Tag Archives: nuclear waste

Say Yes To Fourth Generation Nuclear Power

By Michael Karnerfors, previsouly published at Currents, the Swedish-American Chambers of Commerse magazine

Today’s policies on nuclear energy dictate that we shall put fuel that is unspent – 95 percent of it – in an expensive hole in the ground. There are better ways. Fourth generation nuclear power helps save us from our own foolish plans.

Picture this…

You are on a family car trip. You need gas, so you stop at a station and fill up twenty gallons of fuel in your car. You drive ten-fifteen miles down the road, using up one third of a gallon of gas, and then you stop. To the puzzlement of your family you siphon all of the unused gas out of the tank. Two thirds of a gallon you pour out on the road and set fire to. The remaining nineteen gallons you give back to a gas station. Your family asks you: “Why are you doing that?!”. You reply to them: “Oh that gas will be sent back to the oil well and put it into the ground again, not to be used”

By now your family will call for an ambulance and have you committed on grounds of insanity, because such behavior is without doubt utterly ludicrous.

But what if I told you that this is how most counties in the world are managing their stock of nuclear fuel, including the US?

In the middle 1980’s most of the nuclear power plants that are in operation in the world today had been built. They are of the so called second generation nuclear power. After thirty years in operation the results from these plants are quite excellent. Apart from Three Mile Island (TMI) accident – which incidentally didn’t hurt anyone – none of the pressure and boiler water reactors of West or East Asia have had a major accident. They are sturdy and reliable designs.

They do have a few drawbacks though:

  • Only 5 percent of the energy in the fuel is extracted.
  • Of the energy extracted from the fuel, two thirds is washed away as waste heat.
  • When the fuel is taken out from the reactor, it is highly radioactive, necessitating storing it for 100,000 to 1 million years while it decays.

Today tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel are sitting in casks or storage pools around the world, waiting for us to come up with a solution for it. For countries that do not allow reprocessing, there has only been one solution seriously proposed so far: deep geological repositories. You build caves deep into stable bedrock, and stuff the nuclear fuel there. Seen from a safety perspective that is a good idea because we know from the natural nuclear reactor site in Oklo, Gabon, Africa, that such repositories are extremely safe. A geological repository will keep spent nuclear fuel locked inside for literally billions of years. The only major worry is human intrusion.

Seen from a resource and sustainable development standpoint though, this is an awful(!) idea. 95 percent of the energy in spent nuclear fuel is unused. Why would we want to put that in the ground for hundreds of thousands of years when we can use it to get clean, safe energy instead?

Fourth generation nuclear power is an umbrella term for emerging reactors designs. Some of them have existed as experimental plants for decades. Countries like the U.S., Russia, France and India have been working on fourth generation for quite some time. The advantages of this new nuclear power are substantial: 

  • Fourth generation reactors use what we call “waste” today as fuel and extract twenty times the energy, used nearly twice as effective.
  • The storage time for the nuclear waste goes down to approximately 500-1,000 years instead of 1,000,000 years.
  • They can use plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons as fuel.

Two things have held fourth generation nuclear power back so far. First the negative attitudes towards nuclear power after TMI and Chernobyl. The second factor has been the fact that Uranium has been – and still is – dirt cheap considering the fantastic amounts of energy that is extracted from the material, even with the second generation reactors.

But today, when we are faced not only with the problem of nuclear waste but also the urgent need of phasing out fossil fuels, these accidents have in the grand perspective proven to be exceedingly rare and either harmless – like TMI – or not relevant to the issue of future nuclear power, because no one is building dangerous Soviet junk-reactors designed in the 1950’s anymore. Nuclear power is without doubt coming back.

While countries like the US and Sweden are mulling over how to get people to accept nuclear waste dumps in their neighborhoods, others – like Russia and South Korea – are moving forward aggressively in the field of new nuclear power. With the current rate of expansion China will be the world leader in a couple of decades; the country is breaking ground for ten(!) new nuclear reactors every year.

Until fusion power is commercially available, the question is what role the western world will take in the continuing history of nuclear power. Will we:

  • Stop the development of our own nuclear power and bury our nuclear fuel in the world’s most advanced and expensive garbage dumps, hoping no one touches it for a million years?
  • Move forward, develop new nuclear power and produce clean energy for hundreds of years while eliminating nuclear waste and nuclear weapons?

If the first option sounds good to you, I urge you to get a siphon and start draining your gas tank…

Michael Karnerfors, Lund, Sweden

The author is a Master of Science in Computer Science and Engineering, and co-founder of the independent network Nuclear Power Yes Please” (NPYP) which seeks to gather people who consider the issue of nuclear power too important to be squandered with junk arguments and outrageous claims aimed more to scare and terrify people rather than informing them on the issues for and against nuclear power.

Michael, the saboteur?! Part one...

By Michael Karnerfors, 2009-10-24

I have had some crazy last few days, culminating with a Swedish newspaper calling me and asking me if I am a saboteur trying to wreck a scientist's work on behalf of the nuclear industry! Whatever prompted anyone to ask something that bizarre? Well, the whole thing started over 30 years ago...

Anyone using fissionable material in Sweden is by law responsible for the safekeeping and disposal of the end-products. We're not allowing reprocessing, and we're not allowing the export of highly radioactive waste products, so we have to deposit any such materials.

To that end, the Swedish nuclear power companies formed the Swedish Nuclear Fuel And Waste Management Company, SKB for short for the purpose to researching a viable method to deposit spent nuclear fuel that is acceptable for the public as well as politically. Not that we didn't know of viable methods since such methods were known since the early 70's. But only very few of them were palatable, so we needed a bit of research of our own.  The project "KärnBränsleSäkerhet" (Nuclear fuel safety), or KBS for short, was started in 1976. In 1983 the third report of this project, KBS-3, was put forth and it proposed what is most likely a solution to the nuclear waste problem. Continue reading Michael, the saboteur?! Part one...

Did you think renewable power is sustainable? Think again...

"Sustainability" is a buzz-word these days. It is used often and eagerly, especially by opponents of nuclear power and proponents of renewable alternatives. There is an assumption to there that if something is renewable it is also automatically sustainable. There is also an assumption that nuclear power is not sustainable. How surprised people get when they find out that the exact opposite is true...

Let's take a step back and for once examine what we actually mean by the concept of sustainability.  In this article, we will be focusing on sustainable power production.

What sustainability is not

There seems to be a vague notion out there that something that is sustainable we can start using now and then keep using forever, or that something that is sustainable never consumes any resources. Well even by this faulty definition, renewables are not sustainable. This is because solar panels are not built from sunshine,  nor are wind turbines built from a stiff afternoon breeze. You build them from consumable materials such as steel, copper, neodymium, gallium, arsenic, indium and other sometimes not too common materials. Also they have a finite life span after which they must be torn down and replaced. This means that solar and wind power does consume resources and in the end cannot be used forever.

But that is not the definition of sustainable, so let's move on.

What sustainability is

"Sustainable development" was defined by the Brundtland-commission report "Our common future" in June 1987 as:

...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Now let's look at this. Does this say anything about renewables, using the same things forever, or even that using fossil fuels would be a bad thing? No it does not. The report doesn't even say we cannot deplete a resource.

As for non-renewable resources, like fossil fuels and minerals, their use reduces the stock available for future generations. But this does not mean that such resources should not be used. In general the rate of depletion should take into account the criticality of that resource, the availability of technologies for minimizing depletion, and the likelihood of substitutes being available.

So what sustainability means is this:

  • We have needs, and we must meet them.
  • The future generations will also have needs, and we must not do anything that prevents them from getting these needs met.

People talking about sustainable development often talk about the future. But what they keep forgetting is that development that does not tend to the needs of the present as well, is not sustainable. Sustainable development must meet both current and future needs.

So now that we have established what sustainability actually means, let's get to work applying it.

Applying the definition of sustainable to the real world

What are our needs when it comes to power? Among all needs, one is reliability.

Reliable power production means that we get have the amount of power we require, the instant we require it. Power is a perishable commodity. Especially electricity must be produced the very second we intend to consume it. If production does not meet demands, we have a power deficit. We do not accept power deficits. Not only is a power deficit annoying, but it can also be very dangerous as we are relying on electricity for a great number of critical applications, such as hospitals, tele-communications, cold food storage and pretty much anything that makes our society modern and thriving. Also power drops on the electrical grid risks damaging or destroying equipment connected to it.

Hence a source of power must be able to deliver as much as we want, the moment we want it or it is not, by definition, sustainable.

Are wind power and solar power sustainable sources of power?

Solar power and wind power are not living up to Brundtland commission definition of sustainable, for that most inane of reasons: when there is no wind, and when there is no sun, they do not deliver power. And by not doing that, they fail our need of reliability.

But surely there is always wind and sun, isn't there? No, not always. Sun is a no-brainer, because sun does not shine 24 hours per day (except above the arctic circle in the summer but that doesn't help us in the cold dark winter). So what about wind?

Wind power in Sweden, jan-feb 2009
Reported wind energy production in Sweden, Jan-Feb 2009

The graph above is statistics for wind power in Sweden, fetched from Vattenfall's page www.vindstat.nu. This page represents day average wind power production in Sweden for 30 days. The reporting plants range all the way from the south tip of Sweden to the far reaching north. The image is a snapshot of the graph taken at February 14, 2009.

The amount of installed wind power, that is to say the maximum power capacity, that reports to this webpage was 695 MW for the 30 days displayed, which is about 85% of all installed wind power in Sweden. This means that theoretical maximum power production in this graph is 16 680 MWh per day. Keeping this in mind, we see that for January 25 to January 30, wind power delivered 2-4% of installed capacity. After that it made a skip up, but less than a week later is was down below 10% again for another four days.

And again we must remind you that this is day average production and does not consider fluctuations during the day. This means that wind power in Sweden at times most likely delivered less than 1% of installed capacity.

This means that development that would rely on renewables such as solar and wind to meet our power needs, would not be considered sustainable unless there was something else that could entirely replace them for low periods. Such replacements do not exist.

Are bio-fuels sustainable?

Bio-fuels is another renewable alternative that is getting much attention. Do they meet our needs? That can be questioned, because while reliability is acceptable, the guarantees of capacity are shaky at best. And even worse is that bio-fuels strike at one of our most basic needs: health and long life. Bio-fuels, just like any other combustible power sources, release gases and pollutants that are harmful to human health. While being mostly neutral when it comes to carbon balance, this does not make the emissions any less harmful to people. Improvements can be made, but it must be asked how many premature deaths we are willing to tolerate before the technology of bio-fuels have been improved to acceptable levels. Hence this leaves the sustainability of bio-fuels in doubt.

Is nuclear power sustainable?

Let's look at the needs we have, and that the future generations will have:

  • Capacity
  • Reliability
  • Clean air, land and water
  • Health

Does nuclear power fulfill these needs? Yes it does. Nuclear power has a capacity and reliability that is matched only by hydro power and fossil fuels. It does not pollute air, land nor sea in such a manner that we cannot accept it. And it does not threaten health in such a manner we cannot accept it. In fact, the power it replaces, such as for instance coal plants, kills about 2 million people prematurely every year from air pollution. So in replacing that, nuclear power saves lives.

Nuclear waste is an issue, yes. But it is a solvable issue, solvable in such a way it will not impede future generations from having their needs met. The science needed to know how to do that has been available since the 1970's. It is part needing to gather experience on how to do it, and mostly politics that has kept us from implementing them so far. But for instance the Swedish method for a deep geological repository KBS-3 is at such a level of maturity it may begin being implemented in the near future. And more alternatives for dealing with nuclear waste are being made available as technological development progresses. We have no reason to assume nuclear waste cannot be dealt with in a sustainable manner that meets the definition by the Brundtland commission.

If we use nuclear power, must future generations use it too?

Using nuclear power now does not force future generations to use it. Nuclear plants have a finite life span of about 40-60 years. For renewables like solar and wind, their life span is even shorter. After that, the plants must be replaced. The future generations are free to choose whatever method of production they want for these replacements. They are not locked in by our choice. If they want to use something else, they are free to do so.

And choosing something else, they most likely will. Fusion power has dodged us for some time, but the progress is very promising. The research facility ITER is being constructed as we speak. The follow-up DEMO is on the drawing board. If there are no big snags, work at these plants will be done by 2050, at which time fusion power can go commercial. If we are unlucky, it might be another 100 years before they work out the problems. Being pessimists, we can reasonably estimate that by 2150 at the latest, fission nuclear power, solar, wind and pretty much everything else we use for our base load, can be phased out. This is what the Brundtland commission report speaks of: "the likelihood of available substitutes".

And even if fusion power never takes place, whatever opponents of nuclear power claim can be used to replace nuclear power now, can most certainly be used to replace it then. If not, their case falls apart anyway and we must keep using nuclear power and make it even more effective.

So does it really matter that we risk depleting our nuclear fuel resources? No, it does not. If we start to reach the end of such resources, something that is not likely to happen by at least 2 000-5 000 years anyway, then future generations may switch to whatever else they want to use. They are not bound by our choices, and as such, the definition of sustainable development is met by nuclear power.

Conclusion

It has been said that the person that stares too far ahead, risks tripping over their own feet. This is true also in this matter. We must not forget that our needs must also be met, and not just the needs of future generations. Otherwise we do not have sustainable development. And sadly, renewables such as wind, solar and bio-fuels do not yet meet these needs. No matter how much we spend on research, we cannot force the sun shine when we want it to, nor make wind blow on demand. Bio-fuels rely on combustion, which we do not know yet how to make non-hazardous to health. Hence they are not sustainable.

Nuclear power however is, as far as we can make out, sustainable.

Comment regarding corriosion in KBS-3 copper capsules

During 2008, and highlighted in articles this past week, there has been statements that the maximum rate of corrosion of copper in pure water may be higher than anticipated. This is important to the nuclear issue because copper is one of the four barriers of the Swedish Nuclear Fuel And Waste Management Company (SKB) method of storing nuclear waste: KBS-3.

Scientists from The Royal Institute of Technology and Uppsala University Peter Szakálos (KTH), Gunnar Hultquist (KTH) and Gunnar Wikmark (UU) are calling into question statements by SKB that copper is immune to corrosion in pure water devoid of oxygen. This statement is found on page 102 in the SKB report TR-06-22.

 In the absence of oxygen, copper is thermodynamically immune to corrosion in pure water. 

Szakálos, Hultquist and Wikmark claim that in experiments of their own, they have achieved a very high rate of corrosion of copper in pure water if hydrogen is present. The results can be viewed in their Berns presentation from 2008 (in Swedish).

Copper after 15 years in pure water
Copper after 15 years in pure water. On the left, the bottle was closed to everything but hydrogen. On the right, the bottle was closed to everything

At Nuclear Power Yes Please we are - of course - following the matter closely. Part of the foundation for our confidence in nuclear power is the ability to deal with nuclear waste in a safe manner. KBS-3 is a disposal method, one of many, that holds great promise to live up to our demands on safety and not requiring human supervision. It is currently perhaps even the most promising method considering its technical maturity and political feasibility. So if KBS-3 is called into question, this may in an extreme case force us to re-evaluate our position on nuclear power.

However there is a long way to go before we get there.

Even by the words of Szakálos, Hultquist and Wikmark, this is a solvable issue. As such it does not spell the end of KBS-3, nor does it warrant a major rethinking. Szakálos, Hultquist and Wikmark say that modifications that protect the copper capsules from corrosion in a short term perspective, that is to say 1/100'th or less of the repository's full life expectancy, should solve the issue since it can only happen when the capsules are hot, that is to say only at the very beginning of the storage period.

We also need to remember that the experiments Szakálos, Hultquist and Wikmark performed to achieve the corrosion were very specific and may perhaps not reflect real life subterranean conditions of a deep geological repository. SKB will need to examine if the conditions stated for the experiment can be expected 500 meters down in the bedrock, or if this sort of thing can only be achieved in a laboratory.

Of relevance to that is the fact that SKB has responded and said that they themselves have not been able to reproduce the results of Szakálos, Hultquist and Wikmark, which in turns calls into question the validity of their statements since reproducibility is perhaps the most important quality of any scientific claim.

SKB is also currently conducting an experiment at their Äspö laboratory where they have buried copper capsules in conditions very similar to what it will be in the real KBS-3 repository. These capsules are scheduled to be retrieved next year, which will give us empirical data on how the capsules are affected once buried. Nothing shows us better what can happen than going out and doing it for real.

In summary: while this issue may force SKB to take one extra think before submitting KBS-3 for final review, this still does not constitute an insurmountable hurdle. So far it appears to be solvable. Even Szakálos, Hultquist and Wikmark state that they do not think this issue is a show-stopper. And as such KBS-3 can only become better from this.

Also, on a very positive note, we at Nuclear Power Yes Please are pleased to notice that this criticism has brought KBS-3 into view of the public eye. This is good(!), because very few people have until now been aware of just how far the work on KBS-3 has progressed. Constantly we are hearing people, especially opponents of nuclear power, saying "We don't know what to do with the waste". The issue of copper corrosion has shown everyone that we do in fact have a very good idea what to do with it and that KBS-3 is a well researched method that is approaching the point where when it will be implemented for real.

This issue will of course have to be adressed and at Nuclear Power Yes Please we are eagerly waiting to hear what SKB has to say about it. We will continue to monitor this issue with great interest.

And after all: we are on no big hurry. Nuclear waste is a very patient player and will wait for us in intermediate storage while we take the appropriate time to determine what we will do with it. 🙂

Articles:
Mediasammanfattning, vecka 7 - SKB
Kärnavfallet kan läcka ut - Aftonbladet
SKB svarar kritikerna: "Vi är öppna för granskning"

Blog posts:
Vad skall vi göra av kärnavfallet?
Slutförvaring
FRAmtidens energi och konst
Mest kärnkraft i världen
Hets mot folk

This... is an ex-parrot!!

Let me indulge myself in a bit of personal commentary for a moment and convey my frustration about debating nuclear power. When browsing the sheets, TV-programs and the web, I as a nuclear friend more often than not run into absurdities so staggering it leaves me wondering if this is reality or some really tripped out stage comedy.

The latest act in this Circus Macabre is Christer Borg, who in a recent blog entry argues against nuclear power with arguments so false I am relating to John Cleese's character in the famous parrot sketch: Mr. Praline is faced with a salesman who won't admit that the parrot he just sold is definitely deceased. The man behind the counter keeps arguing his fraudulent case with ever more ridiculous arguments until eventually he's trying to convince the customer that the stuffed Norwegian Blue parrot is not dead but "pining for the fjords".


Video provided kind courtesy of Monty Python

Let me show you what I mean... Christer Borg says:

A wrecked reactor is as deadly to all life as it was when Three Mile Island or the Chernobyl disasters took place.

Bringing up Chernobyl in discussions about  Swedish reactors, or any light-water moderated reactor for that matter since its the most prevalent reactor type in the world, is absolutely silly. If we chose to ignore the fact that the comparison requires an act of God, where He gets devilishly drunk and in a stupor goes on to rewrite the laws of physics, the death toll from the accident itself does not even reach 100 people yet.  Anyone arguing differently had best take it up with the UN.

"This parrot is no more!"

Three Mile Island is slightly more relevant to talk about because that concerned a reactor type that actually exists outside the former Soviet Union, as opposed to the accident prone RBMK-type of reactor that blew up at Chernobyl. But the argument is still trying to assert the vitality of a bleedin' demised parrot because the accident at TMI-2 left us with zero dead, zero injured and zero cancer cases. Why does Borg, when he wishes to speak against nuclear power, bring up an event which tells us that even when suffering a nuclear meltdown the safety measures of a western reactor works and prevents death and injury?

"It has ceased to be!"

Borg continues...

The issue of storing nuclear waste is as unresolved as it was thirty years ago.

This argument tries to ignore thirty years of research and development in the area, not to mention 1.7 billion years of geological truth.  The invalidity of the argument is laid bare the moment you step onto the homepage of SKB, Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB. SKB selects the site to build the Swedish deep geological repository in 2009. The year after that they hand in their application to the authorities seeking permission to begin work constructing the repository using the KBS-3 method, validated by science and Mother Nature in her very own experiment into nuclear waste storage.

"It's expired and gone to meet its maker!"

Borg: Operating nuclear reactors is as difficult as before.

OK, so if we again ignore reality, such as the extremely low accident rate compared to other sources of power and the lack of injuries resulting from nuclear power, his argument tries to deny the fact that design criteria for modern nuclear reactors specify them to be "Walk away safe". That is to say a modern nuclear reactor remains safe even if all of the operators simply walk away from the controls. I know of few other human activities that would allow that sort of abuse. And this did not exist thirty years ago.

"It's a stiff! Bereft of life. It rests in peace!"

Borg: Uranium mining is a detrimental to the environment as it has always been.

Again Borg tries to ignore progress and reality. To illustrate how silly his argument is: the radiation dose that a Swedish iron ore miner received in the LKAB mines in the 70's was twenty times that which an Australian uranium miner receives today. I can concede the fact that back in the last century uranium mining was no picnic. But then again that was the case for all mining. And today the situation is different as all mining, including uranium mining is subject to the same kind of environmental requirements as everyone else. Trying to claim nothing has changed is nearly too stupid for words, but Borg somehow manages to utter them with a straight face. I simply don't know how he does it. Overdosing on Botox perhaps?

"If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies!"

Borg: The centralization of this extremely dangerous activity...

"It's run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible!"

...makes it as perfect as before for callous and desperate terrorists.

...which is to say: bloody useless. A nuclear power plant is an unattractive target for terrorists. This case we have covered before here at Nuclear Power Yes Please in our last article "Wind power increases vulnerability to terrorism". Quick recap: distributed power, as endorsed by Borg, shifts our vulnerability from the resilient and easily defendable nuclear power plants to the network grid that is made fragile by distributed and fickle power sources such as wind.

"This... is an ex-parrot!"

As you can surely understand arguments such as those presented by Christer Borg leave me wondering what kind of reality some people live in. There just isn't any truth to his claims. Anyone with a web browser and half a pint of sense can verify that his argument is a load of fetid dingo's kidneys. How does he expect that anyone will not notice the gaping cracks in his anti-nuclear facade?

I'll leave you with the only piece of sense to come out of his ridiculous article... one that I think he in retrospect ought to feel really embarassed about having put there as it perfectly describes the futility of his behaviour:

A lie does not become more true just because you repeat it over and over.

/Michael Karnerfors, member of the network Nuclear Power Yes Please

- No I'm sorry! I'm not prepared to persue my line of inquiry any further as I think this is getting too silly!
- Quite agree, quite agree. Silly silly silly. Right, get on with it. Get on with it!