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Reconsidering Nuclear Power

Posted by Lindy on April 29, 2009

If you are still not sure whether nuclear power is a good thing, or even if you are fairly convinced it isn’t, this is a must read article before you finally make up your mind.

ABC Unleashed article on IFR by Geoff Russell (Geoff is an unpaid committee member of Animal Liberation SA, also long standing member of Amnesty International, Australian Conservation Foundation and Oxfam. He is a computer programmer and mathematician who earns a living writing computer software in the transit scheduling industry. He is also a keen cyclist and food grower and and has written for The Monthly, Dissent, Australasian Science and the Independent Weekly).

I was a long-haired 18-year-old hippie student activist in 1972 and cheered loudly when Greenpeace sailed into the French nuclear pacific testing zone. A few years later I studied nuclear physics at Macquarie University as part of an Arts degree. Know thine enemy has always been a favourite motto of mine.

Decades later, I sneered at the Howard/Zwitkowski nuclear plans but still read the background report by Manfred Lenzen and the Institute of Sustainability Analysis (ISA). I ho-hummed my way through Tim Flannery’s nuclear pages in The Weather Makers. There was nothing in any of it that made me regret donating my old physics books to a trash and treasure sale.

But back in August 2008 my world view got a little nudge. NASA climate scientist James Hansen circulated a report in which he discussed a draft of a book by Tom Blees called Prescription for the Planet. Blees outlines an ambitious plan built around Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) nuclear technology. For reasons that will become obvious, this technology didn’t rate a mention in the Howard/Zwitkowski review.

My considerable respect for Hansen left me just a little shaken, but definitely not stirred. Blees must surely be a force from the dark side. But just when I thought it safe to re-enter the water, Barry Brook, the Professor of Climate Change here in Adelaide started to discuss the Blees book and the technologies on his blog, BraveNewClimate. I’ve worked on a few things with Barry and figured I really had no alternative now but to read the damn book. What a bloody nuisance.

So what’s it all about? Ask yourself these questions.

1) Are you worried about nuclear waste?

2) Are you petrified at the thought of nuclear proliferation?

3) Would you like to close down all uranium mines?

4) Would you like to shut down all China’s coal fired power stations (and those in the rest of the world) but save the power generation infrastructure?

5) Do you really believe that we only have a few years to tame our climate?

6) Do you want to both tame the climate and give those in the developing world a better life?

If you answered Yes to all (or even most) the questions in the previous paragraph, then you need to rethink your nuclear views, regardless of how deeply ingrained they are.

IFR reactors can be powered by that very waste which the nuclear industry just can’t seem to get rid of. They can digest it and burn it until it is just a shadow of its former self. The result is a tiny amount of much more manageable waste.

Once IFR reactors have finished cleaning up the mess left by current reactors (which includes the types advocated by Howard and his mates), they can run on depleted uranium – this is, among other things, a by-product of making fuel for current reactors and we have enough of the stuff to power the planet for thousands of years. Not just enough to power the rich world either, enough for everybody. All this depleted uranium is currently not doing much except hardening munitions. It badly needs a better job description and saving the climate fits the bill.

Once we have enough IFR reactors up and running, we can shut down all our uranium mines. Of course, you have to understand my very real fear of ‘being disappeared’ for making this suggestion in South Australia and you will understand why the Howard/Zwitkowski tag team conveniently forgot to mention it.

Factory-built IFR modular batteries can even be hooked up to existing coal power generation facilities so that this huge mass of infrastructure isn’t wasted.

Is IFR pie in the sky? Is it a magic bullet? Neither. These reactors have been built and operated. A US research reactor, which demonstrated most of the technology, was closed down by the Clinton administration in 1994. This reactor wasn’t just a lab toy, but big enough to demonstrate the viability of the technology.

The Russians ran a variant design for a couple of decades as did the Japanese. As for this being a magic bullet … there are no magic bullets, we still need all the renewables and efficiencies we can muster. If you want a pie-in-the-sky, dead-risky, totally unproven technology then you can’t go past attempting to bury the carbon dioxide from coal fired power stations.

Now get ready for a shock, what you are about to read represents the best available science, but is not well understood by politicians fixated upon emission reduction targets. Read the next sentence very carefully. Then read it again.

It doesn’t matter what greenhouse gas emission reduction targets we make, even if we meet them. If we don’t also leave most of currently known coal reserves in the ground, then our children’s children will be toast.

James Hansen gives the full explanation here. You need to reflect on this as you attempt to place your nuclear fears into context.

When I introspect my previous anti-nuclear position I realise it was based on two things.

First, a general distrust of big business ethics. Younger readers will not recall that the French secret service blew up a Greenpeace boat in 1985 killing a photographer, Fernando Pereira. The conspiracy machine is still making money out of that one, but you’d get good odds on the orders ultimately coming from a suit with a paunch on a nuclear board somewhere.

My view of big business hasn’t softened over the years. Having read Blees, a look at the relevant sections of the Howard/Zwitkowski report, Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy, confirms that this was nothing more than a jobs and money exercise for mates. Greenpeace turncoat Patrick Moore similarly spruiks for nuclear but, as far as I can see, only for the problem-creating forms, not the problem-solving forms.

My second basis for opposition was based on risks, and while I had a reasonable understanding of the nuclear risks, I knew little about many other things that kill people on a daily basis, and nothing about global warming.

Global warming has changed the game and my knowledge of other risks has increased. Australians, for example, eat red meat and about half a million of the current population will get bowel cancer as a result. Note that I said will and not may.

Nuclear risks are different, they are all of the may variety and the only one worthy of a little paranoia is the risk of a nuclear war. A reactor accident, even a shocker like Chernobyl, simply doesn’t cut it beside the daily global carnage of malaria, typhoid, dirty water, car accidents, tobacco, hunger, meat, obesity and alcohol or beside the certainty of a bird flu pandemic which will kill tens or hundreds of millions. Many virologists regard this as a certainty, with the only uncertainty being when it will happen.

I don’t view my reassessment as a cop-out. Most of the current nuclear industry, the uranium miners, the coal lobby and the politicians in their sway, will fight IFR tooth and nail. But we need it, not just in a country blessed with sunshine, land and hot-rocks, but globally we need it.


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