CHRIS MILLS. Is affordable, reliable and low-emissions Nuclear-generated electricity the path to Climate Management?

Feb 19, 2020

How on Earth will we power the Planet when the Sun is not bright enough, the wind is not strong enough, droughts have dried up pumped-hydro and burning fossil fuels will incinerate us?

Australia will meet its renewable electrical power generation target ‘in a canter’ because of State and commercial investments in industrial-scale solar farms and wind generators. Pumped-hydro and massive battery storage is ‘firming’ the system, delivering the trifecta of electrical power that is affordable, reliable and low in emissions. But this will not be enough to manage the climate, even if all coal-fired power stations in the world are closed and replaced by renewable energy generators.

The 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges the Governments of the World to limit Global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, noting that ‘limiting Global warming to 1.5C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ and would deliver ‘clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems .. and go hand in hand with a more sustainable and equitable society’ (compared with 2 degrees Celsius of warming).

Managing the Earth’s climate is a Wicked Problem because it requires massive global-change in a very short time and there must be disruption of large multinational enterprises’ business models that will, if history informs, be strongly resisted by their lobbying the Governments that must command Climate Management if we humans are to survive and thrive. The people who will be the victims of climate change must push back more strongly, electing only those Governments which act in the interests of the Planet and its people.

The IPCC report notes that ‘Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050’.

When Climate management is discussed, most of the content is about the generation of electrical power, and rightly so as Coal produced CO2 is a large component of total production. What is more alarming, and rarely discussed, is CO2 produced by burning gas and petroleum – this is the USA example:

Most petroleum (petrol and diesel) is consumed in transportation in trucks, cars and trains. These vehicles can be ‘electrified’ and this process is underway, if somewhat nascently. Planes are also large consumers of petroleum in the form of jet fuel, but there are early experiments in battery- powered electric aircraft. As batteries increase storage capacity and energy density, and fall in price, the electrification process will accelerate.

However, alarm bells sound when the requirement is to reach zero CO2 emissions by eliminating the burning of (almost) all coal, natural gas and petroleum. When next filling a car or truck with fossil fuel, think about the electrical power required to charge vehicle batteries, electrify train lines and pump water up into water storages. Some countries are banning internal combustion engines. Electrical power generation will have to at least double in the next two decades.

Then there is the issue of toxic fossil fuel being burnt in maritime transport such at tankers, container ships and cruise liners. Because most of the fuel is burnt at sea, the dregs of fossil fuel ‘refinement’, bunker fuel, is used. This fuel is high in sulphur and harms poisoning people and poisons the atmosphere. Some countries ban burning bunker fuel in port, but not Australia. The impact on health of local residents is severe. Replacing bunker fuel with nuclear-power generated electricity will resolve this issue, and the other benefit is ultra-low-cost propulsion. Aircraft carriers and submarines have been nuclear powered for decades. The issue is whether the powerplants would be safe in a collision or grounding.

There is another source of CO2 emissions-free generation – nuclear. However, the Uranium nuclear cycle burns less than one percent of the fuel and the by-products are highly toxic and extremely long-lasting. Processing spent fuel is expensive and risky, so energy companies find it easier to mine and refine new Uranium fuel and store the spent fuel, building a toxic legacy for future generations.

Then there is the risk from rupture in a high-pressure nuclear reactor – think Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as disasters with long-term adverse consequences.

Here is the big question: can nuclear power generation can be increased to meet the future demand for electricity, can this be done by 2050 and can the generation of toxic waste be eliminated?

The answer is YES – if the world concentrates its climate-management efforts as defined by the IPCC into the development of nuclear power that is safe, inexpensive and producing low or zero toxic waste. The clean, safe nuclear generator is a Thorium Molten Salt Breeder Reactor.

Surprisingly, the research was started in the USA in 1960, an experimental plant was built in 1964, the plant went ‘critical’ in 1965 and operated safely for 17,655 hours and at full power for 9,005 hours until it was shut down in 1969.

Why was the promising Thorium technology not further developed to produce Terawatts of inexpensive, safe ‘dispatchable’ power? The first reason is that Uranium reactors have a by-product of fissionable material that is in the core of atomic and hydrogen bombs, so the Arms Race of the Cold War resulted in an expansion of the Nuclear industry using Uranium as the fuel to produce a nuclear arms stockpile. The generation of CO2-free electricity was a by-product. The second reason is that Thorium-powered generators are wrongly included in the hugely expensive regulation rightly required to commission Uranium-powered generators that have the potential to rupture and release long-life deadly toxic waste across vast areas.

This You-Tube video, albeit long at 46 minutes and somewhat fractured, is an excellent and highly recommended presentation: The Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor: Why Didn’t This Happen (and why is now the right time?) To summarise: the science and technology is well known and tested, Thorium is in abundance across the Earth, the by-products are low in volume and short lived (poisonous actinide waste from the Uranium cycle even be consumed as fuel in a Thorium reactor), and the design inherently safe from rupture. In the unlikely event of a rupture, the nuclear reaction stops as the molten salt flows into a capture tank.

Which Nations could produce Thorium MSBRs in the volume required to meet the electrical energy demanded by Climate Management? The USA invented and tested the Thorium reactor and has the industrial capacity to meet the demand within 20 years. Excusing the pun, according to this report

documents China’s progress (in Chinese, with English subtitles). China is also reported as developing Thorium MSBR for warships and maritime transportation as discussed above. If they power ships with safe nuclear reactors, toxic emissions and costs will plummet. Europe, Russia and Japan also have the engineering and design capacity. Australia has large reserves of Thorium and could contribute to a world-wide program to commission Thorium MSBRs. As Australia transitions to electrified transportation, there will be increasing demand for electricity that could be met by Thorium MSBRs which, being container-sized, can be placed close to demand locations, reducing network costs.

The Chinese video notes that the cooling requirements are minimal, allowing operation in remote and dry areas found in both China and Australia. A startling fact is that Coal-fired power stations consume huge volumes of water. As coal-fired power stations are replaced by Thorium MSBRs, this water can be redirected into agricultural production.

The imminent industrialisation of the Thorium MSBR call into question the fate of new-build coal-fired power stations – will they become stranded assets? There will be a requirement for transition power generation and this can be achieved through the existing coal-fired generators, which can be decommissioned (like Hazelwood and Liddell) when they reach the end of their economic life.

Gas-powered generators are another transition source of electricity as they can be installed quickly, are relatively cheap and use fuel that is abundant; lucky Australia is blessed with massive reserves and is soon to be the world’s largest LNG exporter.

The conclusion is that as ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ the Thorium MSBR electricity generator is the most promising way to accelerate management of the Earth’s climate. The logic chain is:

The earth must become carbon-neutral by 2050 to avoid the drastic consequences of climate change;

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and gas to produce electrical and transportation energy must be phased out;

Electricity is the only feasible replacement energy and can be produced by solar, hydro, wind and nuclear generators;

The Uranium nuclear cycle produces long-life toxic waste and have proven to be risky installations and thus not acceptable as an expanding energy source; and

Thorium Molten Salt Breeder Reactors are technically proven, low-waste, safe and with abundant and inexpensive fuel, are the prime candidate for generating Climate Management power.

Chris Mills is a MSc in Systems Management and is a systems designer and builder.

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