Thursday 26 October 2017

#293 Can nuclear energy solve all our problems?

This morning I logged onto a chat site. Fizzfan, my only follower, couldn't comment and I wanted to see if anyone could. Getting chat site people to even listen to you is like waiting for Marmite to drip but I found one, who commented. Then another, plus myself. I checked the comment code too. It was just the same, except I'd changed the font recently.

If anyone reads this and has an iPad, can you make a comment to test that it works please?

In order to rebalance my karma from asking a favour on the chat site, I decided to grant one. I got asked to write a post about nuclear energy. Are you ready? Ok.

I used to be very impressed with the French set-up. 58 reactors outputting 76% of the country's power, the highest in the world. If you want to know about nuclear power, go ask a French person. Not only does their government-backed electricity company deliver power to la population Français at some of the lowest prices in Europe, they're also one of the biggest exporters in the EU. Sacré bleu!

Then in 2011 Fukushima happened. Mon dieu! Given that some of France's reactors are forty years old and situated on the coast, or atop fault lines, had they not better don their thinking berets and come up with an alternative? That's exactly what their government has been doing. This year, it was announced that the country might disable around a third of its plants over the next ten years. However, the decision to do so wasn't prompted by safety concerns but by the increasing feasibility of renewables.

The plummeting cost of wind and solar power are increasingly making large-scale environmentally-friendly juice generation attractive to investors on a level that we've never seen before. Earlier this year, Germany signed off on two off-shore wind farms, expected to operate without subsidies, while even over in the USA, AKA. "frack country", we've seen the emergence of one or two solar farms, where hundreds of mirrors reflect sunlight towards a central pillar, in which some special chemistry happens, which generates heat, which boils water, which drives turbines and blablabla. Long story short, governments like France are now choosing renewables, not just on a hippie basis but actually because it's cheaper than building more nuclear plants. Poor Homer.

Fossil fuels won't go away overnight. Experts generally predict that coal will go first, then oil, followed lastly by gas due to its relative cleanliness. Despite Elon Musk's intention to dominate the auto industry by frantically becoming one of the world's largest manufacturers of lithium cell batteries (those things that power your phone. They'll be powering cars soon) oil reserves will be valuable for sometime to come and investment in fracking technology continues. Meanwhile the president believes in climate change about as much as he believes in the Loch Ness Monster. Give it a decade. Trump will be gone and the commercial advantage of switching suppliers to mother nature will be sufficiently pronounced that the White House will be fitted with so many solar panels, they'll have to start calling it the Sort Of Blue Slash Grey House.

That is until nuclear makes a comeback.

Deep in the south of France (where else?) a 20 billion Euro reactor is being built to one day prove the feasibility of nuclear fusion. Long heralded as one day being the potential answer to all the world's energy needs, a European consortium has been funding research into how to get four hydrogen atoms to take part in some sort of sordid orgy and give birth to some helium since about 2007. In doing so, the consortium will be faithfully carrying the fusion research torch along the next leg of its journey. That journey started all the way back in the 1920s when a British physicist first discovered that it might be possible to obtain energy from fusion reactions due to the atomic properties of the elements involved.

It's not uncommon for headlines to tout the arrival of fusion power by as soon as the 2030s however the scientific community in general estimates it's most likely to be sometime in the second half of the century. By then, renewables should be pretty well established and the next generation of nuclear reactors will face all the same economic hurdles during their development as wind and solar have, however the potential of fusion has always been that it will be so powerful as to render most other power sources incomparable. One day. In theory.

By that point, if I'm still knocking around as a dirty old man, I'll be more worried about my own personal energy levels than what powers the national grid but it seems likely that nuclear will still have a role to play.

Thank you.


Alex said...


Profound Familiarity said...

Thanks Alex! So now two of my friends have made comments using iPads, yet Fizz is able to comment on Cath's blog, which means it's something about the combination of Fizz's iPad and my blog that's preventing her from commenting. When I'm next near a computer shop, I'll try and find an iPad to play with. In the meantime, I'm not sure there's much more I can do.

Fizzfan said...

I have a feeling this will work because I’ve just seen the I’m not a Robot thingy again.....

Fizzfan said...


Fizzfan said...

I’ve thought like forever, or years n years, what’s the hold up on getting completely stuck into renewables. Harnessing natural energies like the sun, wind and even tides seems the only way forward. But now you’re talking about nuclear fusion and I’m thinking OK but will it still cause catastrophic death if one goes boom?
If it will, then I’m still not a fan:)
PS Thanks for tweaking your whatever so I can ramble on again :))

Profound Familiarity said...

Cool, cool. Yes that's a relief.

I read that because fusion reactions are inherently very fragile, which is why they're so hard to create in the first place, any shock to the system and everything just stops. There's no risk of a meltdown like with fission.

I wasn't sure what a meltdown was, so I looked it up and apparently fission reactions require a constant flow of water to keep the fuel rods at the right temperature. If anything interrupts that, the rods overheat, melt the container they're in and radiation spills out.

Some of the equipment and processes could be used for manufacturing nuclear weapons but would require particular materials to be processed over time, which according to Wikipedia aren't otherwise necessary for power generation and could be detected easily enough.

Solar and wind seem much simpler and less risky though.

Fizzfan said...

If there’s no risk of explosions or radiation, it sounds good......even a bit magical.
I guess I like renewables because the source is ever present and free......It just seems to make ever lasting sense.

Profound Familiarity said...

Yeah it does seem like the stuff of fantasy.