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On the bus for thorium-powered future

by 4 Aug 2010Nuclear power0 comments

Updated 10 September 2010
Faraday lecturing at the Royal Institute

Similarly Salubrious: The Mahurangi River Winery might not be quite as venerable as the Royal Institution, which will host the Thorium Energy Conference in October, but will do very nicely. artist Alexander Blaikley

It was a sobering statement:

There’s not enough power available to electrify Auckland’s transport.

Gary Heaven knows a lot about such things, given that much of his information technology work is for power utilities. The immediate discussion, at the Mahurangi Club, had been about frustrations with the region’s determinedly fossil-fuelled transport system.

Aotearoa’s most urgent need is to conserve energy, rather than generate a whole lot more energy. Much is wasted in extravagant use. Water that could better be heated by solar, or by woodstoves where the population is not too densely settled. Moving work to the people not people to the work, at least some of the time. Smelting aluminium in countries where bauxite is mined and electricity is relatively clean and abundant.

But that still leaves a lot of power to find, to phase out the fossil-fuelling of transport.

And to replace the coal-fired Huntly Power Station, which supplies an unhealthy 17% of Aotearoa’s electricity. While this is less than half the international average of 41%, the plant’s location near the metropolis is instructive—transmission losses from the abundant South Island hydro amount to about 50%, Mr Heaven said.

Worldwide, coal is the fastest growing fuel, which is literally disastrous. China’s annual rate of consumption, rising at nearly 30%, approaches 3‍ ‍billion tonnes. This is set to put power generation as the top contributor to anthropogenic global warming ahead of road transport. It actually produces far more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than road transport but, bizarrely, negates some of that effect through sulphate emissions.

Fortunately, China is also building nuclear power stations like its future depended upon it—60 in the next 10 years. China takes global warming seriously.

The single most powerful reason to revisit nuclear power is Dr James Hansen, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s chief climate scientist. Dr Hansen’s particular concern is coal, to the point of being arrested for protesting against mountaintop mining.

As a masters student, Hansen calculated the global cooling effect of the Mount Agung eruption. Dr Hansen heads up the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and his earlier career centred on the atmosphere of Venus. However, when it was realised that rapid changes were being observed Earth’s atmosphere, he focussed the institute’s resources there. After proving to be the science advisor Vice President Dick Cheney wouldn’t ask back a third time, a concerted attempt was made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to gag him. But such was his integrity as a man and as a scientist, he survived the ordeal. Instead the administrator was, deservedly, dumped.

Dr Hansen’s study of the atmosphere of Venus alerted him to just how tenuous the Earth’s hold in its oxygen-rich atmosphere is. He calculates that sufficient fossil fuels remain to render the Earth’s atmosphere incapable of supporting life. Despite this prospect, because fossil fuels provide an immediate economic windfall, no government will risk the voter backlash by embargoing the remaining deposits—even the timorous emissions trading scheme introduced by the National-led government is viewed as an outrage by free market ideologues.

Dr Hansen says that emissions trading is failing and even adding to global warming. He advocates a substantial direct carbon tax, to be returned 100% to citizens.

Additionally, Dr Hansen advocates switching from coal to clean nuclear power:

Existing nuclear reactors use less than 1% of the energy in uranium, leaving more than 99% in long-lived nuclear waste. Fourth generation nuclear power can ‘burn’ that waste, leaving a small volume of waste with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years. Thus fourth generation could help solve the nuclear waste problem, which must be dealt with in any case.

China has picked up the fourth generation ball dropped by the United States during the Clinton–Gore administration:

China’s endeavour to increase the use of clean energy got a big boost on [21 July 2010] after an experimental fast reactor using the mostly homegrown fourth-generation nuclear technology reached the critical state.

Meantime the Russians will commence building China two fourth-generation power stations in 2011, further emphasising how far the United States has fallen behind. Fourth-generation work, however, is finally set to resume there under Nobel Prize winning Steven Chu’s direction as Energy Secretary.

But in countries with a strong anti-nuclear tradition, thorium rather than uranium is the more-likely future. Thorium is only mildly radioactive and is nonfissionable, but can be made so. This is just one of two main reasons thorium technology lags. The other, that the technology doesn’t play a useful role in weapons production, is a huge plus to its potential use in Aotearoa, whose particular outrage at all (non-medical) things nuclear was sparked by the testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific.

Nor are the waste products nearly as long lasting—one of several reasons first and second generation nuclear power was unethical. Ironically, New Zealanders see no contradiction in being world-class petrol heads, which is an actual sin against unborn generations, rather than merely a potential threat—nuclear ‘waste’, it transpires, can be used.

Biologist Marcus Shipton is one who believes New Zealanders need to reappraise nuclear power. The mountaineer son of a sailor who protested against the France’s weapons testing at Moruroa Atoll was, on the face of it, not the most likely soul to see nuclear as necessary. But the objectivity essential to any sound scientist meant that the realisation nuclear had some positives dawned early.

As an expert in water management—he attended the Mahurangi Action Plan forum on wastewater—Mr Shipton is acutely aware that the high degree of water treatment that is demanded in order to protect the environment generally comes at a steep cost in terms of energy and the associated global impact.

Having enjoyed the forum, Mr Shipton is prepared to give an 18-minute talk titled ‘Give Nuclear Power a Chance’ to the next Mahurangi Club.

And to practice what it preaches, the Mahurangi Magazine will provide door-to-door transport to and from the Mahurangi River Winery—the magazine’s cartoonist, Craig V Powell, obtained his bus driver’s licence for just this sort of occasion.

The question now is:

Will sufficient people put preconceptions aside and get on the bus?

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