Monday, 16 July 2007

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

What does this mean for Australia, the United States, and other developing and developed ‘partners’? That’s a tough question to address in one post – but I’m getting a bit busy and new posts may be scarce for a while. So I’ll do my best.

During the recent 48th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management conference in Tucson Arizona, there was considerable attention given to the GNEP. Both the first speaker in the opening plenary [Dr. Paul Lisowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fuel Cycle Management, Office of Nuclear Energy, US Dept. of Energy [DoE]] as well as the last speaker of the final plenary [Adam Scheinman, Assistant Deputy Administrator for Non-proliferation and International Security, US DoE, National Nuclear Security Administration] emphasised the role of GNEP including progress with countries including Russia, China, Japan, France, etc. Additionally, three technical sessions were devoted to GNEP. These included 6 panels and about 20 individual presentations from both government and industry.

As one looks beyond the marketing of GNEP it becomes obvious that the programme faces some significant challenges [beyond the funding problems being imposed by the US congress]. Few people have much to say about the strategic goals of the programme: to promote global energy security and reduce dependence on climate killing fossil fuels through the dramatic expansion of no/low emission nuclear technology. Furthermore that nuclear technology will be expanded in a way that minimises proliferation risk and drastically reduces the long-term repository burden from high level waste.

However, with respect to tactical implementation, the waters begin to muddy. My understanding is:

1. Non-proliferation goals of the US [as well as just about any other country in charge of its mental faculties] would be achieved through the voluntary agreement of ‘recipient’ or ‘partner’ countries to forego nuclear fuel enrichment based on long-term fuel supply assurances from a collective group of fuel supplier [aka fuel cycle] states [mostly those who already have nuclear weapon capabilities, with possibly a few others].

2. Fuel supplier states would become involved in fuel reprocessing to generate fuel for fast burner reactors. These reactors would digest the minor actinides and transuranics. The remaining residual waste will decay to the level of naturally background uranium in about 300 years [as opposed to about 350,000 years for high level wast coming out of today’s nuclear reactors]. Since humans have demonstrated our ability to design and build civil structures capable of lasting well beyond 300 years for several millennia now; confidence is very high in our ability to keep this waste ‘tight’ for 3 centuries.

Also during the conference, there were several scientific presentations explaining the PUREX flow-sheets – plutonium is never separated.

3. Partnering nations, those who are not enriching but receiving fuel from supplier states would benefit through security of fuel supply and an agreement that the supplier states would take back the fuel for reprocessing.

A point made by many is that the real challenge rests at the back end of the fuel cycle [waste]. If GNEP can’t offer anything new there, then it really isn’t offering much at all. For example, provided a country remains within the good graces of the UN Security Council, they currently have no problem getting a reactor and fuel through the industrial partners in existence today [Westinghouse, AREVA, GE, etc.]. GNEP doesn’t offer much new in this regard. However, through GNEP as it is defined today, some of the old significant challenges still remain. Unless something novel is proposed for the back end, states will still have to develop a long-term, high-level waste solution for the residual waste post-reprocessing. [The US has no policy to keep all this waste.] Individual, high level nuclear waste repositories are simply not an option for small, developing states.

Some opportunities for Australia.

Get back into enrichment

Presentations involving enrichment at this conference show expected demand increasing dramatically over the coming years together with some older enrichment capacity that must be upgraded or replaced in the near future. Several companies are already expanding their enrichment services to meet projected demand. Presentations included the status of the new National Enrichment Facility in New Mexico being constructed by Louisiana Enrichment Services. But there appears to be scope for more.

However, while Australia has proven our scientific ability relating to enrichment, we lack any demonstrated industrial capacity in this regard. Is it reasonable to think we can fast-track our related scientific achievements to an industrial capacity in time to meet the demand [and with competing countries and companies already moving in this area]? Partnering with existing companies to host facilities of their design and technology may be more reasonable.

There may also be advantages to becoming an enrichment state, eventually supplying our own fuel for example.

Reprocess & Burn

With enrichment, Australia may also then get into reprocessing and fast burner industries. Again, to me this seems a HUGE industrial leap, especially when the high level schedule/implementation ambitions of the GNEP programme are considered. Australia has no technology base with respect to the design of nuclear reactor facilities [ even OPAL was Argentinean design]. I doubt countries/companies in possession of such technology would be eager to export it. This is probably the least likely activity to be seen domestically in Australia.

Long Term Waste Management

Here, Australia could take advantage of the starkest features of our country – vast emptiness, extreme isolation and geologic stability. If there was ever an opportunity to see emptiness and isolation as a resource, the nuclear fuel cycle is it.

Compact to begin with, spent nuclear fuel is rarely seen as waste any longer. Trends are definitely moving toward reprocessing, with new reactor designs aiming to burn recycled fuel – supported by research in Japan for example as well as ongoing recycling/reprocessing activities in many countries around the world [several of these countries are in the midst of expanding their capabilities in this regard]. But the final waste from reprocessing activities still needs a home. As I mentioned above, this final waste will be of significantly lower volume, lower activity and generate less heat. In a few hundred years it will achieve the same activity as the uranium under our feet at this very moment.

Should Australia consider and eventually agree to host such a site for, as an example, participating GNEP countries [a ‘supranational repository’]; the boost to that endeavour would be considerable. The international demand for such services could result in tremendous benefits for Australia. This is worthy of serious consideration – particularly when you consider that we will need a waste storage facility [or certainly access to such services] to handle the output from our use of lifesaving radio-pharmaceuticals as well as other non-power nuclear industrial products.

This is not a new topic to Australia, as discussed in this radio interview from 1999. But with reprocessing, we are speaking of a different breed of horse altogether.

So in conclusion, GNEP is not a ‘gate’ between countries and nuclear power, but rather one of several paths to obtain it. As it is being promoted at the moment, choosing this path will be 100% voluntary. Therefore, if it is to achieve the ambitious strategic goals mentioned above [as well as at the conference], GNEP MUST become the path of least resistance as perceived by non-nuclear states with nuclear power ambitions. This certainly seems improbable without a long term solution to the final waste streams, and in particular, highly active waste.

Friday, 6 July 2007

New Market Report on Nuclear's Future

Research & Markets has published (for the bargan price of 882 Euros or about $1,400 AUD) a report on the Nuclear Power Market Potential.

From their summary (and to the copywrite police out there - I doubt these guys will mind the plug): [all emphasis is mine]

This 355-page report on the Nuclear Power Market Potential suggests that nuclear power has the potential to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels and curb CO2 emissions in a cost-effective way, since its uranium fuel is abundant. However governments must take a more active role in facilitating private investment, especially in liberalized electricity markets where the trade-off between security and low price has been a disincentive to investment in new plant and grid infrastructure.

Investment of $20.2 trillion will be required by 2030 under the IEA alternative energy scenario, increasing nuclear capacity by 41% to 519 GWe and reducing energy demand by 10% and CO2 emissions by 16% compared with projections on present basis. Of this amount, $11.3 trillion will go for electricity: $5.2 trillion for generation, and the rest for transmission and distribution.

Today, the world produces as much electricity from nuclear energy as it did from all sources combined in 1960. Civil nuclear power can now boast more than 12,400 reactor years of experience. Nuclear energy supplies 16% of global needs in 30 countries.

Nuclear technology uses energy released by splitting the atoms of certain elements. Its applications range from bomb production to power generation. It was first developed in the 1940s, and during World War II research focused on producing bombs by splitting atoms of uranium or plutonium. In the 1950s attention turned to peaceful applications for nuclear fission, notably power generation.

Nuclear power generation is an established part of the world's electricity mix providing over 16% of the worlds electricity (cf. coal 40%, oil 10%, natural gas 15%, and hydro & other 19%). It is particularly suitable for large-scale, base-load electricity demand.

Although fewer nuclear power plants are being built now than during the 1970s and 1980s, those that are operating produce more electricity. In 2005, production was 2626 billion kWh. The increase over the last five years (218 TWh) is equal to the output from 30 large new nuclear plants. Yet between 1999 and 2005 there was a net increase of only two reactors (and 15 GWe). The rest of the increase is due to better performance from existing units.

With the United Nations predicting the worlds population to increase from 6.4 billion in 2004 to 8.1 billion by 2030, demand for energy will inevitably increase substantially. Both population growth and increasing standards of living for many people in developing countries will create strong growth in energy demand, expected to be 1.6% per year or 53% from 2004 to 2030.

The report addresses major issues affecting the nuclear power industry, including:
- Technologies for New Nuclear Facilities
- Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Nuclear Waste Disposal
- Nuclear Regulation
- Non Proliferation Goals
- Energy Security
- Global Nuclear Energy Partnership
- Nuclear Weapons

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Same ol' spiel

While attending a recent social 'function' - one of those painfully dreadful events one must endure, more for professional than personal reasons - I was introduced to, and got to chatting with, a fairly high ranking member of Australia's diplomatic corps. The conversation went almost immediately to the [possible] future of nuclear power in Australia where he stated what I consider to be the 'politically obvious'. I'm not going to quote - but most readers of this blog could guess what my conversational counterpart had to say. 'Depends on the outcome of the election... etc'. As if it were a political issue - only.

But I contend - and for the sake of us all I really hope there are others who agree - that this is also a technical issue [to nuke or not to nuke]; and that in fact the technical aspects of the problem will - in due time - dominate the debate over the political, emotional and/or 'fundamental'. For the technophiles out there, see my previous entry on the numbers.

I also had to endure the painful explanation of Australia's minuscule contribution to emissions [1.5% of the global total??] while our per-capita emissions are so obscenely high. To me the nation-to-nation comparisons are so ridiculously irrelevant it is almost pathetic. This is not a sustainable argument. Why not simply extend this logic further? For example, as an individual Australian I am responsible for about 1 20-millionth of 1.5% of global emissions [that's 0.000000075%] . What I do will obviously have no noticeable impact on global climate regardless of which 'scenario' you consider. Why then should I do anything? Ditto for individual industrial facilities, or industries in general. [Never mind this is about 10 times what the average Chinaman emits...] Do you understand how ridiculous this is????

This 'logic' is moving people away from the very perspective necessary for serious reductions in emissions - that being that we must all work to achieve whatever reductions are within our reasonable abilities.

Will we marginalise ourselves to oblivion?

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Addressing the more serious critics

Steve Kidd

Steve Kidd recently prepared a comment piece for Nuclear Engineering International that acknowledges the long time, emotive opposition to nuclear by the more high profile environmental groups, but then quickly moves on to discuss more serious opposition to nuclear by critics that have - until recently - remained mostly dormant, happy to let the more vocal environmental groups do the job.

But with the resurgence of nuclear power due to the serious environmental challenges associated with fossil fuels as well as energy security issues around the world; these opponents are reemerging. In his piece Steve does well to describe these critics and more importantly the issues at hand. He looks to historical evidence from both the nuclear as well as other industries to demonstrate that the nuclear renaissance is indeed a credible source of reliable energy for the foreseeable future.
Much of the debate about nuclear at this more sophisticated level comes down to values and interpretations rather than facts. Even when it is possible to agree on the facts, different people have alternative perceptions of risk and this lies at the heart of everything to do with nuclear. It is a complex technology and brings forward a wide range of issues which act like a thick fog in people’s minds. Yet the financier of a new plant is in much the same position as someone who lives just down the road from a proposed site for a new reactor or a voter much further away who is presented with nuclear as a serious energy option. The financier has a long list of risks, which must be competently allocated amongst the stakeholders in the plant to give him sufficient comfort to proceed, and without imposing a damaging risk premium on his money. Some are the responsibility of national governments, some will be taken up by the plant vendor and contractors, while others will lodge with the power company itself. The local resident faces different risks, but needs satisfaction on safety, radiation emissions, plant security and eventual decommissioning of the site. The national voter, however, is maybe more concerned by possible proliferation, terrorism and waste management issues. There are clearly different issues for different groups, but each requires a great deal of industry attention to give them comfort. There is little alternative to increasing knowledge and understanding of the complexities of nuclear, in the hope that the essential audiences will be patient listeners and not feel overwhelmed. It is clear from everyday life that attitudes to risk vary considerably, so even the best industry explanations are unlikely to satisfy everyone.
More comments from Steve Kidd