Features Australia

Not your grandfather’s nuclear power

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

When Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s electricity market review passed through New York a couple of years ago, the team went upstate to General Electric for presentations on various aspects of NY’s energy supply, and I was lucky enough to tag along. One session presented seasonal charts showing the wild vagaries of supply from the many different sources – gas, coal, hydro, nuclear, renewables and more – in various seasons and conditions, with dramatic peaks and valleys soaring and plunging day to day. But there was one constant in all the charts; a flat, stable baseline, supplying around 30 per cent of New York state’s electricity every day – and that was nuclear. From memory, the running cost was zero cents per kilowatt hour.

Nothing has the allure of nuclear in terms of running cost, intense energy output, carbon-free production, and plentiful fuel supply, right? It’s just a shame about the meltdown risk, the dangerous waste and the high capital set-up cost…

But what if a new version of nuclear reactor came along that could consume nuclear waste as fuel, was safe from meltdown, was far smaller (so small as to fit on the back of a truck) and, because it could be built in modules, was much cheaper to establish? That produced little radioactive waste, of a much less dangerous type, with a toxicity of hundreds of years instead of hundreds of thousands of years? And of course it’s carbon-free, so no complaints from the Greens.

It sounds too good to be true, and I don’t have the nuclear smarts to verify any of it. But there’s a detectable level of suppressed excitement bubbling along through the online literature, both government and non-government, about what’s known as Generation IV nuclear. Billionaire Bill Gates is onboard, as an investor and promoter. The queen of the Green New Deal herself, Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has already said she is open to this new nuclear. Social media influencer Scott Adams, normally canny and frequently cutting edge, is waxing lyrical about a new Golden Age of energy. Just as today’s iPhone is not the black bakelite handset that your grandfather used, they say, so today’s new iteration of nuclear energy is not your grandfather’s nuclear energy.

Internationally, the race is on, with China and Russia reportedly well ahead of the US. China claims to have already built a functioning GenIV pilot power plant. Trump is funding an intense US catch-up effort in research and development.

But Australia, despite sitting on 30 per cent of the world’s uranium supply, has banned nuclear energy development. We are still governed by our grandfathers’ fears, understandable after the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima disasters, but now as much a part of history as those reactor types.

So what exactly is GenIV nuclear? Depending who you talk to, it seems to be both a timeline, to date from 2020 on, and a spectrum of six technologies, officially described as revolutionary rather than evolutionary, and encompassing everything from fast neutron and hydrogen to molten salt. US nuclear industry veteran Mark Schneider, whose career encompasses both military and commercial nuclear energy, uses the following definition on his website GenIVnuclear.com: ‘A Generation IV reactor is one that is designed to have unlimited passive safety without operator intervention. Or simply put, it is walk away safe and will not meltdown.’

GenIV includes designs that are mammoth in size, from 1500 MW, down to micro reactors in the 1-10 KW range. For more data I refer you to Schneider’s website, and invite you to speculate on what cheap, reliable energy could actually do for our nation and the planet. Think endless desalinated water for all coastal towns, whenever.

Think greenery, fountains, trees, gardens, whenever, wherever. No more turning off heaters and aircon when the weather goes feral. Massive gains for industry. And we could in a single technological jump surpass all the Deep Greens’ most optimistic projections about cutting carbon emissions, since such a large slice of humanity’s emissions come from electricity production. Perhaps we could then get on with real environmental issues such as plastics in the oceans and habitat loss for native animals. Perhaps the Greta Thunbergs of the world could just go back to school and stop lecturing their elders.

It is delicious to contemplate how the climate change fanatics would respond to a technological solution to their CO2 lamentations, should the GenIV promise eventuate.

Would they lay down their placards and bullhorns? Or would there be a small pause, followed by a renewed drive to eradicate any CO2 from human production? If you think a primary Green motivation is a drive for power and a hatred of our successful, prosperous civilisation, then of course no solution would ever be potent enough.

A fascinating and appalling story of faith from South Africa may prove instructive. In 1856 a young Xhosa woman Nongqawuse experienced a vision of ancestral spirits, who told her that the Xhosa people must destroy their crops and kill their cattle, the source of their wealth as well as food. In return the spirits would then expel the newly arrived British, the dead would arise, new, better cattle would be supplied and bounty of all kinds would be showered upon the faithful Xhosa. With the help of her spiritualist uncle, the pair somehow convinced the Xhosa leadership of the prophecy – and the Xhosa then set to and killed between 300,000 and 400,000 of their cattle. A small minority (always contrarians!) held out, refusing to slaughter their cattle and still planting their crops; when the prophecies failed to materialise over some 15 months, these so-called ‘stingy ones’, the climate sceptics of their day, were blamed and suffered a backlash. The two prophets then established a deadline. It came and went. In 1857 massive famine resulted, and an estimated 75,000 Xhosas perished – the bulk of the population.

This tragedy demonstrates much about human nature and the reaction of the faithful to challenges to their beliefs – never underestimate the ability of believers to double down when challenges arise.

The climate change church has already forgiven and forgotten decades of failed predictions, the persistence of the icecaps and indeed snow, the occasional growth of glaciers, the peculiar absence of climate refugees and extreme weather. Presumably they can cope with technological change and vastly reduced emissions without missing a beat.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments