Introduction: History of nuclear power (Part 2)

So, I left off the last post with the start of commercial nuclear power testing, where did it go from there?

The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant was called ‘Yankee Rowe’ and was opened in Rowe, Massachusetts in 1960 (it operated until 1992). This facility was able to produce 250MW of electricity, and its success spurred on the uptake of nuclear technology around the world(1).

By 1972, there were commercial nuclear reactors built in Canada, France, the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan, along with those already built in Iran, Pakistan and Israel(1).

Despite a drop off in orders for new reactors during the 1970s and 1980s, global electricity production from nuclear remained at around 16-17% (1).

Following this slump, nuclear energy began to take off again, mainly due to the development of the ‘third generation’ style of nuclear reactors. The first third generation reactor was built in Japan in the late 1990s, and boasted superior safety and affordability(1).

The attributes that signify a third generation reactor include:

  • Standard (often modular) design
    • This allows for cost savings and for some parts of the structure to be built off-site
  • Longer lifespan
    • Up to 60 years
  • Reduced possibility of meltdown
    • This is achieved by including many more redundant and ‘always on’ passive safety features
  • Resistance to external damage
  • Higher efficiency of the reactor itself by:
    • Using more of the stored energy in the fuel
    • Producing less waste
    • Extending the useful life of the fuel (2)

The realisation that the world is using every increasing amounts of electricity, along with concerns for energy security and carbon emissions has also seen a spike in the amount of nuclear power being accessed around the world (1).

However the areas traditionally associated with nuclear power, the US and Russia, are not where this new demand is coming from. There has been a huge increase in uptake of nuclear power in India and Eastern Asia, where energy demands and the environmental impacts of massive coal-burning power stations are being felt (3).

China currently has 26 active nuclear power stations, with 25 more currently under construction. There are also plans for many more to be built in the future (3).

On our home turf in Australia, we still only have one (experimental) nuclear reactor, despite having 31% of the world’s uranium supply (4). There are hints of change on the horizon, with South Australia’s royal commission and increasing calls from the public for investing in non-fossil fuel alternatives.

Hopefully we will see some change in the future, but that is unlikely to happen in the current nuclear climate in Australia, with a lingering resistance to this kind of technology. And who knows, if the Greens (who steadfastly refuse to use nuclear power) continue to gain more seats in the parliament, we may not see this change for a while.

You may have noticed three glaring omissions from this brief history of nuclear power, don’t worry I haven’t forgotten.

My next post will be one where we start to look a little bit more at the nuclear controversy itself, when I discuss three events that have probably had the biggest impact on the debate of nuclear power: the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

(1) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Outline-History-of-Nuclear-Energy/

(2) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Power-Reactors/Advanced-Nuclear-Power-Reactors/

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China–Nuclear-Power/

(4) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/

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Introduction: Context for the blog

For my first real post on this blog, I thought I might outline the idea behind the blog and what you can expect in the future.

In a world where climate change is a topic almost constantly in the media, energy generation and fossil fuels are important topic in both civil and political spheres. Renewable energy solutions are important and there is much exciting science coming our way in the future. Then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power, specifically fission power, has been around for a while (a lot longer than you think, as I’ll explain in my next post) and boasts significant efficiency, cost and safety (yes, safety) benefits over other non-renewable energy sources (1).

Despite this, nuclear power remains a controversial topic worldwide, and especially in Australia. Disasters such as the infamous Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as lesser known incidents, such as the Sellafield fire in the UK reinforce the negative associations of nuclear power. Atomic energy of any sort has this negative association, and this is probably due to the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the above ground testing in the USA, and the Pacific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and all the negative outcomes associated with these events.

But all is not bad with nuclear power. In fact, a recent study showed that nuclear fission is significantly safer than coal power, despite the three major nuclear incidents of the past 70 years. The paper published by NASA (2), showed that nuclear power was responsible for preventing an average 76,000 deaths between 2000-2009, and an estimated 1.8 million deaths before 2000, because less coal power was needed.

The controversy surrounding nuclear power is one fraught with emotion and complex discussions of risk vs. reward. In Australia we currently have no commercial power stations, and only one small research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). However, we also have the majority of the world’s uranium ore, with current estimates at 31% of the world’s supply (we are the third largest producer of uranium after Canada and Kazakhstan) (3).

Having this valuable resource and not making use of it seems a bit counter intuitive, and there has been multiple attempts to allow nuclear power in Australia, all of which were unsuccessful. However, the nuclear landscape in Australia is still lively, with South Australia announcing a Royal Commission into nuclear power generation, in response to the current economic contraction.

Nuclear power remains contentious and I hope to delve deep into the controversy in Australia and around the world of the next 10 weeks. First I will start with a bit of history, of nuclear power itself, and the controversies and social movements that have grown up around it. After this, I hope to flesh out the controversy, identify the key players, their impacts and motviations, and really get to the core of the nuclear power issue. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the blog, please comment below.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

(1) http://www.nei.org/Master-Document-Folder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Quick-Facts-Nuclear-Energy-in-America

(2) http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/