The comment that I made yesterday on Climate Progress that questioned why the blog has such an antinuclear stance did not make it through the moderation step and did not appear. However, there is a useful conversation going on there about an important topic. If an organization claims that preventing climate change is its reason for being, how can it justify an antinuclear stance? It requires a high degree of self delusion or intellectual gymnastics to make that combination work since nuclear energy is proven on a large scale to operate without producing any greenhouse gas emissions. As a side benefit, it also does not produce any acid gas emissions, does not release any mercury, and does not release any fine particulate matter.
There is no doubt that nuclear energy is not perfect and has some issues – mainly related to cost and construction schedules – that need to be solved. Anyone really concerned about climate change should be encouraging the implementation of solutions to those issues, not merely critically attacking the progress that has been made so far.
Here is the contribution that I made today to the discussion on Climate Progress’s post titled Sen. Lamar Alexander plans to nuke his own agenda.
I will try again to join the conversation, fully recognizing that “JR” may not appreciate or approve my comment. That’s okay, it’s his blog.
In response to a comment that pointed out a technically inaccurate statement about the radioactivity of plutonium by an organization that calls itself the Union of Concerned Scientists, there was a parenthetical response by the blog host that minimized the importance of the statement as follows:
“[JR: UCS statement was poorly worded.]”
I have done a bit of technical document editing for scientists and engineers who are often guilty of “poorly wording” their work, but they are normally careful about maintaining technical accuracy. A UCS document that reads well but has technical inaccuracies reinforces my continued assertions that the organization has more lawyers and activists than “scientists”, despite its name. It is interesting that the authors of this particular Climate Progress blog entry chose to quote the UCS, but carefully edit the following statement to take out the assertion that reprocessing somehow turns plutonium into something that is not radioactive:
From the perspective of terrorists seeking a nuclear weapon, reprocessing changes plutonium from a form in which it is highly radioactive and nearly impossible to steal to one in which it is not radioactive and could be stolen surreptitiously by an insider, or taken by force during its routine transportation.
Note: The above quote was still on the UCS web site as of December 5, 2010 at 0551
Another parenthetical comment deserves some response:
“[JR: Areva has lots of problems selling reactors anywhere in the world as the links show. They won’t even give a guarantee for the current $8 billion price for a new nuke.]”
Yes, design decisions made more than 20 years ago when the EPR project started have been haunting Areva’s sales efforts. At that time, their predecessor company and their partner in the EPR project – Siemens – determined that the best way to design a reactor that could attract customers was to layer on as many safety “features” as possible. They added such bells and whistles as a massive “core catcher”, full scale aircraft impact protection, and four separate safety chains. The computed core damage frequency of the EPR is incredibly low.
The problem is that the market today is not interested in paying for the cost and schedule impacts associated with a component that will never be used – the core catcher. (Based on analysis of the core pressure vessel of TMI unit 2, melted “corium” is unlikely to even penetrate the pressure vessel cladding, and has no probability of penetrating the pressure vessel, or the standard containment boundary.) They are also willing to accept a minute amount of risk associated with a direct precision attack by a large, fuel filled aircraft if accepting that incredibly small risk means that they save a lot of money on the plant construction costs.
With the EPR, Areva is stuck in the position of Rolls Royce – it is marketing what is arguably the “safest” reactor in a market where there are other adequately safe reactors available at a much lower price. There is nothing inherently wrong with the design, it just does not match what the customers wants to buy. That is why Areva is also marketing both a BWR (KERENA – http://bit.ly/g02hpX) and a PWR (ATEMA1 – http://bit.ly/h1vn48) that are simpler and produce a bit less power and why they are investing into some SMR projects as well.
Once again I have to ask – if the goal of Climate Progress is to help alleviate the real problems associated with dumping fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere, why not discuss ways to take away some of the barriers to nuclear energy and solve some of the technical challenges rather that simply throwing critical stones at the technology and the people who are working feverishly to improve it.
As a former submarine engineer officer, I cannot get past my own personal experience with nuclear technology. If a power system is clean enough to operate inside a sealed ship and reliable enough to use just one reactor in a place where a power failure can be fatal, then it is worth pursuing and solving the challenges. Unlike JR, I did not cut my teeth in the energy world at the feet of a guy who never bothered to finish school and thinks that finding a cheap, abundant source of energy would be a bad thing.
I suspect the financial motives of anyone who claims to be focused on solving climate issues and ignores nuclear while accepting natural gas as being a sufficiently less polluting that coal. Even the very best gas plants still produce about 500 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour while the best nuclear plants – with enrichment done with centrifuges powered by nuclear reactors – produce less than 10 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour for their entire life cycle.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Update: (Posted on December 6, 2010 at 0509) There is an article titled Nuclear power running on fumes that has been published at ClimateChange.foreignpolicyblogs.com. Articles like this make rational people suspicious that the real agenda and the stated agenda of people who claim to be focused on reducing the effects of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels are at odds with each other. There are legitimate reasons for concern, but serious people who want to solve the problem recognize that it is illogical to avoid using the most capable tool in the solutions box.