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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

From the Land of Unintended Consequences...

The legacy of clean, efficient nuclear power.
I am as clean and green as anybody.  I live in a house made partially of recycled material, have a garden, generate only a bag or two of trash a week, work extensively with recycled rather than new materials... but there are limits.

One of the important limits of "green" is really understanding what the differences are between things that might be green and things that are green.  At issue is that many people like to talk about green but really don't understand what that means.

For example, is buying a Prius hybrid really more green that using and existing vehicle?  My existing truck sits in my driveway.  It uses no energy unless I drive it.  However, its big and old and probably not as efficient as a new hybrid one.  A new one would use less gas but I'd have to think about what the overhead and cost in terms of energy and "green" it would take to build it.  What about battery disposal and/or recycling?  As you answer these questions you see that even though something might be new and more "green" the actual cost of it in terms of "green" when you factor in all of the elements makes it much less attractive.

The same is true of "climate change."

Here there is a lot more rhetoric.  And one theme in particular is loud and clear: "Big coal fired power plants are filling the atmosphere with CO2."  The implication is, of course, that this CO2 is triggering "climate change."

This mantra has been going on from some years and what's interesting to me is the effect its having on other countries. 

China in particular.

And China is often demonized for building a lot of coal-fired power plants (such as this article).

Like any self-respecting country China has decided to do something about these problems - both the perception that their country is a big polluter as well as their problem of being one of the most energy-hungry countries on earth.

Their solution?

Clean, efficient nuclear energy.

But not just any nuclear energy. 

No, not at all.  They plan to use something called a molten salt thorium reactor.

So why write about this?  Well, a long time ago as a child I lived in southeastern Wisconsin.  We lived on the rural farmland where the number of animals far out numbered the people.  In the early 1970's the local power companies decided they needed some nuclear power plants to beef up the local electrical power grid.  The initial idea was that one of these plants would be built across the street from my parents home. 

My father became sort of an activist against nuclear power and by 1972 was busy with other locals putting up signs, protesting, and so on against having this plant built.  (One of my contributions was "No Nukes is Good Nukes.") As a geek child I became interested in the details of how these things worked, what the issues where and so on.

My interest was also fueled by a high school friend who's father worked at the now defunct Zion nuclear plant in Zion Illinois.  We were able to spend time at the utilities test nuclear site, see the computers, examine and venture inside their small test reactor, and so on.  A geek child's dream...

From all of this a few things were crystal clear:

- Nuclear power, while efficient and non-polluting as it operates, was a big mess in terms of creating fuel, managing fuel, maintenance and handling spent fuel.

- Nuclear power was best done with traditional plant designs that us water for coolants.  Exotic nuclear systems were nothing but trouble and a black hole of engineering for the unknown.

- The technology was so complex that there would be a variety of unintended consequences.

And this was the early 1970's.  And since then there have been a variety of minor safety issues (Karen Silkwood, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl)...

So now the Chinese are going to build molten salt thorium reactors.  This is a new and untested technology.

What's interesting to me is the fact that these reactors involve some of the most ugly, nasty and dangerous chemicals on earth: fluorides, uranium hexaflouride gas, thorium, and in much larger proportions than traditional nuclear systems.  And this particular reactor type uses all sorts of exotic versions of these chemicals and new, untested and interesting ways as well as requires a lot of pre- and post-processing of the fuel (think large complex nuclear processing facilities - the kind Silkwood blew the whistle on - but in a country where you just commit suicide after they found out you've been poisoning the animal food for the last couple of years with melamine.)

So off they go on a twenty year plan to "develop" this technology.  Reading the link above its clear that some of there reasons for this are to alleviate their perception as a polluting country, particularly relative to greenhouse gases.

Which takes us back to my original point.

The Zion plant from my childhood sits abandoned today - large pools of 30 years of radioactive waste sitting right next to the shores of lake Michigan (which is busy eroding the shore right near the plant).  The plant itself is large and ugly and takes up acres of land - land which can never be used again - at least not in my lifetime or the lifetime of my grandchildren.

The 1970's promise of a nuclear power bonanza for the region has been replaced with a traditional coal fired plant near my childhood home belching steam into the sky day and night.  (This way we have power to surf the internet, text and use our cellphone while driving our hybrid cars to the organic food store.)

And the Zion plant has as waste fuel rods, chemicals, parts and coolant stored on site.  (There is no place to move them to - no one wants nuclear waste in their backyard - so it sits in Zion's backyard...?)

The Chinese plants will have God-knows what sort of bizarre and horrific waste chemicals that will require as yet undeveloped chemical processing technologies to prepare, manage and store.  And as we know the Chinese are somewhat less fastidious about making sure that the right chemicals are used for the right things manufacturing-wise...

No, I think the Chinese are simply caught up lost in the world "green" rhetoric.

Leaving the rest of us to suffer with the unintended consequences of our actions for centuries.

Don't believe me?

Just as the people of Chernobyl...

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