Friday, 30 July 2010

Blaaammm - Nukes through the decades

There is a resurgent movement in Australia, one of whose most outspoken proponents is Professor Barry Brook, that claims a rapid expansion of the nuclear industry is the way forward to head off climate change and peak oil etc. Professor Brook holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. He conducts a lot of research into the serious dangers from climate change… which is good. However, the results of his work seem to have convinced him that the dangers are so real and all-encompassing that the solution must include a big push to bring in a vastly expanded nuclear power industry… which just might not be as great as his blog BRAVENEWCLIMATE reckons.

They claim that generation III reactors are inherently safe and will act as a stop gap until reprocessing of the waste ushers in the fabled generation IV reactors which will be able to use thorium – a relatively abundant material. Thus, their story goes, we will avoid the normal objections to nuclear power such as that uranium itself would be rendered in short supply if a significant part of the world’s fossil fuelled energy supply was replaced by nuclear fission. They claim that the amount of nuclear waste will be less per reactor and that the risks of nuclear proliferation will also be less. Their rhetoric requires a degree of hand waving and some assertion. A big flaw in their argument is the numbers. To make a significant dent in the greenhouse gas emissions of the world, one helluva lot of new reactors would have to be built throughout the world including in such states as North Korea, Iran, various African dictatorships, Indonesia, Palestine, Chechnya, Libya, various Gulf states with much reduced revenues from oil and any states that lose whatever stability they currently have today etc etc. Even if the risks from waste and proliferation per reactor are much reduced, the much greater number of reactors will multiply the odds. Do the math.

This 10 minute video below (the original was 15 minutes long but has been edited to fit YouTube's limit) is a time lapse of every (known) nuclear bomb or test explosion conducted by the Nuclear Weapons States and India and Pakistan. It starts slowly but speeds up dramatically. The following paragraph is taken from the blurb to the YouTube video (one of many) that reposts this artwork:

"1945-1998" by Isao Hashimoto (Japan, © 2003)
“The 2053 nuclear tests and explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998 are plotted visually and audibly on a world map.  As the video starts out detonations are few and far between. The first three detonations represent the Manhattan Project and the two bombs that ended World War II. After a few representative minutes the USSR and Britain enter the nuclear club and the testing really starts to heat up. Even though the video does not differentiate between sub-critical "safety" tests and full detonations, you get a good idea of the fever of the nuclear arms race. The time line does not extent to tests by North Korea (October 2006 and May 2009).”

Those were nuclear weapons/tests over a period of 40 or so years. Relying on nuclear power stations for the next few hundred years, as we would have to under BRAVENEWCLIMATE’s prescription, does not seem, with some likely future geopolitics scenarios, like the sanest way to achieve a sustainable stable future.

Look at the history of the world – do these latter day “energy too cheap to meter” types really think that with a vastly increased nuclear infrastructure in most countries of the world that future geopolitics is going to be lovely and stable with everyone getting along famously – just like they do today? [shome mishtake, shurely? Ed]. Or will there still be the usual international tensions and the usual suspicions that “rivals” will not be coming clean with any necessary future United Nations nuclear inspection force, and that they may be squirreling away fissionable (nuclear bomb making) materials because they can’t ignore the possibility that the other side is too. Not to mention the hugely increased risk of such material getting into the hands of terrorist organisations by theft or covert governmental or intelligence agency support. So much easier to conceal a source when it could be from any one of tens of thousands of places.

Terrorists do not need to actually be capable of making even a crude nuclear device, although this is not as tricky as some might believe – it’s very hard to make an efficient one, but to make the equivalent of a damp squib device that could take out a few blocks rather than a whole city is achievable for the dedicated amateur group who are fanatical enough to not care too much about their own personal safety - plenty of them around nowadays... The real danger from the proliferation of nuclear material, that might find its way into fanatical hands, is from the use of so-called dirty bombs. This is where finely divided nuclear material is the payload of a conventional high explosive bomb, rather than the usual shrapnel, coach bolts etc. The point is to spread contaminating radioactive material widely over an area, thus rendering it effectively unusable and/or by bringing about colossal costs to decontaminate, not to mention any actual radiation sickness incurred by the population. There would also be left a generation of hypochondriacs always thinking that they might be about to come down with some exotic disease or other.

These weapons are largely speculated about so far but the Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah allegedly revealed under interrogation in 2002 that the organisation was close to constructing a dirty bomb. Chechen separatists are thought to have planted two of these type of devices already, although they were never detonated.

Those lauding the virtues of much expanding nuclear to “solve” our energy problems need to  remember this. In the view of one commenter to a Popular Mechanics post, even though the new nuclear reactor designs may be far safer than previous ones there will always remain the human factor.
“Posted by: kh_skeptic_from_nj
Nuclear power could be safe, if it were run by really nerdy boy scouts. Nerdy, so they know what they're doing, and boy scouts, so they always DO what NEEDs to be done.
Nuclear power is like drilling a deep well in the ocean--- it is safe if nothing goes wrong, and nobody messes up.”

Still think that a mostly nuke future is a good idea, Professor Brooks?

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