Nuclear = Unclear
I was reminded of a bit of college bathroom graffiti while reading the latest articles about nuclear power. Two years ago, Fukushima was the latest Chernobyl, Germany began shutting down their nukes, and nations that didn’t began to reevaluate safety procedures. Some felt that the Daiichi meltdown was the wake-up call that would put an end to nuclear fission projects. Others pointed out that fission reactors were only commissioned and decommissioned at public expense, as private investors were unwilling to risk their own capital in risky ventures that always ran far over budget.
Now Japan is admitting that it wants electricity more than it fears radiation, the US nuclear weapons site Hanford is leaking radioactive waste, there are new designs for smaller nuclear fission reactors that leave waste for only 300 years instead of 300,000, but watchdog groups feel that small reactor research is a boondoggle.
All 50 of the country’s reactors were shut down after the disaster, … Just two reactors have since been restarted. … This week, the CEO of Areva, which supplies fuel for Japanese nuclear power plants, predicted that two-thirds of the reactors in Japan will be restarted within the next several years, and that half a dozen may restart by the end of the year. … In December, the government lost power to Prime Minister Abe’s party, which promised to improve the economy and is emphasizing the need for nuclear power.
Hanford is perhaps the dirtiest reactor site in the world with 1,000 inactive dumps, 100 to 200 square miles of contaminated ground water, and 50,000 drums of plutonium wastes in temporary storage.
DOE officials admitted in 1991 that managers dumped 440 billion gallons of radioactive liquids directly into the soil — using ditches, cribs, trenches and injection wells — and that hazardous waste had “fouled the Columbia River.”
Leaving aside the billions of gallons of nuclear poisons poured directly into it, the New York Times reported in Oct. 1997 that, “If leaks from the tanks reach the Columbia River through ground water, radioactive material would eventually be incorporated into the food chain and could expose people to radiation for centuries.”
A conventional nuclear power plant is cooled by water, which boils at a temperature far below the 2,000 °C at the core of a fuel pellet. Even after the reactor is shut down, it must be continuously cooled by pumping in water. The inability to do that is what caused the problems at Fukushima: hydrogen explosions, releases of radiation, and finally meltdown.
Using molten salt as the coolant solves some of these problems. The salt, which is mixed in with the fuel, has a boiling point significantly higher than the temperature of the fuel. The reactor has a built-in thermostat—if it starts to heat up, the salt expands, spreading out the fuel and slowing the reactions. That gives the mixture a chance to cool off. In the event of a power outage, a stopper at the bottom of the reactor melts and the fuel and salt flow into a holding tank, where the fuel spreads out enough for the reactions to stop. The salt then cools and solidifies, encapsulating the radioactive materials.
A venture capitalist in the article predicts that reactors can be built for less than 2 billion dollars, and believes that one could be privately-financed. MIT Technology Review posted this article, and Transatomic is an MIT spinoff company, so we may want to take these claims with a grain of molten salt.
In the Department of Energy’s materials on SMRs, the agency argues there is a “need and a market” in the United States for SMRs. In reality, no one is clamoring to buy an SMR because there is no assurance the electricity will be remotely competitive with power from other sources. New nuclear power today is uncompetitive by a very wide margin. To compete with today’s natural gas prices, SMRs would have to produce electricity at half the projected cost of conventional reactors. There is not the slightest indication they can do so.
Often attacks on one energy industry are quietly funded by a rival industry, but Taxpayers for Common Sense appear to be legitimately non-partisan. If the natural gas bubble bursts, however, nuclear energy will look a lot more attractive no matter how much it costs.