Nuclear manoeuvres

By Robert Hickson 13/04/2014

Is the world moving toward a nuclear power renaissance? The following chart from Technology Review shows that while traditional nuclear energy nations are scaling back, others are building nuclear power plants.

nuclear options

Japan is moving to reactivate nuclear plants , although the opposition political party wants to phase them out. China in particular is going nuclear gangbusters, to the concern of some who fear construction companies there are cutting corners and technical staff have insufficient training. Meanwhile in the US nuclear power plants aren’t commercially attractive, particularly as natural gas prices keep falling.

Public attitudes to nuclear power can be complex, even after Fukushima. A recent survey in the UK found roughly equal support and opposition. European countries have varying levels (Pdf) of public support (a new Eurobarometer survey on this issue may be out shortly). While in the US public support and opposition also vary over time.

A range of groups are promoting the development of smaller, safer cheaper fission reactors. For example, TerraPower (whose chairman is Bill Gates) and Giorgio Locatelli, who was interviewed by Bryan Crump on Radio NZ last week.

I’d be worried about a nuclear cargo cult mentaility developing if a small state can order up a small reactor, or have one offered to it, and all the control and oversight is by foreign companies or governments providing the reactor.

Kim Hill also talked nuclear power a few weeks ago with Robin Grimes, the British Foreign Office’s Chief Science Adviser.

The nuclear fusion field had a confidence boost earlier this year, with the National Ignition Facility in the US getting more power out than went in, albeit briefly.

A fascinating article in the New Yorker though notes the long road still ahead for achieving sustainable fusion power. Not only scientific, but bureaucratic and political challenges face the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. [If you can’t read the full New Yorker article this short video explains the project].

Some from the nuclear fission fraternity argue that we don’t need fusion, since fission will provide the energy more quickly, and cheaply.

Supporters of low energy nuclear reactions may rejoice that ARPA-E  is eventually letting them submit proposals for research funding alongside other renewable energy projects.

What relevance are these developments to New Zealand? Its hard to imagine that we’ll build a nuclear reactor in the next few decades. We have plenty of other sources of energy available and, as Robin Grimes noted in his interview, we don’t have the high and consistent level of energy demands that justify nuclear power plants.

The main point is that, alongside the continued hunt for new oil and gas fields, it indicates little change in attitudes to power demands or economic development. While improvements in energy efficiencies are sometimes being made there are no fundamental shifts so far in how we live. Thats not too surprising since we tend to like what we have (or what others have) and hope technology will help meet our needs. Is changing the types of energy we use enough to have a more “sustainable” (define that how you wish) society?

Susan Krumdieck discussed this point on Kim Hill’s show on Saturday. She (Susan) belongs to the Global Association of Transition Engineering, where their focus is on frugal use of resources, not just replacement of fossil fuels with renewable ones.

We saw a similar lack of fundamental economic change following the global financial crisis. To many a reduced reliance on fossil fuels will probably be seen as positive, with differing views on whether nuclear energy should play a part, and whether more fundamental lifestyle changes are necessary.

Alexis Madrigal laments a lack of an energy revolution in the US. The Solutions project visualises what each American state could look like if it went 100% renewable (The recent Royal Society paper also envisages what a “greener ” NZ could look like).

WWF suggest that China could get to 90% renewable energy by 2050.

There certainly seems likely to be a much more diverse range of energy sources around the world over the next few decades. What is less certain is whether we’ll see a more substantial change in energy demand and how our communities and economies are run.