Play the Nuclear Ball not the Green Man

If France were playing a rugby match between pro- and anti- nuclear teams, the results, at ten minutes into the game, would be looking pretty dodgy.  

Thorium symbol — the future for sustainable nuclear energy? (Credit Wikipedia)


The Hollande-Ayrault-Montebourg-Batho team deployed in these vital energy quarter-finals has plunged into the melee with pledges, statements and clarifications that appear to have pleased industrialists, angered Greens, worried the anti-schiste-gas grassroots and sowed confusion among opponents in the league.

What is clear, or not, in a confusing yet critical match, is that nuclear is supported by some senior cabinet officials as the top option for securing long term energy supply in France. This tack has emerged despite team captain President François Hollande’s election pledges to cutback on nuclear plants and beef up the energy mix.

Captain Hollande’s wily fly-half, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault kicked the game off at the height of  summer – while most of the country was relaxing on its yachts, and at beaches and lake resorts — in a statement reported by Slate magazine.

He said the issue of shale gas exploitation in France – banned under a law promulgated 14 July 2011 – will be decided at an environmental conference scheduled for 14 September 2012.

Rolling this dodgy and disliked ball into play drew angry ripostes from grassroots supporter groups across the nation, many led by the powerful local mayors of affected rural areas, who thought they had successfully blocked the plans after their home team won office in the recent general elections. It also shocked the Socialist government’s Green allies who immediately threw a wobbly.

The home team’s fly-half however soon found himself blindsided by a ferocious tackle from colleague Arnaud Montebourg, the red team’s number 6 –and  Industry Minister — who on August 30 told BFM TV, that nuclear power was “a pathway for the future.”

Both players then found themselves out-run by Delphine Batho, wearing the number 14 jersey and showing form as a shrewd tactical winger. The Minister of Ecology and Energy proceeded to land a try in a speech August 30 at the MEDEF Summer University in the Paris suburb of Yvelines. She told a prestigious and concerned gathering of senior businessmen and industrialists that: “France has a permanent need for nuclear power”. However she rather spoiled her heroic run by qualifying it with “and must massively develop renewables in parallel”.

Recalling François Hollande campaign commitments — embodied in a deal between Socialists and the Greens — to down size the share of nuclear in electricity production in France from 75% to 50% by 2025 she went on: “We see these issues not as being in opposition but rather as complementary choices and we believe we can maintain exisiting jobs in the nuclear industry while we also create jobs in solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy”.

However she conceded nuclear power was important “to ensure electricity supply security, cost competitiveness and energy access.”

Indeed even as the team captain was happily trying to square his circles, the reality of nuclear as a big business in France brought out key home team reserve players with some off-piste alternative moves further to befuddle the red jerseys.

For early in July Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius well down the reserve list but a leading light involved in setting up France’s nuclear giant Areva the  supplier of the MOX fuel used in the ill-fated Fukushima reactor, met in Tokyo with his Japanese counterpart, Koichiro Gemba. The two men announced their countries were planning “to adopt a five-year partnership” due to be signed in 2013, focused on “the environment and energy, including nuclear,” according to the Rue 89 website.  Rue 89 pointed out that among Fabius’ credentials he along with former Areva president Anne Lauvergeon are board members of the influential Institut François Mitterrand.

So despite some strong plays in the run-offs, the home team is finding progress towards the finals blocked by the immovable forces of a defensive pack of forwards apparently trained by the all-powerful security/nuclear lobby.

Even as the current French team finds short-term ideological views conflicting with a long term national energy reality, a growing rethink in recession-ravaged Europe is questioning the wisdom of costly green alternatives. Their arguments, gaining strength as 27 EU economies weaken, are that tried and tested nuclear, gas and coal deliver better and cheaper than heavily subsidised green alternatives. Additionally those who insist the ‘science is settled’ in the global warming scam, are finding themselves increasingly discredited further undermining the diminishing raison d’etre of going green.

In the UK, whose red team (the defeated Labour government) earlier committed that country to a vastly expensive almost suicidal programme of wind turbines –leaving the country dependent on imported nuclear-generated energy via France’s EDF, a big UK market player — a recent report by the mainly blue (Conservative) team, has denounced this meretricious plan as a concoction of “verbal virtuosity combined with statistical sophistry”.

According to a paper presented by Peter Lilley MP for the Global Warming Policy Foundation the UK government should cease basing its climate change policy on the flawed “Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change” and commission a new independent cost benefit study of alternative strategies.

Meanwhile supporters of thorium as an alternative and less controversial method of generating nuclear energy, continue to urge France, whose Grenoble research laboratory tracks developments in the field, to follow giants in China and India. These two countries  are actively moving to bring this long dormant alternative nuclear source on-stream, a move that will surely revolutionise public opinion.

Below our resident thorium expert and contributor John Preedy of the Living in the Lot blog considers the latest developments being rolled out by China one of  tomorrow’s economic giants:

The Chinese Thorium Programme

 On 6th August 2012 Kun Chen, Professor and Deputy Director, Department of Nuclear Safety and Engineering, Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, spoke at the Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering about the Chinese programme to develop thorium reactors.

In January 2011 the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) launched a Strategic Priority Research Program named“Advanced Fission Energy Program” to confront two grand challenges in the nuclear energy world – long-term nuclear fuel supply and permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

The program consists of two projects, the TMSR (Thorium Molten Salt Reactor) and an accelerator driven system (the ADS). The TMSR project is to utilize the thorium energy via the development of molten salt and molten salt-cooled reactor technologies, in order to secure the long-term nuclear fuel supply by diversifying the sources of the fuel. By around 2035, the TMSR project will build a 1000 MWe molten salt-cooled demonstration reactor and a 100 MWe molten salt demonstration reactor (liquid fuel), as well as possess the technologies that pave the road to commercialization of the thorium-fuelled nuclear energy systems. The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics is leading the efforts to build a 2 MW molten salt research reactor in five years. A centre dedicated to TMSR research (TMSR Centre) has already been established.

China has 400 people working on thorium research projects
In the video below (at 09:00) Kun Chen states that with a budget of $70m p.a. there are currently a total of about 400 people working on liquid fuelled molten salt reactors and pebble bed thorium based reactors cooled by molten salt. One of their ambitious targets is to achieve criticality for a 2MW pebble bed thorium based reactor, cooled by molten salt, by the end of 2015. The pre-conceptual design has already been reviewed by a team from Berkeley and the technical design is due to be finished in 2013.

A Liquid Fuelled Reactor by 2017
The schedule for a 2MW liquid fuelled molten salt reactor allows two more years to achieve criticality in 2017, but in answer to the question “What are the biggest challenges to acheiving these targets?” Kun Chen said that the biggest concern is in the choice of materials for the vessel and the heat exchangers.

In a review of the history of Chinese nuclear research (at 32:30) he also states that from 1970 to 1972 about 500 scientists and engineers worked on an MSR, which was the first Chinese attempt to develop a civilian nuclear power reactor.  At the time they used an aluminium containment vessel, which after a few months was not standing up to conditions. It was decided that they did not have the materials technology to pursue this option and started to develop the LWR instead.

This video was made and posted by Gordon McDowell  it starts with the questions and answers and then goes on to Kun Chen’s presentation.

US Dept of Energy Collaboration with Chinese on Thorium

Mark Halper in his detailed article on, dated 26th June 2012, reports that the US Department of Energy is collaborating with China on the Molten Salt Reactor project.

But as he states ”What’s not clear is what, exactly, the U.S. will get from the collaboration. While China has declared an interest in building thorium reactors – including CAS’ January 2011 approval of a TMSR project – the U.S. has not. The partnership with China suggests that the U.S. acknowledges a possible role for thorium in its energy future.”

: Ken Pottinger with John Preedy
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