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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 29, 2017
Jeffrey Sommers
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: Real Threats More Serious Than Fake News Trafficked by Media
David Kowalski
Does Washington Want to Start a New War in the Balkans?
Patrick Cockburn
Bloodbath in West Mosul: Civilians Being Shot by Both ISIS and Iraqi Troops
Ron Forthofer
War and Propaganda
Matthew Stevenson
Letter From Phnom Penh
James Bovard
Peanuts Prove Congress is Incorrigible
Thomas Knapp
Presidential Golf Breaks: Good For America
Binoy Kampmark
Disaster as Joy: Cyclone Debbie Strikes
Peter Tatchell
Human Rights are Animal Rights!
George Wuerthner
Livestock Grazing vs. the Sage Grouse
Jesse Jackson
Trump Should Form a Bipartisan Coalition to Get Real Reforms
Thomas Mountain
Rwanda Indicts French Generals for 1994 Genocide
Clancy Sigal
President of Pain
Andrew Stewart
President Gina Raimondo?
Lawrence Wittner
Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?
March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS’s Losses in Syria and Iraq Will Make It Difficult to Recruit
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer Bernie Morphs Into Public Option Dean
Gregory Barrett
Can Democracy Save Us?
Dave Lindorff
Budget Goes Military
John Heid
Disappeared on the Border: “Chase and Scatter” — to Death
Mark Weisbrot
The Troubling Financial Activities of an Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate
Robert Fisk
As ISIS’s Caliphate Shrinks, Syrian Anger Grows
Michael J. Sainato
Democratic Party Continues Shunning Popular Sanders Surrogates
Paul Bentley
Nazi Heritage: the Strange Saga of Chrystia Freeland’s Ukrainian Grandfather
Christopher Ketcham
Buddhism in the Storm
Thomas Barker
Platitudes in the Wake of London’s Terror Attack
Mike Hastie
Insane Truths: a Vietnam Vet on “Apocalypse Now, Redux”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail