Nuclear energy is green, it’s safe, Heard asserts


Saudi Gazette

AN environmentalist, who was a keen participant in the recent ATOMEXPO-2017 IX International Forum in Moscow, would be an unlikely proponent of nuclear energy being green energy. But so was the case when the forthright Australian called on the world to consider adding nuclear energy to its energy mix, such that it could create a global net impact that would help conserve our, land, water and forests while overcoming the possible energy crunch the world would likely face as it heads to a 10 billion population in the 21st century.

Ben Heard, founder and executive director of Bright New World (Australia), and who moderated in the panel discussion: “Environmental safety of the nuclear industry, strategy, regulation and technologies”, spoke to Saudi Gazette on a wide spectrum of topics that’s linked to nuclear energy and the environment at the forum — an annual event held on the initiative of Rosatom State Corporation and acknowledged as a major international exhibition and business venue to discuss the current state of affairs in the nuclear industry and shape the trends for its further development.

His take on the need for nuclear energy being part of a country’s energy mix was simple. It is safe, it is green, it’s technology is getting advanced and if it can be had for cheap then nuclear energy is up there as an option for power generation.

“One of the main thing is the technology to build desalination plant, in very dry areas. So the use of nuclear power is clean energy that’s needed to make that water. So you need that energy source. Also it uses very little land, and if you want to preserve land that can be used for agriculture or simply for other purposes — even for reserves — so that land could be used efficiently. Hence I’m very keen to see nuclear power world over in the energy mix of the future in order to help and sustain the environment,” he said.

He emphatically stated that nuclear power plants (NPP) have the best safety record, even though many people do believe that if you have technology then you are open to cyber attacks. “What we know about data that this is the safest and a real clean energy source we have in the world. It is safer than all other energy sources for two reasons. Accidents are very rare and also very important is that it does not pollute, as it does not contribute to dirty air. We as people need to have this concern for our environment. We need to have a discussion on the energy that provides clean air, is safest and has some smart technology. Nuclear technology is changing and we really need to think what and where our future is, and not be afraid of what it holds. If you look at the future we need is the right mix, and nuclear technology is one of the options,” he stressed.

He also was forthright about the misconceptions held on radiation. “The truth of radiation is complicated and what is important to understand is that the nuclear reaction happens in a sealed unit. And inside that sealed unit, it is very hot and very dangerous, just like inside a furnace when you are burning something. Yes it is a hazard, definitely, but the fuel is solid, it is not liquid and it is not gas, it is not going anywhere and it stays exactly in the same place for two years or four years of operations and when it is finished it gets moved out and is still in the same place. You then cover it concrete and keep it.

“Here’s a good way of looking at it, here’s a lion but in a cage. It is dangerous. But it is controlled now. The same way with radiation, it is dangerous but we manage the risks. There is a hazard, particularly freshly used fuel is hazardous for the first 5 years and then it comes down very fast and is not so dangerous any more, but we manage it very effectively. Then you have coal, where all the waste goes everywhere, we don’t even try to capture it, polluting the atmosphere, making people sick.

“And radiation, if you are burning black coal, there’s lots of uranium in it, lots of thorium in it, that’s going into the atmosphere. So we need to keep the comparison clever. If we only look at nuclear, we can convince ourselves in stages. Let’s focus on that. What we have to do is to compare our options. This is the hazard of nuclear, this is the hazard of coal. Then decide,” Heard stated.

On the question of fuel and fuel recycling, Heard was quick to say that people think that uranium is scarce, but that’s not true. There’s lots of uranium in the world and Australia has lots of it. So mining for the fuel source could be expensive and needs to be done properly.

But he was all for a smart, collated and developed industry to mange used fuel, even recycle it. “I think there’s a great industry for someone in the world to manage used fuel. Part of the problem in the world today with nuclear is the backend of the fuel cycle with no service providers. So large nuclear countries like Russia, US and France have their solution. Now around the world there are small to medium service providers and it is very inefficient. For, one of the problems is for everyone of the nuclear nations to own a deep nuclear repository, that’s a waste of money for it costs the same to have an underground repository for five or fifty. So it would be much smarter if one or two countries in the world become service providers and take the nuclear fuel from countries with four or five reactors. And they manage the fuel for a fee, and recycle it and bury it underground for safe disposal. I think, in the future, we would be needing a multinational solution for this,” he said.

“Open spaces and dry climate in the Middle East is ideal for such repositories. We also need to have an open mind on what to do with the used fuel. Right now we believe it needs to be buried under the ground. In fact dry storage works very well, and we can recycle the material after 100 years. Once the countries get together on this, we should put in place a service that’s flexible on what we are going to do with that material. Because burying all of it may not be the best thing to do. It may be better to recycle 95% of it, and maybe reduce the half-life of that material. Then we bury only a small amount. What I want is for nations to opt for nuclear knowing someone would provide this service, the service would be regulated, and the person would use smart technology to keep flexibility of what we do with that material. Countries that are still developing can use nuclear in their energy mix, knowing that service for the backend in available,” Heard added.

On heat being a factor in affecting reactors, Heard was of the view that it would not be a factor. “Definitely not, as this is one of the great benefits of nuclear power. It is very versatile everywhere in the world. It is very robust, and very, very clean. Now one single point of importance from the environment regulation point of view if the temperature of the water, so you’ll be cooling water used in the area. There’ll be environmental regulation for the water that comes for ocean, reactor deployed and returns. But that’s regulation that needs to be managed. But it is no different from coal-fired, gas-fired, oil, solar or thermal power stations. But that’s a challenge that’s universe, but in hot areas, there are no barriers for the use of nuclear power stations,” he said.

“If you build a reactor far from the community then you imply by this action that it is not safe. Build the plant near the city, as that’s were the demand is, fairly close to water for we need it to cool the reactors, and we want it fairly close to the transmission lines so we could connect to the grid. That’s it. Apart from that give the communities the option. It will create jobs benefitting your community. Don’t begin by saying we’ll build it at a distant. So community, water and connectivity are the key, not distance, Heard said when asked where should one build a reactor.

On cash, or the lack of it, and the mindset of people, heard said: “It is a big challenge. The cash part is a big problem. It is an uphill battle, honestly it is one of the biggest problems many face. So much so, in my talks with other green bodies, I’ve found that they are not talking about safety any more, they are not talking about radiation anymore, they’re talking economics. It seems that Western organizations almost completely are going away from large in point is Westinghouse who is struggling in US. All of the opportunity now resides with Russia, South Korea and China soon... and I’m fine with that. For what we need is replication. We need to have a design and be able to repeat it. And South Korea is showing it in the UAE, what they have delivered in the Emirates. Very impressive and that’s the model we need. The advanced reactors are very safe, as are the older reactors. What we need is safety at a lower price. Replication, scale would bring the cost down. Once the cost argument is won, then the nations would pay more attention to the data and other things to consider the nuclear option. As long as it is expensive, it’ll be a challenge.”

Heard said that Asia and Africa are the new markets for NPPs and they are ready and equipped to handle the change. “Remember we apply special standards for nuclear, while not for other sources. Are they equipped, probably not yet, so we need to transfer of knowledge, and that’s one reason why I am very impressed by the way South Korea and Russia operate. They take a genuine interest in helping the countries build through the process. Get a regulator in place. A turnkey solution with transfer of knowledge that’s sustainable in lot of these places. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Africa can’t do it. I know the continent has problems and challenges, but I don’t believe that nuclear cannot be done it Africa. Yes it will take time.”

Heard rounded off by being optimistic with the nuclear sector’s projection of 25% growth in the next decade that would have a positive impact on environment. “If we did the net impact would be very good, as we would be replacing lots of polluting sources.”