on September 13th, 2007

Dear Colleague

Two things today:

1. Thanks so much for your ongoing stream of comments – every week, I typically get over 20 thoughtful and interesting comments from the 80,000 odd engineers and techies throughout the world who receive this note.. Please keep them coming. I really am grateful for your interest and enthusiasm. Please forward to all your compadres. Thank you !

2. Currently grinding in a tiny turbo prop over the Great Australian Outback, made me wonder about this vast region as a waste storage area for nuclear waste. Probably much to the odd scattered sheep station owner and Aborigine’s horror. But it is important to try and take a dispassionate view of nuclear power now due to the shortage of time available. There is no doubt that nuclear power lost most of its credibility some 20 years ago with the massive Chernobyl disaster pouring radiation into the atmosphere  along with the Seven (or Three – I can never remember ?) Mile Island (Pennsylvania) reactor going into melt down . Since then, no one wanted to touch it and the past 20 years have seen enormous wastage of taxpayers’ money with tens of billions spent on bailing out lossmaking nuclear power companies.

But in the past few years, with the challenges of climate change, interest has quickened with America having a flood of applications (20 odd) for new plants, Finland building a reactor and Britain moving to revive nuclear power. This is besides the myriad of others such as South Africa developing new plants. Even green-oriented Australia has jumped on board, with the nation’s leadership (admittedly, perhaps the last hurrah for John Howard, prime minister before he is overwhelmed by the Tsunami like Labor party) saying this is the only way forward.

On the positive side, nuclear power makes sense with most of the world’s oil and gas in the hands of shaky or hostile governments and most of the world’s uranium in nice (an irritating choice of word, I do confess) neighbourhoods such as Australia and Canada. The past decade has seen simpler, cheaper and considerably safer designs for nuclear power plants. And lower maintenance and repair costs. Unnecessary shutdowns (apart from the Cape Town reactor which I experienced first hand last year) seem to be a thing of the past with average availability moving from 50% (1950”s) to over 90% today . Gas fired power stations have exploded in popularity. Diametrically opposite to nuclear, gas power stations are cheap to build but expensive to run. And as gas provides the extra power beyond base power, high gas prices set the electricity price. So nuclear plants have become amazingly cost effective and profitable. Coal fired plants pour out pollution whereas nuclear ones have no greenhouse gases to speak of. Wind and solar offers perhaps the best – most palatable solution, but the higher capital costs make it economically tricky at this stage.

On the negative side, nuclear waste is difficult to dispose of. How can one plan for a million years storage of the stuff ? And naturally with the increasing availability of nuclear material, the doomsday scenario of some madman detonating a nuclear device is just too horrible to contemplate. Which we know all too well with the recent New York Twin Towers attack that this is a is a distinct possibility. And there are still some risks with the new nuclear plant designs, which financiers are rather twitchy about. And as engineers, we know, that there will be numerous design and operating wrinkles to work through. This is the nature of the (engineering) beast.

After being aggressively against it (naturally), faced with the horrendous prospect of massive amounts of CO2 pouring into the atmosphere, the environmental lobby has become somewhat divided on the issue of nuclear power and the latest polls indicate that public opinion is moving rapidly in favour of it. I must confess that with my poor knowledge of the topic, I am reluctant to acclaim nuclear power at this stage. Or to gain say it. Conveniently you will exclaim; another fence sitter. But I do have a quickening interest. In common with most engineers I was horrified by the buccaneering approach to engineering many of the world’s nuclear sites. But now with the advent of climate change issues, dramatically improved engineering and design, poor location of oil and gas, I don’t know that we have much choice.

What should we do as engineering professionals about nuclear power ?

·        First of all, research and debate the topic vigorously as much as possible to understand what the pro’s and con’s are

·        Put on training and education initiatives in the area to highlight the issues in an objective and informed way

·        Come up with an objective assessment

·        Then harness the engineering leadership to drive this objective assessment forwards to the politicians to act cost effectively

·        Finally, to look seriously at the opportunities for engineering in the area – it is growing fast and provides enormous opportunities for safe and clean engineering

And as the Economist put it: The nuclear industry needs to persuade people that it is clean, cheap and safe enough to rely on without a government crutch. If it can’t, it doesn’t deserve a second chance.

Yours in engineering learning


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