By Khaled Abou Alfa • 23rd of July, 2021
Martin Klaproth was a prodigious chemist, involved in the discoveries of titanium, strontium, cerium and chromium. It was his very first discovery however that would redefine humanity’s relationship with science. He named his discover after the planet Uranus and with it set the foundations to our most powerful and devastating technology. In 1789 Klaproth discovered Uranium and with it ushered the very start of the atomic age.
Over the next 150 years, progress would continue with unemotional prowess to better understand the atom itself. Pierre and Marie Curie. Albert Einstein. Niels Bohr. James Chadwick. Enrico Fermi. All culminating in a decidedly dark crescendo in the 1940s and the quest for a decisive edge in the Second World War. On the 6th of August 1945, the first atomic bomb, containing U-235, fell on Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb, containing Pu-239, dropped on Nagasaki. The atomic age was in full swing and there was no turning back.
The technology would make the transition from a military capacity and into commercial facilities. The first was in the USSR in 1954, at Obninsk. Even in this capacity the technology provided an existential threat. As we would discover, it did not offer second chances; it did not provide an unlimited margin for error. Any mistake would result in parts of the earth rendered uninhabitable. For decades this threat loomed over us, as people in a handful of places held the world in the palm of their hands. This underlying threat defined our relationship with nuclear power across emotional states: inspiration, fear, excitement, defiance, terror, resignation and eventually acceptance. We learnt to live with this threat; a necessary evil that we needed weening off.
Whether we are capable of making this happen in the short or long term remains to be seen. This future is dependant on a number of solutions and technologies taking on the demand fulfilled by nuclear. Even so the reality remains that generations into the far distant future will have the task (burden?) of solving our past, and any future, embrace of the technology.
|Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor
|Boiling Water Reactor
|Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission
|Boiling Light Water, Graphite moderated Reactor
|Pressurised Water Reactor
|Small Modular Reactor
Existing nuclear reactor design falls under four distinct generations: Gen I, Gen II, Gen III and Gen III+. The first generation plants were build in the 50s and 60s and were prototypes. It wasn’t until the mid-60s and the introduction of Gen II reactor designs did nuclear power achieve widespread adoption. These designs were either BWR or PWR and came with a 40 year operational lifespan.
The Gen III (and subsequent Gen III+) designs are an evolution of the Gen II designs. The core principals remained the same, with these improved operational life (designed to last over 60 years), safety systems (employing passive systems rather than active ones) and better thermal efficiency.
Nuclear doesn’t care if its cloudy or sunny, still or windy, it will keep going, until it is made to stop.
The world’s biggest nuclear energy-producing countries are:
Part of the success of this technology is that the cost per kWh produced is one the lowest - when compared with coal, gas and oil. While the capital costs are the highest, this becomes less of an issue, as long as the capacity factors are above 64%. In the US capacity factors for nuclear power generation hover around 90%. Moreover, the output is not connected to the whims of the weather. Nuclear doesn’t care if its cloudy or sunny, still or windy, it will keep going, until it is made to stop.
This dependency does not look likely to decrease in the immediate future. In 2010, 60.3% of the world’s electricity was generated from combustible fuels. Across a decade, in 2019, that number had dropped to around 54%. Across the same period, the power provided by nuclear has remained the same (around 10%). As we look to transition away from combustible fuels, the reality of the situation bites, as we need nuclear to aid in our transition.
The Case Against
Worldwide there are approximately 445 plants accounting for approximately 10% of all electricity generated. This number, of operable reactors, has remained constant since the 1980s. As new reactors come online, others are decommissioned and the overall number has remained static. The voice of public opinion has played a crucial role in this trend. There are other more pragmatic issues at play.
Chernobyl. Fukushima. Two accidents demonstrated the irreversible environmental impact of getting it wrong. While the direct human impact was less pronounced than other man made disasters, the impact on our perceptions and belief in the atomic age was shaken to its core. It doesn’t matter these are the only two accidents in a 60 year history. The stakes are so high that one accident is one to much. While accidents in any field of technology enable us to learn and provide better safeguards, no technology is full proof and no technology has the longterm ramifications that nuclear does. We might be 5 years or 50 years away from another accident and that reality is enough for many to outright reject this technology.
One of the many thorny issues that nuclear has yet to address, is the disposal of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel from atomic reactors. The theoretical preferred method is deep geological storage. The reality is that as of 2021, no such facility exists anywhere in the world. For the most part nuclear waste is stored on-site in dry casks.
After decades of discussion, Finland is the very first country to take action in creating such a facility. In May 2021, work began on the deep geologic nuclear waste repository at ONKALO. The facility in ONKALO will store Finland’s existing waste and the waste generated for the next 120 years. Another Nordic country is also taking steps to address its own nuclear waste. Sweden recently went through a process to select which of two potential Swedish towns would ‘host’ its nuclear waste.
While these facilities are necessary, they don’t solve the problem. Rather the final, final issue is kicked further down the road, a hundred years down the road, and to future generations.
When designing a nuclear facility one of the first (and project defining) exercises is the site selection or siting. Siting criteria ranges from the availability of cooling water, capability to withstand natural and human-made environmental hazards, transportation infrastructure, spatial availability, socioeconomical considerations and the list goes on.
The biggest block for the siting of a nuclear facility is the political checks and balances in place. The movement of the technology from energy source to weapon is a path demonstrated by the likes of India, Pakistan and Israel. This technology is capable of enabling bad citizens of the world disproportionate power. Power that can have greater impact on the entire world than localised struggle.
I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
— Albert Einstein (maybe said it)
The siting of nuclear sites is restricted, a reality that is further underlined by the fact that the number of new facilities worldwide remains stagnant. Within these real constraints, imposed or otherwise, nuclear is a technology that can never expand in a considerable manner beyond its currently defined boundaries. This is both a byproduct and by design.
On Future Advancements
With an understanding of the challenges that face an industry in stasis, 13 countries (along with all 28 countries of the European Union) have created a co-operative, Generation IV International Forum (GIF) to explore future generations of nuclear. Six reactor technologies have been selected for research and development:
- Gas-Cooled Fast Reactor (GFR)
- Lead-Cooled Fast Reactor (LFR)
- Molten Salt Reactor (MSR)
- Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor (SFR)
- Supercritical-Water-Cooled Reactor (SCWR)
- Very High-Temperature Reactor (VHTR)
This new generation of reactors is also reconsidering the size. Rather than investing in much larger plants, small modular reactors (SMRs) could be 1/10th of a traditional plant while offering a range of gross power output (from as little as 25MWe to 400MWe). SMRs are manufacturer in a factory setting, then transported and erected onsite.
After decades of stagnant development, nuclear design is experiencing a renaissance, from names such as Rolls Royce, TerraPower (backed by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates). Even companies in nuclear adverse Denmark Copenhagen Atomics and Seaborg Technologies are engaged.
While not the silver bullet it was once hailed as, nuclear technology will continue to play a role in our efforts to decarbonisation our electricity. Many will lament this renewed interest in this technology, however without it we would need to completely change our way of life. Learn to live with significantly less power daily until energy storage and more advanced wind and PV technology is developed. Or develop better nuclear technology to tide us over until we have the better alternative and keep kicking the can down the road.
Great Pyramid of Giza
Olympic Cardboard Beds
Incredibly, against all common sense, the Olympic games are ready to begin by the time this issue goes out. I have mixed feelings about this celebration of sporting competition. While I do love the history; the design; the celebration! I am left wondering how responsible such an event is every four years. White elephants erected and forgotten shortly after the summer of joy. The Airweave provides a clever and considered way of providing 18,000 beds and mattresses to the athletes. If the games are to continue in a responsible manner they would do well to replicate this type of approach.
PUBLICATIONS OF NOTE
Chernobyl: A Stalkers Guide
The perfect companion tome to this month’s topic. Darmon Richter’s book Chernobyl: A Stalkers Guide offers a hidden view into a point in world forbidden to most of humanity, the heart of the Exclusion Zone.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
It should come as little surprise that Muji is a beloved brand at the Stet.Build HQ. While I came for the notebooks and gel ink pens, this wall clock and a variation of this digital desk clock are some of my favourite horological items.