Nuclear power and the low carbon economy

Prof. Barry Brook was interviewed on ABC Radio/Counterpoint (downloadable MP3 and complete transcript). In this excerpt Barry discusses the old way, custom built reactors, vs. the promise of manufactured fast breeder reactor designs:

Paul Comrie-Thomson: (…) You say that we now have standardised modular passive safety designs which can be factory built and shipped to site. You say they’re game changes for the industry. How does it change the game?

Barry Brook: One of the biggest problems with the American reactor program and why it stalled in the ’70s and ’80s, Three Mile Island notwithstanding, was that the costs were escalating. When it cost $300 million to build a reactor in 1972 and it cost $6 billion in the early ’80s, something has gone terribly wrong. Part of that was the legal suits that extended the reactor certification time over to a period of decades. So part of it was the anti-nuclear movement that did that, but also a part of it was each design was different. So everything was built anew, new features were tried out, every design needed a special certificate to actually be built and then another certificate to be run. So the whole system ultimately was set up to fail and things became more and more expensive.

If you can have a system where you have a standardised design with components that are built to a particular specification, if you can have components that are built in a factory and shipped to site rather than everything needed to be constructed on site, if you have modules where they’re smaller such as they can be put on a rail car or on a large truck and taken to site and the many of these units put together to constitute a plant, then you can start to see that there’s huge benefits in terms of efficiency, the fact that you don’t need a standardised certificate for each and every new reactor, that there are economic benefits in building multiple units at a given factory. The places where this is happening is China and India right now. So although these have often been blamed as some of the worst carbon polluters, ultimately and ironically they could be the nations that lead us out of the carbon economy and into a low carbon economy based on nuclear power.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: The 2006 Switkowski Report on nuclear power in Australia, it hardly mentioned fast reactors. How do you see their potential?

Barry Brook: Fast reactors are an old type of reactor design. The first reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 built in the US to work out many of the glitches in nuclear power production was a fast reactor, but almost every reactor that’s been built since and all of the currently commercial reactors in the US, in Japan and in France are what’s known as light water reactors. They’re basically two designs; a pressurised water reactor and a boiling water reactor. They use water to slow down neutrons in a nuclear reaction to make the fission of uranium 235 more likely…it’s a bit of a technical topic, I know, but basically it makes it a lot easier to generate power from uranium 235.

Fast reactors use a different technology where instead of using water to cool the fuel and transfer heat to a steam turbine they use a liquid metal. Sodium is often used, lead is another possibility. It’s hard to imagine that you could have a molten metal as the coolant in a reactor but that’s exactly what it does. And it has a number of advantages because you can not only burn all of the uranium 235 but you can burn the uranium 238 which people may have heard of as depleted uranium, the uranium that’s left over after you’ve tried to enrich it to increase the concentration of uranium 235. It’s the stuff they use in bullets and tank armour, it’s very common. If you can get the energy out of that, which is what fast reactors can do, then potentially you can unlock 100 to 300 times the energy we’re currently using out of uranium. And even better than that, we can take all of the spent fuel that’s been generated by all the world’s nuclear reactors to date and generate power from that, and change it from a 100,000-year management problem to about a 300-year management problem.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Which is why you say nuclear power is the world’s primary source of sustainable carbon free energy. It’s a big claim.

Please continue reading… to learn the answer to Paul’s question and more.

Highly recommended.