Monday, 3 November 2014

Reactor in Kagoshima ready for Restart

Tonight the NHK news covered the trip to Kagoshima by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yoichi Miyazawa to attempt to convince the governor and legislature of the prefecture to restart the Sendai nuclear plant.

The Kagoshima governor Yuichiro Ito seems likely to accept the government's request and the legislature is expected to vote in favor of it this week. If all goes well, the plant will restart early next year.

As Sendai will be the first restart since 3/11, it's likely there will be local and national opposition and global media coverage of the event when it takes place.

It seems ironic that Kagoshima, which I once thought to be possibly the most backward place on Earth outside of Queensland, is showing such unexpected progressive spirit.

Kyushu Electric Company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars implementing the safety recommendations of the NRA, including building walls to keep out a 15-metre tsunami.

Since the NRA gave approval for the plant to be restarted in September, resistance to the restart has centered around perceived weaknesses in the evacuation plans for local municipalities in the event of something going wrong. Professor Emeritus Hirotada Hirose of Tokyo Women's Christian University claimed the evacuation plans would not work and that:

"The restart of the reactors might be so worrying that people might not be able to concentrate on their work or live comfortably"

He should try being married.

An editorial in the Japan Times this week complained that the restart was coming too soon and picked out the evacuation plans for special criticism, saying

"Iodine pills are supposed to be given in advance to residents living within 5 km of the plant. At present, fewer than 70 percent of them have received the pills. It has not yet been decided what to do with visitors who happen to be in the area when a nuclear accident takes place, as well as new residents"

A cynic might suggest that in the event of a tsunami big enough to swamp 15 meter seawalls, visitors to the area might be thinking about other things than iodine pills, but whatever.

When I read of things like this opposition, I just shake my head at humanity. I can only think there are some serious issues with our ability to assess risk. If there really was a tsunami large enough to damage the Sendai nuclear plant, tens of thousands of people will already have drowned. An accident at the local nuclear plant is the last of your worries, and would probably cause as much damage to the local population as the 'nuclear disaster' 3 years ago in Fukushima. That is, none.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Nuclear Vision

"There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only...whisper it."
Make no mistake, nuclear power has suffered since March 11, 2011. The accident at Fukushima made headlines across the world.

And while the worst nuclear accident in decades killed or harmed no one and caused no off-site damage whatsoever, unlike myself most of the world wasn't particularly impressed. On the contrary, the response to Fukushima was an extraordinary overreaction of fear and repulsion. This has set back the development of nuclear power, because governments are affected by this narrative of fear, and in addition are captive to a lesser or greater extent to the influence of the fossil fuel industry.

But let's imagine that governments and people could make much more rational decisions, decisions based not on ideology and fear and the influence of entrenched forces but on sound principles of utilitarianism, scientific rigor, economic cost and environmental sustainability.

A world in which 60%... no, 80%...hey, why not, 95% of the electricity is supplied by nuclear energy. What would such a world be like?

For starters, electricity would be much less expensive. One of the great criticisms made of nuclear power is that it is very expensive.

And this is 100% correct. Compared to coal, oil and gas plants, nuclear plants are expensive to finance and take a long time to build.

Yet simultaneously, nuclear reactors are incredibly cheap. This contradiction can be resolved when it is noted that the significant costs associated with nuclear technology don't in any real way reflect any particular engineering restraints. The costs are imposed by humans, and consist of multiple layers of bureaucracy, political opposition and redundant layers of 'safety' measures that often bear no relation to real issues of risk management. The construction and planning costs imposed by the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority on idle reactors that want to restart - amounting to up to $1billion per reactor - are a good example of this.

So nuclear plants currently cost much more than they should. There may be some sinister (read: fossil-fuel backed) forces behind this. In fact, some argue that the current costs imposed on the construction of nuclear plants is the only way to keep the price high enough that other sources of power have any hope at all of competing. Restrictions and standards of safety are imposed on nuclear construction, for example, that would never be allowed in the fossil-fuel industry, despite its incomparably worse safety record.

So let's imagine that nuclear plants can be built with construction costs that reflect real engineering challenges and accurate measures of risk. We now have extremely cheap electricity. It's safe, it's cheap, it's reliable. It's base-load power that your society needs.

Yet this is only the beginning, the absolute baseline, in terms of efficiency and cost. One of the most promising things about nuclear technology is that current reactors only use about 5% of the energy in the uranium fuel. The other 95% is just part of the 'waste'. Unlike the case of the fossil-fuel industry, with a development curve that is reaching its technological peak in the face of dwindling supplies of fuel, nuclear technology has just begun to develop.

Most plants in operation today are Generation 2 plants, constructed in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Fukushima Daiichi was a Gen 2 plant. They can produce power, but are obsolete compared to the demands of this century. Generation 3 plants are currently being constructed in several countries, including the very impressive AP1000, with units being built in Virginia, USA and China.

Generation 4 plants are being designed. These wonderful things will be able to burn much more or all of the fuel in uranium, will be built will full passive safety, and will burn what is now nuclear 'waste'. In fact, current stocks of nuclear waste can provide the world's electricity for hundreds of years to come. There are many Gen 4 designs. You can see Bill Gates waxing lyrical about his Traveling Wave Reactor here.

As the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the bulk of the world's CO2 emissions, global warming will be mitigated to the full extent that is possible in this reality, especially if we also dare to dream that gasoline-powered cars will be completely replaced by electric vehicles.

This electricity will also be supplied without the massive costs, unreliability and environmental impacts associated with 'renewable' energy. No threats of brownouts or blackouts, no need for draconian energy conservation measures, no imposition of wind turbines where they aren't wanted, to decimate local bat or bird populations. No toxic waste left over from old solar panels. No hydroelectric dams built in wilderness areas. And most of all, no deceptions continued by the government on energy policy, where the public is sold greenwashed renewable projects while the bulk of actual power is produced by the fossil fuel industry.

It's virtually impossible to overstate the importance of fossil fuels being abandoned. Cities cleaner and purer than you can imagine. 2 million lives a year saved because air pollution is drastically reduced. No more mercury in the oceans, poisoning our seafood supply. No more acid rain, scorching forests from China to Poland. No more face mask in news bulletins from Beijing. No more mine explosions killing 200 or 300 people at a time in Szechuan province.

And while I suspect that Middle East politics is so fiendishly complicated and intractable that nothing short of divine intervention would resolve everything, few would object to the assertion that oil is a factor. There is a reason that 12 years ago both North Korea and Iraq were suspected of building nuclear weapons, and that now North Korea has nuclear weapons that nobody seems too bothered about, while Iraq is a bombed-out anarchic failed state overrun by militants who behead people for fun.

Imagine if fuel could be imported completely from stable democracies like Australia and Canada. Imagine if The United States had no need to maintain oil supplies from the Middle East. Imagine if you could extract enough fuel from seawater to power your civilization for millions of years, because you can.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Solar Power begins to reach its limit in Japan

There has been discussion this week about the government re-thinking the Feed-in-Tariff system (FIT) in electricity supply, which was intended to boost the amount of renewable energy added to the electricity mix in Japan.

The FIT system forces utilities to buy all the electricity produced by solar energy suppliers, regardless of how convenient it is and at a significant premium in price, which is then passed on to consumers.

In September, Kyushu electric and 5 other utilities announced they would no longer be purchasing electricity under the FIT system, citing the need to prevent blackouts from overloaded transmission systems.

An Advisory Panel for the Industry Ministry is considering how to deal with the issue.

The problem is that solar electricity is inherently unreliable. Production ranges from 0% to a capacity able to swamp transmission systems. Solar power cannot be stored, so must be used or lost. If utilities want the capacity to deal with these surges, more money has to be spent on the infrastructure - to deal with power that works about 35% of the time, and delivers absolutely nothing for about 12 hours a day.

There may be a place for solar power in the grid, but the weakness of a power source that cannot provide reliable baseload power is obvious. Every single watt producible by solar power must be backed-up 100% by another power source - and in Japan at the moment, that means fossil fuels with their associated massive environmental costs.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Nuclear Waste Storage in Australia? Yes, please.

Recently former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke has called for Australia to store the world's nuclear waste.

In a speech at the indigenous Garma festival in the Northern territory, Hawke claimed he had already gotten a favourable response from the Northern Territory chief minister.

Arguing that Australia's outback has lots of open space and some of the most geological stable land on the globe, Hawke pointed out the significant economic gains Australia could make from such storage. He also pushed the idea that indigenous communities could be transformed by this as much of the resulting money could be funneled into addressing serious issues in the country's aboriginal communities.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion produced a raucous response, much of it negative. The comments section of this Guardian article  gives a sense of the lively debate; pro-storage commentators seem to be rather outnumbered.

However this is an incredibly good idea.

Australia could store this stuff, at little cost after the initial investment, and rake in some serious money. That money could be used for anything, though there is no doubt that indigenous people would be fair claimants to a large chunk, being owners of the land being used.

Environmentally the idea is completely sound. Anybody in any doubt of this should start by reading this. Nuclear waste if properly stored is completely safe and much much less dangerous than other industrial wastes (heavy metals, chemical solvents etc), which are routinely kept in the middle of cities. There is in fact no reason to put nuclear waste out in the desert 100s of kilometers away from the nearest hamlet, other than the fact the anti-nuclear lobby has convinced the public it is excessively dangerous.

The only irony is that in fact nuclear waste doesn't need long-term storage; it should be recycled, which would reduce its volume (and its radiation) by about 95%

Australia, in fact, should by all rights be leading the worldwide nuclear wave. We are blessed with vast amounts of uranium (about a third of the world's known deposits), a high level of development, and a history of energy resource export. We should be exporting the world's uranium, building our own nuclear plants, and happily accepting the waste.

The 'Greens', sadly but not unexpectedly, are outraged, as can be seen in the Guardian article.

Now if they actually were green...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Fukushima Refugees - Will they return or won't they?

Some interesting news tonight on the NHK 7 o'clock.

It seems there is some new government policy being formulated regarding Fukushima refugees and whether they will be allowed to return and, if so, when.

As I understand it, there are 80,000 refugees currently receiving compensation payouts. According to tonight's news, 25,000 don't know whether they will be allowed back at all.

The most polluted area is around the town of Namie. Tonight it was reported that the level of radiation was 4 microsieverts/hr. It was also stated that some areas are over 50 mSv/year. Since 4 microsieverts an hour only adds up to about 35 mSv/year, something is a little out already, but, whatever.

It's worthwhile noting that adverse human health effects have never been reported in areas with 35 or 50 mSv of radiation a year. In fact, the lowest level at which negative health effects have ever been observed is 100 mSv, and that was in a single dose (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), not a very low dose spread out over an entire year. But that's a topic for another day.

So what is the Japanese government now considering while they prevent stressed and elderly residents from returning to completely safe homes in the clean and fresh countryside? Under the new proposals, some residents may never be able to return, and will receive sizable compensation payouts (paid from taxpayers funds) instead.

And because the Japanese government will obviously still have too much money left over, there are additional plans for further decontamination work, which (surprise surprise) has been unable to significantly reduce decontamination in many areas.

Since tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on decontamination efforts, successfully reducing radiation levels from completely safe to 'not significantly' lower than that, what's a few million more spent?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

692 million dollars a week

Since all but two of Japan's nuclear power plants have been shut off since the Fukushima accident, Japan's utilities have had to pay huge sums of money for imported fuels to burn in order to replace the energy the nuclear plants would have generated.

In fact, according to Bloomberg in this fiscal year TEPCO and eight other power companies will pay 3.6 trillion yen more in fuel costs. These companies have been importing huge amounts of oil, LNG and coal.

This works out to an astounding 692 million dollars a week.

3.6 trillion yen is about 36 billion dollars, depending on the exchange rate. This increase in fossil-fuel imports is also forcing Japan to have a third annual trade deficit in a row.

Of course Japan can completely afford that. It's not like they any problems with massive debt or anything like that, is it?

Friday, 27 September 2013

TEPCO applying to start up reactors

TEPCO today formally applied for safety assessments from the NRA for two of its reactors at the currently idle Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture. The nuclear plant is the largest in the world, with a total of 7 reactors capable of producing 8.2 gigawatts of power - enough to power a small country.

TEPCO is desperate to get some of its reactors started up again as it is currently haemorraghing cash while its reactors are idle. It is due to receive 380 billion yen in loans from the government later this year just to keep ticking over, and it is estimated that turning on 2 reactors could cut fuel costs by 200-300 billion a year.

However it's not clear when or if the NRA will judge the nuclear plants to have fulfilled the new stringent guidelines that are now in place. Among other things, it seems that these days nuclear plant operators seem vulnerable to the accusation that their nuclear plants lie over active geological faultlines. Of course it doesn't help that the definition of 'active' seems to be very generous indeed.

In another entry into the irony files, NHK tonight featured a lengthy broadcast about the new IPCC report on global warming, just after the stories about TEPCO.

The phrase 'a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is needed' was uttered. Oh dear.