By Mike Cronin
Q: How is the nuclear power industry like shaving cream?
A: We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but a little background is in order. According to the video above, the “energy density” from nuclear fission (splitting atoms of heavy radioactive elements, like uranium and plutonium) is a million times greater than from chemical reactions, such as occur with conventional explosives or burning fossil fuels. A nuclear reactor perhaps the size of your thumb could power your car. Yet there is a huge fear factor with nuclear power because nuclear fission is also the same energy source in atomic weapons, and because of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
We needn’t be so fearful. Check out these facts:
The nuclear energy industry is safer than the coal industry. As of Februray 2013, no one had died due to radiation poisoning from Fukushima. In fact, despite the deaths that occurred at Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry is the safest of all of the major power generating industries in terms of deaths per terawatt hour generated. Here’s the breakdown (retrieved from http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/191326/deaths-nuclear-energy-compared-other-causes ):
Energy Source Mortality Rates; Deaths/yr/TWh
Coal – world average, 161
Coal – China, 278
Coal – USA, 15
Oil – 36
Natural Gas – 4
Biofuel/Biomass – 12
Peat – 12
Solar/rooftop – 0.44-0.83
Wind – 0.15
Hydro – world, 0.10
Hydro – world*, 1.4
Nuclear – 0.04
That’s right: even solar and wind energy are more hazardous to workers than nuclear power.
So if nuclear power is safer and more energy-dense than any of these other forms of power, why aren’t we using more of it, and burning less fossil fuels? Cost, mainly. Because nuclear power scares people, and because a reactor safety failure can lead to radioactive contamination, the industry is heavily regulated and plants are very expensive to build. (By the way, the coal industry releases far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the nuclear industry!)
But some of that problem is due to the business model followed by the industry. Power plant reactors are designed to use radioactive uranium or plutonium isotopes in their cores. Very little of the uranium that occurs naturally in the earth is of the required isotope. The necessary isotope can be made by “enriching” regular uranium through various processes, all of which lead to a very expensive (on par with gold or platinum in price per ounce) final product. Plutonium doesn’t even occur in nature, but it can be man-made, or “bred,” in nuclear reactors using enriched uranium…for about the same price per ounce. Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be made “weapons grade” and used to make the cores of atomic bombs. In fact, the weapon industry, inaugurated by the Manhattan Project, gave rise to the power industry as we know it today.
So how is the nuclear power industry like the shaving industry? Some time ago, Gillette came upon the idea of selling razor handles cheaply, at or below cost, or even giving them away, and charging prices with high profit margins for shaving consumables (disposable blades, creams, and gels). A perpetual profit engine was born.
Nuclear power companies often work the same way. They might build a power plant for a utility for little or no profit, but then reap a profit stream via the consumables (enriched uranium and plutonium) end of the business.
There is another business model that might make nuclear power much more palatable to the average customer, if the corporations in the industry could be convinced it would be as profitable. It involves using a much more widely available radioactive material to generate the fission reaction: thorium. In this model, the thorium would be mixed with fluoride and circulated in the reactor as a molten salt. The acronym the industry uses for such a system is LFTR (“lifter”). The benefits are worth considering:
Thorium is far more plentiful and far cheaper to obtain than uranium or plutonium
The reactor can’t “runaway” and “melt down” through its own containment – the fuel is already molten, but it’s at ~700 degrees, not the thousands of degrees needed to melt through steel and concrete
The fuel can be used much more efficiently (there would be far less radioactive waste)
A power plant that used it would not be cheap, but it wouldn’t need to cost any more than a standard nuclear plant
The reactor operates at ambient pressures, which means the plant doesn’t need expensive pressure containment “vessels,” such as the ones that failed at Fukushima
There is increasing debate about using the LFTR model in the nuclear power generation industry. It may or may not be a better system, but to have a chance at replacing the current standard, proponents will have to convince the industry that they can make as much or more profit from LFTR than they can with traditional reactors. They may get two boosts from unexpected quarters: magnets and China.
Not just any magnets, but strong, rare-earth magnets made from a metal element called neodymium. Neodymium magnets are used in such applications as microphones, speakers, and computer hard drives. Where thorium may be plentiful and cheap (compared to the desired uranium isotope), neodymium is relatively scarce and expensive…but it is often found in the same geological areas (in other words, a thorium mine might produce some significant quantities of neodymium as well, according to an extended version of the video above). China currently has a corner on the world market for neodymium, and China, and a few other countries, are looking into building LFTR nuclear plants. Switching the US nuclear power generating paradigm from uranium to thorium might not generate the same kind of profitable consumables stream, but obtaining the neodymium might make up for the loss – and break China’s near-monopoly on neodymium to boot.