Richard Martin’s new book titled Superfuel: Thorium, The Green Energy Source for the Future is a book that should come with a warning label. Though the author professes to be worried about climate change and fossil fuel depletion and wants to be seen as favoring new nuclear power development, that support comes with a very large caveat. He so strongly believes that molten salt reactors fueled with thorium are “the only safe reactor” technology that he uses that phrase as the title for chapter three of his manuscript.
That chapter starts off with a description of a ship named the Altona, which was transporting natural uranium in its mined, oxide form called yellowcake (U3O8). The ship ran into some weather and some of the containers holding the yellowcake broke open, spilling some of the contents inside the hold.
For some unexplained reason, Martin described that incident as some kind of near miss. He also claimed that the ship was carrying “770,000 tons” of uranium yellowcake. A quick search of the vast resources at our fingertips reveals that the world’s total production of yellowcake in 2011 was 63,000 tons and that the world’s largest ship displaces about 565,000 tons. Perhaps that should have been 770,000 POUNDS, not tons. That is just one of many technical errors, including a statement that India’s current fleet of nuclear reactors is based on light water technology (actually all but two are pressurized heavy water reactors) and one indicating that Westinghouse is “Korean-owned” (the majority owner is Toshiba, a Japanese company.)
I suppose that Martin believes that if the Altona had sunk and the 770,000 pounds of uranium in its hold had spread through the ocean, it would have been a disaster. It seems that he never thought to do a quick search to find that the world’s oceans already contain an average of 3 parts per billion of uranium for a total mass of something close to 4,500,000,000 tons.
After completing the book and noticing a number of digs and slants against existing nuclear energy systems that supply the world with the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day, I published a few thoughts on Twitter that summarized my reaction to the book. Here is an example:
@Atomicrod: Many antinuclear slants in “Superfuel” Ex. “get rid of existing #nuclear” pg 236 Bad fact checking “Westinghouse is Korean owned”?? pg 226
That one drew out a fairly rapid response from the author who said the following:
@RMartinBoulder: ‘Atomic Insights’ blogger @Atomicrod decries “anti-nuclear slant” in @superfuel, odd since it’s a book on the promise of nuclear power…..
Though it has occasionally been a disadvantage in my pursuit of a nuclear focused career, I spent quite a bit of time during my undergraduate days studying literature and seeking to tease out the true meaning and motivation behind written words. I know that many technically-minded people hate the whole concept of literary analysis, and believe that all you need to do is to read what the author said. The problem with the projected concept that people write what they mean is that is it often not true; much communication goes unsaid. There are also words and phrases that have multiple meanings.
Here are some example quotes from “Superfuel” that I think demonstrate a bias against nuclear energy and a bias in favor of the hydrocarbon industry that has dominated the economy and politics of the developed world for about two centuries.
Because the core is liquid, it operates at atmospheric pressure, meaning that the extremely thick-walled, pressurized vessels used in conventional reactors, which have an unfortunate tendency to blow their top, are unnecessary.
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I challenge Martin to provide even one example of a commercial light water reactor blowing its top. The only example that comes even close is the SL-1, an event that happened in 1961 at a reactor that was not even pressurized at the time that the center rod was pulled out by hand to initiate the accident.
…overall safety record of nuclear power is quite good – which nuclear power executives, as tone-deaf to public mistrust as any group of business leaders outside of the tobacco industry, never tire of pointing out.
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It is not being “tone-deaf” to point out the truth. I often criticize nuclear power executives for not pointing out our safe record frequently enough – in consistent advertising campaigns designed to sway public opinion.
Nor is nuclear power economical. Nuclear plants are now so expensive to license, not to mention build, that there is little prospect of investors receiving reasonable returns. Many, many words have been written about “the true costs of nuclear power.” Much of this analysis is based on faulty reasoning or is outright bogus, but there is no question that the rosy pronouncements of industry groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute are specious, given the true social costs of producing power from uranium.
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I have not read any rosy pronouncements from the Nuclear Energy Institute about the cost of new nuclear power plants. The NEI cost estimates are generally pretty pessimistic and indicate that the industry needs a jump start from the government to restore lost momentum from a 40 year period with no new construction starts.
The second flaw is that, once uranium has been refined enough to use it in a nuclear reactor, it can be used to make nuclear weapons. No one has ever successfully constructed a bomb using smuggled or stolen uranium, but that is not from lack of trying. Entire ministries and government agencies have as their sole raison d’etre the control of the traffic in enriched uranium, though the danger of losing, misplacing, or being robbed of the stuff is admittedly small, it adds greatly to the expense, risk and the public opprobrium of running nuclear reactors.
That is one of those loaded paragraphs that contains enough truth to be believable and enough slant to sway undecided people against the use of nuclear energy.
Though I agree that there are costs associated with the irrational belief that uranium destined for use in reactors can be used to build a bomb, the total fuel cost for nuclear reactors in the United States including “amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value” amount to about 0.68 cents per kilowatt hour (2011 figure). Fuel system security costs are just a part of that and do not “add greatly” to the cost of operation.
Here is a quote that could have come almost directly from Amory Lovins:
By the end of the century, we will have built a safe, clean, energy infrastructure based on a mix of offshore and land-based wind farms, big solar arrays in the West, geothermal, and natural gas plants, layered on top of a baseload power-generating sector of thorium reactors.
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Like Lovins, Martin confuses natural gas with clean energy production plants.
All the evidence today indicates that Shaw seriously overestimated the maturity of competing technologies (indeed, problems with the LWR itself would cost operators tens of billions of dollars in the next decade), and he vastly overestimated challenges for the molten salt breeder.
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What Martin failed to mention was the fact that the costs associated with improving light water reactors were accompanied by revenues from selling power that were high enough to support the costs and still lead to profitable operations at moderate electricity prices. There is a lot to be said for making electricity that can be sold instead of spending endless years refining the best ideas in laboratories.
Meanwhile the world’s existing reactors, which include many facilities already years beyond their original planned production life, could be reduced in coming years. An April 2011 study by the financial services giant UBS found that as many as 30 nuclear plants, including many in areas of seismic activity, could be shut down by 2016.
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Again, that statement includes enough truth to be dangerous. There are operating units that may end up being forced to shutdown by 2016 by a combination of organized opposition, artificially imposed regulations that ignore the evidence of a lack of seismic vulnerability to damage, and the effects of low natural gas prices.
However, it is false to assert that there are many nuclear plants operating beyond their initial license period of 40 years; Oyster Creek is the oldest currently operating facility in the US and it just recently reached its 40th year of operation.
It is also false to imply that the license period has anything to do with the safe operational longevity of a nuclear power plant. The initial license period established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was a political compromise based more on antitrust considerations than any knowledge of technology limits. After all, there were no operating nuclear power generation facilities at the time it was selected; there was no operating history on which to base the estimate.
However, the most telling indication that Richard Martin is opposed to using nuclear energy in its current proven form to reduce fossil fuel consumption comes in the following sentence:
It does no good to build carbon-free thorium reactors if you don’t get rid of the existing nuclear and coal-fired plants.
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Combined with the earlier quote indicating that natural gas still plays a significant role in Martin’s view of an ideal electrical power production and distribution system, I believe that statement tags him as just one more fossil fuel promoting wolf in sheep’s clothing – on a part with Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute.
Why in the world would anyone who recognizes that conventional light water reactors have an outstanding safety record and generate massive quantities of emission free power at a reasonable cost decide that shutting down existing nuclear plants is a higher priority that shutting down coal plants – and wants to keep on operating natural gas plants into the next century?
The final clue for me about Martin’s true purpose came with a surprisingly frank final paragraph in the acknowledgement section that paid tribute to a rather unusual group – for a pronuclear book.
Finally I want to mention the men who have done the work of the Hydrocarbon Era. I have seen them in their labors all over the world: the roughnecks of Kazakhstan, the pipefitters of the North Slope, the forklift operators of Baku, the geologists of the Colorado Plateau, the deckhands of the Gulf of Mexico. Their blood literally flows in the fuel that powers our cities and our vehicles. Many, many have died to bring power to the world. This book is also for them.
Maybe if a few more “nuclearati” (the sobriquet that Martin uses to refer to people who work in the existing nuclear industry) had died to provide power to the world, we might have earned a tribute in his book as well. Instead, we have earned his distain so strongly that he wants to put us out of work as soon as possible. Go figure.
Additional views of Superfuel
Yes Vermont Yankee – Superfuel: A Book I Wanted to Love
Atomic Power Review – Review: “Super-Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future”
Overscope – Review: SuperFuel by Richard Martin
Watt’s Up With That – Book Review of “Super Fuel”