from David Fleming's
Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy - in brief
If nuclear power can be a major
source of energy which does not contribute to climate
change or any other apocalyptic scenario, it is worth
putting up with some pollution, waste and risk. In this
brief, careful and very readable analysis, David Fleming
questions the current belief that it can even deliver
economically, or with acceptable climate effects.
Options including FBR, thorium,
phosphate and seawater extraction, are explored. Waste
storage may already present an economic time-bomb, and
this should be investigated - fast.
TIME TO TURN TO THE
WIT AND ENERGY OF THE PEOPLE
matters discussed in chapter 5 are important, but it is the
waste problem which is decisive. There is a turning-point
when the nuclear industry will become energy-bankrupt, if
it has not already done so. After that, it will never be able
to generate the energy needed for permanent disposal of its
backlog of waste, even if it diverts its whole energy output
into the task.
This prospect needs to be researched urgently and by more
than one research centre with the authority to get at the
facts, but otherwise working independently of industry or
government interests. Research should also, with all speed,
get evidence about the global warming and ozone impacts of
uranium hexafluoride and other solvents, both in use and as
leaking waste. And here is a hypothesis to which we need an
answer at some speed: if the worldwide backlog of nuclear
wastes were simply left to leak, catch fire and spread into
the environment, the resulting levels of radiation and toxicity
would in principle require the evacuation of the planet. True,
Waste and depletion are two aspects of the same problem.
For the timing of depletion, we will consider four estimates,
starting with one which suggests that the industry will
not recover from the 2011-2020 outages, giving an estimate
of 10 years before the industry ceases to be a significant
producer of electrical power owing to depletion of uranium
giving a positive practical return on energy invested
(PREI). The second estimate suggests that the industry
does recover from the coming outages and continues as
an energy producer at roughly current rates for 30 years.
Thirdly, we take the estimate discussed in chapter 3,
which has a time-horizon of 60 years. Fourthly, let us
suppose that this present analysis is completely misguided,
and that the industry will continue on its present scale
for another 200 years.
estimates are now brought together with the estimates of the
net energy yielded by the nuclear industry, after the costs
of the front-end processes (procuring the fuel and producing
energy from it) and back-end processes (dismantling reactors
and dealing with wastes) are taken into account. They are
summarised in the Energy Balance Sheet.
ENERGY BALANCE SHEET:
YEARS OF NET NUCLEAR ENERGY REMAINING FROM 2010
at current rates of extraction. Assumed start-date for industry
1950. Assumed present 2010.
Numbers in years. PREI=Practical Return on Energy Invested
|1. Estimate: years of positive PREI ore
|2. Front-end process energy (25% of remaining years)
|3. Energy to clear new waste (25% of remaining years)
|4. Energy to clear old waste (25% of past 60 years)
|5. Total needed for front end plus back end (2+3+4)
|6. Years remaining (1-5)
|7. Year of energy-bankruptcy: all energy produced is
needed to dispose of new and old waste (6+2010)
the industry, starting with no waste, has 200 years before
its usable ore runs out. During that time, it generates a
gross amount of energy which it feeds into the grid, but at
the same time it must (a) provide the energy needed for its
own front-end operation, (b) pay back the energy it used to
mine its ore, build its reactors, etc., and (c) clear up its
own wastes. As explained in chapter 3, pp 17-18, each of these
amount to about 25 percent of its gross energy output. Therefore
that amount - 75 percent of its gross output, must be subtracted
to find the number of years for which the industry can continue
before using the whole of its output to pay back its energy
debt and clear up its wastes.
are other ways in which this could be calculated - for instance,
using net output (gross output less the front-end energy cost
factored in over time); or the back-end work could start sooner.
These would tell slightly different stories, but they would
be equally valid. The method shown in the table is a reminder
that the industry actually supplies less energy (net) than
the gross energy that it puts into the grid. At a time of
energy scarcity, this is a key consideration. And it tells
us how long the industry has left before waste-disposal becomes
the reason for its existence.
then, four dates for the turning-point at which the industry
will never be able to supply the energy needed to get rid
of its own wastes: that is, energy-bankruptcy: 2000, 2010,
2025 and 2095.
it is 2000, the industry is already deep into its energy-bankruptcy.
It will never be able to get rid of its own waste from its
own resources. There is the prospect of having to call on
the supplies of fossil fuel energy, at a time of deepening
scarcity, to deal with the nuclear waste which the waning
nuclear industry cannot clear up.
it is 2010, the whole of the energy produced by the industry
over its remaining life of 30 years must be directed into
clearing up its own wastes, starting now.
it is 2025, the industry has some fifteen years before the
onset of energy bankruptcy.
it is 2095, we are looking at an industry facing, in 85
years time, an inheritance of waste whose treatment will
demand a flow of energy equal to some 115 years of electricity
output - and with no electricity left over to sell.
In other words, the greater the estimate of remaining
reserves, the longer the period of energy debt. In the
event of the recklessly optimistic estimate of there being
200 years uranium remaining with a positive PREI, the
last 115 years of the nuclear industry's operation would
be committed to paying back its energy debt, dealing with
the backlog of wastes, and with the large accumulation
of its new wastes accrued during the final 200 years of
its life. An energy debt on this scale is scarcely good
news. Nor is the financial debt that would go with it.
justice, the nuclear industry could point out that the task
of dealing with its wastes has already started, and that high-level
waste has to be allowed to cool off. An experimental deep
repository for high-level waste has been excavated in Sweden;
Finland has started on a real one at Olkiluoto; plans to build
one in Nevada are being debated; and research is being done
into ways of dealing with uranium hexafluoride. And yet, the
questions of where exactly it will go, who will take responsibility
for the waste held in deteriorating stockpiles in unstable
regions, how to pay for it and, above all, where the energy
will come from, remain unanswered. Meanwhile, the industry
continues to add to the problem. And suitable sites - stable,
preferably dry, and enjoying the support of the local population
- are rare; the vast size of a permanent repository, the technical
difficulty, the energy needed and the cost all bring this
massive task of long-term disposal to the edge of what is
possible. It may in fact never be possible to find a permanent
resting-place for all, or even for a decent proportion, of
the waste that has already been produced.
industry should therefore focus on finding solutions to the
whole of its waste problem before it becomes too late to do
so. And hold it right there, because this is perhaps the moment
to think about what "too late" might mean. Notwithstanding
the emphasis placed on depletion in this booklet, it is climate
change that may well set the final date for completion of
the massive and non-negotiable task of dealing with nuclear
waste. Many reactors are in low-lying areas in the path of
rising seas; and many of the storage ponds, crowded with high-level
waste, are close by. Estimated dates for steep rises in sea
levels are constantly being brought forward. With an angry
climate, and whole populations on the move, it will be hard
to find the energy, the funds, the skills and the orderly
planning needed for a massive programme of waste disposal
- or even moving waste out of the way of rising tides. When
outages in gas supplies lead to break down in electricity
supplies, the electrical-powered cooling systems that stop
high-level waste from catching fire will stop working. It
will also be hard to stop ragged armies, scrambling for somewhere
to live, looting spent fuel rods from unguarded dumps, attaching
them to conventional explosives, and being prepared to use
will have to be dealt-with, and at speed. There may be no
time to wait for reactor cores and high-level wastes to cool
down. But, then, it may be a frank impossibility to bury them
until they have cooled down...
In any event, the task of making those wastes safe should
be an unconditional priority, equal to that of confronting
climate change itself. The default-strategy of seeding the
world with radioactive time-bombs which will pollute the oceans
and detonate at random intervals for thousands of years into
the future, whether there are any human beings around to care
about it or not, should be recognised as off any scale calibrated
in terms other than dementia.
power is the energy source that claims a significance and
causes trouble far beyond the scale of the energy it produces.
It is a distraction from the need to face up to the coming
energy gap, to inform the public and to call on the wit and
energy which is available to develop a programme of Lean Energy.
Of the many shortcomings in the response to energy-matters,
a central one has been the failure to involve the public in
doing what it could, given a chance, be good at - inventing
solutions and making them happen in realistic local detail.
Determined attempts are being made to rectify this (the U.K.
Government's Climate Change Communication Initiative is an
example) but the construction of nuclear reactors, presented
as almost carbon-free fixes for the energy problem, is not
a good way of involving the public. It is only when we are
free of such narcotic fallacies that there will be a commitment
to the one option for which there is a prospect of success:
tapping the energy of the people.
to integrate energy, economics and society, and to enable
them to develop in a way which copes with the reality of the
energy gap that is now almost upon us. That calls for an effective
framework which makes it clear to all of us - citizens, firms,
the government, everyone - what the energy limits are now,
and achieves an orderly descent to the low limits that will
apply in the future. It is then up to us to bring all the
skill, ingenuity and judgment we can to negotiating our way
down the energy descent. We need to discover a common purpose.
All this is possible if there is an appropriate framework
for it, a system in which individual motivations are aligned
with the collective need. There are various names for it.
One of them is Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs).
to enable small-scale actions to build up onto a scale that
gets results; we need a robust, simple, system for recruiting
ingenuity and intelligence, and the common purpose to make
it happen now. Such a design exists. There is a non-nuclear
life-cycle ready and waiting.