Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Case study in anti-nuclear power FUD

I noticed it here: Tas Uni academic less than “abundantly clear” about Generation IV nuclear reactors. An article by Dr Jim Green, the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. It's purpose is to discredit pro-nuclear activist Barry Brook. It has a few misleading claims but the standout false claim is:

France has used a fast reactor to produce plutonium for weapons.

No such thing ever happened. France did have fast reactors which made plutonium, but they were never used to make nuclear bomb material. When challenged on this point, eventually a friend of the author (Dickie) narrowed down the claim:

Fact: The fast-neutron reactor Phénix, which operated at significant power level until the late 1990s, produced about 340 kg of plutonium for WMD.
- Dickie, Comment no. 17
, and sourced it to a website: International Panel of Fissile Materials. That website had 3 documents claiming Phénix made weapons grade material but only one claim mentioned 340 kg:
Global Fissile Material Report 2010, page 91

The claim begins:

To estimate the contribution of Phénix to the French stockpile of weapons plutonium, it is assumed that only the surplus plutonium—not the total amount of weapon-grade plutonium—extracted from the blankets was transferred to the weapons program.

So we're really dealing with guesswork here (to estimate, it is assumed), rather than fact, as was originally claimed. What of the guesswork? Is it likely, or even possible? No, not likely at all. There are several reasons to avoid using fast reactors to make weapons grade plutonium. First, let's figure out what ideal weapons grade plutonium contains. It is defined as being predominantly Pu-239, typically about 93% Pu-239. Additionally, three particular radionuclides pose a problem:

  • First and most important, plutonium-240, Pu-240 has a high rate of spontaneous fission, meaning that the plutonium in the device will continually produce many background neutrons, which have the potential to reduce weapon yield by starting the chain reaction prematurely.
  • Second, the isotope plutonium-238, Pu-238 decays relatively rapidly, thereby significantly increasing the rate of heat generation in the material.
  • Third, the isotope americium-241, Am-241 (which results from the 14-year half-life decay of plutonium-241 and hence builds up in reactor-grade plutonium over time) emits highly penetrating gamma rays, increasing the radioactive exposure of any personnel handling the material.
- Weapons-Grade Plutonium ... U.S. DoE

To summarize: people trying to make weapons grade plutonium want 93% Pu-239, with as little as possible Pu-238, Pu-240, and Am-241.

How to get there?

An obvious first step is to avoid fast reactors. A fast reactor has (n, 2n) reactions in addition to the normal absorption and fission reactions found in thermal reactors. To quote:

A side reaction chain also produces Pu-238:

U-238 + n -> U-237 + 2n
U-237 -> (6.75 days, beta) -> Np-237
Np-237 + n -> Np-238
Np-238 -> (2.1 days, beta) -> Pu-238

Pu-238: This isotope has a spontaneous fission rate, 1.1x10^6 fission/sec-kg (2.6 times that of Pu-240) and a very high heat output (567 W/kg!). Its very high alpha activity (283 times higher than Pu-239) makes it a much more serious source of neutron emission from the alpha -> n reaction. In high-burnup commercial reactor fuels it makes up no more than one or two percent of plutonium composition in extracted plutonium, but even so the neutron production and heating can make it very troublesome.

- Nuclear Weapons FAQ

A reactor may produce several kinds of plutonium. For example: Pu-238, Pu-239, and Pu-240, among other things. I'll concentrate on the plutonium made and particularly upon these 3 varieties. The kind required for nuclear bombs, and the two others most to be avoided. These 3 versions of plutonium are practically impossible to separate from each other. We can't use chemical means because they all have identical chemistry. We can't use physical means because they're nearly the same atomic weight. Once we've made too much Pu-238 and/or Pu-240, we must accept that our plutonium is bad for making bombs with. The smart A-bomb maker avoids Pu-238, Pu-240 and other such junk in the first place. They ensure their plutonium is nearly all Pu-239. They make plutonium under carefully controlled conditions, using thermal reactors, with slow burnups. Phénix was a fast reactor with a high burnup - the opposite of what a sensible person would choose.

Slow burnup is preferred because its plutonium has the least amount of spontaneous neutrons:

Type Composition Thermal power w/kg Spontaneous neutrons /s/g Origin Use
Weapons-grade Pu-239 with less than 8% Pu-240 2-3 60 From military 'production' reactors with metal fuel operated for production of low burn-up Pu. Purex separation. Nuclear weapons (can be recycled as fuel in fast neutron reactor or as ingredient of MOX)
Reactor-grade from high-burnup fuel 55-70% Pu-239; more than 19% Pu-240 (typically about 30-35% non-fissile Pu) 5-10 200 Comprises about 1% of used fuel from normal operation of civil nuclear reactors with oxide fuel used for electricity generation As ingredient (c. 5-8%) of MOX fuel for normal reactor
IFR-grade actinide Pu + minor actinides + U, 50% Pu fissile 80-100 300,000 From fast reactor used metal fuel by pyroprocessing recycle
- Plutonium, World Nuclear Association

Notice that two of the villains in plutonium atom bomb material are Pu-238, Pu-240. A fast reactor makes the most of this junk and a military reactor makes the least.

All this information used to find how not to make plutonium bombs has been readily available on the internet for decades. It's hard to understand how an august body such as the International Panel on Fissile Materials, with their swanky, plausible looking reports could've missed all this. It's almost as if they never did Nuclear Physics 101, but only write their reports to spread FUD. Perish the thought!

This blog has a lot of cut'n'paste in it. That's deliberate. I did it to show that you don't need a lot of know-how to decipher FUD. You just need to ask someone who knows, and do the obvious research (wikipedia)! The FUD promoted by Friends of the Earth and the International Panel on Fissile Materials misses out basic research. It begins with supposition (to estimate, it is assumed) and cross-references itself, claiming to be fact. A classic FUD technique that one.


  1. Plutonium, World Nuclear Association
  2. Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions (internet FAQ)
  3. Tas Uni academic less than “abundantly clear” about Generation IV nuclear reactors, by Jim Green
  4. Wikipedia: Weapons-grade_plutonium
  5. Global Fissile Material Report 2010, page 91
  6. "Reactor-Grade and Weapons-Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Explosives", Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives (excerpted). U.S. Department of Energy. January 1997. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  7. Dickie, Comment no. 17

Saturday, 27 June 2015

What to do with the British electricity market?

This began as a comment to a news article at Chemistry World: Austria to sue EU over UK nuclear aid. But a comment should raise only one point. I can't raise only one point because everything is interrelated.

Summary: British nuclear power is over-regulated, and the market distorted, forcing potential new nuclear power here (Hinkley C) to be the most expensive in the world. Our system of non-carbon energy rewards and subsidy is complex and raises electricity prices far more than it should. This is all the fault of British Governments who have conspired with environment campaigner designs to overprice electricity so that it's becoming a luxury good. The regulations and subsidies introduced are all bits and pieces measures: tinkering here, but ignoring the distortion it introduced there. Living in a pretend world, where they pretend there's a market when none exists. There's been no overall plan and no understanding of how regulation increases cost in unexpected ways.

The solution:

  1. Deregulate British nuclear power to enable competition for new nuclear builds.
  2. Replace current UK non-carbon subsidies with a simple unified system: Fee and Dividend.

I will argue that the problem in British electricity is two-fold.

  1. The market for nuclear power lacks competition due to over-regulation.
  2. The subsidy system is wrong.

1. Weak competition in UK Nuclear power is due to over-regulation.

  1. Only one consortia bid for the Hinkley C CfD. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build but, once built, supply inexpensive electricity. When the government began a bidding process to award the contract for difference, CfD, for new nuclear build, only two consortia entered. Possible consortia are limited to those who have a nuclear power plant design, can raise capital and have suitable experience. One consortium soon dropped out, leaving the Edf consortia with a monopoly as the only CfD bidder!
  2. The reactor design selected by Edf is, perhaps, the most expensive they could've found. The AREVA EPR is huge (1650 MWe), and over-designed. Per MWe it's nearly twice the price of a South Korean, KEPCO APR1400 (1455MWe). KEPCO are currently building their APR-1400 in the middle east for the price of USD $5 billion per reactor. The capital cost comparison: ERP: £4242/kW; APR1400: £2186/kW.
  3. The choices available to a supplier are highly constrained because it takes 5/6 years and £ millions in fees (£200 million per GDA was suggested to me) to obtain approval for a reactor design. UK Office of Nuclear Regulation, ONR, must do a Generic Design Assessment, GDA for every reactor design built in the UK. The GDA timescale is 5 to 6 years: (see page 5).
  4. This monopoly "choice" (of 1 reactor design) suits Edf. Edf and AREVA are both majority owned by the French state. AREVA also own the EPR design, and will build it. They developed the EPR together. In an ideal world an electricity provider will pick their nuclear plant design from the best solution provided by the market. Yet, there's no market here at all.
  5. There are 8 currently approved sites for new build nuclear power in Britain. These are the sites of decommissioned Magnox reactors (excepting Scottish sites where the SNP have banned new nuclear power). Each is owned by a potential nuclear plant builder and any new consortia wanting to build new nuclear power here must obtain such a site.

Five market failures lie at the feet of governments who've closed their eyes to the problems.

Two measures which could resolve this

  1. Force each new nuclear build consortium to pick their reactor from the best solutions available.
  2. Abolish the requirement for a specific UK generic design assessment.

My justifications

1. This requirement seems self-evident. For example, Edf should look at a number of compatible designs and sub-contract the build to a supplier providing the best solution.

2. At first glance, the UK ONR GDA approval process looks logical. ONR scrutinize reactor designs and make sure they're good enough for Britain. Our standards are very high. Yet ONR prefer to scrutinize designs which a peer has already approved. The preeminent ONR peer is the American nuclear regulator: NRC.

EPRUnder Review since Dec 2007, currently suspendedapproved Dec 2012
AP-1000approved Dec 2005expected approval in 2017
ABWRapproved 1997expected approval by Dec 2017
ESBWRapproved Sep 2014
APR-1400Under Review
US-APWRUnder Review

There are far more NRC approved designs available (3 modern reactors), and some of these, such as the ESBWR, are considered superior to similar types undergoing UK GDA certification, such as ABWR.

Britain gains nothing by imposing one GDA on top of another. We lose. We're forced to build the most expensive reactor design available anywhere in the world, or nothing at all. We should scrap the requirement for a specifically British GDA and simply accept that the US NRC do a thorough job. The US NRC have always taken a vanguard position in pushing through new nuclear reactor standards. Provided a new design satisfies core requirements for safety, or improves upon those requirements, it should be good enough for us. The NRC have many more GDAs under their belt than our ONR because the USA is a much larger market and acceptance by NRC is, to a degree, a gold standard. For my first recommendation to make sense, this next measure is essential. One can't select from several possible designs unless many designs are available.

2. The subsidy system is wrong.

Non-carbon energy is subsidised under 4 schemes in the UK:

  • Renewables Obligation, RO. It is only available for renewable energy.
  • Contracts for Difference, CfD. It forces government into decade long price support contracts. The Hinkley CfD is 35 years long.
  • Climate Change Levy aka 'carbon tax'. The carbon tax is now £18/tonne CO2 emitted. In electricity, it raises the price produced via fossil fuel. That increases profits for non-carbon electricity (renewable energy and nuclear power). It also increases minimum electricity prices; by about £1/MWh for each £1/tonne of tax. It hurts coal generation about twice as much as natural gas.
  • EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). This is notoriously gamed by business, and considered a sick joke by climate change campaigners.

[Hopefully I've haven't forgotten any. There are so many now, one loses track!].

The problem with subsidies is they distort the market, but some introduce worse distortions than others. Businesses will build their business model by chasing subsidy. This introduces inefficiencies into the national market. Because such businesses depend upon subsidy to keep them alive, they will lobby and fight tooth and nail to keep those subsidies going. A bad subsidy system is hard to abolish once introduced. A complex subsidy system, such as Britain has, enable businesses to play off one subsidy against another. Subsidies are gamed by business.

Most people pushing forward measures to account for fossil fuel externalities had an environmentalist mindset. It's a mindset that cares nothing for efficiency, and despises cheap, plentiful, energy because many environmentalists see energy as the problem: energy as the preeminent tool allowing humanity to harm the environment. Measures which unduly raise electricity prices are regarded as hidden bonuses by such people. As such we've ended up with an evil system of subsidies which unduly raise prices, and allow business to milk the system. With RO, environmentalists, must've thought they'd gained a major victory in pushing through their 100%-renewable energy utopia. Not quite. It lacks both legitimacy and public support. Because it only favours renewables it is illegitimate. Perhaps that illegitimacy has something to do with it's lack of public support?

The 'Fee and dividend' alternative.

In electricity, an alternative: "fee and dividend", could replace all current UK energy subsidies. It has few of the drawbacks of any of the 4 current systems.

Fee and dividend will work by charging fossil fuel electricity suppliers a fee for carbon burnt. Such a fee might be £40/tonne CO2 emitted. [ Many climate campaigners propose a tax of £75/tonne CO2. Done as Fee and Dividend instead, that would require a £75/tonne CO2 fee ]. In UK, a £40/tonne CO2 fee will raise the minimum wholesale electricity price to a floor of about £75/MWh. Any non-carbon supplier will, get this as the minimum price for their electricity. The fees raised are immediately given back to customers (to lower the actual price paid). The customer sees this 'dividend' on their bill as a refund. A fee and dividend will not raise prices by as much as a carbon tax.


Fee and dividend is simple, hard to game, does not force government into decades-long price support contracts, favours no particular technology over any other (in the same way RO do), cannot be challenged in the courts (as the Austrian Government or Greenpeace may do with the Hinkley CfD). It cannot be toyed and gamed with as ETS is. It increases electricity prices by the least amount possible while being compatible with maximum carbon dioxide reduction. It has an advantage to an environmentalist, of introducing a system to penalize fossil fuel emissions just like a carbon tax would, yet will not raise consumer electricity prices to the same degree. A £75/tonne CO2 tax looks impossible from where I sit. A £75/tonne CO2 fee in electricity generation is almost doable.


Seven criticisms are made of fee and dividend (in the link above), but many of them are clearly nonsense. Just Gish Gallup, piled on. Legitimate criticisms of fee and dividend must acknowledge the existence of externalities in energy production and seek the best means to mitigate these externalities. In other words: if you have a criticism, then what's your, proposed alternative for dealing with externalities?

One legitimate criticism may be that it would be easy to introduce for electricity generation but difficult for other fuel uses. To answer this, for a start, the UK does not need any carbon taxes on vehicle fuel because we already tax motor vehicle fuel at about 4 times the level of the proposed carbon tax! UK motorists pay the equivalent of over £300/tonne CO2 in taxes. That leaves heating and industrial fuel use as two areas to be covered for externalities.


Contracts for Difference. A complex price support mechanism
Renewables Obligation. A complex renewable energy subsidy.
Emissions Trading System. A complex carbon trading system. Shockingly easy to game.
Climate Change Levy. More complex than it need by. It may be traded off against the ETS.
Carbon tax
Climate Change Levy
Office of Nuclear Regulation. The British nuclear power regulator.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The USA's nuclear regulator.
3rd generation (Gen III) pressurized water reactor (PWR) design. Developed by Edf and AREVA.
3rd generation (Gen III) pressurized water reactor (PWR) design. Developed and designed by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO).

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

What's the real risk in a nuclear war?

Most people are very confused about nuclear war because all the information we pick up about it comes from science fiction, fantasy and dystopian culture. Being a child of the nuclear age, I can't help asking myself what's the real risk?

Nuclear bombs are powerful weapons

The data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki tell us that the real risk is immediate and proximate. Nuclear weapons are bombs of immense power. Anyone caught up in the blast radius is at major risk from the blast, the heat, and the electromagnetic (radioactive) pulse. This is all obvious.

If I survived the bombs, could I survive in the resultant nuclear wasteland and fallout?

People frequently write about a nuclear wasteland making life impossible after bombs have dropped. For example:

Three months after an atomic war, the real risk to life is barely measureable. Consider the chart showing how radioactivity decays after a nuclear bomb blast. Notice how sharply the curve falls until it almost flattens out. That's because many of the fission products produced have very short half-lives. They quickly decay into other radionuclides or inactive substances. After 2 hours activity is down to 18% of initial. Thereafter the biggest threat is from iodine-131. Iodine-131 can absorbed by the thyroid and may lead to thyroid cancer. It has a half-life of 8 days, so is thought to pose a real risk for up to 80 days. After 80 days its activity is down to just 0.1% of the initial value. The risk from iodine-131 is mainly to children and teenagers (those still growing). The way to mitigate this threat is to use iodine pills. Longer lived radionuclides such as caesium-137 and strontium-90 have half-lives of 30 years. It won't be until 300 years after the blasts that their activity is down to 0.1%. Yet these longer lived substances pose no big problem for survivors. First, longer half-lives give substances with much lower radioactivity; second, because survivors will be living in areas outside blast radii such as the countryside, suburbs, or small towns; third, because exposure to radioactivity below 100 mSv is not found to pose significant long-term harm to people. There's a radiation threshold we can tolerate. The realization of this threshold is quite recent. Prior to that, nearly all projections made for harm due to post-blast radioactivity and fallout assumed no-threshold. Modeling with no-threshold was regarded as the safe and responsible thing to do. Further, the mathematical model used, called linear no-threshold, LNT, had assumptions to make the maths as easy as possible. It was linear, had no dose threshold, and dose was considered additive. This theory turns science inside out. In place a theory deriving from evidence, LNT is a theory to make modeling as easy as possible. Field evidence doesn't support LNT. Much of the evidence outright contradicts it - showing improved health after low exposure to radiation; what is known as radiation hormesis. In short: when scientists follow the evidence they can't possibly arrive at a LNT model.

What about birth defects?

Don't worry. There's some small danger to pregnant women exposed to the electromagnetic pulse, but no danger to anyone exposed only to fallout. Read: Birth defects among the children of atomic-bomb survivors (1948-1954). Far more harm has been experienced from worrying over this. 200,000 women were persuaded to have abortions after the Chernobyl accident. We're now pretty certain that exposure to the Chernobyl radiation fallout would not have led to even a single birth defect.

Radiation sickness

Again, radiation sickness is only a threat to those exposed to the electromagnetic pulse at the time of an explosion. Such people will be close to the centre of a bomb explosion and be exposed to large amounts of radioactivity (exposure: 1000 mSv or more). It will be a small minority of people. Far more bomb casualties are blast or fire victims. Radiation sickness can lead to death but some subjects do recover. It's caused by massive tissue damage and cell die off.


A larger number of people exposed to a high A-bomb electromagnetic pulse may develop cancer. (exposure: 100 mSv or more).

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki evidence shows the great majority of nuclear bomb victims died due to injuries inflicted by the blast, or fires.

Nuclear Winter?

In the 1970s, some scientists guessed that a large scale nuclear war would lead to fires most everywhere, burning for days on end, sending a plume of dust into the atmosphere. This dust would affect the climate for many months causing global cooling and a nuclear winter. Atomic bomb survivors would be hard pressed to feed themselves after the atomic war. These scenarios are basically models which assume the worse in every case. Other scientists have completely dismissed the nuclear winter scenarios. See: Cresson H. Kearny; Home Office dismissed nuclear winter threat as scaremongering, files show


Provided a bomb didn't drop right on you, and that you weren't in the immediate area of the blast and radiation pulse, you're unlikely to suffer radiation harm. The real threats after an atomic war will be crime, social breakdown, disease and malnutrition. Exactly what we find in the aftermath of conventional war. Even if you're close to an explosion centre, provided you don't die from blast or fire, you're still far more likely to live on, to survive, than you are to die.

Useful information