By Les Hearn
Opposition to nuclear power has become a shibboleth to some on the left, its birth tainted by the original sin of the atom bomb. But the idea of nuclear power to help cut emissions of “greenhouse” gases has recently gained more support, including from a few environmentalists.
It is certainly true that something has to be done about future energy supplies. Fossil fuels will eventually run out and, even if they didn’t, nearly all serious climate scientists accept that their combustion will lead to some degree of global warming, with disruption to the world’s climate systems and to many societies. Burning fossil fuels has also contributed to millions of deaths through respiratory diseases, a fact that puts even Chernobyl into the shadows.
Alternative energy sources should and must be developed. There are many promising new lines in wave energy, and wind turbines are becoming more economical. So-called environmental objections to these are ludicrous: if they are unsightly and dangerous to birds, how much more so are the armies of pylons supporting thousands of miles of high tension electric cable that already bestride our country like colossi. And sea-based turbines may eventually reverse any negative impact on sea life by providing sorts of artificial reefs as new habitats.
However, it is not clear that these sources will fill the gap in future energy demand or that humans will demand less power any time soon. The question of nuclear power therefore keeps coming up. It is perhaps educational to read the words of one of the atom bomb scientists. The physicist Richard Feynman, a wise and humane person, worked on the Manhattan Project because of his very reasonable “concern that the Nazis would make [the atom bomb] first and conquer the world”. Some thirty years ago, he wrote “I see nothing wrong with nuclear power except questions of explosions, sabotage, stealing fuel to make bombs, leaking stored radioactive spent rods, etc. But all these are technical or engineering questions, about which we can do a great deal. So I think the risks can be controlled and that nuclear power, if economical, should be developed.”
If Feynman was right, we should perhaps be looking at how nuclear power might be made more user-friendly.
Newer conventional designs already operating in China and South Korea employ passive “fail-safe” safety systems. At Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, where, incidentally, operators were not following the rules, safety had to re-established by positive actions. When these were not carried out, matters rapidly got worse.
By contrast, in the Westinghouse AP1000, the emergency cooling water is stored above the reactor core. In the event of an accident, the water falls on to the core, cooling it down immediately. The AP1000 is also simpler in design, making it not only cheaper but less prone to break down. It also uses its fuel more efficiently, generating only 10% of the nuclear waste of older power plants.
The problem of that waste has still not been satisfactorily solved but there are signs that it may soon be. Several techniques are being developed to burn up nuclear waste in novel reactors based on particle accelerator technology. All radioactive nuclei eventually decay to stable (i.e. harmless) ones: unfortunately, this may take thousands of years, during which time the material must be stored safely and securely. Accelerated Transmutation is set to reduce by 95% or more the quantities needing storing, with a similar reduction in the time of storing. In addition, this technology is fail-safe and generates power. It could even be used to burn up global stockpiles of nuclear weapons, turning “bombs into light”!
It seems that some of the problems highlighted by Feynman (and erected into insuperable barriers by opponents of nuclear power) are on the verge of being solved.