FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Another Feeble-Headed Nuke Drops Dead

by HARVEY WASSERMAN

As the “reactor renaissance” desperately demands new billions from a lame duck Congress, one of its shining stars has dropped dead. Other much-hyped “new generation” plans may soon die with it.

For years “expert” reactor backers have touted the “Pebble Bed” design as an “inherently safe” alternative to traditional domed light water models. Now its South African developers say they’re done pouring money into it.

The Pebble Bed’s big idea was to create a critical mass of uranium particles coated with silicon carbide and encased in graphite. These intensely radioactive “pebbles” would seethe in a passive container, cooled by helium. Without the need for a containment dome, the super-heated mass would produce both heat and electricity. Touted as needing no back-up emergency systems to prevent a major disaster, the plan was to mass-produce these “smaller, simpler” reactors for use throughout the industrial world.

Pebble Bed technology originated in Germany. But it was adopted and developed by the government of South Africa. For some it was a source of pride that a “developing” nation had become a significant player in the so-called nuclear renaissance.

But the South African government has now cut off funding for the project. Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan has told the National Assembly that “sobering realities” included the lack of working demonstration model, the lack of customers, the lack of a major investment partner and the impending demand for $4.2 billion in new investment capital. As deadlines consistently slipped, Westinghouse withdrew from the project in May.

South African officials say the US and China are still working on the technology. But economic realities make any tangible future Pebble Bed as a major source of new energy largely imaginary. Critics also worry that without a containment dome, the pebble beds would be vulnerable to small groups of terrorists with simple shell-lobbing mortars. And that critical metal components would not perform as needed under the intense stresses of heat and radiation.

The death of the Pebble Bed has considerable significance. For nearly two decades reactor backers have counted it in the imaginary fleet of new generation reactors coming to save us. Its alleged bright future would make it just one of the many new nuclear technologies that would render solar and wind energy unnecessary.

This anti-green arsenal has also included fast breeder reactors, which would magically create new fuel from used fuel. Canada’s heavy water CanDu. Thorium reactors, which would burn a radioactive element other than uranium. Fusion reactors, which would mimic the gargantuan power of the sun. The AP 1000, new from Westinghouse. The European (or Evolutionary) Power Reactor, new from France’s Areva. And a whole fleet of “Fourth Generation” designs which are unproven and often wildly impractical.

Like older proposed projects such as nuclear-powered aircraft, homes built of uranium and nuclear-tipped anti-ballistic missiles, all have run afoul of reality. None offer a realistic solution to the problems of waste or terrorism, not to mention cost, heat emissions and greenhouse gas production in all but the fission/fusion portion of the process. The first big breeder, Fermi I, nearly exploded in Monroe, Michigan, in 1966, threatening to irradiate the entire Great Lakes region. Today’s models are extremely dangerous, dirty and have been widely rejected outside France and Japan, where they barely operate.

Canada has been unable to find buyers for its CanDu design, and has put its own Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd., up for sale. Thorium reactors are unproven, with no prototypes. Fusion reactors are periodically hyped and always “twenty years away.” The AP1000 and EPR face major regulatory, safety and financial hurdles.

Meanwhile a “Fourth Generation” of proposed reactors is theoretical and all over the map. As Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service puts it:

“The Pebble Bed has failed for the same reason all the other new reactor designs ultimately will fail: they are too expensive compared to the competition. Renewables and energy efficiency are cheap and getting cheaper; nuclear is expensive and getting more so.”

Sensing an unending march of hotly hyped but feeble headed new design failures, the US industry is now pushing hard to get its aging fleet—originally designed to operate 30 to 40 years—licensed to run for 60 to 80 years. But not one of 104 US reactors has a containment dome designed to withstand a serious jet crash. Reactor builders now say they’ll put stronger domes on the new models, but prefer not to discuss cost or logistical realities.

The Pebble Bed’s backers could not find private investors, and the South African government finally got tired of footing the bill. If/when that happens here—and the sooner the better—the Solartopian technologies of true green power and efficiency will finally get their day.

Then the “too cheap to meter” six-decade Peaceful Atom fantasy, with its fast breeding corps of failed new designs, can take its final rest in the very dead pebble bed.

HARVEY WASSERMAN, an early co-founder of the grassroots “No Nukes” movement, is senior adviser to Greenpeace USA, and author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth.

Harvey Wasserman wrote SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth. His Green Power & Wellness Show is at www.prn.fm

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
stclair
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andrew Tillett-Saks
Labor’s Political Stockholm Syndrome: Why Unions Must Stop Supporting Democrats Like Clinton
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee’s Journey from Izmir to Greece
John Laforge
Wild Turkey with H-Bombs: Failed Coup Raise Calls for Denuclearization
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail