Europeans clash over nuclear energy


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Even as construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is nearing completion in nuclear friendly France, their German neighbors have declared all nuclear energy technology to be “dangerous.” Moreover, the Germans, along with Austria, Portugal, Denmark, and Luxembourg, are loudly objecting to a proposal by the European Commission to allow nuclear technology (and natural gas) to remain part of a “climate friendly” future.

The EU proposal is part of an effort to create an “EU Taxonomy”a classification system to establish a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities. This system, the EU says, is critical for meeting climate and energy targets for 2030 and reaching objectives of the European green deal. The proposal concludes: “It is necessary to recognise that the fossil gas and nuclear energy sectors can contribute to the decarbonisation of the Union’s economy.”

The decision whether to include nuclear and natural gas (even as a “transition” fuel) is to France, Finland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and possibly other member states essential to achieving environmental goals without overly burdening society. Including these two fuels would enable companies and investors to fund climate friendly nuclear and natural gas projects to keep industry afloat and reduce reliance on “dirtier” fuels that remain in use.

Here’s the rub: If a majority of the 27 EU members agree to include nuclear and natural gas as part of a “sustainable” energy future, that view will become law across the EU in 2023. The action would also count as a direct recommendation to financial markets to invest in nuclear plants in EU countries. That could fly in the face of national anti-nuclear mandates.

Why, one might ask, is the EU even considering such a controversial move (other than economic and energy concerns)? How about science? The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in April 2020 released a report stating that nuclear energy is a safe, low-carbon energy source that is comparable to wind and hydropower in minimizing climate change.

The EU report acknowledged that that EU and its member states have created the kind of comprehensive regulatory framework – one that oversees safety and environmental impacts –that is necessary for nuclear energy to be safe. Detailed analyses of the impacts of nuclear energy revealed no science-based evidence that it does more harm to human health or the environment than other electricity technologies that support climate change mitigation.

The report did caution that management of radioactive waste, including its safe, secure disposal, is also a must if nuclear is to be labeled “sustainable.” But, they also agreed, there is broad scientific and technical consensus that disposal of high-level, long-lived radioactive waste in deep geologic formations is an appropriate and safe means of isolating it from the biosphere for very long time frames. Such facilities already exist in the EU.

None of this matters, of course, to the nations that have virtuously abandoned nuclear energy despite its sizable energy outputs, very small footprint (for both generation and disposal), and very low “carbon pollution.”

Germany’s Environment Minister Svenja Schulze proclaimed, “Nuclear power cannot be a solution in the climate crisis. It is too risky too slow, and too expensive….” Her Austrian counterpart, Leonore Gewessler, agreed, positing that, “Just because something is not quite so bad doesn’t mean it’s good.” Nevertheless, the Germans intend to rely heavily on natural gas, knowing their current “renewable” energy portfolio is woefully inadequate today.

Meanwhile, the German economy is in shambles, with inflation hitting a 29-year high. No mind, said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who pledged his nation will move ahead to phase out coal and nuclear energy despite fast-rising energy prices. Nuclear power, he reiterated, makes no economic sense given the high cost of storing nuclear waste.

France, oui, Germany, nein, will not go well for a united Europe (even one without the UK). Why not review emerging nuclear technologies to see whether lower cost, safer disposal technologies can partner with nuclear’s low-carbon and low-footprint plusses to convert even the pinkest of greens? Shouldn’t the facts matter?

Texas A & M University reported last month that they found the key underlying factors that cause radiation damage to nuclear reactors by using a combination of physics-based modeling and advanced simulations. This discovery, they assert, provides insights into designing more radiation-tolerant, high-performance materials.

But such materials already exist. Wired reported on the development of “an accident-proof reactor” that operates using “triso” [tristructural isotropic] fuel. Triso is made from a mixture of low-enriched uranium and oxygen surrounded by three alternating layers of graphite and silicon carbide. Each tiny particle has a layered shell that protects the uranium inside from melting under even the most extreme reactor conditions.

Triso fuel can withstand reactor temperatures as high as 3,200o F, far hotter than even the next-generation, high-temperature reactors, which top out under 2,000o F. In a recent two-week test, not a single triso coating failed once. This fuel, therefore, is far safer than using old nuclear technologies that rely on fuel control rods to control the fission rate in the core. Triso fuel opens the door for smaller reactors because it carries its own containment mechanism.

At current production levels, triso is a bit expensive. Turning raw uranium into triso requires treating the uranium with chemicals to turn it into gel-like beads. The beads are then put into a furnace and injected with gases that break down in the oven, depositing thin layers of graphite and silicon carbide around the uranium kernel.

The two American companies – BWXT and X-energy – currently producing triso fuel have, under a contract with the Department of Defense, have developed a small, mobile (75 megawatt) triso-fed nuclear reactor for remote military bases [with downstream commercial applications, of course]. If the reactor design, which is currently under Nuclear Regulatory Council review, wins approval, the companies would likely step up triso production, lowering its cost and making these new, modular nuclear reactors much more competitive.

Attitudes can only change when people’s fears are assuaged. But science, not superstition, should be guiding EU (and American) energy policy. Real-world experiments and results should count for more than computer-generated modeling, which is easily manipulated and often overlooks critical factors.

As the EU prepares to vote on the proposed EU Taxonomy, the pro-nuclear and pro-natural gas nations appear to be forming an alliance against the climate purists. But the outcome, and the specifics, remains uncertain. A final draft of the proposal, one that reflects the comments (and demands for revisions) by member states and “expert” consultants, is due soon. Once the draft is approved, the European Parliament will have four months to approve or reject the final text.

The future of Europe, and perhaps of nuclear energy in the West, is at stake. Perhaps the outcome will be determined by low winter temperatures and high energy prices. But would we not be the wiser for looking at the real-world status of nuclear technology, which has also gotten “cleaner” since it was first introduced over half a century ago.

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* This article was originally published here

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