Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nuclear Power: Myths and Mythconceptions

Here is a short list of "myths of nuclear power." Some of them may be partially true in a few cases, and others may be true for current generations of nuclear reactors -- but not for future generations of advanced nuclear reactors.

Here is a list of things about nuclear power generally assumed to be true by the public. In 20 years, it may be difficult to conceive that an intelligent person would have ever believed most of them.
  1. Nuclear reactors are unsafe, as exemplified by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters — A 2001 study by the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland revealed that nuclear had the best safety record of all energy sources, causing 31 deaths, compared with 4,000 deaths caused by hydropower. During the nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, the highest level of radiation that workers were exposed to was 250 mSv (millisieverts), which increases the risk of cancer by just 4-5%.
  2. Nuclear energy makes only a minor contribution to world energy needsIt in fact accounts for 14% of world electricity.
  3. Uranium tailings (radioactive decay from uranium mining) can be harmful if exposed to and can increase the risk of cancer — According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), “the level of radioactivity is very low and with normal engineering they pose no threat to anyone.” The typical amount of radiation the average human is exposed to is 2 mSv per year and there is no evidence of any harm below about 100 mSv per year.
  4. Nuclear power plants are sitting ducks for terrorists — There have been attacks attempted in the past — for example, by Basque separatists in 1977 — but no attack has caused widespread damage. Most nuclear plants have substantial and robust containment structures that would be difficult to breach. A terrorist attack could spark a nuclear meltdown similar to that seen at Fukushima, but replicating a force equivalent to an earthquake would be difficult. However, the water pools in which reactors store used fuel outside containment structures are more vulnerable and could cause real damage if attacked.
  5. Nuclear power is far from emissions-free, and the energy inputs from fossil fuels required in the generation of nuclear energy negate any advantage in the reduction of direct carbon dioxide emissions. However, according to the WNA, “Energy inputs into the nuclear fuel cycle produce only a few (eg, 1-3) percent of the CO2 emissions saved.”
  6. Dangerous weapons programs in countries such as Iran and North Korea are linked to their nuclear reactor programs –The WNA notes that Iran has failed to convince anyone that its secretive enrichment program is connected to its nuclear reactor program, and North Korea has no civil reactor program.
  7. Nuclear energy makes only a minuscule contribution to reducing carbon emissions — According to the WNA, “For every 22 tons of uranium used, one million tons of CO2 emissions is averted. Doubling the world’s nuclear output would reduce CO2 emissions from power generation by about one quarter.”
  8. As the price of fossil fuels continues to rise, nuclear energy offers a cheaper alternative source of energy — In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that, between 2002 and 2008, costs for new nuclear plant construction rose from between $2 billion and $4 billion per unit to $9 billion per unit. In addition to this, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that the cost of producing nuclear energy is about 30% higher than for oil or gas.
  9. Transportation of uranium and other radioactive material is hazardous — Uranium is transported in the form of UOC, a weakly radioactive uranium oxide concentrate. According to a WNA brochure titled “Safe and Effective Transportation of Uranium,” “UOC is harmful only if inhaled or ingested. Provided sensible precautions are taken to avoid inhalation or ingestion, it will not present a health hazard to people handling it.” The publication notes that the uranium is packaged in steel drums with a tight-fitting lid secured by a steel locking ring, stowed inside a sea freight container and secured using a webbed, Kevlar-based strapping system.
  10. Insurance companies will not insure nuclear reactors because they pose too much of a risk — All reactors in the West are insured. In fact, the WNA points out that nuclear installations are a highly sought-after business because of their high engineering and risk management standards, which have resulted in a very good claims record. However, Chernobyl was not insured, because it was considered to have a high-risk design due to its lack of containment structure. According to the WNA, “Operators of nuclear power plants are liable for any damage caused by them, regardless of fault. They therefore normally take out insurance for third-party liability, and in most countries they are required to do so.” Direct damage and third-party liability insurance is typically placed with a national insurance pool, or one of the mutual insurance associations such as Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited (NEIL).

Future nuclear reactors will be built to burn virtually all of the nuclear fuel, leaving nothing behind that can be turned into nuclear weapons.

Some future reactors will utilise the thorium cycle, which is more resistant to proliferation risks than some of the uranium - plutonium cycle reactors.

Future scalable reactors, built in factories to high quality standards, will be manufactured more economically -- and sized to meet particular needs of local grids and micro-grids.

As governments clean their houses of older generations of anti-nuclear activist-bureaucrats, smarter government policies and regulations toward nuclear power will make it more difficult for political activists to tie up nuclear projects in court. It is this legal limbo caused by activist litigation, and obstructionism within government agencies caused by activists cum government officials, which holds back a safer and more affordable future of nuclear power.



Blogger Whirlwind22 said...

Yes but what are the chances of new nuclear plants being built though. Your piece seems to ride on a lot of assumptions.

8:12 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Good point. Obama and his man Jaczko in the NRC have done a good job preventing advances in US nuclear power technology.

As long as energy starvationists are in power, the outlook for all forms of energy is bleak.

Nevertheless, plans must be made as if the political bottlenecks will eventually be broken.

9:05 AM  

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