Monday, June 17, 2013

Nuclear Power to Save the World?

Last Thursday (June 13) I learned on facebook that A., a nuclear engineer by training, had visited the AYF office in Freiburg. They had a very lively, friendly, and interesting conversation about nuclear energy, safety, and the German decision to shut down all nuclear power plants. The facebook entry continued: A. has a couple book recommendations if you're interested- here's a free PDF of one:
And another is: 'the power to save the world' by gwyneth cravens, a former anti nuke protestor.

An avowing nuke in town! I wish I had been there! Several times I have already blogged about nuclear energy, a field where I experienced my "Road to Damascus" or as we say in German changed from Saul to Paul.

I downloaded Max W. Carbon's book: Nuclear Power, Villain or Victim? Our most misunderstood source of electricity. The book is in its second edition of 2006 and therefore only addresses the nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. I agree with most of what Max Carbon writes like these general statements: In summary, nuclear power is safe; no member of the public has ever been killed from the operation of American-type plants and It appears that no deaths will result worldwide from nuclear power's first 45 years of history — except at Chernobyl (and Fukushima?). This is a truly phenomenal safety record for a new technology.

Nevertheless over the years I turned anti-nuke and shall fix my opposition to nuclear power on two of Carbon's statements: Low-cost electricity is vital for industry to compete internationally and to provide jobs and Most of the scientific and engineering community believes the waste can readily be disposed of by deep-underground burial — where it will be harmless. A German proverb says: Believing means ignorance, and does "readily" mean safely too?

Frequently Carbon compares clean nuclear energy with fossil fuels that pollute the environment stressing the known fact that most conventional power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear power plants not without saying they emit greenhouse gas too. This, however, is no longer a strong argument since nuclear power should rather be compared with today's renewable energy sources where the cost of producing electricity per kilowatt-hour will strongly enter the debate.

The price of electricity

Carbon writes: The cost of electricity from today's nuclear plants is the cheapest available from any energy source except possibly hydroelectric. The reason is: Today's nuclear plants were built typically 30 years ago, and their construction costs have already been paid. Therefore, the cost to generate electricity in them comes only from the cost of maintaining and operating the plant and making ongoing capital improvements; from the cost of buying new fuel and disposing of spent fuel; and from the cost of overhead items such as administration, taxes, money set aside for decommissioning, profits, and so on.

The money for decommissioning is collected from customers as the plant is operated as part of the price of electricity. Utilities are presently collecting between one-tenth and two-tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour for this purpose. The estimated cost of nuclear electricity from the new plants [discussed above] includes funds for decommissioning.

My idea always has been and still is: Energy should not be cheap. It should be priced "correctly" such that there is an incentive for industry and the private sector to economize. In Germany electricity is heavily taxed with the idea to invest this money in renewable energy technologies. Here the kilowatt-hour is twice as expensive as in neighboring France where 78% of the electricity is produced by an aging nuclear park. In Germany in 2011 only 18% of the electrical power was generated by nuclear reactors (proportion decreasing) with renewable energies contributing 20% (proportion increasing). In past years it frequently happened that Germany exported electricity to France where in 2010 the consumption per capita was 7729 kWh being only slightly higher than in Germany with 7217. These two figures may be compared with the per capita consumption for the States of 13394 kWh.

Windpower is already nearly three times higher than the "white coal" hydro power ©GREA.
The "correct" costs of nuclear energy are still heavily debated. Production costs are not stable and even increase for written-off power reactors due to higher maintenance costs and modern safety requirements. A good example is the oldest French nuclear power plant (1978) at Fessenheim located 30 km west of Freiburg. This summer the thickness of the concrete base-plate below the reactor vessel will be increased from a mere 1.5 to 2 meters which now is considered the minimum requirement for protection in case of a meltdown or an earthquake (remember the complete destruction of nearby Basel in 1356!).

The high-level waste problem

Many experts claim that the money put aside for the decommissioning of nuclear power plants does not include the costs for the "permanent" disposal of the accruing high-level radioactive waste (HLW). On this topic Carbon starts out correctly: A third class of wastes, the used or “spent” fuel rods from a nuclear reactor, presents a greater challenge [than the low-level radioactive waste]; the rods become intensely radioactive during their three- to five-year residence in the reactor. They must be disposed of by long term isolation after they are discharged. Because of its high radioactivity, the material in the spent fuel is termed high-level waste or HLW.

Carbon continues with some diversion: Many methods for long-term disposal of HLW have been suggested. They include burying it 100 feet or so below the ocean floor where it would be isolated from mankind; burying it near the South Pole where (since it emits heat) it would melt its way down through several thousand feet of ice; and shooting it into outer space on rockets. He finishes with some serious examples: However, the best approach appears to be to bury it beneath the surface of the earth in a stable geological formation. Burial could be in volcanic, salt, granite, or other layers of material. Most nations are pursuing this approach. Sweden is considering granite layers, Germany salt layers, and the United States volcanic layers at Yucca Mountain (YM) in Nevada.

What "appears" to be a stable geological formation is presently seriously questioned such that all permanent burial schemes are decades behind schedule. As far as the US is concerned and with all the costs that already occurred, on March 5, 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu reiterated in a Senate hearing that the Yucca Mountain site was no longer considered an option for storing reactor waste.

In Germany the salt mine solution turned out to be leaky. Water ingressing in a low level waste depository necessitates the recuperation of the already rotten yellow barrels with an open end for the costs of the operation. In Germany we presently are back to square one with respect to the search of a permanent repository for HLW. In the meantime CASTORS (casks for storage and transport of radioactive material) filled with fuel elements processed in La Hague (France) arrive in Germany under the protest of anti-nukes. Why do they protest? Do they think that the French will keep the HLW we produced in our reactors in France? These CASTORS are presently put into interim storage although in a ruling delivered on June 19, the higher administrative court in Schleswig, northern Germany, withdrew an authorisation to store nuclear waste at a temporary site in Brunsb├╝ttel. In the light of the decision, the fate of nine containers of waste from a nearby power station, which has been inactive since 2011, remains uncertain. Does the judge hope that Bavaria will accept the nuclear waste produced in Schleswig-Holstein? Just in time before our general elections this fall, parliament (Bundesstag) passed a law for an open and unbiased (ergebnisoffen) search for a final depository for HLW. Will the Opalinus clay formation be the solution for a "permanent" repository?

In the case of Germany I am sure that the money the nuclear power industry must set aside for decommissioning of their installation does not cover the cost for the permanent disposal of HLW containing plutonium, Pu-239. This isotope has a half-life of 24,600 years, and (as Carbon admits) it is a health hazard under some conditions.

The brutal fact is: there is no disposal that will assure the permanent containment of this hellish plutonium. The best mankind can hope for is a semi-final storage of HLW in a safe and permanently guarded place with the possibility of recuperation in case of a deterioration of the storage conditions followed by a safe re-storage. Such "retrievable" storage will also leave the possibility open  for any future treatment of HLW like its "incineration" in some sort of Rubbiatron.

In summary: HLW is a poisonous legacy for future generations. Considering all the costs nuclear enery will incur for our descendants it is not a source of cheap electricity. We would be well-advised not to make their burden too heavy.

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