Nuclear power needs to be re-evaluated in light of climate change
A remarkable thing recently happened … the fuel rods have been pulled on the first nuclear plant in Japan to restart since the tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi station. Shortly after that disastrous event all Japan’s nuclear power plants were shut down.
Four years later following the trend line of a $110 billion foreign trade deficit to buy coal, natural gas and propane, Japan has rethought its vow to abandon its 54 nuclear stations. It is perhaps only coincidence that the world’s mood on nuclear power is also changing, coal-fired anything is the issue and seems a greater risk than is nuclear power.
China is in the process of bidding for a nuclear plant in the U.K. following the thorium salt design. This initial plant, one of 30 potential reactors, is part of a U.K. plan to displace in the next 15 years the entire British power grid currently fueled by coal/natural gas.
I was a hairy hippie once, singing folk songs, about the same time as appeared a popular bumper sticker, “burn wood not atoms.” Truth is, I still burn wood to heat my house, in light of the consequences to global warming maybe I should burn atoms instead.
That the world’s carbon cycle requires the re-examination of nuclear power is a difficult step for people who formerly had hair, who remember Three Mile Island and the Diablo Canyon. Burning atoms never made the A-list in the Whole Earth Catalog, and rare was the hippie who delved to the physics of nuclear power beyond knowing fission is the nasty brother of fusion.
Science is still earnestly pursuing commercial fusion, hoping to find that match hot enough to ignite and sustain fusion.
To suspect a half century will pass before we gain the means to commercial fusion, knowing the global consequence of the carbon power cycle will arrive well before.
It was during the Nixon Administration, the basic design of the modern nuclear power plant was vetted and endorsed to an operational standard. There are several basic forms of nuclear power, the more familiar is the water-cooled reactor such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, the alternative being the thorium salt reactor.
Water acts as the nucleotide barrier and critical insulator in the one design, while in the thorium design the reaction occurs in a molten fluoride thorium salt. In the standards process of the 1970s, the water-cooled reactor won out, it is thought due to the heavy lobbying of the Nixon Administration to include weapons-grade reactors.
Even at this juncture there were abundant reasons to have opted for the thorium reactor in the civilian setting for its safety, its non-weaponability, it’s easier nucleotide disposal as well as a thousand times less waste. To wonder had this safer nuclear alternative been available in the 1970s, what might now be the state of the world’s carbon cycle and its consequence?
By design, a thorium power plant cannot suffer a meltdown because the heat of reaction cannot boil away salt like water. The waste stream of the thorium reaction has a half-life of 200 years while half-life of Uranium 238 of a water reactor is 128 million years, for most of us this counts as a long-term threat.
Japan, against popular dissent, is restarting its nuclear power plants to take the bite out of its foreign trade deficit and confront the more brutal consequence of the nation’s carbon cycle. As the nations of the world step to the plate to reduce the carbon factor in the range of 30 percent by 2030, the core problem is whence comes the power for commerce and transportation.
Surely solar and wind do work, as do sea tides, but as these means work toward mass energy efficiency, what to do until the solar, wind and its power storage are there to meet industrial demand? This for the sake of the first world as well as the third world whose sour politics are known to be rooted in economic cause.
It is the reasonable and broad opinion of the science community that a world-equivalent energy option is the salt reactor; safer, reliable, less toxic, whose by-product has little or no weapons potential, and but add the refrain that thorium is as abundant as uranium.
So superior is the thorium technology it is hard to believe we ever built water reactors in the first place. Had those been thorium reactors at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, those incidents might not have made front page news.
Obvious is the need to re-evaluate nuclear power in light of climate change. Replacing carbon power with thorium reactors could be accomplished in the span of two decades, power enough to change the private auto from internal combustion to electric and still maintain the current living standard.
The planetary supply of thorium is enough to last 100,000 years of industry use, with the potential of bringing the power grid to billions not currently connected. The chance to bring grid liberation and democracy to billions who don’t currently have access to the carbon cycle and for the sake of the carbon consequences can’t. The thorium salt reactor is the chance to intervene on the side of health, welfare and political stability.
It is with understandable reluctance the world revisits the nuclear option, to confront our nuclear fears and design an industrial complex shorn of carbon. If we hippies had been better physics students we might have known the thorium fuel cycle could have rendered a different face to nuclear power.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has just signed a nuclear storage revision bill, in itself suggesting a new look at nuclear power, but this time move beyond the water reactor to thorium.
For the record, I have burned my last antique and much treasured bumper sticker, “burn wood, not atoms.” Sorry, I did say “burn.”