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Nuclear deserted?

By JW Dowey - 25 Oct 2013 9:45:0 GMT
Nuclear deserted?

One of the two pressurised water reactors at Three-Mile-Island in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown in 1979. The accident caused radioactive krypton and iodine to be released and public opinion since has often been against the use of nuclear power in the US. PWR image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Exothermic reactions in the Earth and the Sun give us the energy we eternally use up. To make use of the nuclear break-down of radioactive elements is almost useful human attempt to replicate these natural energy sources. Despite Fukujima, other nations have not built power stations on geological fault lines. Tsunamis naturally come to mind and few scientists are sure if their coasts are entirely secure. The need for large-scale cooling of nuclear fuels is paramount in the nuclear engineering world, so riverine or coastal sites are always used to obtain sufficient water. Heat waves can often cause problems too, with low water flows from rivers causing temporary reactor/ electricity grid close-downs.

Of course, nuclear fusion would be a much safer and convenient method of creating energy, but despite recent advances, it has never reached the usable stage to date. We are left with the slightly worrying scenario of a "bomb" where the fission reaction overheats until there is no method of containing an enormous spread of radiation. Oh, sorry, we already have Chernobyl and Fukujima! At the moment a creditable 5.7% of world energy, mainly as electricity, uses nuclear fission, in 31 countries. At least they aren't casing massive global warming.

Carbon footprints from nuclear reactions are almost zero, which separates the nuclear lobby firmly from other power generation industries. That relates, according to Wikipedia, to a saving of 64 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent.. In terms of global warming, that has cooled us quite a lot! Germany and Italy have decided to close their reactors or ban nuclear energy, however, in the literal wake of Fukujima. France is the real nuclear power in Europe (in 2006) because it creates 80% of its electricity from nuclear power stations, while the UK has just decided to build two new PWR reactors at Hinckley Point. It has decided to use old technology from Chinese designs, instead of going for more recent fuel or design options.

Outside of Europe, the Chinese are making a career of nuclear engineering (as well as building this reactor). The US are understandably going all out for 5 new "Generation III" reactors, having decommissioned 4 reactors this year. The new generation of reactor, since Kawasaki (Japan) in 1996 is simply any reactor that follows on from Generation II designs by improving safety and efficiency, but still using expensive uranium. The US are still the most nuclear nation in terms of generation, with 19% of their electricity produced in this way. It's understandable, given the early start in 1942, with the then USSR following suit in 1954. Commercial reactors then appeared in some countries, with the 1970s seeing many built in France and Japan, though anti-nuclear protest seemed to prevent the development in other countries.

As far as accidents are concerned the aged and discredited Generation II RBMK reactors such as the Chernobyl example are still in use throughout Asian republics. Newer reactors use uranium (fast-breeder s) or thorium (thermal breeders.) The breeder classification refers to the ability to make more fuel for other reactors, so saving a lot of the expense of mining uranium or thorium. India is an example of a thorium-rich nation which is therefore using its own resources in a new generation of thermal breeder.

So will nuclear fission energy survive? People are equally finding it useful to reduce carbon emissions but also frighten the living daylights out of them. It seems to always reduce down to price, so the sooner renewable energies develop the best possible technologies, the sooner we can forget fossil fuels and fossilise the power stations that have on several occasions threatened to fossilise us.