Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Future of Nuclear Power -- Too Cheap To Meter Returns

Boy, this takes me back: Thorium

If you were a boy in the 1950's -- or in some cases a girl -- dreaming of the Future, a Future of Abundance and Peace and Technological Marvels, then nuclear power was where it was at, and according to all the news, nukes would eventually be powerful and small and common enough to power airplanes and refrigerators and maybe even bicycles, who knows.

Thorium in the '50's was marketed as the nuclear fuel of the Future, and the small scale, efficient reactors that would run on thorium were considered The Latest Thing. At the time, the notion that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter" was still in vogue, and the idea of truly inexpensive and universally available electricity was still considered both exotic and desirable.

We've come a long way since then.

Nuclear power turned out to be neither cheap nor easy to obtain; the reactors themselves are simple enough to be sure. The complexity is in their safe operation which has proved to be elusive no matter what safeguards are installed. (To say that every reactor that has melted down or exploded was designed and built wrong is a tautology. Of course they were. That's not the issue. The issue is that these kinds of design and construction errors are, for some reason, endemic to the field.) And of course there's the storage and disposal of nuclear waste issue, something that wasn't even on the radar 50 or 60 years ago when Our Nuclear Future was being planned for us.

For whatever reason, the nuclear power industry has been plagued with an inability to think through the basics of what it is they are trying to do and what the consequences of doing it on the one hand and failure to do it safely and responsibly on the other are likely to be. This problem is not unique to the nuclear power industry, but the consequences of fault and failure in the nuclear field are much greater for all of us than is the case in most other major industries.

The nuclear industry (both for war and peace) is a product of World War II, and that, I believe, is where the intrinsic problem lies. There was a certain way of doing things during wartime back then that is frankly appalling in a contemporary context. It was not an era where safety was emphasized. It was, after all, war. And there are casualties in war, many casualties, whole peoples and nations turned into casualties, and that's just the way it was. Producing for war was a matter of scale and speed, not worker safety -- or warfighter safety for that matter. "Git 'er done," was not invented in the Bushevik era. It was the way that wartime economies and societies were organized.

Both of my parents were in the military during WWII, and both regarded it as a natural thing. "Git 'er done." They had their jobs to do and they did them rather unthinkingly. I've apparently misplaced it, but I've read a copy of my father's military record, much of which consists of reports he wrote for his superiors, and I'm struck by a number of things: he was apparently fully into his assignments, so much so that he wrote detailed, specific narratives of his findings that are filled with objectivity and extraordinary energy. He was looking into everything he was assigned and more and reporting to the War Reconversion Board his recommendations for proceeding with contract termination and so forth, pretty cut and dried you would think. But it was clearly an adventure for him given what wrote.

That sense of adventure fills practically everything I've come across about WWII that was produced during the war. And adventure as well as stealth was very much a part of the nuclear weapons saga of World War II.

There's an address in Santa Fe just down the street from the Governor's Palace. It's old and has gone from decrepitude to renovation and back again several times. It was the site of J. Robert Oppenheimer's Santa Fe office and served as the staff entrance for the engineers and physicists assembling to take part in the Manhattan Project some distance away in Los Alamos.

It was an adventure which Oppenheimer and others have written about with great eloquence and not a little dread.

I've been by the site and have of course been to the Trinity Site to pay my respects... but those aspects were just the beginning of the Nuclear Future as determined by Victory in World War II.

Transformation of nuclear energy from use as a weapon of war and annihilation to use as a power source for the benefit of mankind was the Futurist marketing plan, but just what happened is still somewhat mystifying.

There was an arms race, for example, between the United States and the Soviet Union to produce an abundance of nuclear weapons so as to be able to assure one another of mutual annihilation. This was the threat Americans and Soviet children lived under practically every day of their lives from the end of WWII until... when? Has that existential threat ever gone away?

At the same time, the nuclear sword was being beaten into plowshares in both the United States and the Soviet Union, with the advent of nuclear power generation in the mid-fifties. There were nuclear reactors popping up everywhere, from nearby riverbanks to submarines and ships at sea. The N. S. Savannah was the first commercial nuclear powered ship, started in 1959, launched in 1961 as a showcase. But there are dozens of nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers plying the seas today. The technology is well understood. It's simply too expensive for civilian use.

It was assumed, however, that nuclear energy generation would be far cheaper than traditional coal or oil or natural gas fired plants, and that it would be 'clean energy' having practically no negative environmental consequences.

Well, that didn't work out so well, either.

Comes now Thorium.

Or Here It Comes Again.

Thorium has always been more abundant and easier to work with than uranium as a nuclear fuel; that's never been the issue. The issue is the same no matter what the nuclear fuel is: what will you do with the waste, and what if something goes wrong?  And if something goes wrong, what are the consequences? Be honest now.

Things go wrong; the problems of nuclear power have never been thought through, and no matter how much we hear "we can figure it out," the inherent problems haven't been figured out in more than 60 years of trying. Oh, maybe it's not quite as bad as it once was, but that's not saying much.

Nuclear energy has become almost a cargo cult, a realm of dreamers and enthusiasts. Maybe it was always like that, I don't know. But I know I was happy as could be when the local nuclear power plant, which was draining the public utility of resources and money, was finally decommissioned. Of course the fuel rods and waste are still stored at the site in pools; and they say that it will have to stay there until a permanent waste disposal site is found. Which is not likely to happen. Ever. Because there is no place to store this shit that is actually, permanently, safe. That's just the way it is.

1 comment:

  1. I was always hoping that workable nuclear power would be developed, because I wanted the nuclear materials to be used up and for the planet to be rid of them. It seems like it won't ever happen though.

    Still, I worry far more about nuclear weapons, no human being should have that kind of destructive power. They still make everything but bioweapons, mass drivers and sci-fi concepts like gray goo look like the warfare equivalent of tinker toys. (And even mass drivers don't contaminate the ground the way nukes do.)