Split over an atomic future? Update any fossilised views

Nuclear Renaissance
February 3, 2006

Nuclear energy is the answer to the rising costs of energy and to rising levels of carbon dioxide, says Michael Wood

A possible renaissance in nuclear power generation has shadowed both governments and the nuclear industry for a number of years. The conjunction of steeply increased fossil-fuel energy prices with an international accord committing the UK to reducing its carbon-based emissions makes such a renaissance more likely. Therefore Nuclear Renaissance is a timely book.

William Nuttall, who works in the department of engineering at Cambridge University, presents the comprehensive factual background information required for a well-informed and balanced debate about the role of nuclear power - generated by fission or by fusion - within future energy policy. I recommend his book to anyone involved in the nuclear power debate, especially in the UK and US, including those with little technical knowledge. (For them, the nuts and bolts of nuclear power and its basic theory are described, although unfortunately text boxes disrupt the flow and should have been relegated to appendices.) The haphazard development of civil nuclear power is covered in the discussion of current policy in the book's introduction, showing how and why the nuclear industry's recent history has been anything but glorious.

The Shoreham boiling water reactor (BWR) in New York state was an ignominious folly that ran aground on the shoals of inadequate planning, unrealistic financing, changing government regulation and, above all, not-in-my-backyard public opinion.

In the course of the book, the socioeconomic, environmental, political and industrial issues surrounding electrical power generation receive frank and clear treatment. Nuttall highlights, for example, the problems created when government tinkering attempts to second-guess the vagaries of market forces. For some people, the socioeconomic discussion will be contentious, but Nuttall's reasoning is persuasive. What will cause considerable pause for thought is his discussion of the economic consequences of an energy policy incorporating major technological innovation in power storage and transmission techniques.

Generation I nuclear reactor systems encompass the prototype commercial reactors of the 1950s and 1960s, only a few of which still run today.

Generation II reactors (GenII) are the commercial reactors commissioned in the 1970s and 1980s that are still in general use. These reactors typically use enriched uranium fuel and are cooled and (in most cases) moderated by water. These designs include light-water systems such as the BWR and pressurised water reactors (PWRs). In the UK, the second tranche of GenII reactors are advanced gas-cooled reactors. Generation III (GenIII) is the suite of near-term future plants with reactors designed in the 1990s.

GenIII system designs include the advanced BWR, advanced PWR and the European pressurised reactor. Generation IV (GenIV) nuclear reactor systems, the long-term goal of the industry, are revolutionary designs incorporating innovative fuel-cycle technologies that are unlikely to be operating before 2030. The benefits of GenIV designs would be substantial - in sustainability, safety and reliability - in the cost of the power produced and in increased safeguards against nuclear proliferation.

Recent developments in the economics of nuclear power are covered. Nuttall suggests that, in many circumstances, it is competitively priced - a surprising conclusion considering the notorious short-termism of the financial markets. As for atmospheric pollution levels, comparisons with other kinds of power generation mostly favour nuclear power. Most surprising to the uninitiated reader, perhaps, is the industry's long-term safety record, even when events at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl power plants are taken into account. But the steady decline in the skilled manpower levels necessary to operate the Western nuclear power industry will perhaps lead to questions about whether such an enviable safety record can continue.

Coming to nuclear-waste management, Nuttall touches on the economic background and policy decisions leading to the commissioning of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield, but does not go into the depth that he should, given such a major UK investment disaster. The possible opportunities represented by the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the UK are highlighted. The options for surplus plutonium and its compounds are discussed in the light of chemical partitioning, transmutation, fission incineration, geological storage and future fuel technologies. The author contrasts the UK with US and Finnish approaches, and concludes that it is imperative that a "dialogue on waste" be established between the industry and the public.

In the discussion of nuclear-waste burners and the associated technologies for their operation, Nuttall highlights that insteadof simply stockpiling or burying the highly radioactive by-products of nuclear power generation, it is now possible tostabilise much of this material and to reduce its activity levels to an extent that the costs of storage or disposal will be orders of magnitude lower than they are at present.

There is a good compendium of information on the technologies of nuclear fission: the design, operation, performance and safety systems of water and gas-cooled reactors. The characteristics of future designs, such as the modular pebble-bed reactor, are treated in some depth. In many cases, this future technology could provide the basis of small and medium-sized reactors able to produce electricity not only for the grid but also for local use, as in seawater desalination and even in domestic heating.

The situation with nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, technologies seems to be summarised by the renowned quote: "Fusion power is 50 years away, it has always been 50 years away and it will always be 50 years away." There is a glimmer of hope that commercial fusion power can be achieved but, as always with nuclear power, it will involve a great deal of funding to develop it through projects such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor to be sited at Cadarache in southern France. The technological spin-offs from trying to achieve the fusion goal will be worth the cost but, in the interim, clean and relatively economic nuclear fission has to be made available to fill the energy gap.

The quality of the graphics and tables in the book needs to be improved, and the author should also ensure that the standard of editing for subsequent editions is higher. That said, perhaps this first edition reflects the author's enthusiasm and his rush to print a great deal of valuable information.

Michael Wood is an honorary visiting fellow, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Aston University. He has 20 years' consultancy experience, including work for the European Commission on nuclear safety.

Nuclear Renaissance: Technologies and Policies for the Future of Nuclear Power

Author - William J. Nuttall
Publisher - Institute of Physics Publishing/Taylor and Francis
Pages - 228
Price - £44.99
ISBN - 0 7503 0936 9

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