Tag Archives: nuclear energy

France is poised for a massive investment in nuclear energy, with six new reactors planned by 2050

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to announce a massive building effort by the French state energy company, EDF. The goal is to construct at least six new nuclear reactors by 2050, which will ensure the country’s continued supply of low-cost energy.

Image credits Markus Distelrath.

Nuclear energy gets a lot of bad rep these days, due to past (and admittedly, very damaging) accidental meltdowns. France, however, generates a lot of its energy requirements using nuclear power. It has been one of the largest producers of such energy since the 1970s. And it’s a safe bet to say that it will keep splitting the atom to keep the lights on: French President Emmanuel Macron is set to announce the construction of at least six new reactors over the next five decades.

French-made

“It (nuclear) is ecological, it enables us to produce carbon-free electricity, it helps give us energy independence, and it produces electricity that is very competitive,” a French presidential aide told reporters on Wednesday.

The initiative is not without its detractors, however. France has a bit of a history of spectacularly exceeding its budgets and timelines when building nuclear reactors. The state-run company EDF is already massively indebted from building efforts in France, Britain, and Finland. As an example, its flagship program — in the northern French province of Flamanville — is expected to cost over four times its initial budget (of 3.3 billion euros / 3.8 billion dollars) and will at best become operational next year, some 11 years later than expected. Yannick Jadot, one of the contenders for the French presidency, criticized Macron’s decision on these grounds.

Still, as part of this initiative, Macron will be visiting a turbine manufacturing site in eastern France on a pre-election visit in which he will detail his energy policy and stance on nuclear energy. Currently, the atomic industry covers around 70% of the energy requirements of the country.

According to presidential aides, Macron will be announcing the construction of at least six new reactors by EDF. He will also set out his vision “of our future energy mix, for nuclear but also renewables and energy efficiencies,” according to the aide.

Despite this, its reactors are aging, and France should be looking to replace them if nuclear energy is to remain a mainstay of its power grids.

The final outcome of this initiative depends entirely on the outcome of the French presidential elections in April. Most candidates have announced their intention to continue investing in the industry, although two candidates — hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and the Greens’ Yannick Jadot — oppose the continued use of nuclear power due to environmental concerns.

All in all, however, France seems to have thrown its hat squarely in the ring of nuclear power. Last month, it successfully lobbied for it to be labeled as “green” by the European Commission, which means it can now attract funding as a climate-friendly power source.

Europe as a whole is still divided on the future of atomic energy. Germany, for example, decided to phase it out entirely by 2022 following the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

A startup proposes using autonomous microreactors fueled by nuclear waste to produce energy

Nuclear reactors are definitely powerful, but they also produce quite a lot of problematic, radioactive waste. A new Silicon Valley startup plans to change that through the introduction of small-scale reactors that run on waste from their conventional peers.

Rendering of the Aurora powerhouse, a concept developed by Oklo to test their reactor design currently ongoing in Idaho. Image credits Gensler / Wikimedia.

The startup Oklo plans to give us a reliable and cost-effective source of power while also solving the issue of radioactive waste, which needs to be stored and managed in particular conditions for hundreds of thousands of years. Their solution is to reuse the waste in autonomous reactors that don’t try to slow down the nuclear decay of the material. Effectively, such a reactor would be able to extract more power from fuel that has already been spent, giving us a use for the processes that happen naturally in a radioactive fuel dump, instead of letting them waste away as radioactive pollution.

No wasting power

“What we’ve done is take waste that you have to think about managing for 100,000 or a million years … and now changed it into a form where you think about it for a few hundred, maybe thousands of years,” Oklo’s co-founder Jacob DeWitte told CNBC.

If you’ve read our piece about nuclear reactors, you’ll know that their main purpose is to draw out the physical processes taking place within them as much as possible. This prevents the fuel from turning into a bomb — very nice — but also limits how much power can be extracted from it — not so nice.

Oklo’s plan is to use small-scale reactors that don’t use water or any other medium around the reaction chamber, mediums which work to slow down the neutrons released from the fuel. This would make them overall more efficient and allow the reactors to extract energy even from spent fuel rods. This approach wouldn’t work in a traditional reactor, however, because fresh fuel is too energetic, and would explode.

In order to keep everything cost-effective, the startup envisions their design to be autonomous, require no human supervision, and be quite small-scale. They would not provide nearly as much energy as a traditional reactor, but would still be enough to power an industrial site, a campus, or a whole company.

Their project started in 2013, with the company spending the last seven years trying to get access to nuclear waste to demonstrate their technology. Oklo was established in 2013 and spent the next seven years getting access to nuclear waste to demonstrate its technology. In 2019, the startup unveiled its plans for its microreactor with integrated solar panels, churning out 1.5 megawatts (MW) of power. Each one, it says, can be built in a year’s time.

The reactors run on spent fuel that’s meant for disposal, and each batch of radioactive waste can power the small-scale reactor for 20 years, according to the startup. In the end, the material they output is still radioactive, but to a much lesser extent than what goes in. This double-spent material will then be vitrified (turned to glass) and buried underground, just like typical nuclear waste.

Oklo is still awaiting a license to build its first microreactor, but the idea of an unsupervised nuclear device is definitely not something regulators will be keen on, no matter how cost-efficient it might be. Exactly where this story will go is still quite undecided, but it is exciting that we have this technology on hand.

Even if the microreactors don’t end up the way Oklo envisaged them initially, they could provide a great way for us to handle nuclear waste going forward. We could significantly slash the radiation our waste produces and the time it remains active after churning it through such a microreactor, and we’d get some energy out of it to boot.

Scientists use nuclear reactor to investigate Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance

Earhart beneath the nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, March 1937, Oakland, California, before departing on her final round-the-world attempt prior to her disappearance. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the bravest women of the 20th century, Amelia Earhart, vanished unexpectedly during her attempt to fly around the world. Now, scientists have turned to nuclear technology to analyze a piece of metal debris that some suspect was part of Earhart’s wrecked plane. In doing so, they hope to piece together the final moments of the pioneering aviator’s final living hours.

A tragic end to a brave pioneer

Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were flying their Lockheed Model 10-E Electra on an even more ambitious quest: flying around the world. On July 2, 1937, they were about six weeks and 20,000 miles into their journey when their plane suddenly crashed en route to Howland Island in the Pacific, which is halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

The Howland Island is a flat sliver of land about 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) long and 460 meters (1600 feet wide), so it must have been very difficult to distinguish from similar-looking clouds’ shapes from Earhart’s altitude. Of course, Earhart and Noonan were well aware of the challenges, which is why they had an elaborate plan that involved tracking their routes using celestial navigation and linking to a U.S. Coast Guard vessel stationed off Howland Island using radios.

But despite their well-thought-out contingency plans, the pair were simply flat out of luck. When they took off, witnesses reported that a radio antenna may have been damaged by the maneuver. On that morning, there were also extensive overcast conditions. Later investigations also showed that the fliers may have been using outdated, inaccurate maps.

On the morning of July 2, 1937, at 7:20 AM, Earhart reported her position to the crew at the Coast Guard vessel, placing her plane on a course at 32 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of the Nukumanu Islands.

“We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” 

The ship replied but there was no indication that the signal ever reached Earhart’s plane. The Coast Guard ship released its oil burners in an attempt to signal the flyers, but they weren’t seen by all accounts. Noonan’s chart of the island’s position was off by about five nautical miles, subsequent investigations showed, and it seems likely that the plane ran out of fuel.

Despite a huge search and rescue mission involving 66 aircraft and nine ships, the fate of the two flyers remains a mystery to this day. With the years, the mystery only intensified, amplified by countless conspiracy theories surrounding Earhart’s last days.

Neutrons and dirty metal plates

While watching a National Geographic documentary on the disappearance of Earhart, Daniel Beck,  a pilot who also manages the engineering program for the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC), home to the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, was shocked by a particular scene discussing an aluminum panel believed to be part of the wrecked airplane. The documentary ended with the idea that, perhaps, sometime in the future, technology will advance to the point where scientists can elucidate more information from the panel.

“I realized that technology exists. I work with it every day,” Beck said.

The scientist got ahold of Richard “Ric” Gillespie, who leads The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) and was featured in the documentary, and offered to analyze the metal part using neutron technology at his lab.


Kenan Ünlü, director of the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center, holds a metal patch that might be from Amelia Earhart’s airplane. Credit: Kenan Ünlü/Penn State.

The metal panel had been recovered in storm debris on Nikumaroro, a Pacific island located about 480 kilometers (300 miles) away from Howland Island. Some have suggested before that Earhart’s plane made an emergency landing on the reef surrounding the small, uninhabited island. A human skeleton was even found in 1940, and although the bones were lost, a 2018 study found that the historical records of the bones’ measurements matched Earhart’s closer than 99% 0f the general population.

A skull fragment that may be from the original skeleton was found in a storage facility in a museum on a nearby island and is currently being tested to see if it is a genetic match for any of Earhart’s relatives. Beck’s goal was to perform a similar investigation, only instead of genetics, he wanted to use the reactor’s neutron beams to reveal the history of the metal patch. Perhaps they could find a long-faded serial number or other marks that might link the debris to the Electra.

Beck and colleagues placed the sample in front of the neutron beam, while a digital imaging place was placed behind the sample. As the neutron beam passed through the sample and then through the imaging plate, an image was recorded and digitally scanned.

“As the beam passes through, if it were uniform density, we wouldn’t see anything,” Beck said. “If there’s paint or writing or a serial number, things that have been eroded so we can’t see with the naked eye, we can detect those.”

This investigation revealed that the metal plate had axe marks along the edges, except for one of the edges where the metal must have snapped from whatever it was attached to. In other words, not much linking it back to Earhart.

“It doesn’t appear that this patch popped off on its own,” Beck said. “If it was chopped with an axe, we should see peaks for iron or nickel left by the axe along that edge. Neutron activation analysis gives us that detail at a very fine resolution.”

For now, the researchers plan on performing more examinations using more comprehensive experiments, including adjusting the irradiation time and power level of the reactor. 

Even if they eventually don’t find anything in connection to Earhart, this inquiry is still valuable. For one, it disqualifies the object so other people don’t waste time in the future. Secondly, it sets a precedent that may spur more research with neutron radiography.

“It’s possible we’ll learn something that actually disqualifies this artifact from being part of Earhart’s plane, but I prefer the knowing! It is so exciting to work with scientists who share our passion for getting to the truth, whatever it is,” Gillespie said in a statement.

Europe is so hot right now that it has to stop its nuclear plants

Europe’s abnormal heatwaves are forcing several countries to cut back on their nuclear energy production.

Nuclear energy may not be the most popular option out there, but so far, it’s the largest single source of carbon-free electricity. Although not strictly renewable, nuclear power is one of the cleanest options out there, if not the cleanest, being comparable with renewable energy in terms in terms of emissions — and sometimes even being preferable. But nuclear does have a significant drawback: it uses water; a lot of it.

An average nuclear plant consumes around 2,000 liters of water per megawatt-hour. For a 1 GW reactor, comes up to some 50 million liters. All thermal plants (including coal and gas plants) need huge quantities of water — it’s a must, per design.

Thermal plants work by using high-temperature steam to turn turbines, essentially converting heat into electricity. After a while, the steam’s temperature drops somewhat, up to the point where it can’t be used to move the turbine. It then has to be condensed into liquid before raising its temperature, because liquids absorb heat much faster than gases. This condensation process is done with colder water, typically from nearby rivers, lakes, or seas.

But the current heatwave sweeping through Europe isn’t only making the air hotter, it’s also having a similar effect on water. There are tight regulations regarding the temperature at which water can be reintroduced back to the ecosystem, and surging temperatures have forced several nuclear plants to shut down — without cold enough water, the plants cannot safely operate.

So far, French energy supplier EDF has shut down four reactors at three power plants, Swedish utility Vattenfall shut down one reactor, and several plants in Finland, Germany, and Switzerland were forced to cut back on their output. Nuclear plants in Sweden and Finland are the region’s second largest power source and countries like France and Germany greatly rely on this type of energy.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. Year after year, temperatures are hotter than average and temporary shutdowns were reported in 20032006, and 2015. However, this doesn’t really make things any better. It’s expected that temperatures will continue to rise steadily, and — among many other problems — global warming will continue to impede the functioning of nuclear power plants.

Although it’s difficult to draw a direct line between a wide-reaching issue like global warming and singular events such as heatwaves, there’s already a mountain of research connecting rising temperatures to man-made global warming. At any rate, there’s a particular irony in the fact that global warming is impeding one of the more carbon-neutral energy sources.

The first new Thorium salt reactor comes online after 40 years

Clean, safe nuclear energy might be just around the corner.

Image credits: NRG.

Thorium vs Uranium

With a market that’s pushing more and more towards clean, sustainable energy, thorium seems an unlikely candidate. Despite their generally negative reputation, nuclear generators have massive advantages. For starters, they produce low-emissions energy, which could easily be considered clean. It’s also fairly cheap, as generators tend to be long-lived and stable. Lastly — and this is probably the shocker — it’s safe. Sure, things like Chernobyl or Fukushima take the headlines and put a giant scary face around nuclear energy, but fossil fuel is a silent killer. A 2011 study showed that nuclear energy is 4,000 safer than coal plants, despite the general opinion.

But nuclear power does come with its drawbacks. For starters, it generally uses uranium, which is fairly scarce and can be expensive to process. There is also no truly satisfying way to store the nuclear waste and accidents, while very rare, do happen sometimes. Lastly, there’s also the problem of nuclear weapons — the technology to produce nuclear fuel can also be adapted to create weapons, and this makes many people unhappy, for good reasons.

This is where thorium kicks in.

Thorium has long promised to deliver safer nuclear power; only a slightly radioactive element, it’s abundant and widespread. It also produces far less waste and can’t be used to produce nuclear weapons. So why then aren’t we using it? There are two main caveats.

The first one specifically relates to that last point — it can’t be used to produce nuclear weapons. So the US and USSR abandoned research in the 70s. The last thorium reactor was shut down in 1976 and despite some attempts, thorium reactors have mostly remained a fringe idea. Until now.

Reboot

A team at the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG) is looking at ways to restart experiments and will fire up a thorium reactor, for the first time in over four decades. The Salt Irradiation Experiment (SALIENT) was launched in collaboration with the EU Commission, with the purposes of assessing the feasibility of a thorium reactor (the reactor is much more complex than a typical uranium reactor).

But remember how we said there are two caveats? The second one refers to thorium being unable to achieve critical mass on its own. You need to either stack it together with uranium or subject it to an outside neutron source to start the reaction cycle. After this is achieved, engineers also need to keep an eye out and monitor how the materials cope with the corrosive high-temperature salt mixture inside the reactor.

Ultimately, they want to develop a stable and scalable (modular) thorium salt reactor. NRG is starting small for now, but thorium reactor research is picking up in the world. China and India are both investing heavily in liquid salt reactors. A US start-up based in Utah also says it’s working on a thorium reactor.

Switzerland votes against strict phase-out of nuclear energy

Switzerland is, as you’d expect, one of the countries with the cleanest energy. They recently had a referendum in which they decided against the strict and abrupt phasing out of nuclear energy, showing that the Swiss voters understand something most people choose to ignore: nuclear energy is cheap, and it’s clean.

Nuclear energy in Switzerland

Switzerland gets the bulk of its electricity from water. Image credits: Lex Kravetski.

The electricity sector in Switzerland relies mainly on hydroelectricity. The Alps cover almost two-thirds of the country’s land mass, providing many large mountain lakes. In fact, Switzerland uses two types of hydro-electricity: the traditional water-storage, and the run-of-the-river hydroelectricity. Taken all together, hydro-electricity amounts to almost 60% of the country’s electricity. This being said other renewables aren’t so well represented. Together, solar, wind, wood biomass and waste incineration amounted to less than 4% of the country’s production in 2013. The bulk of the remainder is provided by nuclear.

Five nuclear plants generate 37% of Switzerland’s energy. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the Swiss government said it would gradually start removing nuclear energy, something everyone agreed upon. But not everyone agreed upon the timeframe to do this. Some environmental groups said that nuclear plants are only safe to run for 45 years, which meant that two of them would have to shut down almost immediately. Meanwhile, other groups argued that the plants are still safe and shutting them down would only increase the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, which at the moment generate less than 3% of the country’s electricity. This move would have also somewhat undermined the national economy, which is extremely competitive. So the Swiss head on to an interesting vote.

Electricity production in Switzerland, in 2013. Image via Wikipedia.

Electricity production in Switzerland, in 2013. Image via Wikipedia.

As it turned out, despite most people worrying about the state of the plants, the vote came out negative – that is, the country opted to hang on to its nuclear energy. Approximately 55% of voters took the economic route and voted against a harsh phase-out of nuclear. But elsewhere in Europe, things aren’t so clear.

A practical, but unwanted solution

If you talk to someone about clean energy, nuclear will rarely pop up. People don’t seem to want it, despite a plethora of studies which show its resilience and potential. Nuclear energy is 4,000 times safer than coal energy, saving 1.8 million lives between 1971-2009 according to a NASA report. In France, nuclear is the main source of energy, “a success story” that has put the nation “ahead of the world” in terms of providing cheap energy with low CO2 emissions. But elsewhere in Europe, nuclear isn’t doing so hot. In fact, excluding Russia, France generates more nuclear power than the entire continent, and even most countries have announced their intention to phase out nuclear.

So this leaves us with an interesting discussion. If France is such a success story, then why aren’t others trying to replicate its success, and why are most countries going the opposite direction? Germany, often hailed as one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world, still lags behind France not only in terms of CO2 emissions but also in terms of energy price. German people are paying for switching off nuclear and while referendums are easier to incorporate in Switzerland, the Swiss still opted not to keep nuclear  — they just decided to keep it for a little longer. People from other countries, where referendums are more difficult to organize weren’t even given this possibility – and even if they were, they likely wouldn’t have taken it.

Nuclear is, and will likely remain a cheap, efficient, and unwanted energy source. People seem to generally be against it and governments don’t want to stand up to it for the fear of backlash. It’s would be up to the private sector to do something, but as it stands now, there doesn’t seem to be too much momentum on that end. Ultimately, perhaps technological developments will have a word to say. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

German nuclear fusion machine starts running

German scientists have turned on a device called a stellerator, the largest of its kind. The machine could pave the way for nuclear fusion, a clean and safe type of nuclear power.

This machine, called W7-X, cost approximately $1.1 billion, has a diameter of 52 feet (16 meters) and took 19 years to construct; the GIF above shows the layers of the machine.

Nuclear fusion

As we were telling you before, a stellarator is a device used to confine a hot plasma with magnetic fields in order to sustain a controlled nuclear fusion reaction. The basic idea is that the differing magnetic fields will cancel out the net forces on a particle as it travels around the confinement area. They were quite popular in the 50s and 60s, but their popularity greatly decreased in following decades, as other types of fusion research were carried.

The key is to create ungodly high temperatures up to 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million Celsius) and generate, confine, and control a blob of gas, called a plasma. At these incredibly high temperatures, the very structure of the atom changes, and the electrons are ripped from the outer shells, leaving positive ions. Normally, these ions would just bounce off each other, but under these conditions, they can merge together, creating new atoms, and – BAM – you have nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion shouldn’t be mistaken for the nuclear energy we are using at the moment, which generate energy from decaying atoms, not atoms that fuse together.

Fusion is the process that powers our Sun, and if we could somehow harvest that power, then it could (in time) be a green energy revolution.

“It’s a very clean source of power, the cleanest you could possibly wish for. We’re not doing this for us, but for our children and grandchildren,” one of the team, physicist John Jelonnek from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, said in a statement.

Flipping the switch

The 425-tonne machine took 19 years to construct, requiring 1.1 million construction hours in total. However, it seems to have been worth it as the first tests were carried smoothly.

“Everything went well today,” said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved with the project. “With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there’s always a risk.”

So far, the team was able to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees for a quarter of a second. This might not sound like much, but it’s a clear proof of concept as well as an indication of things to come. Experiments will continue and a divertor for the elimination of impurities will be mounted inside the reactor, allowing plasmas to last as long as 30 minutes.

It has to be said, the device itself won’t generate useful amounts of energy, but it will (hopefully) demonstrate that this can be done realistically.

“In a later phase of W-X, starting in 2019, we will use deuterium and we will get fusion reactions, but not enough to get more energy out than we are putting in,” one of the team, Hans-Stephan Bosch, said, adding that there are no plans to add tritium to the hydrogen plasma to break even.

 

NASA: Nuclear power instead of coal saved 1.8 million lives between 1971-2009

According to a study conducted by NASA in 2013, using nuclear energy instead of coal saved almost 2 million lives since 1979 – by allowing us to not use coal.

Mean net deaths prevented annually by nuclear power between 1971-2009 for various countries/regions. Image via NASA.

Mean net deaths prevented annually by nuclear power between 1971-2009 for various countries/regions. Image via NASA.

Nuclear energy still creates an almost instinctive fear reaction. Few things would be as scary as a nuclear meltdown nearby. Chernobyl still burns strong in our ears, and Fukushima is fresh in memory – but the truth is, when you draw the line and sum it up, nuclear is much safer than coal.

There have been some 25 nuclear accidents since the 1950s, most of them being minor and with no casualties. Out of those, just Chernobyl has had over 4 casualties. But hey, coal doesn’t kill anyone… does it?

Coal kills

Coal mining accidents resulted in 5,938 immediate deaths in 2005, and 4746 immediate deaths in 2006 in China alone according to the World Wildlife Fund. According to Benjamin K. Sovacool, 279 major energy accidents occurred from 1907 to 2007 and they caused 182,156 deaths with $41 billion in property damages, with these figures not including deaths from smaller accidents. But that’s just the icing on the cake.

Most fatalities due to coal are caused by air pollution. According to the World Health Organization in 2011, urban outdoor air pollution, from the burning of fossil fuels and biomass is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths worldwide per year! Furthermore, indoor air pollution from biomass and fossil fuel burning is estimated to cause approximately 2 million premature deaths. You rarely hear about that on the news, but coal is a silent killer.

The study

“We provide an objective, long-term, quantitative analysis of the effects of nuclear power on human health (mortality) and the environment (climate),” writes NASA.

They found that nuclear actually saved lives – and lots of them. Basically throughout the entire world, where nuclear energy is used, saved lives.

The comparison between nuclear and coal is highly significant because most of the times, if it wasn’t for nuclear, the energy would come from coal.

“The paper demonstrates that without nuclear power, it will be even harder to mitigate human-caused climate change and air pollution. This is fundamentally because historical energy production data reveal that if nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal), which cause much higher air pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced.”

Also, you may hear discussion about “clean coal” or “clean gas” being used as a “bridge to renewables” – several studies have shown that neither coal nor gas will be a clean player in a transition towards renewables; if anything, that’s what nuclear can be. It’s not renewable energy, it’s not perfect and it can be dangerous. However, at the moment, it’s much safer than the alternative.

Is going nuclear the key for more sustainable energy?

The world is at an extremely dangerous crossroads: if we keep using non-renewable hydrocarbons and coal the way we have, we’ll be rising global temperatures to a point where the consequences are extremely dire, but in many parts of the world, renewable energy is simply not cheap enough, and people don’t want to pay for it. Faced with this conundrum, we may have an unexpected ally that could solve our problems: nuclear energy.

Image via Saach.

Sweden went from burning oil for energy to using nuclear, and if the entire world would follow their example, we could replace all fossil fuel plants with nuclear plants in 30 years, according to a new study published in PLoS One. All that’s missing is the people or companies to invest. Wait, but isn’t nuclear energy… bad?

The long answer is complicated, but the short answer is ‘no’ – in many ways, nuclear energy is although not renewable, way more sustainable than fossil fuels.

“If we are serious about tackling emissions and climate change, no climate-neutral source should be ignored,” argues Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University, who led the effort to develop this nuclear plan. “The mantra ‘nuclear can’t be done quickly enough to tackle climate change’ is one of the most pervasive in the debate today and mostly just taken as true, while the data prove the exact opposite.”

Nuclear vs. fossil

In 2011, we wrote about an analysis which found that nuclear energy is 4000 times safer than coal plants in terms of emissions and health hazards. In the US alone, air pollution due to coal plants kill 30,000 people; in China, they kill 500,000. The problem with nuclear is that the problems it has are obvious, in your face, while coal is a deadly killer.

Image via Thunder Raging.

Benjamin K. Sovacool has reported that worldwide there have been 99 accidents at nuclear power plants. However, for the three worst nuclear accidents, less lives were claimed than coal does in a year! 60 people were killed directly at Chernobyl, and up to 25,000 fell from latent cancers. Estimates put the recent toll for Fukushima at 1000 lives, and the third largest nuclear accident, the Three Mile Island accident (1979) didn’t kill anyone. Of course, these are not small numbers, and you can’t just pass over them, but when faced with the alternative, the better option seems clear.

In terms of emissions, nuclear energy emits basically no CO2, nor does it pollute the atmosphere. Nuclear power can produce base-load power unlike many renewables which are intermittent energy sources lacking large-scale and cheap ways of storing energy. The challenge is the way in which the nuclear fuel is processed and ultimately stored; it’s not ideal, but no one is saying nuclear is the ultimate goal – but it could be a very good transition from fossil to renewable.

All in all, there are serious arguments to use nuclear instead of fossil fuels, but the public opinion is easily swayed by the more visible nuclear threats, although the fossil threats are often much bigger.

Transitioning to nuclear

Among the arguments used by opponents of nuclear energy is the fact that making the transition is difficult – but this study claims otherwise; and it’s not only Sweden that has a success story – France also enjoys transitioning to nuclear power. Nuclear energy, in the form of fission, is the primary source of energy in France. In 2004, fission energy made up the largest share of France’s energy consumption at 39%. In 2012, France was the biggest energy exporter in the European Union, they have cheaper energy than most European countries, but they also vowed to reduce their nuclear energy output. In 2015 France’s National Assembly voted, that by 2025 only 50% of energy will be produced by nuclear plants.

France switched to nuclear energy following a massive increase in the oil prices, and that crisis was much less considerable than what we are dealing with today. If countries like the US, China and India would follow in their trails, we would be seeing massive CO2 reductions and a great reduction in our impact on the climate.

“The state reacted to a crisis, at that time the oil prices, and implemented a plan, which quickly in 15 years had solved the problem,” Qvist says. “Analogies could be drawn to the crisis we have today: climate change.”

There lies the main issue which nuclear solves: it’s climate neutral, and to top it up, it’s reliable and quick to set up.

“No other carbon-neutral electricity source has been expanded anywhere near as fast as nuclear,” Qvist says.

The problem, however, remains the public image. As long as a few isolated events outshadow the fear of climate change, we won’t be building nuclear reactors anytime soon. But if we think about the bigger picture, then it seems like a good option.

Image: Brian Kong

Nuclear power wrongfully stigmatized. It’s essential to scrapping fossil fuel, top biologists say

An open letter authored by more than 65 biologists calls for conservation groups and efforts to take a step back and rethink their agenda concerning nuclear power, heavily criticized in the past few years following the Fukushima incident. With all its risks and shortcomings, the authors argue, nuclear power is still the most cost-effective “green” solution to toppling fossil fuel and mitigating global warming in the process.

We need nuclear power

Image: Brian Kong

Image: Brian Kong

“Nuclear power – being far the most compact and energy-dense of sources – could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution …. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy area,” they say in the letter which is to be published published next month in the journal Conservation Biology.

The letter is signed by several leading British academics including Lord May of Oxford, a theoretical biologist at Oxford University and former chief scientific adviser; Professor Andrew Balmford, a conservation biologist at Cambridge; and Professor Tim Blackburn, an expert in biodiversity at University College London.  It was organised by Professor Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania and Professor Corey Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide.

Recognising the “historical antagonism towards nuclear energy” among environmentalists, they write: “Much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat climate change, we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.”

The authors write that solely relying on renewable energy sources likes wind and solar is not enough to tip the energy balance scale off fossil fuel. There needs to be a mix and nuclear power, which has the greatest energy density, shouldn’t be left off. One single golf-ball-sized lump of uranium would supply the lifetime’s energy needs of a typical person, equivalent to 56 tanker trucks of natural gas, 800 elephant-sized bags of coal.

Fear mongering

A quarter of a century has passed since the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986, and the nuclear industry hoped that those 25 largely trouble-free years had gone some way to assuaging the fears of the public. But then a devastating earthquake of 9.0 magnitude hit Japan on 11 March 2011 which took the lives of 20,000. The earthquake triggered huge and menacing 15 meter tsunamis that disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident. There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes to ensure this.

Just 10 people out of 5000 surveyed after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in March showed unusually high levels of radiation. To cover the reactors’ radioactive leakage, the Japanese government is currently building a giant wall of ice that will take until March 2015 to build, cost $320 million and use enough power each day to run 3300 Japanese households.

While the Japanese handled this delicate situation masterfully, the world public opinion over nuclear power took a plunge for the worse. Overnight people were rallying and petitioning against nuclear power, deeming it a far too greater risk to bear. Several European nations decided to reduce their reliance on nuclear plants or abandon construction plans for new ones. Germany decided to phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022. Switzerland, not an EU member, decided to cancel plans for new plants and to phase out nuclear power by 2034. France, which currently meets a whooping three quarters of its energy needs with nuclear, wants to scale back the country’s reliance on nuclear energy from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025.

Setting ideals aside and concentrating on what’s important for everybody

So, is nuclear energy risky? There are proven incidents that suggest great damage can arise as a result of nuclear fallout, but authors of the letter acknowledge this as well. In the end, it’s about compromise.

“Trade-offs and compromises are inevitable and require advocating energy mixes that minimise net environmental damage. Society cannot afford to risk wholesale failure to address energy-related biodiversity impacts because of preconceived notions and ideals,” they said.

Professor Corey told The Independent on Sunday: “Our main concern is that society isn’t doing enough to rein in emissions… Unless we embrace a full, global-scale assault on fossil fuels, we’ll be in increasingly worse shape over the coming decades – and decades is all we have to act ruthlessly.

“Many so-called green organisations and individuals, including scientists, have avoided or actively lobbied against proven zero-emissions technologies like nuclear because of the associated negative stigma,” he said.

“Our main goal was to show – through careful, objective scientific analysis – that on the basis of cost, safety, emissions reduction, land use and pollution, nuclear power must be considered in the future energy mix,” he explained.

As environmental groups call for nuclear power to shut down, meanwhile we’re seeing coal consumption growing – and it’s fast. Since 2003, coal use has increased 9 times faster than wind energy and 40 times that of solar. The American Lung Association and the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) claims that 13,000 people die each year from coal pollution–down from 24,000 in 2004, when less pollution regulation was enforced. In addition to the premature deaths, CATF estimates that every year coal pollution is responsible for 12,000 emergency room visits, 20,000 heart attacks, and over 200,000 asthma attacks. Elsewhere:

So, what we’re currently seeing about 400,000 people dying each year because of coal combustion. That’s EACH year! With this in mind, I believe we have a very strong and convincing argument for keeping nuclear right where it is, if not upscale it altogether and this is exactly the point biologists are trying to make in their letter.

“By convincing leading scientists in the areas of ecological sustainability that nuclear has a role to play, we hope that others opposed to nuclear energy on purely ‘environmental’ – or ideological – grounds might reconsider their positions,” Prof. Corey said.

Clearly, this is no easy debate. Where there’s nuclear power, there’s also the capability for nuclear weapons, and that’s a most frightening thought. We must not be naive either – shutting down all the nuclear power plants in the world won’t magically eliminate the nuclear weapon stockpile of the world. You’ll have to tap into the brains of world leaders and cut the chord for paranoia for that to first happen. Speaking of which, what makes nuclear power so easy to hate may actually be deeply rooted in our psyche. We have little problems burning coal because we’re used to it. We’ve been burning matter in a controlled fashion for tens of thousands of years. We don’t have a problem with fire; but nuclear energy is a whole different matter. Very few people understand how nuclear fission works. Instead, what most people get to see are these huge reactors that are waiting to blow in any minute into a mushroom cloud, which is obviously absurd.

‘Hybrid’ nuclear plants could cut carbon emissions

Hybrid nuclear plants, working in conjunction with geothermal, shale oil, or hydrogen production could help slow climate change, and provide more cheap energy – when used .

More than the sum of its parts

MIT

Many efforts have tried to smooth the transition of renewable energy and fill in its gaps, and a rather viable, yet costly and complicated solution is to use batteries when renewable energy isn’t available. Such batteries can last for hours or even a few days, but MIT’s Charles Forsberg wants something more ambitious. He proposes marrying a nuclear powerplant with another energy system, which he explains, would provide more energy than using the two technologies separately.

He explains that there has been some work in this area in the past, but there was no major interest and nothing significant was achieved.

“As long as you had inexpensive fossil fuels available for electricity demand, there was no reason to think about it,” he says.

But now, we’re in a crisis – and solutions like this one are much needed.

A happy marriage

Nuclear plants are good at producing steady power at relatively low cost, and despite what many people think, its relatively safe; to put a number on that statement, nuclear energy is 4.000 safer than coal energy. But there’s a problem with this type of energy: it’s very hard to ramp the production up and down, depending on the community and industry needs.

So what could be used to complement this energy? Renewables provide a valuable surge of energy, but they’re unpredictable and don’t provide stability (yet). Fossil fuels are dirty, produce emissions, we don’t really wanna go there. Forsberg suggests 3 solutions: a geothermal system, a hydrogen production plant, or a shale-oil recovery operation.
The shale-oil recovery operation is actually an incredibly creative idea: the point is to locate nuclear plants close to shale deposits – a type of deposit that can be technically called kerogen, which has organig mattter and still hasn’t matured to petroleum. However, the heated and pressurized steam from the nuclear plant can be used to mature kerogen and transform it into petroleum. It may sound dirty, but this solution is actually environmentally friendly – as Forsberg suggests:

“When you heat it up, it decomposes into a very nice light crude oil, and natural gas, and char,” he explains. The char — the tarlike residue that needs to be refined out from heavy crude oils — stays underground, he says.

In this area, the US really lucked out – most shale deposits in the world are there – and this could provide valuable, less polluting fossil fuel:

“This has the lowest carbon footprint of any source of liquid fossil fuel.”

Steven Aumeier, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at the Idaho National Laboratory is also thrilled about this possibility:

“Many times the most formative game-changing approaches are not single new technologies, but rather novel ways of combining technologies. Hybrid energy systems could be a game-changing approach in enabling the cost-effective, secure, and high penetration of low-carbon energy into the economy.” Aumeier adds that such systems would “afford a practical and regionally scalable means of using an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy security.”

Via MIT.

A proposed deep-space probe to Jupiter that uses the radioactive nuclear engine proposed at NASA and Los Alamos. (c) Los Alamos National Laboratory

Fission nuclear engines tested for deep space flight

A proposed deep-space probe to Jupiter that uses the radioactive nuclear engine proposed at NASA and Los Alamos. (c) Los Alamos National Laboratory

A proposed deep-space probe to Jupiter that uses the radioactive nuclear engine proposed at NASA and Los Alamos. (c) Los Alamos National Laboratory

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have successfully tested out the prototype for a nuclear-reactor engine, meant to serve in the future as an  “a simple, reliable space power system.” Although the experiment, dubbed Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF), rendered only 24 watts of power, barely enough to power a common household light bulb, the system can obviously be scaled and provide basic footing for future space exploration probes or even spacecraft design for deep space.

To me at least, it’s rather curious how simple the system is. The small nuclear reactor is powered by uranium and acts a Stirling engine, which most of you motor-heads out there are more than familiarized with. Invented in 19th century, the Stirling engine provides mechanical energy which can then be converted in electricity, for instance, from a simple to-and-fro movement of a pressurized piston. Cooling is ensured by a, yet again, simple heat pipe, which is also used extensively in electronics cooling. That’s no warp-drive, folks.

The researchers claim a 50-pound hunk of enriched uranium that sits inside a 12-inch reactor core could power eight Stirling engines to produces as much as 500 watts of power. This is the first space-orientated nuclear reactor experiment since 1965. Around that time NASA launched the nuclear powered Voyager-1 and Voyager-2, and to this day they remain operational. In fact, Voyager-1 is on the brink of reaching interstellar space, which would officially make it the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

“The heat pipe and Stirling engine used in this test are meant to represent one module that could be used in a space system,” Marc Gibson of NASA Glenn Research Center said a Los Alamos statement. “A flight system might use several modules to produce approximately one kilowatt of electricity.”

The Voyager probes however run on plutonium-238, and since 1992 the US has currently no means of producing plutonium-238 anymore. Uranium on the other hand is fairly abundant.

Applications for the nuclear-engine would be numerous, from reliable space probes that can go on for decades or more sophisticated deep space satellites that can afford the energy cost of sophisticated instruments. It’s rather peculiar that both the DOE and NASA have invested so little in space applications powered by nuclear energy. The video below illustrates the Los Alamos scientists’ small nuclear reactor capabilities.


via Wired

 

People, planet, profit or politics? Japan’s energy debate hots up

While the world is absorbed in the raging solar storm between America and China, with Europe deciding whether or not to join in the fray, a quiet revolution is happening. It has the potential for real positive impact on the planet and the struggling solar industry at large.

In the last few months, Japan has been proving it really is the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. Against a backdrop of post-Fukushima energy shortages and debates, it introduced a FiT scheme in July that could see it become the world’s no.2 solar market after Germany. In a dynamic shift away from atomic dependence, the government aims to generate 35% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2030.

Bright Start

Even at this early stage, figures show the country has made impressive steps towards meeting its goal. Sales of solar cells rose 72.2% in the year up to April 2012 – and that was before the FiT scheme was introduced.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that only China will exceed Japan in terms of solar capacity growth. It predicts the country will see at least $9.6 billion in new solar installations, creating 3.2 gigawatts of capacity (equal to the output of three atomic reactors).

About 90% of Japan’s solar panel installation is residential – compared with the US and elsewhere, where capacity is predominantly commercial and utility-scale. To meet growing need since the FiT scheme, panel imports have doubled, while domestic production has also ramped up to meet demand. Large-scale solar parks have opened, or are due to open, all over the country, with new projects announced every day.

The Need for a Nuclear Alternative

One such project has particular poignancy. Minamisoma City has teamed up with Toshiba to build the country’s biggest solar park. As parts of the city are situated 10 kilometres from the site of 2011’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, areas have been contaminated by radiation. This project offers a stark reminder as to why Japan’s solar eclipse is so important.

After the disaster, all 50 of Japan’s reactors went offline. The first two re-opened in the summer, to prevent potential power shortages, but were met with widespread protest demonstrations. The Nuclear Regulation Authority, set up last month, is compiling new nuclear standards that will underpin the re-opening of more reactors next year. It won’t be clear until then how many plants will meet the new regulations and be allowed to re-start.
Political Hot Potato
The government has legislated for nuclear power to be phased out by 2030. This generous schedule allows companies to recoup their money; in fact, by that date most reactors would be over 40 years old and facing decommissioning anyway. It has made some anti-nuclear campaigners cynical about the move.

The government’s actions are certainly not without subtext; next year’s general election will be weighing heavily on policymakers’ minds. Public opinion polls demonstrate overwhelming consensus for nuclear phase-out, with many ministers supporting the ‘zero option’. But dissenting voices from business and commerce will also shape the direction of the renewables dream.

Solar Resistance
Utility companies, who have the most to lose from a nuclear reduction programme, are resisting the government’s renewable plans. The power companies would be financially devastated by immediate plant closures – if all 50 reactors were closed, losses would total 4.4 trillion yen and make at least four companies insolvent.

But there’s another way in which these companies will suffer. Since Fukushima, private insurance providers will no longer insure the utilities, meaning the government (or rather, the taxpayer) has to foot the bill. In short, utility companies stand to get all the benefits, with none of the risk.

The Keidanren (Japan’s most influential business lobby) warns that the thousands of job losses would not be worth what it sees as problematic, expensive and unreliable energy alternatives. It believes there will be a negative impact on Japan’s economic growth without a stable, affordable alternative to nuclear.

Future’s Bright?
The balance of Japan’s energy portfolio hangs in the political and economic balance, with the government caught between a rock and a hot place – public opinion vs business and economic pressures. Renewable supporters will be celebrating the pictures of busy solar power installers putting up panels all over the country; images of the Fukushima disaster will surely haunt ministers as they closely monitor the progress of the FiT scheme. With elections around the corner and an uncertain world economy all around them – who will they side with?

 

Radioactive toxicity

Particle accelerator can transmute radioactive waste and drastically lower half-life decay

A schematic of the MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste.

A schematic of the MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, and as always Chernobyl, as anti-nuclear manifestos are quick to remind every time nuclear powered energy is concerned, there seems to be a sort of stigma applied to nuclear power. Countries are revising their policies –  some for the better, being long overdue, while other simply limit nuclear power rather precariously. Besides the actual chain reaction, meltdown or other nuclear hazard event which might possibly occur, there’s an other big issue with nuclear power and that’s  its byproduct – nuclear waste. A novel technique involving a particle accelerator which can create fast neutrons, in the process lowering the half-life of waste from hundreds of thousands of years to mere hundreds, might re-balance the odds back to nuclear, however. Nuclear energy might be in for a come back.

The idea that you can you stick dangerous radioactive material, that stays radioactive for even millions of years, in a lead can and hope that it will never leak in the environment is preposterous. Still, this is the only or primary way nuclear waste from facilities around the world is handled, and of course this has attracted a wave of unpopularity.

Scientists at the Belgium nuclear research center SCK CEN in Mol have developed a technology which uses a particle accelerator as a neutron source, in an attempt to make nuclear waste much less unfriendly to the environment. The idea, in small simple lines, goes like this:  you alter the geometry of the reactor chamber such that neutrons produced by the nuclear reaction don’t multiply in other subsequent reaction by having them escape the reactor vessel. In the meantime, to  sustain the nuclear fission process you pump neutrons from a spallation source, which is a material that can produce lots of fast-moving neutrons when you hit it with high energy proton. If cut out the accelerator,t he fission reaction cannot sustain itself , so there isn’t any peril of a meltdown or chain reaction disaster.

Radioactive toxicity

Also, the waste nuclear fuel is transmuted into fission products with much shorter half-lives by a few orders of magnitude, which makes burring waste for a few hundred years actually feasible and safe.  A prototype of the system should be up and running by the early 2020s. Hopefully, this might put nuclear energy back on track as the leading clean, safe and efficient form of energy.

For more details on this very important subject, I’d like to invite you to read the Mol scientists’ paper from CERN.

source

The new safe face of nuclear energy

There seems to be a global trend against atomic energy, even though coal is much, much more dangerous in the long run. Germany, for example, has announced giving up all of its nuclear energy until 2022, in what has been called by many a rash and uncalculated move. However, on the other hand, other people are going for a different, more sane approach.

Kirk Sorensen believes safe nuclear power can contribute significantly to the world’s energy future – provided that reactors run on liquid thorium fuel instead of solid uranium, like it is done today. Showing the courage and determination behind his claims, he launched his own company, called Flibe Energy, which aims to start the first thorium reactors in 5 to 8 years.

Sorensen claims he also wants to revefine the general opinion on nuclear energy, showing how relatively clean and cost effective it is, contrary to the popular belief, which fears nuclear waste and nuclear power accidents. This mission is extremely tougher after the incidents which took place at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

“In the 40s and 50s they had an expansive definition of what nuclear power was – it wasn’t just solid fuel uranium reactors,” said Sorensen, who is Flibe’s president. “But that’s what it has come to mean now.”

What is ironic is that Thorium lost the battle against Uranium because it doesn’t have any lethal waste produts, like Uranium has Plutonium for example; thus, the waste couldn’t be used for military purposes, which was a clear goal during the Cold War years. Today, other countries, especially China and India are pursuing Thorium reactors.

Although in some cases Thorium does produce Plutonium as a waste product itself, the waste is less hazardous than other mixes of plutonium waste and there is much less of it. Also, Thorium based fuels are much more effective than Uranium, so the same amount of energy could be produced with less fuel.

“The hotter you can get, the more efficiently you can turn heat into electricity,” said Sorensen. “Typical reactors today, they only get about one third conversion efficiency. We can get about half.” He also claims that in his design, thorium “isobreeds”, meaning it creates as much fissile fuel as it burns up.

Of course, perhaps the most powerful enemy he will have to face is the nuclear supply chain which is heavily vested in solid uranium 235. But this seems like a very healthy move, and one we should definitely keep an eye out in the following years.

Japan nuclear danger still dwarfed by coal threat

The situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant was dangerous for several weeks, but the danger of nuclear power plants has greatly been exaggerated. To get an idea about what the situation is at Fukushima right now, if you are in Tokyo right now, the radiation you are exposed to is about as big as you would get from a dental X-ray or from hopping on a plane. It’s ironic that nuclear power, one of the most safest and cleanest sources of energy we have available at the moment be under such fire from the world, with no real reason.

Coal is dirty and dangerous

As bad as Japan’s situation was, it could never have been as dangerous as burning coals; burning coal is responsible for killing over 1.000.000 people every year ! How many people does nuclear radiation kill each year? Less than 1.000 each year. You could say that nuclear plant workers are under constant threat, but if the safety measures are followed, only a huge disaster like the one in Japan could cause complications. What about coal miners ? Thousands of them die just because the mines collapse, not to mention lung diseases or other complications that occur as a result of coal mining. Then you have mercury, which is almost always associated with coal mining; mercury enters the food chain extremely easily, and is highly toxic, causing a number of conditions, and often being lethal. If we were to talk about pollution and toxic fumes… the situation would be even more dramatic.

Hey, even in terms of radiation coal plants outrank nuclear plants. Why do I say this ? Well, in case you didn’t know, pretty much everything emits radiation. Me, you, the pencil next to you, everything. But the amounts are so incredibly small that it’s not even worth taking into consideration. There’s also radiation from outer space, and from the earth we walk on, but that’s not normally dangerous either. But if you would burn coal to obtain an amount of energy, it would produce 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant that produces the same amount of energy.

Even at Fukushima, the predictions are pretty optimistic. The U.S. DOE predicts a yearly dose of about 2,000 millirems for some people living in the vecinity of the nuclear facility, at a distance of less than 31 kilometers, which would increase their cancer risk, but slightly, and only if they haven’t left the area.

Nuclear energy – easier to obtain, easier to use, easier to recycle

If we are to remain objective, it has to be said that nuclear energy is not completely safe or environmentally friendly. It is much more dangerous and toxic than solar energy, for example, but what we are doing here is a comparative exercise, and compared to coal energy, nuclear energy simply fares much better. The biggest problem with it is the radioactive waste that is always associated with a nuclear plant; if in the next 50-100 years we will find a solution to safely store it, or even recycle it, that we will practically have no problem with this kind of energy, aside from human errors or high magnitude disasters. But if we don’t, then we have a problem.

Take the situation at Fukushima Daiichi for example; it is currently a ghost town, and will remain a ghost town for generations and generations to come, even if it is deemed to be safe. People will avoid it at all cost. Chernobyl is a dreadful example of how to handle a nuclear threat. But people have learned, nuclear plants are much safer, and even in the case of a disaster, we have the means necessary to take care of such an emerging situation. The media has titanically exaggerated the risks and threats that Fukushima posed, and for all of you who have stockpiled the potassium iodine, well… that was completely unnecessary. I can only hope that the world will not be influenced by media exaggerations and fairy tales, and as a result, stop relying on nuclear power. Given what choices we have at the moment, atomic energy is one of the best.

Japan giving up nuclear plants would cause significant carbon emission raise

As Japan struggles to control the situation at the Fukushima power plant, an even more complicated question arises; where will Japan get its energy ? If they completely give up on nuclear power, which is not the most inspired of ideas if you ask me, they will face some very limited options.

As it turns out, replacing nuclear power with coal and LNG would add somewhere between 25 and 37 percent of the country’s current carbon emissions. According to the Breakthrough Institute, renewables can’t do all the work either:

With an assumed capacity factor for the country of 15 percent, this would require an installed solar capacity of 432 GW, more than four times the country’s planned goal of 53GW of solar PV capacity by 2030. Installation of this solar PV capacity would cost an estimated $2.16 trillion dollars, and cover roughly 2.7 million acres, equivalent to 110 percent of Japan’s land area.

Wind wouldn’t cut it either:

The installation of this 324 GW of wind turbines would cost around $798 billion, and would require 81,1141 acres. Again, this number represents the area taken out of production on a wind farm, but the wind farm itself would need to be as large as 2.8 billion acres, representing a full 111% of Japan’s land total area.

So without any other serious viable options, Japan can only significantly raise their carbon emissions and take a step backwards in energy evolution, or continue using nuclear power, and take a risk, but a really small one, and keep going at full gear. Considering the fact that this kind of catastrophic event takes place every thousand years or so, that’s a no brainer if you ask me.

Nuclear energy – 4.000 safer than coal plants

With all the big fuss regarding the nuclear power plant problems in Japan, everybody seems to be throwing rocks at atomic energy, without taking a look at long term benefits and problems. I stumbled across this chart, published over at Next Big Future that takes a look at how many deaths came as a result of 1 terrawatt hour (TWh).

Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China 278
Coal – USA 15
Oil 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass 12
Peat 12
Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro 0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro – with Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

Now I know this isn’t all that we should look at when analyzing how safe an energy source is, but it definitely provides a good indication. Japan was absolutely unfortunate to be struck by so many natural calamities; perhaps they could have handled it better – that’s really not for me to say, but anyway if a there’s an accident at a coal plant and people die, nobody says ‘Hey, let’s stop building coal plants’. In USA alone there are 30.000 deaths per year related to coal plant pollution, while in China there are over 500.000.

The main idea here is to learn how to secure nuclear plants and make them safer, not to stop building them or using them, that would be just stupid.

Iran almost completed their first nuclear reactor. Should we worry ?

This seems to be the one of the most asked questions these days; what’s my opinion on it ? You should worry about it just as much as you worry about a brick suddenly falling in your head – probably less.

After decades of development and hard work (yeah, that’s right, people from all around the world work), Iran’s first nuclear power plant is almost operational. The engineers have already begun loading the fuel into the core of the Bushehr plant. It’s been in construction since 1979 and it will have a 1000-megawatt capacity, comparable to that of the United States nuclear plants.

So, there are some hundreds or thousands of nuclear plants throughout the world, why is this news ? Well, it’s news because the US claims it’s actually nuclear power that Iran is after, not nuclear energy.

“There are some fairly rigorous … checks and balances built into the operation of the plant,” said Middle East analyst David Hartwell at IHS Jane’s, a global risk consultancy. Uranium enriched to about 5 percent fissile purity is used as fuel for power plants. If refined to 80-90 percent purity, it provides the fissile core of nuclear weapons. [Reuters]

Furthermore, Iran will be required to return the spent fuel which can be potentially turned into weapons to Russia. Now how much can Russia be trusted with such an affair ? That’s a whole different problem, but let’s hope they will do everything right.