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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Nuclear's future

Time for a re-boot to find a cheaper design?

 

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 earthquake.

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 expensive.

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 thick.

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 every year.

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 it.

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 lobbying power.

Now is the time to start to find out about thorium's potential.