The Australian parliament’s ‘inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia’ in 2019 made the bizarre recommendation to retain the existing ban on nuclear power, but lift a ban on new nuclear technology. The premise of the inquiry was that “new technologies in the field are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production.” Below is a snapshot of new nuclear technologies – it is clear they are not cleaner, safer, affordable or ready for commercial development.
To the limited extent they have been deployed, these ‘advanced’ nuclear plants have been dangerous, expensive failures. We need urgent action to transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear simply does not meet our needs. Our energy future is renewable not radioactive.
Nuclear power for fossil fuel extraction
Russia, China and Canada are developing new types of reactors for the mining of fossil fuels. In Russia the first floating reactor was launched in 2019 to be used to access fossil fuels in the arctic. China are still developing floating reactors for offshore oil, gas and deep sea mining. And Canada is developing a roadmap for Small Modular Reactors – a key target is for mining tar ‘oil’ sands.
Small Modular Reactors?
Nuclear power proponents often push SMRs as solving many of the barriers to large scale nuclear – but here is why they are a bad idea:
- they would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large scale nuclear.
- SMRs loose economies of scale – it’s been suggested that SMRs are between two and three times more expensive than large reactors.
- they have lower thermal efficiency – this equated to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes
- The CSIRO and the Australian Energy Marker Operator reported in December 2019 that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced.
- SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”
Fast Reactors/ Fast Breeder / Fast Nuetron
Fast breeder or fast neutron 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 – former Chairman of the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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.
- Terrapower abandoned plans for a prototype not prototypes prototypes fast reactor in China
- France abandoned plans for a demonstration fast reactor
- Russia clawed back $4 billion from Rosatom’s budget by postponing its fast neutron reactor program
- Both the US and UK have rejected proposals for GE Htachi’s PRISM fast reactor technology
- Currently, just five fast reactors are operating ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors.
At best Fusion reactors are decades away and most likely they will forever remain decades away. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, fusion scientist Dr. Daniel Jassby explains that many of the same problems with fission would exist with fusion ‒ waste, weapons proliferation risks, high water consumption, etc.
Nuclear Waste as Nuclear Fuel?
Attempts to use nuclear waste as fuel have faced big hurdles and left an even bigger mess. The Union of Concerned Scientist report that “Department of Energy (DOE) has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem.” Another report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says these reactor types “will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues.“
There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium so the idea of replacing the uranium fuel cycle with a thorium fuel cycle is absurd. India’s interest in thorium is clearly connected to its weapons program. Thorium R&D is minimal and the World Nuclear Association notes that there are “significant hurdles in terms of building an economic case to undertake the necessary development work.”
Proponents of nuclear power dismiss the link to nuclear weapons. Some claim new technology can solve the risk of making weapon grade material. New nuclear technology being trialled in India shows two types of reactors – one which produces weapons grade material, the other relies on weapons grade material to begin the reaction that makes energy. And so the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons remains strong.
“For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”Al Gore – Former US Vice President