Why have we fallen out of love with nuclear power?
Can a small Danish company change this and save the planet?
Photo by Dasha Urvachova on Unsplash
Danger and disaster
The first thoughts for most of us when we hear the word, ‘nuclear’, is danger and disaster. If it’s not another country making progress with the refining of weapons-grade plutonium (whatever that means), something equally uncontrollable is happening at a nuclear power station. We worry about half lives stretching into thousands of years and radioactive ponds with spent fuel rods leaking into our drinking water.
There have actually only been 3 nuclear power station events. In 1979 at Three-Mile Island a cooling malfunction led to some radioactive gas being released several days later, but nothing above normal background levels. There were no injuries or adverse health issues on this occasion. The deaths at Chernobyl 7 years later were because of unforgivably bad reactor design and a series of horrendous decisions, driven by a state political system with an insidious blame culture.
On 11 March, 2011, an earthquake off the north east coast of Japan caused a tsunami. At the Fukushima nuclear power plant further down the east coast, the wave surged over the man-made defences and flooded the reactors. There were no immediate deaths, although a number of hospital patients nearby died when they were evacuated. Of Japan’s 33 nuclear reactors since this disaster, only 9 have received clearance from the government to restart.
Nuclear is too expensive
In the 1950’s, nuclear was the future. Yet 70 years later, it only accounts for 10% of the world’s electricity. Reactor design hasn’t changed in decades. Yet design and construction costs have spiralled out of control. Declining costs in the fifties and sixties were short-lived. Ever since, they’ve continued to rise sharply.
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, is now under construction in Somerset, only one of eight new designated sites to get the go ahead so far. The estimated construction cost is £22.9bn (Sept 2019) paid for by the mainly state-owned EDF of France and state-owned CGN of China, (since sanctioned by the US government for espionage). According to Dieter Helm, professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford, if the government had borrowed the money to build it at 2%, rather than EDF’s cost of capital at 9%, it would have been roughly half price.
The Gordian Knot - poverty vs climate change
Two of the greatest challenges of our time are to end poverty and climate change. Ending poverty is complex and includes representation, access to education, clean water, food security and the end of war. Access to plenty of low cost energy is key in helping to deliver this. At the same time the world needs to stop burning fossil fuels and drastically reduce CO2 emissions.
How much energy do we need?
What if everyone in the world got the same per-capita energy consumption as we currently enjoy in Europe? That’s only half what the US currently uses. Even to achieve this modest outcome, we would need to triple world energy production.
South east Asia
There are a billion people living in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. They have a monsoon season which brings lots of cloudy weather. They don’t have a lot of wind because of their proximity to the equator, which means wind and solar energy isn’t practical. There is also limited hydro and geothermal resources. The populations of these countries are growing and they’re running out of water. They know they have to generate more energy and they’re not waiting. To solve their immediate needs 250 coal-fired power stations are being built. There are even more natural gas ones planned because they’re cheaper. That’s a lot of new fossil fuel being connected to their electricity grids. Can we blame them? Why should they remain energy poor while we are fortunate and rich?
The answer is nuclear but not as we know it
Traditional nuclear power has always promised a lot. It’s virtually emissions-free energy. It doesn’t take up a lot of land, consumes little fuel and produces very little waste. But traditional nuclear reactors are inherently unstable. Energy is produced at high pressure, contained in a tank. If it ruptures, for whatever reason, radioactive gases escape which don’t respect the perimeter fence of the power station or the borders of the country where it sits.
With such a potential risk to the public, serious accidents are prevented with complex engineering. Think of safety systems watching safety systems. To make it economical, it has to be scaled up. The reason new reactors aren’t being built today, is because they’re virtually impossible to finance.
Seaborg Technologies, Copenhagen
This company of 28 employees, 12 PhDs from 5 continents has a small lab in Copenhagen. They’re betting the bank on an old technology originally tested in the US as early as 1954. China had a play in 1970 and appear to be taking it seriously now having recently invested $4bn to build one of these old tech power generators, a compact molten salt reactor (CMSR).
One of the reasons why it wasn’t commercialised back then was they had to use a graphite ‘moderator’. Apparently in small nuclear, this is critical. Seaborg have developed their own proprietary solution which gets around any of the problems posed by graphite (catching fire presumably being one of them).
A CMSR can’t be weaponised, burns the old nuclear waste which the world wants rid of; doesn’t meltdown, explode, release gases and it’s insoluble in water. The reactor also fits into a standard 20 foot container and creates enough electricity for 200,000 people. It delivers thermal energy at high temperature, so a by-product from the electricity generated is desalination of seawater and industrial heating. It can operate for 12 years without refuelling.
This completely changes the risk profile of nuclear. It becomes simple and cheap to build. If there was ever an accident, it can’t escape anywhere. To date governments have been in charge of nuclear power decisions because of public risk. Take those inherent risks away and it’s now a business which can be delivered much faster and more efficiently anywhere. Boris Johnson can return to more pressing issues such as gold wallpaper in the bedroom?
Small and modular is important. Seaborg plan to build then in South Korean shipyards who they’re partnering with. It’s then a simple exercise of loading them on a container ship and exporting them to wherever they’re needed. This decentralises power production and flips the energy market on its head. It disrupts nuclear and plans for more Hinkley Point Cs controlled by government. And it’s cheap, much cheaper than coal.
Is this the next industrial revolution?
It has every opportunity to take humanity to a new level. It promises an energy democracy for the world. Our dependence on fossil based fuel is halted almost immediately, which might just be soon enough to avert the looming catastrophe fast approaching our great grandchildren.
PS. Solar panels work fine in cloudy conditions!