Academic Barry Brook began working at the University of Tasmania last year. He is a strident nuclear power supporter and is particularly enthusiastic about non-existent ‘Generation IV’ reactor types.
The enthusiasm is understandable. Theoretically, Generation IV fast neutron reactors could gobble up waste and weapons material and convert them into low-carbon power, solving several problems at once. Unfortunately, these fast neutron reactors aren’t actually new and they have failed spectacularly to live up to their potential. The history of fast reactors has largely been one of extremely expensive, underperforming and accident-prone reactors.
For example, Japan’s Monju fast reactor operated for 205 days after it was connected to the grid in August 1995, and a further 45 days in 2010; apart from that it has been shut-down because of a sodium leak and fire in 1996, and a 2010 accident when a 3.3 tonne refuelling machine fell into the reactor vessel. The lifetime load factor of the French Superphenix fast reactor − the ratio of electricity generated compared to the amount that would have been generated if operated continually at full capacity − was a paltry 7%, making it one of the worst-performing reactors in history.
Fast reactors haven’t helped to resolve weapons proliferation problems; on the contrary, France has used a fast reactor to produce plutonium for weapons and India plans to do the same in the coming years.
Not easily deterred, Brook and other nuclear lobbyists promise a new generation of fast neutron reactors. A recent guest post on Brook’s website claims that Generation IV fast neutron reactors will be mass produced and “dominating the market by about 2030.”
Compare that claim with the following:
1. The intergovernmental Generation IV International Forum states: “Depending on their respective degree of technical maturity, the first Generation IV systems are expected to be deployed commercially around 2030-2040.” (emphasis added)
2. The International Atomic Energy Agency states: “Experts expect that the first Generation IV fast reactor demonstration plants and prototypes will be in operation by 2030 to 2040.” (emphases added)
3. A 2015 report by the French government’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”
IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: “At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors, except perhaps for the VHTR ...” Moreover the VHTR (very high temperature reactor) system could bring about significant safety improvements “but only by significantly limiting unit power”.
4. The World Nuclear Association noted in 2009 that “progress is seen as slow, and several potential [Generation IV] designs have been undergoing evaluation on paper for many years.”
In 2009 Brook wrote a puff-piece about Generation IV fast reactors for the Murdoch press. On the same day he said on his website ...
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Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear