Response to review

Although we’ve had overwhelmingly positive responses to “No oil in the lamp”, any book is going to come in for some criticism. One of the reviews we’ve had is from someone from the World Nuclear Association who did not like our attitude to nuclear power. I will give a measured response to his criticisms. The nuclear section in our book was originally much longer but had to be cut shorter to fit other sections in such as the chapter on economics.

The first criticism made by the reviewer was of Energy return on Energy invested. We stand by everything written on this. Our data comes from Professor Cutler Cleveland amongst others who is an expert on energy return and is cited elsewhere in the book on this issue. We give a very wide range for this figure recognising that its based on a number of studies. I find it difficult to believe the global average would be as high as 70x for Nuclear, which is claimed by our critic. The range we give for nuclear at its top end is better than a lot of renewables, which we also give. It should be noted though these renewables are an endless resource, not a finite one and leave no waste legacy, nor do they pose a terrorist threat. As we pointed out newly installed wind turbines are coming in at energy returns of 200:1, which is better than all forms of conventional energy.

Related to this is criticism of our comments on ore strength which according to our critic “would not go much lower with very low-grade ores”. If you mine 1000Kg of rock at an ore strength of 1% uranium you will obtain 10Kg of uranium. If you mine 1000Kg of rock at an ore strength of 0.1% uranium you will obtain 1Kg; 10x less. Therefore to obtain the same 10Kg from the lower grade ore you will need to mine 10x as much rock, which presumably will take 10 times as much energy to mine and purify.  By the way we are aware of “known” resources, a general criticism made of the book by this reviewer. We are also aware that this is a standard economic answer to resource depletion, if the price of something be it oil or uranium then exploration will take place and new resources are found. The problem with this view is that it seems to take no account of physical limits. In any case the fact that something is there does not mean its a good idea to use it.

The next matter we were criticised for was our very short section on breeder reactors. I will give a bit more background. In theory to maintain a chain reaction it requires only one neutron to hit a neighbouring atom to keep the chain reaction. In actual fact an average of 2.5 neutrons are released per atom. What if you could use some of the excess to hit the isotopes U238 or Th232? Theory suggests you would breed uranium  233 or plutonium which you could use in other reactors. Theory might suggest it, but such data that is available suggests that breeder reactors don’t work, or at least not sufficiently well to be worth pursuing. [1]. Our critical reviewer suggests 33 years of Fast breeder operation denotes success. As he admits only one breeder reactor being in operation currently, with all the others closed in the UK, USA, France, Japan etc. this seems a new definition of the “success”. He also seems not to have read the book properly criticising us for saying they were closed for safety reasons. What we actually say see endnote 49 in that chapter is that was the reason given. In actual fact its very difficult to find out the official reason. After reading this criticism I contacted the nuclear decommissioning authority here in the UK by email. They were also extremely reluctant to give a reason but pointed me to the Dounreay webpage which implies cost. We still think its because it didn’t work. Our unhappy reviewer also imparts lets slip some worrying information, stating that all major nuclear countries are “committed to fast reactors being a mainstay by mid century”. This is news to me, the UK government has consistently denied any plans to build any.

There is no doubt of the importance of breeder technology to the nuclear industry. The overwhelming majority of uranium found on earth is in the form of the isotope 238 which is not fissile. In addition some plutonium is formed in normal water cooled reactors. This and leftover uranium should be recycled. “Making” U238 fissile and recycling from spent fuel would give thousands of years of nuclear material and is known as “closing the fuel cycle”. No one has managed to do this completely and again our reviewers claim that a few percentage of fuel in use comes from recycling strikes us as not an overwhelming sign of success. As we wrote in the book the MOX plant (for recycling fuel) in Cumbria closed after a leak. There are no plans to reopen it, although there been talk of building another one!

This leads neatly on to the last major criticism that of the “moral issues” we raised. These are apparently “… either misplaced (applying more strongly to alternatives) or irrelevant.”. Most of what we have written in “No oil in the lamp” on nuclear power has been borne out by events. This includes the issue of waste, the biggest moral issue of the lot. We are saddling hundreds of future generations with something that is highly dangerous, needs monitoring and guarding over this period of time. If this is not a major moral issue (and one of stewardship of God’s world) then I cannot see what is? This is of great concern to people even those used to living with radioactivity, Cumbria County council rejected being the site for an underground storage facility recently, meaning what to do with UK’s waste is back to square one.

Our reviewer was clearly unhappy with our stance. “As treatment of an energy option which provides about 13% of world electricity in 31 countries it is beyond contempt.” Nuclear is still a major but declining player in 2011 it produced just over 12% of electricity in 29 countries according to the BP 2012 Statistical energy review. Nuclear electricity production peaked in 2006 according to the same source and is declining by about 4% a year. This looks likely to continue. After Fukushima a number of governments have either phased out existing reactors and banned new build. China whose government that does not have to court public opinion, is the only country pressing ahead with a major program (as much as the rest of the world put together). Some reactors are being built in Eastern Europe and notoriously in Finland and France. Meanwhile as reported on this blog wind and solar capacity is surging ahead everywhere. New nuclear capacity is not been added at a higher rate than for renewables for many years and this is not going to change.

Finally, surprisingly our reviewer makes no mention of two of our other criticisms, cost and timing. These will be covered in a second blog post.

[1] For example 3-28 table 3.11 and “Data from the non destructive (PIFAG) and destructive (ANL-E dissolution) examinations for fuel loading were compared to assess the accuracy of the PIFAG and to demonstrate breeding; results showed the Fissile Inventory Ratio (ratio of the fissile inventory at EOL versus beginning-of-life) was 1.01, which included fissile inventory gains in the reflector rods.” Fuel Summary Report: Shippingport Light Water Breeder Reactor 2002.

Data is almost impossible to obtain for plutonium breeders.  However, the design briefs are available and all suggest a design breeding gain of 0.2.  This is not enough to breed sufficient plutonium to seed a new reactor on any time scale.  The fact that the data has not been released suggests that the breeding was less successful than the design.

Neil

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