being told that now is the time to flick the switch to “technology neutral,” opening the way for nuclear options”. Orchison described the advantages of SMRs as”Lego-like”

But their timing is strange, and the worst thing is to get ahead of the market

In 2014 it is becoming clear that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are not likely to become an operational reality for many decades, and perhaps never.
America was the pioneer of small reactor design in the 1970s. Again recently, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox have been the leaders in designing and developing SMRs. But in 2014 the bottom has fallen out of these projects.

Danny Roderick, President and CEO of Westinghouse, announcing the closure of the SMR plan, said that “it was not the deployment of the technology that posed the biggest problem – it was that there were no customers”. “The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market,” he added.

Babcock and Wilcox ‘s CEO Jim Ferland warned (31/3/14) that B & W are cutting back on their expenditure on SMRs, despite the fact that they received up to $225 million in loan grants from the USA government, for the SMR development in Charlotte. Taxpayer associations are concerned, as are the U.S. House and Senate committees. The Charlotte Business Journal reports that:
” B&W has been unable to find an investor or investor group to take on a 70 percent to 80 percent share of its joint venture to develop a 180-megawatt reactor to produce electricity… The eventual market for the reactor… appears weaker than initially projected”.

So – in USA the outlook for small nuclear reactors is poor.

But then there is China, isn’t there?
The proponents of small thorium nuclear reactors have had a field day, with numerous media articles, such as Chinese going for broke on thorium nuclear power, China to accelerate thorium reactor development. All of these news reports seem to have been derived from an initial article by Stephen Chen in the South China Morning Post – Chinese scientists urged to develop new thorium nuclear reactors by 2024. It should be noted that nowhere in this article does Chen mention “small” reactors. However, Australian proponents of “small” reactors welcomed this article, as the Thorium Small Nuclear Reactor is the top favourite type proposed for Australia, from all 15 possible small designs

So – we’re being told that China is racing ahead in the scramble to get these wonderful SMRs. In fact, China has been very much encouraged and helped into this by USA’s Department of Energy. Understandable – seeing that for China it is a government project, with no required expectation of it being commercially viable.
In their enthusiasm for China’s thorium nuclear project, writers neglected to mention the sobering points that Stephen Chen made in his South China Morning Post article. I think that a few of these points deserve repeating:
“Researchers working on the project said they were under unprecedented ‘war-like’ pressure to succeed and some of the technical challenges they faced were difficult, if not impossible to solve ”
“opposition from sections of the Chinese public ”
“technical difficulties – the molten salt produces highly corrosive chemicals that could damage the reactor”.”The power plant would also have to operate at extremely high temperatures, raising concerns about safety. In addition, researchers have limited knowledge of how to use thorium.”
“engineering difficulties…The thorium reactors would need years, if not decades, to overcome the corrosion issue” “These projects are beautiful to scientists, but nightmarish to engineers,”
Who else is trying to design and develop small nuclear reactors?

In the UK there has been a determined push for Thorium fuelled reactors, and for the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM). Secret talks are going on between GE-Hitachi and the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, about using PRISMS to deal with plutonium wastes
However the UK government and science authorities still conclude that deep burial, not reprocessing, is the best eventual solution for nuclear wastes.

Other small nuclear reactor plans in India and South Africa have foundered.

Then there are Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson. They have the advantage of plenty of money with which to try out a commercial experiment. Gates has signed loan guarantees to Toshiba of $8 billion to work with Terra Power,on Gates’ thorium-fuelled Travelling Wave Reactor

The zeal of Gates and Branson could be misplaced. Australia’s SMR enthusiasts discount the known problems of SMRs. Some brief reminders from the September 2013 report, from USA’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research:
Economics:” $90 billion manufacturing order book could be required for mass production of SMRs …the industry’s forecast of relatively inexpensive individual SMRs is predicated on major orders and assembly line production.”
“SMRs will lose the economies of scale of large reactors.”
“SMRs could reduce some safety risks but also create new ones”.
“It breaks, you bought it: no thought is evident on how to handle SMR recalls”.
Not a Proliferation Solution. “The use of enriched uranium or plutonium in thorium fuel has proliferation implications“.
Not a waste Solution “The fission of thorium creates long-lived fission products like technetium-99 (half-life over 200,000 years).”
Ongoing Technical Problems.
All this has been overlooked by the promoters of SMRs to Australia. Perhaps they’re banking on Australia to be the saviour that brings that desperately needed $90 billion manufacturing order.

Keith Orchison is upbeat about “the advent of small modular reactors.”

“These units, the argument goes, are very well suited to Australian conditions. Strategically located, SMRs of 25 to 300 megawatts can enhance supply security and improve the overall resilience of the grid….The case for SMRs also rests on their use being a much lower investment risk because of their lower capital costs, the relative speed with which they can be installed and the fact that their capacity can be readily increased, Lego-like, on an established site…SMRs could be in operation by around 2022,”

So – the SMRs could (?eventually) line up along the East Coast, connected to the grid. Or they could go to remote inland sites. Then there is that other agenda – a foot in the door for the bigger nuclear power industry. Ben Heard‘s pro nuclear site Decarbonise SA sets out the steps from an SMR start to uranium enrichment and the full nuclear cycle. More secretively, Dr John White works on the long range plan ranging from thorium fuelled reactors, to Australia as importer of radioactive wastes

There are ructions in the global nuclear industry. Westinghouse is getting out of uneconomic Small Modular Reactors, and getting in to a lucrative new area – decommissioning nuclear reactors. Big Nuclear has its own problems – uneconomic in USA, super-expensive in UK, Japan in a sort of nuclear paralysis, Finland with its long-delayed, over-budget Olkiluoto nuclear reactor. There’s a bewildering array of nuclear technology companies, from USA, Japan, Russia, France, China, South Korea – all jostling for markets. They have spent up big in development, promotion and lobbying, over many years. They, and Australia’s uranium industry, are not going to give up now, and hand over the market to the Small Modular Reactor, the undeveloped, untested, new kid on the block.

Still, Big Nuclear might like it, if a scientifically illiterate government such as Australia’s, might be persuaded to let that expensive new kid in. It could be a foot in the door for the whole nuclear fuel cycle, and another foot in the door for the USA nuclear weapons system. Even Westinghouse might be pleased, if Australia did buy into SMRs – it might facilitate their plans for empire in that quaintly termed industry “nuclear decommissioning” (so much nicer a phrase than “radioactive trash dumping”).

The politics of Thorium Nuclear Reactors globally, and in Australia

They are the latest flavour in nuclear power hype.  According to their enthusiastic proponents, thorium reactors  will be  “smaller, safer, cheaper, cleaner”,   will take over the energy market in great numbers, and will  reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years. ” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/9644399/Hitachi-unveils-20bn-plan-to-build-nuclear-reactors-in-the-UK.html

Yet the present situation of Thorium Nuclear Reactors is  a confusing one. While on the one hand, thorium as a nuclear fuel, and thorium reactors, are being hyped with enthusiasm in both mainstream media and the blogosphere, the nuclear lobby is ambivalent about this.

The explanation becomes clearer, when you consider that the nuclear industry has sunk $billions into new (uranium or plutonium fuelled) large nuclear technologies, as well as into lobbying governments and media.  Would big corporations like Hitachi, EDF Westinghouse, Toshiba, Areva, Rosatom be willing, or indeed able, to withdraw from the giant international operations that they already have underway? Would they, could they, tolerate a mass uptake of the new thorium nuclear reactors, (which is what would be needed, to make the thorium market economical)?

Yet, the nuclear lobby, in Australia, and overseas, doesn’t just tolerate the thorium hype – they participate in it, although with not as much enthusiasm as the diehard thorium fans.  Now why is this?

The answer lies in just one concept – TIME.  It is going to take many decades to  get the thorium fuel cycle happening.  http://nuclearfreeplanet.org/thorium-not-green-not-viable-and-not-likely-oliver-tickell-june-2012-.html  The global nuclear industry has the twin goals of prolonging the life of currently operating nuclear reactors, and of building new ones.   Their rationale for this is often that, eventually, the energy solution will be nuclear fusion. So – in the meantime, the world needs nuclear power, they argue.

But nuclear fusion is still little more than  a super- expensive glint in the eye of nuclear boffins. Some  other dream is needed – something  that looks a bit more like it might happen.  The thorium excitement fills the bill, as once again, the public can be made to believe that after all, now there really is  safe, cheap  nuclear power.

The thorium advocates usually promote thorium reactors as a solution to both climate change and energy needs.  But, in reality, thorium nuclear energy is irrelevant to both.  Again – the first reason is – TIME.  Although there are current designs that could be established in 10 to 15 years, the most favoured design – the  Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is estimated to have, for a significant deployment, a lead time of 40 – 70 years. http://nuclearfreeplanet.org/thorium-not-green-not-viable-and-not-likely-oliver-tickell-june-2012-.html

In the meantime, renewable energy – wind and solar technologies,  are being developed and deployed at a fast rate.  Thorium reactors. like all things nuclear, have  challenging regulatory and funding requirements.

Which brings us to the ECONOMICS of thorium reactors. They are promoted as small reactors The makers have to have contracts for thousands before they can afford to start! Significant and expensive testing, analysis and licensing work is first required, requiring business and government support.

The fuel cycle is more costly and the needed protections for workers, plant safety and the public are considerably more than for existing fuels. http://www.simplyinfo.org/?p=3101   Compared to uranium, the thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly. In a once-through mode, it will need both uranium enrichment (or plutonium separation) and thorium target rod production. In a breeder configuration, it will need reprocessing, which is costly.

‘Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.’  – Dr Peter Karamoskos.

So far, I have touched only on these practicalities of the long lead time, and the diseconomics of thorium nuclear reactors, – as reasons why they will not be the global energy answer.

I could go on, and examine the mythology of Thorium-reactor-ism – the arguments used to tout this new nuclear dream.,  Many writers have refuted these myths.   In brief:

“Thorium reactors create no weapons proliferation hazard”.  “There is just no way to avoid proliferation problems associated with thorium fuel cycles that involve reprocessing. Thorium fuel cycles without reprocessing would offer the same temptation to reprocess as today’s once-through uranium fuel cycles.Thorium Fuel: No Panacea for Nuclear Power, http://ieer.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/thorium2009factsheet.pdf

“Thorium reactors avoid the problem of radioactive wastes”.    “With or without reprocessing, these fission products have to be disposed of in a geologic repository”.  With LFTRs – yes, there is  a smaller volume of  waste, but it is  more intensively radioactive. The reactor itself, at the end of its lifetime, will constitute high level waste.  http://ieer.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/thorium2009factsheet.pdf 

Thorium reactors are safe” – “Any bomb dropped on a thorium reactor will result in a catastrophic accident.”  http://www.ccnr.org/think_about_thorium.pdf   ” in an LFTR the main danger has been shifted from the reactor to the on-site continuous fuel reprocessing operation – a high temperature process involving highly hazardous, explosive and intensely radioactive materials. A further serious hazard lies in the potential failure of the materials used for reactor and fuel containment in a highly corrosive chemical environment, under intense neutron and other radiation.”  http://nuclearfreeplanet.org/thorium-not-green-not-viable-and-not-likely-oliver-tickell-june-2012-.html

Much more has been said about the disadvantages of thorium reactors in general, but I am more interested in the question of thorium nuclear reactors for Australia.     This idea is being touted lately, and we are being told how awful it is that China is beating Australia to the thorium miracle.  http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/china-moving-to-thorium-as-safe-nuclear-fuel/story-fnciihm9-1226550688296

Australia’s nuclear lobby doesn’t seem to share the ambivalence of their global peers, about thorium.  (This is curious, seeing that a thorium success might wreck Australia’s uranium industry)   But in fact, the thorium idea is  a bonus for Australia’s nuclear lobbyists.

To get to the nitty-gritty of this – while there are many types of thorium reactor designs, the most favoured type is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), in which   the fuel is in form of a molten fluoride salt of thorium and other elements. As thorium itself is not fissile, the process requires plutonium and/or enriched uranium to kick-start it. Therefore it’s necessary to:

(1) separate plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel using reprocessing technology,   or (2) produce highly enriched uranium.  This means the presence of a nuclear reprocessing nearby, or the transport of these dangerous materials – with all the security measures that this entails, and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Now, even if is is going to take 70 years to get thorium nuclear reactors going in Australia, the nuclear lobby is keen.  Because – well, the mere idea of these lovely little reactors needing plutonium or enriched uranium suggests the wisdom of Australia having uranium enrichment, nuclear power, nuclear reprocessing .  And heck – why not a radioactive waste facility – take in plutonium etc from other countries, as a lucrative industry?  Use it to facilitate the thorium reactors that will be dotted around the country.    To seriously consider thorium nuclear energy in Australia  – means a foot in the door for the whole nuclear fuel cycle here.

Some of Australia’s nuclear enthusiasts propose a system of many small thorium reactors in regional Australia.  They would power the mining industry, and provide electricity for rural towns.   Among the drawbacks of this plan is the necessity for security for each little reactor – the guarding of the reactors themselves, the guarding of  an on-site chemical plant to manage core mixture and remove fission products, the guarding of radioactive materials in transport.

The virtuous argument given for thorium reactors is that thorium power would cut greenhouse gases. This is a favourite Barry Brook argument for nuclear power.  Of course, the time lapse of around 50 years makes this argument irrelevant, anyway.  But I was fascinated to read, on Barry Brook’s website Brave New Climate – the following statement as an advantage  of thorium power :

Using Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) we can upgrade coal for export (made possible by the LFTR) and eliminate another 55 million tonnes – the coal industry pocketing 5.5 billion dollars of export earnings yearly for its  trouble.”   http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/12/17/lftr-in-australia/

So – thorium can cut Australia’s own greenhouse emissions,  while facilitating Australia’s coal export industry!   Never mind that:

The forecast expansion of Australian coal mining and exports would be the world’s second-largest contributor of new carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels if fully realised,
http://www.theage.com.au/national/australian-coal-mining-threatens-co2-target-20130122-2d5ck.html

I really don’t know what a thorium energy revolution  would do to the uranium industry. It doesn’t seem to me that uranium mining can rapidly switch to thorium mining. So I wonder if the thorium hype is rather bad PR for Australia’s already struggling uranium  industry.

All in all, the thorium nuclear reactor pitch is just another con job by the nuclear industry. They know it won’t happen –  but the idea might help resuscitate that industry. In Australia, it might even give it a kickstart.

Rejecting the call for Australia to get fast breeder reactors

(My letter to The Age, in response to article on 22 July)

In reply to the call for Australia to “consider” nuclear power, and even that nuclear power is “inevitable” for Australia,  The there are several matters that show that this is far from true.

First of all, renewable energy growth does not depend on Australia’s carbon tax.  Decentralised solar energy is becoming cheaper all the time, and even in Australia, is already taking business away from traditional centralised electricity. Battery storage of solar energy is improving all the time

Centralised solar power – large concentrated solar, and photovoltaic array systems do need government  subsidy to get started,  – but then  the fuel, sunlight, is free.  Commercial molten salt towers now provide storage of energy.  Wind power also is developing fast – the nuclear lobbyists don’t seem to want to keep up with this information.

As to ” fast breeder reactors  mopping up long-term nasties in waste,’‘ – this idea has been soundly rejected in USA. The  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), in research paid for by the nuclear industry concluded that fast breeder reactors were uneconomical. Both Britain and Japan have wasted huge amounts of money on the Sellafield and Monju failed experiments in nuclear reprocessing.

The  the core problem is that these  new reactors don’t eliminate the nuclear waste that has piled up so much as transmute it. They still end up producing radioactive wastes.

For Australia to get these “fast breeder reactors” they would have to be fuelled by plutonium – radioactive waste.  Where would we get this?.  So – Australia would need to import these wastes, or, to set up our own “conventional” nuclear reactors – in order to get the plutonium fuel

Either way – this would bring a problem for Australia.  Forgetting all those trivialities like safety, weapons proliferation, terrorism risks –  there’s one insurmountable problem –   COST.  Energy analysts now recognise that the only way that new nuclear reactors have any hope of being economical is in mass production and mass sales.

While renewable energy technologies become cheaper, more efficient, and more popular, the chances of Australia buying nuclear reactors, even the “Small Modular” ones in great numbers, are pretty slim.

Integral Fast Nuclear Reactors – the latest confidence trick from the nuclear lobby

The nuclear lobby seems to get quite irate when some amateur comes along and criticises their latest gimmicks. They sure revel with delight if some non-technical peasant should make any mistake, however small, in using the approved language of nuclear terminology. It’s really like the Catholic Church in earlier days, when they had all their dogmas and liturgy in Latin, so that the people just had to believe it all, with no explanation available in the vulgar tongue.

It must be reassuring to the nuclear lobby to know that the great unwashed, the hoi polloi, the peasantry, have no idea about the differences between the various types of nuclear reactors now in operation — the Generation 2 and Generation 3 reactors. Let alone the new developing blueprints of Generation IV: Integral Fast Reactors, Lead Cooled Fast Reactors, Molten Salt Reactors, Sodium Cooled Fast reactors, Thorium Liquid Fuel reactors; the peasant mind boggles! And wait, like those old TV commercials – there’s more! – Generation V is now in the minds and on some bits of paper of the nuclear boffins.

Well, the nuclear priesthood is pretty safe in all this. They keep the argument narrowly technical, with pages and pages on the various technicalities of cooling systems, reprocessing of fuel systems, passive safety systems and so on; in other words, they induce in the public a kind of mindless torpor as they dazzle us with science.

At the same time, the nuclear priesthood, like some gifted but autistic child with specialist knowledge in just one area, seems to have little grasp of other issues concerning nuclear power — blinkered as they are in their apparent view that the technicalities are the whole story.  This is the case with their latest propaganda for the ‘Integral Fast Reactor’ or IFR.

Continue reading Integral Fast Nuclear Reactors – the latest confidence trick from the nuclear lobby