We need a new discourse on nuclear energy • The Register
Opinion What does GIF have to do with nuclear reactors? Commercial development of nuclear power plants had largely stopped by the 1980s; although you could do better than Deluxe Paint for your blueprints. Yet the connection is much more modern, to do with projects like the revival of molten salt technology as new hope for zero-emissions energy.
Well, we’re not talking about retro graphics formats. Go to the disambiguation page on Wikipedia and there it is – in GIF file format, a former Guinean airline, and Gefle IF, a Swedish football club, there it is: the Generation IV International Forum. It’s been around since 2001. You’ve never heard of it, you can’t even guess what it does from its name, and it has a huge role to play in the fate of our ecosystem.
The Gen-IV forum is a club of 14 nations – all the largest plus the EU plus – and its stated goal is to assess and promote the next generation of nuclear technology for commercialization by 2030. is important.
Of all the carbon-free power generation options we have, nuclear is the only one that can keep the lights on 24/7 right now. If you want the best bet for carbon-free global power on a date before the chaos of climate change is fully unleashed, this is a good place to start. Do the rest, of course do the rest, but they won’t be here by then, not on a planet still half dark.
If you want to reduce the odds of your nuclear bet, you would want to coordinate everyone working on new nuclear technology. It’s not like we have the time or the resources. Imagine there’s a big old asteroid coming to play dinosaurs with us. Would everyone work together? Well, an Extinction-level event is on the horizon, and GIF looks like one of the places to put the pedal to the metal. So why so shy?
When GIF started in 2001, nuclear energy was as popular as smallpox. You could work on it, if you remained silent. Logically, we were afraid of monsters that were really problems to fix. Yet the hangover persists.
It’s easy to see why in a populist climate where instinct trumps analysis. Nuclear power has one of the most complex risk-reward game boards of any technology. The rewards, if we want them, will be enormous. Fuel is abundant and widespread, improving energy security, energy is zero-emissions, reliable, scalable and controllable, and nuclear power plants can also efficiently produce industrial levels of heat. The disadvantages are cost, safety and security, waste disposal, and development time. The biggest, however, is the story.
Nuclear was born from the atomic bomb, which is not a big family tree. Everyone knows Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. Hardly anyone knows about nuclear weapons today: how many nuclear power plants there are (about 440) or how many are under construction (about 55). In popular lore, nuclear weapons catch fire, explode, and produce dangerous waste that we cannot handle. They actually work, even though they’re based on 50-year-old technology. These three world famous accidents killed less than 80 people in total. Take away Chernobyl, and it probably is.
These accidents should not have happened, and the new designs, which are not based on 50-year-old technology, will be much safer. In those five decades, fatality rates in aviation have been reduced by 100, thanks to the systematic application of automation, better training and the iteration of certification and other critical processes for the safety. This is a good starting point for Gen-IV reactors. Another is knowledge.
Stories come out of different establishments, such a lab or such a company, disconnected from each other. There is no idea of an industry preparing to make huge leaps in the future on many fronts. It turns out that there are seven types of new nuclear weapons in various stages of development.
There are High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors (HTGR), Very High Temperature Reactors (VHTR), Molten Salt Reactors (MSR), Supercritical Water Cooled Reactors (SCWR), Cooled Fast Reactors gas reactors (GFR), sodium reactors – cooled fast reactors (SFR) and lead-cooled fast reactors (LFR). Yes, it’s a reactor cooled by molten lead. We are far from GPU heat pipes here.
All of these are designed to circumvent the problems of the past. All require substantial, much of it extreme, new engineering. Some will burn billions of dollars to prove monstrously useless. Some are ideal for power modules that you build in factories and transport to sites by truck, ready to power a thousand homes or industries or a water desalination plant anywhere in the world. Others will step up to gigawatts with much less reliance on water for cooling and security. Torness Power Station in Scotland has to shut down every now and then because jellyfish clog its sea water intake. No one has time for that, let alone jellyfish.
We have technology that is safer than people think, with a pent-up reservoir of half a century of innovation, and can do a lot about climate change. It should be exciting. It should be the levels of public involvement, scrutiny and pressure to succeed of the space race of the 1960s. But we are too afraid of the past and blind to the present. We need a new nuclear narrative, ironclad leadership, and a raw desire to talk to people about what might happen next. Come on, GIF. At least put the word “nuclear energy” in your name. ®