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I have written two articles in the past few days on the
implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident?
drama? -- not sure what the right word is).
This was for The Times on 16th March:
The uranium price fell sharply this week.
After Fukushima, there is little doubt that nuclear power is in for
a setback. Many of the greens who had cautiously begun to champion
nuclear on the ground that its no-carbon virtues outweighed its
cancer risk will now find opportunistic opposition to nuclear
projects irresistible again. In vain will enthusiasts protest that
this was an old design subjected to an almost unprecedented
Yet safety is not nuclear's real problem:
economics is. Even if it were to get as bad as Chernobyl (which it
won't), Fukushima will kill few people, raise cancer rates only
slightly and cause no birth defects. Compared with coal, oil, gas
and biofuels, nuclear energy is pretty harmless and its
environmental footprint is minuscule. Even wind power had (before
this week) killed more people - and many more eagles - than nuclear
in the past ten years. Most people think nuclear power is cheap and
dangerous; in fact its problem is the reverse: it is safe but
At the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass
from Fukushima is a small Finnish island called Olkiluoto. The
European pressurised reactor (EPR) being built there was supposed
to be the first of a new generation of atomic plants whose design
was not only very safe - that is, it could not help cooling down if
its systems failed - but also modular (off-the-peg) and cheap.
In fact Olkiluoto 3 is nearly four years
behind schedule, more than 50 per cent over budget and the source
of a bitter dispute between client and builder. As a result the
order list for EPRs is getting shaky. One is being built in France
and two in China, but Missouri and Maryland recently changed their
minds about building them. Part of the reason for the high cost is
safety. The EPR has four emergency cooling systems, a double
container and a bomb-proof and aircraft-proof concrete wall 8ft
Fukushima is bound to result in still more
belt-and-braces safety measures and therefore higher costs. Even
without these, the full cost of nuclear electricity, taking into
account decommissioning, waste storage and insurance, makes nuclear
power uncompetitive already in any free market. True, it is not as
grotesquely dear as electricity from solar power or offshore wind,
but it cannot compete with electricity from coal and gas.
Only the threat of rising fossil fuel prices
- or rising carbon prices - has encouraged the nuclear revival. And
neither of these now looks as pressing as it once did: America has
found gas galore and has abandoned carbon cap-and-trade plans.
And this was for the Wall Street Journal on 19th March:
Might the Fukushima accident eventually
create a chance for the nuclear industry to "reboot"? In recent
years some have begun to argue that solid-fuel uranium reactors
like the ones in Japan are an outdated technology that deserves to
peter out and be replaced by an entirely different kind of nuclear
energy that will be both safer and cheaper.
The problem, as is often the case in
capital-intensive industries, is inertia. Nearly all the expertise,
research and sunk costs are in the old technology. Fukushima just
might start to change that.
In the short run, the beneficiary of
nuclear's now inevitable crisis is going to be fossil fuels.
Renewable energy remains too expensive, too land-hungry, too
unreliable and too small-scale to take up much slack, so cheap coal
and newly abundant natural gas will do the job.
This is ironic, because however high the
death toll at Fukushima climbs, it is unlikely to match the
casualties in the fossil-fuel industry. In the last year alone, 29
people died in a New Zealand coal mine, 11 on a Gulf oil rig and 27
in a Mexican pipeline explosion. A human-rights activist has
estimated that as many as 20,000 people die in Chinese coal mines
But with America now awash in shale gas and
the world about to follow suit, the price of electricity is bound
to stay fairly low. Since gas-fired generation is about the most
scalable, efficient, flexible, clean and (on a large scale)
lowish-carbon form of electricity available, it is going to prove
economically and politically attractive.
Against this formidable competitor, uranium
will struggle for many years to come-especially with the extra cost
and political handicap that Fukushima is bound to add. So nuclear
needs to reinvent itself. Because nuclear reactors were developed
by governments in a wartime hurry, the best technological routes
were not always taken. The pressurized-water design was a
quick-and-dirty solution that we have been stuck with ever since.
Rival ideas withered, among them the thorium liquid-fuel reactor,
powered by molten fluoride salt containing thorium.
Thorium has lots of advantages as a nuclear
fuel. There is four times as much of it as uranium; it is more
easily handled and processed; it "breeds" its own fuel by creating
uranium 233 continuously and can produce about 90 times as much
energy from the same quantity of fuel; its reactions produce no
plutonium or other bomb-making raw material; and it generates much
less waste, with a much shorter half life until it becomes safe, so
the waste can be stored for centuries rather than millennia.
A thorium reactor needs neutrons, and both
ways of supplying these subatomic particles are relatively safe.
They can be introduced with a particle accelerator, which can be
turned off if danger threatens. Or they can be introduced with
uranium 235, which in this process has a much lower risk of an
uncontrolled reaction than it does in today's nuclear plants. The
fuel cannot melt down in a thorium reactor because it is already
molten, and reactions slow down as it cools. A further advantage of
this design is that the gas xenon is able to bubble out of the
liquid fuel rather than-as in normal reactors-staying in the fuel
rods and slowly poisoning the reaction.
Nobody knows if thorium reactors can compete
on price with coal and gas. India has been working on thorium for
some years, but the technology is as different from today's nuclear
power as gas is from coal, and very few nuclear engineers even hear
about liquid fuel during their training, let alone get to work on
New technologies always struggle to compete
with well-entrenched rivals whose costs are already sunk. The first
railways couldn't rival canals on cost or reliability, let alone
Now is the time to start to find out about