Last year, a documentary called New Fire was released promoting new types of nuclear power reactors.
The heroes of the film were young entrepreneurs Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, founders of a start-up called Transatomic Power that was developing a ‘Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor’.
Problems arose during the long gestation of New Fire. Transatomic Power had given up on its plan to use nuclear waste as fuel after its theoretical calculations were shown to be false, and the waste-annihilating reactor was reinvented as a waste-producing, uranium-fuelled reactor.
Worse was to come: just before the release of New Fire, Transatomic went bust and collapsed altogether.
The Australian parliament’s ‘inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia‘ is shaping up to be another epic fail.
The premise of the inquiry is that “new technologies in the field are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production.”
Fuelling climate change
But the ‘advanced’ nuclear sector isn’t advanced. The next ‘advanced’ reactor to commence operation will be Russia’s floating nuclear power plant, designed to help exploit fossil fuel reservesin the Arctic ‒ fossil fuel reserves that are more accessible because of climate change.
That isn’t ‘advanced’ ‒ it is dystopian.
Russia’s enthusiastic pursuit of nuclear-powered icebreaker ships (nine such ships are planned by 2035) is closely connected to its agenda of establishing military and economic control of the Northern Sea Route ‒ a route that owes its existence to climate change.
China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) says the purpose of its partly-built ACPR50S demonstration reactor is to develop floating nuclear power plants for oilfield exploitation in the Bohai Sea and deep-water oil and gas development in the South China Sea.
‘Advanced’ nuclear reactors are advancing climate change. Another example comes from Canada, where one potential application of small reactors is providing power and heat for the extraction of fossil fuels from tar sands.
Some ‘advanced’ reactors could theoretically consume more nuclear waste than they produce. That sounds great ‒ until you dig into the detail.
An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ‒ co-authored by Allison Macfarlane, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ‒ states that “molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors – due to the unusual chemical compositions of their fuels – will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues.”
The subclass of sodium-cooled fast reactors called ‘integral fast reactors’ (IFRs) could theoretically gobble up nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity, using a process called pyroprocessing.
But an IFR R&D program in Idaho has left a god-awful mess that the Department of Energy (DOE) is struggling to deal with.
This saga is detailed in a 2017 article and a longer report by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior scientist Dr. Edwin Lyman, drawing on documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation.
Dr. Lyman writes:
“Pyroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem. … The FOIA documents we obtained have revealed yet another DOE tale of vast sums of public money being wasted on an unproven technology that has fallen far short of the unrealistic projections that DOE used to sell the project”.
Nuclear weapons, nuclear winter
Some ‘advanced’ reactors could theoretically consume more fissile (explosive) nuclear material than they produce. Instead of contributing to weapons proliferation risks and problems, they could contribute to the resolution of those problems.
That sounds great ‒ until you dig into the detail. After Russia’s floating nuclear plant, the next ‘advanced’ reactor to commence operation may be the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) in India.
The PFBR has a blanket with thorium and uranium to breed fissile uranium-233 and plutonium respectively ‒ in other words, it will be ideal for weapons production.
India plans to use fast breeder reactors (a.k.a. fast neutron reactors) to produce weapon-grade plutonium for use as the initial ‘driver’ fuel in thorium reactors.
As John Carlson, the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, has repeatedly noted, those plans are highly problematic with respect to weapons proliferation and security.
There’s nothing “cleaner, safer and more efficient” about India’s ‘advanced’ reactor program.
On the contrary, it is dangerous and it fans regional tensions and proliferation concerns in South Asia ‒ all the more so since India refuses to allow International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards inspections of its ‘advanced’ nuclear power program.
And if those regional tensions boil over into nuclear warfare, catastrophic climate change will likely result.
Fossil fuels provide the surest route to catastrophic climate change; nuclear warfare provides the quickest route.
The slow death of fast reactors
The ‘advanced’ nuclear power sector isn’t advancing ‒ it is regressing.
The Russian government recently clawed back US$4 billion from Rosatom’s budget by postponing its fast neutron reactor program; specifically, by putting on hold plans for what would have been the only gigawatt-scale fast neutron reactor anywhere in the world.
And funding is tight because of yet another failing project: a 100-megawatt materials testing reactor that is 500% over-budget (and counting) and eight years behind schedule (and counting).
Other fast reactor projects have collapsed in recent years.
TerraPower abandoned its plan for a prototype fast reactor in China last year due to restrictions placed on nuclear trade with China by the Trump administration, and requests for US government funding have reportedly received a negative reception.
Fast reactors and other ‘advanced’ concepts are sometimes called Generation IV concepts.
But fast reactors have been around since the dawn of the nuclear age. They are best described as failed Generation I technology ‒ “demonstrably failed technology” in the words of Allison Macfarlane.
The number of operating fast reactors reached double figures in the 1980s but has steadily fallen and will remain in single figures for the foreseeable future.
Currently, just five fast reactors are operating ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors.
Small modular reactors
As discussed previously in RenewEconomy, most of the handful of small modular reactors (SMRs) under construction are over-budget and behind schedule; there are disturbing connections between SMRs, weapons proliferation and militarism more generally; and about half of the SMRs under construction are intended to be used to facilitate the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves.
SMRs aren’t leading to “cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production”. And SMRs aren’t advancing ‒ projects are falling over left, right and centre:
- Babcock & Wilcox abandoned its mPower SMR project in the US despite receiving government funding of US$111 million.
- Westinghouse sharply reduced its investment in SMRs after failing to secure US government funding.
- China is building a demonstration high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) but it is behind schedule and over-budget and plans for additional
- HTGRs at the same site have been “dropped” according to the World Nuclear Association.
- MidAmerican Energy gave up on its plans for SMRs in Iowa after failing to secure legislation that would force rate-payers to part-pay construction costs.
- Rolls-Royce sharply reduced its SMR investment in the UK to “a handful of salaries” and is threatening to abandon its R&D altogether unless massive subsidies are provided by the British government.
Fusion, thorium, and high-temperature zombie reactors
Fusion? At best it is decades away and most likely it will forever remain decades away. Two articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Dr. Daniel Jassby ‒ a fusion scientist ‒ comprehensively debunk all of the rhetoric spouted by fusion enthusiasts.
Thorium? There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium, so building a thorium fuel cycle from scratch to replace the uranium fuel cycle would be absurd ‒ and it won’t happen.
High-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) including the pebble-bed modular reactor sub-type?
This zombie concept refuses to die even as one after another country embarks on R&D, fails, and gives up. As mentioned, China is building a prototype but has dropped plans for further HTGRs.
Claims that new nuclear technologies are leading to “cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production” could only be justified with reference to concepts that exist only as designs on paper.
As a nuclear industry insider quipped: “We know that the paper-moderated, ink-cooled reactor is the safest of all. All kinds of unexpected problems may occur after a project has been launched.”
There’s nothing that can be said about ‘advanced’ reactor rhetoric that wasn’t said by Admiral Hyman Rickover ‒ a pioneer of the US nuclear program ‒ all the way back in 1953:
“An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose (‘omnibus reactor’). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.
“On the other hand, a practical reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.”
Federal inquiry ‒ get your submission in
The parliamentary ‘inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia‘ is accepting submissions until September 16.
The inquiry is controlled by Coalition MPs and they need all the education we can offer them ‒ about the whole suite of energy options, not just nuclear power ‒ so get your submission in by September 16!