Fission and fusion

Standardizing fission and prioritizing fusion

Globally coordinate broadly-standardized nuclear power-station designs while accelerating international next-generation development and prioritizing fusion research

 

None of the alternative-energy approaches will prove sufficient in the time that governments have. As a result, energy suppliers in general, and the nuclear-power industry in particular, must show far greater leadership. The public – and especially ecology activists – need to be better educated about modern versions of nuclear-power generation. This is more important than ever post-Fukushima.

The resistance from the most voluble groups tends to be a legacy of the anti-nuclear-weapons lobby of the 1960s. Many of those concerns have in reality now been addressed, though not all have (such as the problems of decommissioning), so the energy industry needs to lay out the full logic behind greater adoption of nuclear-fission generators not just in the context of energy-security but also in terms of the radical improvements there have been in designs. Yet that is not enough. The cost-effectiveness of current-generation nuclear-fission power-stations must be dramatically improved. To achieve this, the nuclear-power industry must urgently get its act together on reactor designs. Oil-rigs and commercial airliners all benefit from broadly-standardized global designs. Nuclear power-stations do not. That is no longer reasonable.

The current approach is not only unduly expensive but also dramatically increases delays, at a time when there is little wiggle-room in the global schedule. Coordinating nuclear-power design and development has truly become a matter of global security just as nuclear-weapons proliferation has been for six decades. So, governments as well need to get their acts together in order to support the necessary international agreements. Current designs of nuclear-power stations need to be rationalized and coordinated at a global level, with the added advantage that replaceable parts can then extend the operating life of the plants. All of these changes will not only substantially improve the True Costing of nuclear power-generation, but they will also strengthen the logic of pursuing nuclear as part of an overall energy-strategy.

As far as the general public is concerned, industry must take the lead in explaining why aggressively developing a nuclear-power option as one of the complementary components in a strategy of energy-security is more an issue of pragmatism, rather than a confrontation against idealism: Fossil fuels risk both global warming and economic-oil depletion, and the more-extreme Green proposals to reduce energy demand – for instance by huge changes to the Western lifestyle – would, in practice, never possibly be achieved in time.

Meanwhile, the public also needs to understand why populist ‘solutions’ – such as the 2011 decision by German politicians to curtail their country’s nuclear-power program – often turn out not to be as clear-cut as they at first appear. For example, as a result of not being able to fill their energy gap with alternatives (as seems likely), Germany may eventually have to resort to buying electricity from neighboring countries – such as primarily-nuclear France.

In addition, the energy industry needs to explain far better to the general population the concept of risk-management – as opposed to risk-avoidance (which in reality is impossible for many technologies). Statements by anti-nuclear lobbyists along the lines of ‘You cannot guarantee that there is absolutely no possibility of a major catastrophe’ are not easy to counter from scratch in a sound-bite. But then again, neither were the needs for major cuts in public spending that many governments have nevertheless endeavored to educate their electorates about.

Energy producers must also consider radically new designs of nuclear power-generators – for instance, sealed transportable stations that need no refueling and that at the end of their lives can be shipped back to the manufacturer for decommissioning. They must also work with governments to devise at last a coordinated strategy for dealing with nuclear waste. In addition the nuclear-power industry must take a far stronger lead in accelerating existing international research into the next-generation designs of nuclear-fission power stations expected to come on-line commercially around 2030. And – currently gaining far too little attention – in order to make any of these actions practical, they must also encourage and support governments around the world in urgently attracting and educating a sufficiently large new-generation of nuclear engineers and scientists.

Finally, it is vitally important that energy producers step up to the challenge of lobbying governments and the public to give far greater priority to ensuring that practical versions of nuclear-fusion power-generators become commercially viable by 2040. This fundamentally different approach (basically generating power by using the same physics as makes the sun shine) is immensely attractive – not least because it is very safe and clean and uses effectively-limitless resources.

What is more, its progress is so linked to the exponential growth of Simulation technologies that it now appears very much more likely to succeed than many have assumed until recently. It is utterly absurd that most politicians, members of the news-media, let alone members of the general public do not really even know what nuclear fusion is. They do not realize that the only thing it shares in common with what they think of as nuclear-power is the word ‘nuclear’. And they know still less about the existing massive but anonymous international fusion-research programs on whose outcomes their very-long-term energy security may in reality depend.