Australian news, and some related international items

The problem with nuclear energy advocates

There is something curiously bewitching about nuclear power that makes its backers disciples rather than advocates. They become nuclear champions first rather than energy champions (which is what everyone should be), and are either unaware of or intentionally ignoring the fact that most of the time, they are putting their efforts into a solution that is looking for a problem.

ROUGH TRADE, By Ben Kritz, January 10, 2023

I WAS asked over the weekend if I planned to respond to a recent letter to the editor (“SMR issues addressed,” published on January 5), which said it was a reaction to my December 29 column about small modular reactor (SMR) technology and the problems that have been encountered in trying to make it commercially practical.

No, I responded, I had not planned to react to the letter because I could not see much in it to actually react to; while polite and thoughtful, it essentially boiled down to the same long-on-enthusiasm and short-on-specifics kind of pitch for SMR technology I see every day.

Maybe that’s exactly the point you need to address, my annoying yet helpful self-appointed consultant suggested.

I realized she’s right; there’s a bigger problem with nuclear energy and its advocates than just the technical and economic details that make it difficult to develop and use. There is something curiously bewitching about nuclear power that makes its backers disciples rather than advocates. They become nuclear champions first rather than energy champions (which is what everyone should be), and are either unaware of or intentionally ignoring the fact that most of the time, they are putting their efforts into a solution that is looking for a problem.

For the record, my December 29 column dealt with two more exotic forms of SMR technology, the traveling wave reactor (TWR) and the Natrium reactor; the basic difference between the two being that the latter uses uranium fuel that is enriched to a concentration that is four or five times what is used in a conventional reactor, and the former is designed to use unenriched or depleted uranium fuel. For a variety of reasons, both of those technologies are at least eight to 10 years from even being functional, and whether or not they can be made economical at all is still an open question.

The discussion about the less extreme and more common form of SMR technology was in the column prior to that, on December 27, and detailed obstacles with the development of commercial-ready SMRs that have been identified through actually trying to build an SMR plant, on the one hand, and a couple of reliable studies by nuclear experts (Stanford University and the Argonne National Laboratory) on the other.

The first obstacle is cost. A plant being constructed in rural Idaho by SMR developer NuScale — which is designed to eventually consist of six 77-megawatt units — has run into massive cost overruns, despite the assumption that SMRs are relatively inexpensive due to being smaller and simpler than conventional nuclear plants. NuScale is hoping to have the first of the six units online by 2029, but the per-megawatt-hour cost of the plant has hit $58, the threshold set by the consortium of six utilities in the western US which are financing the project to decide whether or not to continue.

The reason for this is that at that cost, there are already a variety of conventional and renewable energy generation sources available, so there is nothing to be gained by building the SMR complex, no matter how cutting-edge its technology may be.

The second obstacle is waste management. Again, because SMRs are smaller and less complex than conventional nuclear power plants, it is assumed that they would produce less radioactive waste, both of the more dangerous high-level variety in the form of spent fuel and the low-level variety in the form of wastewater and contaminated discarded equipment and other materials. 

This, however, is not the case, according to the Stanford and Argonne studies, both published last year. Both studies found the same result, that SMRs produce about as much waste as conventional light-water reactors, but differed in their subjective interpretation. The Stanford researchers concluded that this contraindicated the use of SMRs since they do not offer any improvement in waste management, while Argonne’s lead scientist suggested that the result was more positive, as it demonstrated using SMRs wouldn’t be any worse than conventional nuclear power.

Contrary to our recent reader-correspondent’s assertions, neither of those issues — the only two I focused on concerning SMRs, because they are not hypothetical, but demonstrated by real-world experience or analysis — are “addressed” at all by what he presented, which is “a unique approach to SMRs” being developed by an unnamed enterprise only identified as being Seattle-based. The design, according to him, uses “widely available, cheap low-enriched uranium” (as I have pointed out more than once, except for reactors running on exotic fuel like the Natrium, fuel is actually the least of the cost issues for a nuclear plant);  do not need to be refueled (are they then considered disposable?); and “are safe enough that their ‘plug-and-play’ generators can be placed anywhere with little infrastructure investment and without any special security.”

As for the application of this mysterious miracle technology in the Philippines, the company in question is “confident that they can satisfy all the requirements of the Philippine government regulators, the power companies and the public. They could even achieve the objective of having the current president preside over the ribbon-cutting ceremony before he leaves office.”

First of all, if the developer of this game-changing technology has created something that is ready enough that they are actively seeking a foothold in the Philippine market, one would think that they would be willing, even eager, to be clearly identified. I suspect I know who it is, and if I’m right, I’m going to be very disappointed because then this sly press release in the form of a letter to the editor (and yes, that’s exactly what it is; I get three or four press releases a day from different companies or trade publications that sound exactly like this) doesn’t even begin to answer questions that have already been raised about this specific company’s technology.

Second, even if this is just a standard-design SMR, we already know that a commercial version in its own country of origin will not be operational by the time President Marcos steps down, let alone be available to the Philippines. Local requirements might indeed be satisfied, but before that can even happen, the hoops that both US and Philippine stakeholders will have to jump through in order to secure export authorization from the US government — with the resulting agreement also needing approval from the Philippine Senate, the sort of thing it never acts quickly on — will take a couple of years at a minimum.

The Philippines could use nuclear energy, and it’s rational not to completely discount the future possibility of its doing so, provided a very long list of conditions are satisfactorily met. But it is in no position to serve as a test site for novel ideas that have been clearly demonstrated to be years from being a viable, let alone a practical, best option. Trying to mislead the public into believing that a magical solution is available for the asking — proselytizing for nuclear energy, rather than seeking actual attainable solutions for the country’s rather more immediate energy problems — is going to achieve very little, except to disappoint people and ensure this won’t be a market for whatever you’re selling.

January 10, 2023 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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