Counterpoint: Slow or Fast,
Nuclear Fission is Not the Answer

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, responds to Fred Pearce’s article, “Are Fast-Breeder Reactors a Nuclear-Power Panacea?

Fred Pearce is right about one thing — plutonium is nasty stuff, posing immense security risks when separated. And we have been making it just to boil water, make steam, and turn turbines. Worse, a few countries, notably France and Britain, have been separating it from civilian spent fuel to the point that surplus commercial stocks of separated plutonium exceed global military stocks. Almost half the civilian stock is in Britain.

But I part company with Pearce in his suggested nuclear solutions, both for climate and for dealing with surplus plutonium. Let’s take nuclear energy and climate first.

Pearce brushes off supposedly “threadbare” arguments about the high cost of nuclear power by attributing them to the “doctrinaire technophobic opposition” of environmentalists. But scornful statements cannot make the reality of the high cost and severe financial risk of nuclear power disappear, nor can they negate the disastrous impact of accidents like Fukushima.

Jeffrey R. Immelt, hardly a doctrinaire technophobe (he is CEO of General Electric), told the Financial Times in 2007 that were he the CEO of a utility he would “never do nuclear” because it was a “bet my company” risk. He would build wind- or natural gas-fired power plants. He repeated that view in July 2012. Wall Street refuses to finance nuclear power. In 2005, Congress allocated $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to spur on a “nuclear renaissance.” The Department of Energy has conditionally guaranteed an $8.3 billion loan for two reactors, though that guarantee has not been finalized.

Despite numerous government inducements, there is no nuclear renaissance in the United States. Nuclear power is just too costly and risky and the plants take too long to build. They are falling of their own financial bulk. Only two projects, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, are proceeding in the United States. In both cases, legislatures are forcing electricity consumers to pay in advance for the reactors through higher bills without any guarantees that the plants will even be built. There would be no refunds if they are not. They will get no return on their investment if they are. In that case, the profit, guaranteed by government, will go to utility stockholders who would have taken essentially no risk.

The Japan Center for Economic Research estimates that the cost of cleaning up and decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors will range from $70 billion to $250 billion. This includes decontaminating land up to a 20-kilometer radius, but not beyond — even though contamination in some directions extends considerably farther. The cost estimates do not include indirect economic damage caused by the accident, such as loss of agriculture, fisheries, and industrial production. Nor does it include accident-related health consequences.

Even a partial but significant role for nuclear in addressing climate change will involve the construction of 2,000 reactors (or more) worldwide over 40 years. They would create about 60,000 bomb-equivalents of plutonium each year. A hundred uranium enrichment plants would be needed to fuel them. One enrichment plant in Iran is giving the world a major security headache. Plutonium separation and breeder reactors would only make this worse. Just accounting for the nuclear materials to ensure that none were being illegally diverted for nuclear weapons would be technically daunting; the deficiencies could reveal themselves as horrific surprises.

I agree with Pearce and all those who have concluded that the more than 250 metric tons of excess commercial separated plutonium sitting around is undesirable from a security point of view. But his recommendation that sodium cooled-fast neutron reactors be built to denature the plutonium reveals a technological optimism that is disconnected from the facts. Some of them have indeed operated well. But others, including the most recent — Superphénix in France and Monju in Japan — have miserable records. Roughly $100 billion have been spent worldwide to try and commercialize these reactors — to no avail. Liquid sodium has proven to be a problem coolant. Even small leaks of a type that would cause a mere hiccup in a light-water reactor would result in shutdowns for years in sodium-cooled reactors. That is because sodium burns on contact with air and explodes on contact with water.

The PRISM reactor, which Pearce describes, has a secondary cooling loop in which the fluid on one side is sodium; on the other it is water, which turns to steam to drive a turbine. Pearce goes from technological optimism to fantasy when he opines that a sodium-cooled reactor would take five years to license and five years to build. Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory, the lead U.S. laboratory for Generation IV reactors, estimate that testing of a suitable fuel form and matrix for sodium-cooled breeders would take 20 years. They should know. The Idaho site has been the principal center for reactor development in the United States.

There are better, simpler, cheaper, and faster ways to put surplus plutonium, which has no economic value (as the Royal Society has noted), into non-weapons usable form. Britain could use its MOX plant to make non-fuel-grade pellets. Fuel rods containing these pellets could be interspersed with spent fuel from nuclear power reactors and disposed of when there is a geologic repository. That will be a long time, to be sure. But in the meantime, the plutonium would be more secure than it is today. Or plutonium, which in Britain is already in oxide form, could be mixed with high-level waste and vitrified. This would similarly make it more secure. Or the plutonium could be mixed with large amounts of chemical analogs like thorium and made into ceramic pucks for eventual disposal in a deep repository, such as the one in New Mexico, where many tons of plutonium-containing waste have already been disposed of.

Managers of the world’s fourth-largest economy, the Germans, are no technophobes. They have decided that their densely populated country cannot afford an accident like Chernobyl. More than two decades ago they decided that they would not commission their completed sodium-cooled reactor at Kalkar, which a Dutch company then bought and turned into an amusement park with six hotels. Germany is an electricity exporter. The Germans will be the technological leaders of the 21st-century economy while a fanciful nucleophilia detains some.

Here is advice from a technophile and electrical engineer: Let’s move on to an efficient, renewable energy system, convert the plutonium into a suitable waste form, and stop making vast quantities of it just to boil water and spin turbines.

Go back to the article, “Are Fast-Breeder Reactors a Nuclear-Power Panacea?”

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