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Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for Our Energy Needs?
Martin Sevior, The Oil Drum
In the middle of the last year it became clear to me that the Australian Government was interested in having a debate about Nuclear Energy for Australia. I decided that we, in the School of Physics, could make a positive contribution to the debate and organized a study group to investigate this. We constructed a wiki-based website (nuclearinfo.net) where we placed our findings. We went live last December but have updated the website as we’ve learned more about energy issues and Nuclear Power.
In this post I draw heavily on website and restrict myself to talking about light water fission reactors. There are a variety of different and more advanced reactor schemes that could be addressed in a future post. There are more details on our website on all of the topics covered here.
Technically, there appear to be no show stoppers for a considerable expansion of Nuclear Power throughout the world. It is a low carbon energy source with abundant fuel supplies. The technology works and has much potential for improvement. Whether or not a large scale expansion eventuates depends on how it competes with Coal on economic grounds and with the public on political grounds. This in turn will be determined by the performance of the nuclear industry over the next few years as these purportedly cheaper and safer plants are built.
(8 Aug 2006)
Plenty of discussion at the original TOD posting (over 325 comments at this writing). I found this a fascinating discussion. See also the exchange between Storm van Leeuwen and NuclearInfo authors (bottom of page), although it does seem difficult to disentangle the various technical arguments.
Sevior and co-authors seem irrepressibly optimistic. I would not be surprised if they gloss over some of the technical hurdles and underestimate energy inputs. My impression as an amatuer is that the study on which the NuclearInfo.net‘s author’s energy input optimism is based, apparently attempts to add up direct and indirect energy costs. They don’t identify the system boundaries, making it difficult to compare their study to other studies. Given the enormous complexity of such calculations, they may be incomplete.
Van Leeuwen on the other hand takes a large systems perspective to energy inputs, but in doing so he may overestimate necessary inputs. Rather than adding up energy inputs individually, he makes an estimate by correlating embodied energy with dollar value. I think this is a reasonable assumption to get a ballpark figure, since expensive products tend to have high embodied energy. That’s not always intuitive – information for instance, according to Howard Odum, has the highest embodied energy ratio of any energy form — and we tend to pay a lot for it. But van Leeuwen’s approach does not account for the fact that the economy could be significantly ‘leaned up’ — much unnecessary waste currently occurs because of the fossil fuel bounty. So the necessary energy inputs may be significantly less than ones calculated based on current economic practices.
The levels of discrepencies in the opposing claims are confusing. It is a worry that we still face such major uncertainties about the viability of the nuclear industry.
A trump card in the nuclear power play
Clive Hamilton, Sydney Morning Herald
WITH its strongly pro-business orientation, the Howard Government has found it difficult to gain credibility for its environmental policies. It has nevertheless made considerable headway through the use of a clever and aggressive strategy of dividing the environment movement by cultivating friendly organisations and individuals and punishing those that refuse to fall into line.
WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) is the foremost of the friendly organisations. It is close to the Government, providing a stream of favourable commentary on its policies and bestowing several awards for the Government’s environmental achievements, including three “Gift to the Earth” awards, which the Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, displays in his office. In return, the Government has been generous, sending tens of millions to the fund for various programs.
The force behind the emergence of the organisation as the leading group backing the Government’s environment policy is the businessman Robert Purves. He has made a very large donation to WWF and is now its president.
Purves has drawn Tim Flannery into the orbit of conservative environmentalism by funding the preparation of Flannery’s book on climate change, The Weather Makers. Flannery, who came late to the climate change debate, has eloquently summarised the work of hundreds of climate scientists and his book has undoubtedly raised public awareness and understanding of the threats posed by global warming. Purves is said to have spent $1 million promoting Flannery’s book, including costly backlit billboards outside Qantas Club lounges around the country.
But isn’t there an inconsistency here? Why would Purves, sympathetic to the Government, spend large sums funding and promoting a book that rings alarm bells about climate change, which can only make life more difficult for the Government?
The answer is that Flannery’s book does not make life harder for the Government, but sends the sort of message the Government wants us to hear.
Flannery is an advocate of individual consumer action as the answer to environmental problems. Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures, we are told we each have to take personal responsibility for our contribution to every problem.
(8 Aug 2006)
Our Nuclear Summer
Joel Makower, WorldChanging
For all the arguments made by the opponents of nuclear power — that it is uneconomical, unsafe, a potential boon to terrorists, poses waste-disposal issues, and all the rest — nuclear’s biggest threat may come from the one problem it is purported to address: climate change.
If, as many climatologists suggest, the heat waves in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere are an indication of shifts in global climate patterns, it could spell doom for nuclear power, whose viability is directly linked to the availability of adequate water supplies.
Consider what’s happened lately on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The extended heat wave in July aggravated drought conditions across much of Europe, lowering water levels in the lakes and rivers that many nuclear plants depend on to cool their reactors,” reports the Christian Science Monitor, adding
As a result, utility companies in France, Spain, and Germany were forced to take some plants offline and reduce operations at others. Across Western Europe, nuclear plants also had to secure exemptions from regulations in order to discharge overheated water into the environment. Even with an exemption to environmental rules this summer, the French electric company, Electricité de France (EDF), normally an energy exporter, had to buy electricity on European spot market, a way to meet electricity demand.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the utility giant Exelon last week cut the power at its nuclear power plant in Quad Cities, Ill., after a heat wave warming the Mississippi River valley reduced the supply of cooling water, according to a Reuters report cited by the blog energy.buzz. The story cites similar drought-related cuts in nuclear plants in Minnesota and elsewhere in Illinois.
Such problems may be short-lived — these plants’ output have likely since been restored — but the question remains: What happens to nuclear power’s future if climate change reduces the availability of the water on which they depend?
(10 Aug 2006)