China Goes Nuclear
September 16, 2004 10:54 PM   Subscribe

Physicists and Environmentalists : what's the downside to this? Is there one (other than the disposal of depleted pebbles)? Seems pretty hope-making to me, layman that I am.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Science & Nature (16 answers total)
"The big question is whether the economics will pay off."

This bit sounds like it's got a teeny bit of Wired-brand optimism in it:

"By the time Chinergy's pilot plant is up and running, it's likely that the 30 reactors the government has planned for 2020 will already be under way. By then, however, China's grid is expected to be market-driven, and companies like Huaneng will have a free hand to put plants where they're needed and charge whatever the market will bear. Chinergy's strategy is tailored for this new environment. Power companies operating in regions making the transition from rural to industrial to urban will need to start small, but may suddenly find themselves struggling to meet unexpected demand. That's where the modular concept comes into play: Wu plans to sell power modules - 200-megawatt reactors plus ancillary gear - one at a time, if necessary. Growing utilities will be able to add modules as needed, ultimately reaching the gigawatt range where conventional reactors now reign. Such installations will be affordable to start - and they'll become cheaper to operate as they grow, thanks to economies of scale in everything from security and technicians to fuel supply."

Oh! But that noise it make? That's not a noise. We're actually going to record that and sell it to teenage DJs in the Ukraine, where reactor-sounds are very popular. It's an advantage, actually. And that waste product? No problem. We're going to turn it into fresh-tasting orange juice and sell it up all around the Pacific Rim. You'll see.

Anyway, it sounds like the technology is on its way to being there. But powering China 4,000 homes at a time sounds like one heck of a slow way to go about it. I guess we'll wait and watch to see whether the state-owned entities in the picture infect the entire initiative with state-sponsored stupidity. I'm kind of confused as to why China is so concerned with using a safer reactor in the first place? Are they really environmentally conscious? I don't think so.

All the advantages listed in the article sound great, but it's still drawing-board. I bet if they have a cheaper option, or a faster option, at some point along the line, they'll probably take it.

It's good to see Nuclear getting revisioned, though.
posted by scarabic at 1:01 AM on September 17, 2004

Why don't you post this to METAFILTER?!
posted by ParisParamus at 5:24 AM on September 17, 2004

it sounded good to me when i read about it some time ago. however, there's always practicalities - will they be run properly, or left going rusty? human error, economic pressures, many nuclear reactors - maybe you could see a steady rate of low-level accidents slowly raising levels of background radioactivity?
posted by andrew cooke at 5:25 AM on September 17, 2004

The biggest challenge I can see is to keep short term capitalism from mucking up the design. A contractor sees the bill of materials and realizes he can make a few extra hundred thousand dollars for himself by say using a slightly lesser grade of concrete. The concrete then weathers differently or degrades due to radiation more quickly and there's at least a minor catastrophy.

If that can be avoided then on average this will make for a more effecient and less enviromentally hazardous China. There's always the possibility that unforseen problems will occur though.

When I was working at the Candu in Pickering Ontario as a bright eyed engineering student the unforseen problem was radioactive creep. Precision metal parts in the reactor core changed shape along their axis (mostly) due to the effects of long term radioactive exposure. So the reactors had to be retrofitted with new components which meant that they had to go through a shutdown cycle.
posted by substrate at 5:37 AM on September 17, 2004

According to the class on world development I took last year, the supply of fissiles is even more limited than that of fossil fuels. There is apparently enough uranium available in the crust to support the world's projected energy needs for about 75 years. So it's just another exhaustable resource, and when it's gone, it's gone.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:50 AM on September 17, 2004

that's not completely true - you can make fuel in fast breeder reactors. however, it's still a good point because that means lots of nasty, expensive processing wwith radioactive waste.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:48 AM on September 17, 2004

"Eventually, these new reactors will compete strategically, and in the end they will win. When that happens, it will leave traditional nuclear power in ruins."

Sounds to me like he is planning on embedding the reactors inside giant robots.
posted by bcwinters at 7:17 AM on September 17, 2004

I think the major downside is expense: how much are these things going to cost per MW. Experience with nuclear in Canada hasn't been very encouraging---the plants have been incredibly expensive to run.

On the other hand, the benefits are obvious. China's choices come down to fission or coal (which they have lots of). Of the two, fission is arguably cleaner, particularly considering the low-quality chinese coal. There's a huge payoff---if the Chinese can get this to work, China could avoid many of the environmental problems we have in NA and Europe.
posted by bonehead at 9:19 AM on September 17, 2004

Can you theoretically perpetuate the cycle indefinitely with breeder reactors? I thought these required plutonium, which itself had to be bred from uranium?

Do you eventually run out of some critical ingredient?
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:50 AM on September 17, 2004

The hydrogen generation isn't to be underestimated, either. The problem of getting the stuff is the biggest single factor holding back hydrogen power - an MIT study found that when you take the methods currently used to extract hydrogen from the ground into account (a "well to wheel" analysis) hydrogen-powered cars are just as inefficient and polluting as dinosaur-powered cars.
posted by lbergstr at 12:05 PM on September 17, 2004

China could avoid many of the environmental problems we have in NA and Europe.

Um, it's a little too late for that. The environmental problems in China presently dwarf pretty much anything NA & Europe, combined, have ever experienced. We're talking about rivers so that are so aggressively toxic you probably shouldn't walk anywhere near them without breathing apparatus. Whole villages riddled with rare cancers from polluted well water -- and when I say "riddled with cancer" I mean that essentially every household has someone in the terminal stages. It makes Love Canal look like an amusing joke.

The environment in large sections of China is being destroyed at a truly staggering rate, and it's almost impossible to get much info about it. When I was in rural northeastern China a couple years ago I watched some kids swim in water that was completely black and devoid of all life, even algae. They all had some singularly nasty looking skin rashes, and my Chinese interpreter/guide kept insisting that they'd merely scratched themselves on bushes nearby. Yeah right.

...all of which makes me worry whenever someone in China starts talking about grand new projects, because I keep seeing images of dying villagers.
posted by aramaic at 12:30 PM on September 17, 2004

To derail, lbergstr, I think it's better to think of hydrogen as an energy "currency", like electricity, a means of moving it around, rather than a primary source like hydro, coal, petroluem or fission generation.

Hydrogen technologies alone aren't going to solve the energy problems we have. They may well be part of the solution, especially for transportation, but we still need to find a way to generate the power in the first place.
posted by bonehead at 1:14 PM on September 17, 2004

Aramaic, I don't doubt that you are correct. I was thinking in terms of carbon dioxide emissions in the coal vs nuclear decision. China's currently the #2 emitter, at about 3,300 Mt annually of the total world emissions (behind the US at 5,700 Mtonnes). If they built coal instead of nuclear plants they'd be producing near 15,000 Mtonnes, about five times as much as they do now, roughly as much as the whole of humanity does today.
posted by bonehead at 1:28 PM on September 17, 2004

bonehead: oh, I totally agree. The coal usage in China is insanely high -- in the Yangtze basin just about all of the houses I visited used bricks of compressed coal dust for fuel. It's why I can't really object to the Three Gorges Dam, even though it's probably going to be a disaster -- China needs cleaner power so badly it outweighs most other factors.
posted by aramaic at 1:39 PM on September 17, 2004

Bonehead - we're making the same point in different ways, I think. Right now it turns out the most efficient way we have of getting hydrogen to use as a fuel is by extracting it from the ground. This takes energy and is, as you point out, basically a transfer from traditional sources. The problem is that it takes so much energy to do this that cars running on fuel cells are on net worse offenders than normal cars.

The Wired article promises a much more efficient way of generating hydrogen, which would be great. I'm taking for granted the benefits of a clean, relatively power-dense fuel over batteries or fossil fuels.
posted by lbergstr at 1:55 PM on September 17, 2004

The big question with nukular power generation isn't so much safety (thats a function of good engineering design based on plenty of prior designs by now) nor is it really about the cost of generating a megawatt.

The dirty little question no one ever asks is, when the the reaktor is used up after 30-50 years of use, how and where will it be decomissioned, and what will the cost of disposal be?
posted by Fupped Duck at 2:52 PM on September 17, 2004

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