Reactorvated: new nuke push ramps up

9
SHARE
Logo of Gen A "To advocate for a nuclear future

The global giants of nuclear power are in disarray. As Westinghouse Electric, Toshiba, AREVA struggle in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, a new breed of sophisticated nuclear campaigners, led by US billionaire Bill Gates, are spruiking “Small Modular Reactors”. Veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Noel Wauchope investigates the pro-nuclear push, the smart social media offensives and the latest government lobbying.

Oped by Noel Wauchope

We don’t hear much about this, yet. It’s an international nuclear industry plan to develop new nuclear reactors, reactors which are still only in the design phase.

The Treaties Committee of the Australian Parliament is holding an inquiry into the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems. Australia already signed up for this in June 2016, without any public discussion. Now the plan is to extend Australia’s involvement and the Committee has called for submissions by April 28, 2017.

Most people would think the idea of expanding the nuclear industry in Australia was dead and gone, following last year’s debacle of the South Australian government’s attempts to get a nuclear waste import business set up in Australia. The latest plan however is different.

The South Australian proposal was unsuccessfully touted as a bonanza for the state. It was also promoted to global nuclear corporations as the answer to their problem of where to put radioactive wastes. It would have been a plus for AREVA, Westinghouse, Toshiba, G.E. Hitachi; enabling them to market nuclear reactors to South East Asia, with the promise of having the waste disposal issue solved, solved by the world’s biggest nuclear waste dump in South Australia.

The failed plan was set out in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Final Report. The idea of Australia developing new generation nuclear reactors got the barest mention (in Chapter 10). However, this idea was always quietly a part of the nuclear lobby’s plan for the future.

When it comes to pro nuclear propaganda, what is radically different now is that Generation IV nuclear energy systems are no longer touted as a helpful solution for those “conventional” nuclear corporations, (call them “Big Nuclear” if you will).

In the current climate of financial crisis for AREVA, Westinghouse, Toshiba and so on, “new nuclear” companies such as Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic and NuScale now pitch their products as a radically different alternative to conventional nuclear reactors.

This new nuclear propaganda is certainly out there, but it is not yet prevalent in Australia. The nuclear lobby’s first step is to get government commitments in principle, getting Australia in step with USA and the other nations in the campaign. While the government is certainly well aware of the rejuvenated pro-nuclear campaign, the soft-sell to the Australian public is barely underway. It will come.

In 2017, the change in both content and style has come about both because of recent developments in the nuclear industry, and also because of the changing media environment. Today’s campaign of persuasion is promoting a different product, targeting different audiences, using different media outlets, and above all it has adopted a revitalised style.

The favoured product is the Small Modular Reactor, (SMR) which does not yet actually exist, except as a design. Some are said to be under construction in China. It is not possible at present to build these so-called SMRs commercially in America or the UK. Licensing and safety regulations would have to be changed first.

There are several targeted audiences for the new nuclear campaigners. First, governments need to be won over in order for nuclear regulations to be changed, and also because of costs.

With the availability of cheap gas globally (although certainly not in Australia) and increasingly efficient renewable energy sources, nuclear projects do not now attract private investment. Even the SMR project of US billionaire Bill Gates, Breakthrough Energy Coalition, is seeking taxpayer funding via the governmental Mission Innovation programme: a coalition of billionaires such as Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Jack Ma, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros.

Secondly, mainstream journals are targeted. Not a week passes without enthusiastic articles about SMRs popping up in the mainstream media. These stories appears to derive from sophisticated press-kits from the SMR firms, or from pro-nuclear science journalists such as James Conca, who espouses the cause of the SMR lobby.

The most important target however is the public, and particularly youth via social media.

You have to hand it to the new nukes lobby. They are way ahead of other industries, and especially of Big Nuclear, in their use of podcasting, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and SoundCloud.

Style is a big factor. The media manipulators for the SMR lobby deliver lavishly produced TV series such as Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail and the film Pandora’s Promise. It is subtle, a soft-sell for new nuclear. Another new pro nuclear spin film, The New Fire, is in production.

It is quite a small number of individuals who produce both the wordy, technical presentations for government, industry and mainstream media and the bright and snappy messages for the young and for non-technical environmentalists. The best example is Michael Shellenberger who writes extensively and runs nuclear front groups Environmental Progress and Ecomodernists. These appeal to enthusiastic environmentalists.

Ben Heard

In Australia, this nuclear PR is typified by the work of Ben Heard, who sends sophisticated submissions to government, tweets constantly, and who champions the environment via the nuclear front group Bright New World.

Things are moving more quickly in the US as new nuclear lobby groups pop up to meet changing circumstances. The latest is Generation Atomic, formed in April 2017 to organise a clear pro-nuclear presence in the March for Science, an American and International event in the coming week.

Now, more than ever, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message” and the message is more about attractive style than substance.

Nuclear spin has been with us for more than six decades but it has evolved from its time of “defensive spin” in the 1950s.
Apart from one ambitiously positive 1950s campaign about Cheap Electricity “too cheap to meter”, pro-nuclear propaganda became mired in the fear, and the support for weapons, that characterised the Cold War period. The defensive themes of the 1970s and 1980s followed news of nuclear accidents and could be characterised as “downplaying radiation effects” or “assurances of safety”.

The second burst of positive nuclear spin arrived around 1990 at the time of the first IPCC Climate Report. Already, nuclear corporations like AREVA were talking about “fossil fuel depletion” and Energy Security. Nuclear power was the answer, they said.

The industry was reluctant to yet push its low-carbon argument, as many in these corporations did not believe in global warming. However, they could still push the line about nuclear power being clean and pollution-free (Nuclear Energy Institute).

Then, in 2003, The Breakthrough Institute was the first big foray of a new nuclear front group via The Breakthrough Institute. They pushed the clean energy line, but courageously in 2004 touted the benefits of nuclear power to combat global warming. While some nuclear lobbyists are still pushing that line, it has also somewhat lost favour because research showed that this perspective also resulted in the promotion of renewable energy rather than nuclear.

One after another, nuclear front groups sprung up. For a long time they promoted “new nuclear” Generation IV reactors as supporting Big Nuclear. The key selling point was the promise that Generation IV reactors would “eat the waste” of conventional reactors. They still push that promise but are now not keen to be associated with the troubled corporations of the Big Nuclear sector.

The New Nuclear message is always optimistic. Even the Fukushima disaster somehow became twisted as some sort of evidence in favour of the benefits of New Nuclear.

Now targeting youth via new media the spin has taken on humanitarian and nature-loving elements. Although a collective of billionaires and big corporations are behind it, it promotes an alternative to big corporations. It is about saving the planet. It is about endless cheap and pollution-free energy for all, recycling nuclear wastes, combating climate change, promoting the beneficial uses of ionising radiation, freeing people from irrational fears and from anti-science.

The SMR lobby has been successful already in gaining the attention of government and media for technologies which do not yet even commercially exist. In today’s world of “alternative facts” this success is not surprising. It remains to be seen if “new nuclear” can win the public approval that it needs.

Author Noel Wauchope operates websites www.nuclear-news.net and www.antinuclear.net.


Polar Bears, Climate Change and Physics: Leslie Dewan 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVXNIEOoYRI


Can This Startup Power the World With Nuclear?   
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hCxExhyz_E

Visit Australia, home of the world’s nuclear waste dump!

  • Sura

    Interesting piece.
    Noel, I’d be interested in your feedback on these points: it seems to me that SMRs at the moment are technological unicorns. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t be useful, and might be actually desirable in those places that already have a lot of accumulated nuclear waste. At some point, something needs to be done about that waste, and at least, if the theory is right, these reactors will reduce the volume a lot, if not the radioactivity. But hey, something is something.
    Their relevance to Australia is lost on me, though. Given the ridiculous capital expenses and the long lead-in times required, how these reactors will be of use to us in the current context of (genuine) renewables, I do not know.
    The waste dump was (and is) in my opinion a much bigger issue. Not only would it have given much support to an expanded civil nuclear industry, as you identify – it would be a positive boon to the nuclear arms industry too.
    On the one hand, the increased geopolitical dangers unleashed by Trump in the Pacific render the idea of having nuclear waste floating around the place in ships bound for Australia somewhat less tenable -but on the other hand, this guy is definitely ramping up international desire for more nuclear weapons. So it seems to me that the disposal problem is more pressing than ever (the current chaos surrounding EDF/Areva and Toshiba/Westinghouse notwithstanding). Besides this, I suspect that the intention around our new submarines has always been to make them nuclear submarines. There are loads of angles to this story.

    • Noel Wauchope

      First of all, SMRs are no solution to radioactive wastes. Even the proponents of SMRs boast that they leave highly toxic wastes for just the MERE 300 YEARS! ! In fact, the “daughter” wastes of these radioactive ions lave much longer half-lives. Though those long-lived wastes are small in volume, they are still high in toxicity, and require deep burial disposal.

      Second – their relevance to Australia? Australia’s nuclear lobby has always dreamed of setting up nuclear power here. They always saw the importing of nuclear wastes as the first step. Oscar Archer explained it on ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/energy-and-nuclear-power/6261352 . The SMRs were just mentioned in the Royal Commission report – as something for later on.

      Thorium nuclear reactors (the most favoured design) require plutonium and/or enriched uranium to start them off. Hence you can’t have those SMRs without some nuclear wastes to start with. Hence the waste dump is needed.

      As you say, many angles. For one thing, the nuclear weapons industry desperately needs to keep up a pool of nuclear experts. Growth in “peaceful” nuclear power is needed to ensure supply.

      • Jag_Levak

        “First of all, SMRs are no solution to radioactive wastes.”

        Probably. Consuming existing spent fuel will most likely work best with fast neutrons, which means the neutron absorption cross section will be small, which means there will have to be a larger core load to give each neutron a good chance of finding a target. So I expect fast reactors capable of consuming spent fuel will generally not be very compact.

        “Even the proponents of SMRs boast that they leave highly toxic wastes for just the MERE 300 YEARS!”

        That would be for approximately one fifth of the fission products. (The other four-fifths would be mostly stable by ten years.) But it doesn’t have to be an SMR to have this waste profile. All it needs is a system for separating out the fission products.

        “In fact, the “daughter” wastes of these radioactive ions lave much longer half-lives.”

        Most fission products decay to stable daughters. If there are any fission products which decay to daughters with longer half lives, that still means the daughters would be less radioactive.

        “Though those long-lived wastes are small in volume, they are still high in toxicity, and require deep burial disposal.”

        Being small in volume helps to improve the economic feasibility of deep borehole disposal.

        “Thorium nuclear reactors (the most favoured design) require plutonium and/or enriched uranium to start them off.”

        They would require a source of neutrons for breeding U-233 from thorium. Those can come from other kinds of fission fuels, but they could also come from accelerated proton spallation or from fusion. The latter options tend to be more expensive sources of neutrons, but neutron driven subcritical reactors could avoid a lot of the backup safety systems required with today’s reactors, so some of the expense could be recovered there. Even if a specialized thorium breeder wound up being more expensive, it might be able to generate fuel for a fleet of much less expensive U-233 burner or thorium iso-breeder reactors, resulting in a savings in overall system cost.

        “Hence you can’t have those SMRs without some nuclear wastes to start with.”

        If we develop ways to use spent fuel as fuel, whether in burner or breeder reactors, at that point it will cease to be waste. Waste is only waste so long as we have no use for it.

        • Noel Wauchope

          In answer to Jag_Levak

          You and I are in agreement that Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) are not likely to be a solution to the problem of nuclear wastes

          I also agree that the other types of Generation IV nuclear reactors, especially thorium ones, also leave toxic radioactive wastes.

          However, while most of the long-lived decay products of nuclear fission do become stable, some do not, e.g. technetium-99, cesium-135, iodine-129, palladium-107 and zirconium-93.

          The total radioactive wastes of these reactors are not really small in volume. A system of fast reactors operating over a period of a century or longer would be needed to consume the plutonium and other actinides that are separated during reprocessing. Each reactor cycle consumes only a small fraction of these elements, so the spent fuel would have to be repeatedly reprocessed and reused over many years. If this system shuts down at some point, the remaining material would end up as waste and need to be disposed of in a repository.

          Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel would increase, not decrease, the total volume of nuclear waste. Reprocessing is not a sensible answer to the nuclear waste problem. http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear-power-in-a-warming-world.pdf

          As for proton spallation or from fusion to start the thorium nuclear reactor. – very much in realm of speculation, and also ruled out because of huge costs. Anyway, if we were using nuclear fusion, would we have any need for nuclear fission?

          Nuclear wastes by any other name are still radioactive trash.

          • Jag_Levak

            “You and I are in agreement that Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) are not likely to be a solution to the problem of nuclear wastes”

            Or more specifically, a solution to dealing with the waste being generated by today’s reactors (since I think large reactors would work better for that). Of course, if some of these reactors in development have much higher fuel utilization, that could still help with the waste problem by the amount it is not adding to it, especially if the waste profile is small enough to be manageable indefinitely.

            “I also agree that the other types of Generation IV nuclear reactors, especially thorium ones, also leave toxic radioactive wastes.”

            Or at least, potentially toxic. They aren’t toxic so long as they are kept segregated from living beings. But humans routinely work with materials which have much higher lethality potentials, so this does not seem to be an insurmountable issue. Even with today’s spent fuel, the safety record in handling and storing it has been outstanding by any industrial standard.

            “However, while most of the long-lived decay products of nuclear fission do become stable, some do not, e.g. technetium-99,”

            We actually inject people with technetium 99m for medical procedures because it quickly decays in the body to technetium 99–which is considered a very low biological hazard owing to its very low level of radioactivity, its very mild form of decay (it kicks out a low energy electron, no gamma) and the short amount of time it takes to clear out of the body. Tc-99 could also have uses in metallurgy, and is a good candidate for neutron transmutation to valuable ruthenium–a member of the platinum group.

            “cesium-135”

            2.3 million year half life–so, not very radioactive. And it too kicks out only a weak electron with no gamma. And some Cs-135 production could be avoided if its precursor, xenon 135, is allowed to absorb a thermal spectrum neutron.

            “iodine-129”

            15.7 million year half life, the least radioactive of the synthetic-only long lived fission products, with a production yield of less than 1 percent.

            palladium-107

            6.5 million year half life (the second least radioactive) with the weakest electron emission (averaging only 33 keV) and a yield slightly more than 1 percent.

            and zirconium-93.

            About 4% as radioactive as the Tc-99 that is considered a low biological hazard in medical use.

            “The total radioactive wastes of these reactors are not really small in volume.”

            Small is relative. If we make good use of the higher thermal efficiencies that molten salt reactors could make possible, the production of these isotopes would be in the vicinity of a half-kilogram per gigawatt-day, and nearly a third of that would be Tc-99–which could be usable, and/or transmutable–leaving around a third of a kilogram per day headed for something like borehole disposal. For comparison, a coal plant produces around 13 million kilograms of solid and atmospheric wastes per gigawatt day, some of which is toxic heavy metals which never decay away and very little of which is sequestered and isolated from the biosphere.

            “A system of fast reactors operating over a period of a century or longer would be needed to consume the plutonium and other actinides that are separated during reprocessing. Each reactor cycle consumes only a small fraction of these elements, so the spent fuel would have to be repeatedly reprocessed and reused over many years.”

            Reprocessing pertains to solid fuel reactors. Liquid fuel fast reactors could have continuous extraction of fission products during operation. But with high fuel utilization and decent thermal efficiency, it could easily take more than twenty times the number of gigawatt years to consume today’s spent fuel as it took to make it in the first place. And if we use fast reactors to consume depleted uranium and decommissioned bomb fuel as well, that timescale could increase by an order of magnitude. So if you wanted to consume all of this in a century, you’d need something on the order of a hundred thousand large fast reactors. That would be an output several times our current global energy consumption using fast reactors alone. But I expect fast reactors will only ever be a small proportion of the overall nuclear fleet. I think it’s going to take several centuries just to burn through the stockpile of spent fuel, DU and bombs we already have on hand.

            “If this system shuts down at some point, the remaining material would end up as waste and need to be disposed of in a repository.”

            If we don’t build the system to burn up some of it, we’ll just have to store all of it.

            “Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel would increase, not decrease, the total volume of nuclear waste.”

            It is true that fission products are not as dense as actinides. But right now, all the actinides in spent fuel are counted as waste, whereas the majority of fission products would only be unusable for a few years. After that, they would become usable elements, and you could deduct their volume from the total volume of waste.

            “Reprocessing is not a sensible answer to the nuclear waste problem.”

            Solid fuel reprocessing, as we currently do it, hardly seems worthwhile. But dropping spent fuel into liquid fuel fast reactors would be a very different process.

            “As for proton spallation or from fusion to start the thorium nuclear reactor. – very much in realm of speculation,”

            There is an element of speculation about every technology before we actually develop it, but the theoretical basis here is already well-established. We know it is possible to produce neutrons by proton spallation and by fusion because we’ve done it. The speculative part pertains to whether it can be done in an economically competitive fashion. But there are teams which have already started development work, and all it takes is for one of them to succeed to make this a reality.

            “and also ruled out because of huge costs.”

            We routinely do things with huge costs when there is a decent prospect of a huge return on the investment. We sometimes even do things with huge costs (such as our militaries) when there is no expectation of any return on the investment.

            “Anyway, if we were using nuclear fusion, would we have any need for nuclear fission?”

            We’ve been producing neutrons from fusion for decades. That part is easy. The hard part of fusion is getting more energy out of it than you put into it in the first place. But if you are using fusion primarily to generate neutrons, you could run the fusion process at an energy deficit indefinitely, and it would still be worthwhile because the overall fusion/fission hybrid system would still generate vastly more energy than it consumed. Think of it like a turbocharger. The turbocharger itself only consumes energy, but it more than makes up for that by how much it boosts engine output.

            “Nuclear wastes by any other name are still radioactive trash.”

            Unless we develop ways to make use of them. We also used to think that smelly toxic black goo that oozed out of the ground sometimes, fouling water and killing vegetation, was a worthless nuisance–until we figured out some things we could do with it.

            In the right kind of reactor, a unit of spent fuel could be more valuable than gold in terms of the price of the electricity it could produce. And some of the fission products could have substantial value on their own. It might even be worth something to help reduce or bring an end to the damaging environmental and health effects from extracting and burning fossil fuels–even if I’m not sure exactly how one would price a life, or a mountain range, or a planet saved.

          • Noel Wauchope

            I forgot that another tactic of the nuclear lobby, (used just to rebuke critics) is “Dazzle ‘Em With Science”.

            A good example in that answer. “We actually inject people with technetium 99m “. Sure. It’s just that Technetium-99m is a metastable nuclear isomer of technetium-99 . In other words, it’s not the same thing as technetium 99, which has radioactive half-life of 211,000 years. The large-scale production of Tc-99, in nuclear reactors, in conjunction with its long half-life, makes the disposal of this isotope an important problem.

          • Jag_Levak

            “I forgot that another tactic of the nuclear lobby, (used just to rebuke critics) is “Dazzle ‘Em With Science”.”

            1) That wasn’t a rebuke. 2) If the science is accurate, it shouldn’t matter who is citing it. The science stands on its own merits.

            “A good example in that answer. “We actually inject people with
            technetium 99m “. Sure. It’s just that Technetium-99m is a metastable nuclear isomer of technetium-99 ”

            Correct.

            “In other words, it’s not the same thing as technetium 99,”

            Hence, the rest of my quote “because it quickly decays in the body to technetium 99”

            To expand on that, Tc-99m is useful (eg. for medical imaging) because it emits gamma radiation, and because it is intensely radioactive. It has a half-life of only six hours, so 93.7% of it will decay to Tc-99 in 24 hours.

            “which has radioactive half-life of 211,000 years.”

            Quite so. And the longer the half-life, the lower the level of radioactivity, and the smaller the percentage that undergoes decay in a given unit of time. Nearly all of the Tc still in the body after one day will have become Tc-99, but virtually none of that Tc-99 will decay to (stable) ruthenium in the few days that it takes the body to flush the Tc out, because a few days is a very brief span of time relative to hundreds of thousands of years. And when Tc-99 does decay, it emits only a low-energy electron with no gamma rays. In terms of biological impact, Tc-99 has negligible radiation dosing compared to Tc-99m. (Negligible also compared to the natural radioactivity of our bodies.)

            “The large-scale production of Tc-99, in nuclear reactors, in conjunction with its long half-life, makes the disposal of this isotope an important problem.”

            Tc-99m is used in tens of millions of medical procedures each year. It quickly converts into Tc-99, which then is quickly flushed out of the body and out into the general biosphere. Tc-99 produced in reactors, on the other hand, is contained and it is extremely easy to shield. You could hug a one-ton block of Tc-99 and receive no radiation dose from it if it had just a thin coat of paint or was covered with a sheet of plastic. (You, on the other hand, would be irradiating the block with gamma rays.)

            And it isn’t clear that we would ultimately want to dispose of Tc-99 anyway. Technetium was found to improve the characteristics of some metals used in molten salt reactors, and Tc-99 only one decay or one neutron capture away from becoming valuable ruthenium. It’s not worth extracting right now, but there’s no rush to develop ways to use it and/or transmute it. It’s not hurting anyone, it’s a negligible risk to anyone, and it’ll still be around whenever we are ready to do something with it.

      • Sura

        Cheers, Noel.
        Yes, understood. But -isn’t there a saying something along the lines of not letting the perfect get in the way of the good? Waste is already out there. We have gifted it to succeeding generations, and whether we pretend to shunt it away and forget about it (Finnish model) or try to work on ways of minimising its impact, it’s still out there, for us and them to deal with. The question is how. As I said, it seems to me that context is everything. If France, the UK, Taiwan, or Japan want to build SMRs, and reduce existing stockpile volumes, this seems to be a reasonable path forward to a better outcome in the short term. Hopefully, it will not be beyond our ken to continue towards technological advancement to deal with the horror we have created. Actually, we have to.
        Australia is an entirely different proposition. Here, a nuclear industry has to be built from scratch. There are several compelling reasons why this is delusional, not the least of which is economic. It could only proceed with massive monies being transferred from the public purse to private enterprise, with socialised (high) risk. This is exactly what I think the LNP, the state libs and the ALP want -I think we can all guess the reasons why.
        There are pro-nukes activists out there with financial skin in the game. Ben Heard is one of them. There are plenty of people out there though who are just techno-optimists, but don’t actually have any idea what is happening in the nuclear industry right now. Some of these guys (and a LOT of them are guys) just have knee-jerk reactions (I could say something worse but will desist) whenever they hear the word “nuclear”. It is just so sciency, so hard-hatted, so “rational,” modern and cool and manly-man. Unlike the wussy renewables sector – too associated with being left wing, environmentalists, hippies, and yes – females.
        If we really want to rebut the pro nuke activists, I am wondering whether the best approach is to 1) be very active in explaining the economic lunacy around current nuclear – which many techno-optimists are unlikely to know about; 2) having a more nuanced approach to the issue of SMRs, recognising that what is relevant in the US might not be relevant in Oz, and vice-versa and 3) speak to the weird psychological drivers that underlie people’s reactions to this debate. Renewables research is where the cutting edge research is. Great science happening there!!! There is nothing “butterfly” about it. There is nothing inherently manly-man about nuclear, and there is a lot of masculinist irrationality around it right now, which is actively exploited by the pro-nuclear lobbyists. They have studied these emotional drivers and exploit them to the maximum (as witnessed by many involved in the SA “community consultation” last year. We need to be at least as smart as the pro-nuclear lobbyists.
        I have no skin in the game myself – I am just trying to clarify my own thinking. Interested to hear other people’s takes….

  • slorter

    In the neoliberal world they always want the government to cough up quite a slug of tax payer cash to help soften the risk.
    Projects of this nature should never be in the hands of private groups for profit and SMRs themselves do not necessarily combat all of the key criticisms levelled at nuclear power generally, for instance the environmental effects of nuclear power and indeed a greater number of sites could exacerbate another – nuclear proliferation. Going to take a lot more than their Public relations BS to win me over!