Australia's nuclear propagandists are at it again, although Ziggy Switkowski, the usual leader of the pack, has been very quiet lately. However, Professor Barry Brook, and his acolyte, Terry Krieg of Australian Nuclear Forum, seem to be taking up the torch now.
The Australian reported Barry Brook, speaking in Adelaide last week, as saying that Australia 'would have no choice but to embrace nuclear power and would focus on next-generation nuclear technology that provided safety, waste and cost benefits.' He said an attractive sustainable nuclear technology for Australia was the Integral Fast Reactor. "Integral Fast Reactors can be operated at low cost and high reliability."They are also inherently safer than past nuclear reactors due to passive systems based on the laws of physics."
To quote from The Australian:
Professor Brook said that by 2025 the first contracts would be issued for small nuclear reactors built on outback mining sites and by 2030 small amounts of nuclear-generated power will start to flow into the national electricity grid.
By 2050 larger nuclear power plants will be located at a dozen energy parks and in various remote areas, and by 2100 Australia will have 100 gigawatts of installed nuclear power, he predicted.
Now let's dissect this:
I should start from Barry Brook's own starting point. He is the director of climate science at the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute, - so his main argument is that nuclear power is needed to counteract climate change - to replace greenhouse gas- emitting fossil fuels, coal and gas. This position is in itself debatable. Given that climate scientists are warning that climate change is near to becoming irreversible, one might well ask - will all the nuclear reactors be built in time to prevent this, even if they are not greenhouse gas producers? (And in the total cycle from uranium mining to waste disposal, nuclear power IS a greenhouse gas producer).
Let's examine the facts on the Integral Fast Reactors:
It's true that with these liquid fuel reactors, because it's molten fuel, there won't be a meltdown. But the volatile fission products evaporate from the molten salt. You have to trap them. They are put into another chamber – they make steam, very hot gases,to run a turbine that will generate electricity,
Liquid sodium is used to cool them. It's the sodium circuits that have given lots of problems - ". sodium reacts explosively with either air or water, necessitating elaborate safety controls in places where it must get close to water in order to create steam to turn a turbine to make electricity, such as steam generators. As a result of numerous fires from leaking systems, operating sodium-cooled fast reactors to date have been shut down more than they have run". - David Biello, writing in Scientific American
This safety aspect impinges on costs and reliability. Very tough materials are required – running at very high temps. It's the cost and durability of these materials that have not been not tested – in relation to the heat exchangors – rather than the reactor itself.
Barry Brook seems to have missed this point. At present, people worry about the risks of plutonium or weapons grade uranium being obtained from nuclear waste storage facilities, or from uranium enrichment plants. These are relatively few in number, world-wide, and they are distant from the nuclear reactors, which are much greater in number. They are also very large, expensive, and detectable facilities.
But fast neutron reactors require a reprocessing plant nearby. Why? Because their fuel, either uranium 238 or thorium are not fissile materials - they can't sustain a nuclear reaction, but need to have plutonium or uranium 235, which are fissile, to make the chain reaction happen.. They need a nearby facility from which to get these fissile materials.
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