09/11/2013 - 07:29

A false fix for climate change

John Dudley Miller

John Dudley Miller

Miller is a former nuclear engineering officer on US Navy submarines. A Kentucky native and Harvard graduate, he holds a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Michigan. He is a...

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Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power 
Mark Lynas
72 pages (Kindle single), $1.99

In Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, British environmental activist and author Mark Lynas proposes a solution to Earth’s most pressing problem: To halt global warming by 2030—that is, to keep the average temperature from rising more than 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) between now and then—the world must build 800 new nuclear power plants. If it doesn’t, he says, all the world’s ice may melt, and places as fertile as Nebraska might become deserts. But if the nuclear plants are constructed, warming can be reversed.
 
Lynas has authored three influential books about the global warming crisis: High Tide, Six Degrees, and The God Species. Unfortunately, this new Kindle eBook doesn’t come close to their standard of excellence. A major flaw in the book is the tortured reasoning by which Lynas reaches the conclusion that the world needs 800 new nuclear plants. His book contends that the world can’t replace all of its fossil fuel power plants by 2030 with renewable power and efficiency efforts alone—if we arbitrarily shut down all existing nuclear plants as soon as possible. But why would the world shut them down only to build new ones to replace them?
 
Still, if you’re pro-nuclear, kindly ignore my disappointment, because you may well conclude from this review that Lynas has written a marvelous book. Such is the nature of the nuclear power controversy: Precisely the same evidence can lead pro- and anti-nuke people to spin diametrically opposed interpretations.

Nuclear 2.0 was originally meant to accompany the movie Pandora’s Promise, a documentary released in June that stars Lynas and four other former anti-nuclear activists, all of whom switched over time from opposing to supporting nuclear power generation. Unfortunately, the film is as mistaken as this book.

No one should oppose building 800 new nuclear power plants, Lynas writes, because each one will be designed to be inherently safe. “Even in the worst imaginable scenario …” he writes, “It simply could not melt down.” In fact, these new reactors will be essentially perfect, Lynas asserts, because they will breed new fuel that will power the world for hundreds of years. At the same time, they will consume every atom of the very long-lived radioactive waste that today’s reactors have created. 

Sadly, these claims merely restate the original nuclear dream, the delusional just-so story that nuclear proponents—including almost all nuclear engineers—recite like religious mantras, assuring the world that nuclear power is safe, clean, and cheap. (To his credit, Lynas admits that nuclear power is too expensive. He hopes more efficient construction practices will lower costs. I doubt it, because 50 years of nuclear construction shows that nuclear power plants often wind up costing several times what builders initially forecast.)

Lynas’s perfect nukes are liquid sodium-cooled fast-breeder plants. They turn abundant but modestly fissile uranium 238 into highly fissile plutonium 239, which can then be recycled to power other nuclear plants. But fast breeders are not inherently safe; they are riskier than the ordinary, water-cooled reactors currently operating. Hans Bethe, the Manhattan Project scientist and Nobel Prize winner, calculated in 1956 that if a breeder’s sodium coolant leaked out, the reactor could melt in 40 seconds and become a small unintended atom bomb, exploding automatically.

Moreover, the breeder reactors EBR-1 in Idaho and Fermi-1 near Detroit partially melted, proving meltdowns of sodium-cooled fast breeders do happen. Other breeders have suffered sodium coolant fires, because sodium spontaneously burns in air and explodes in water. “The experience with fast reactors worldwide has been disastrous,” Ed Lyman, a physicist at the neither pro- nor anti-nuke Union of Concerned Scientists, told me.

Recycled plutonium works fine for creating atom bombs. Depending on its impurities, 29 pounds or less of it can build a bomb as big as the one that destroyed Nagasaki. Building 800 gigantic reactors that breed plutonium greatly raises the chances that some fool or his government might explode a plutonium bomb on an enemy. Nine nations now have nuclear weapons; if a massive expansion of nuclear power actually were to occur, it seems almost certain that others would obtain them.

Ironically, Lynas’ book touts breeders as inherently safe, while it castigates the Chernobyl reactor for being designed with what’s called a “positive void coefficient of reactivity”—terminology indicating that when power goes up, the reactor’s design automatically produces coolant bubbles (voids) that make power go up some more still, and on and on, until the reactor runs out of control and melts or explodes, as Chernobyl did, like a little atomic bomb. But liquid-sodium breeders also feature positive void coefficients, and that’s exactly why they, too, can explode, or perhaps, more likely, melt down. Lynas is misled here by a famous EBR-2 breeder experiment in which the operators turned off the cooling pumps with the reactor running. In a water-cooled reactor, this would cause a meltdown. But in this case, power rose for a while and slowly came back down.

This experiment succeeded because power rose slowly enough for the reactor fuel to heat up and expand, changing its physical properties so that power automatically dropped back down. (One of the factors at higher power was hotter fuel that captured fewer neutrons and thus created fewer fissions and less power.) But it takes time for the fuel to heat up and expand. Had power been allowed to rise much faster initially, the nuclear reaction might well have run away before rising fuel temperature could have reversed it.

In Nuclear 2.0, Lynas inexcusably suggests that the 1986 Chernobyl accident killed only the 50 or so people who died almost immediately of acute radiation effects. But the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer predicts 16,000 more people will eventually die from Chernobyl-related cancers. The European Environment Agency estimates 34,000 more. Non-fatal thyroid cancer struck another 6,000 mostly children.

The book’s most irritating attribute is its too-frequent whopper-sized mistakes. For instance, Lynas pooh-poohs the work of Amory Lovins, who has shown repeatedly since 1976 that energy efficiency can greatly lower our energy consumption, and that it is much cheaper to avoid using a watt of electricity than to manufacture an extra one. But Lynas mistakenly thinks that the totality of Lovins’ work is that he has advocated building small wind and solar plants. One wonders—has he ever read Lovins’ work?

And on efficiency, Lovins is still correct. In 2009, the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company calculated that by 2020 the United States could slash 23 percent of the non-transportation energy it uses through efficiency measures.

Lynas commits a basic error claiming that nuclear power provides 15 percent of all world electricity. In 2010, the latest year International Energy Agency provided figures, it was 12.9 percent. Why doesn’t a guy writing a nuclear power book know that?

Nuclear 2.0 assumes without any adequate mathematical analysis that because wind and solar plants allegedly supply only about 1 percent of world electricity now, it’s impossible to build enough of them in the next 17 years to replace fossil and nuclear and reverse global warming. However, another source credits wind and solar with 2.4 percent of electric supply now, so perhaps competent analysis will show it is possible.

Lynas’s conclusion that the world needs 800 new nuclear plants rests on the unnecessary assumption that as the world feverishly builds new renewable energy facilities, it will use them to replace all existing nuclear plants before replacing the fossil-fuel plants that are spewing the carbon dioxide that is causing climate change. If I’m reading between his lines correctly, the world could instead replace all the fossil burners first, keep the current nuclear fleet, and—if necessary—build just enough additional water-cooled nuclear plants to keep them producing their current share of world electricity as the global economy expands, and thereby reverse global warming trend by 2030—before temperatures rise 2.0 degrees Celsius. After that, the Earth would slowly recool, automatically. That grand compromise might distress pro- and anti-nuke advocates alike, but the fate of the Earth is in the balance, and the prudent use of limited amounts of nuclear power to temporarily supplement renewables and efficiency may be the world’s only option.