Who gives a toss?

It is not as if the nuclear industry does not already have enough enemies in the form of environmental lobbyists. Now certain factions have started bickering amongst themselves; and over something which may not even happen in our lifetime.

It was initially with mild amusement (shortly followed by disdain), that I read that the wrangle over where to locate the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) might have to be decided by “tossing a coin”. Funny. The world’s most prominent minds deciding a dispute with the toss of a coin.

The EU, with support from Russia and China, wants to locate Iter in Cadarache, France. Japan, backed by the US and South Korea, want it in Rokkasho. The project is already well behind schedule. The schedule set out in the 1992 agreement named 2005 as the year to start operation. Now it is due to start in 2014 and run for 20 years. The goal is to have nuclear fusion as an option for the second half of the 21st century. It seems far enough away to be plausible. Yet fusion as a commercial option for power generation is one goal which seems to move further away with each timetable; and disputes like this do nothing for the cause.

In truth, the situation is as sad as it is amusing. Why argue about fusion research when there are more imminent issues facing the nuclear industry? Firstly, Japan would do well to focus its attention on its poor safety record. Meanwhile, many governments in the EU need to look at whether current nuclear technology even has a future before becoming too embroiled in the future of fusion. With the exception of the new nuclear plant to be built in Finland, it has been many years since any country in the US or EU has announced plans to build a new nuclear unit, although new nuclear designs are waiting in the wings.

But although nuclear has suffered in recent years, there has been an air of confidence returning to the industry over the last months. In November the US Department of Energy announced its funding approval for a new, streamlined process for obtaining a nuclear reactor construction and operating licence, to be led by NuStart Energy Development LLC. The DOE’s Nuclear Power 2010 programme will share industry costs for preparing an advanced reactor design for licence approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The DOE’s goal is to be ready to begin construction on the first US advanced reactor by 2010. NuStart is evaluating two reactor designs, including GE Energy’s ESBWR.

Last month, Areva’s joint subsidiary with Siemens, Framatome ANP, announced the formation of a new organization to focus on the future need for nuclear generation in the US. The company is looking to deploy its EPR (advanced pressurized water reactor) design in the US, and support a global project to develop a Generation IV high temperature gas reactor. Framatome ANP has begun a dialogue with the NRC to outline its intentions regarding design certification of the EPR. Areva’s intent is to complete the pre-application process so that an application for design certification can be made to the NRC as soon as possible.

Meanwhile in the UK, the tide also seems to be turning. If it is re-elected, the government is expected to issue a White Paper backing the nuclear option. This would represent a U-turn in a policy which has so far been for the UK to meet its environmental targets through an expansion of renewables. The government’s last energy White Paper in 2003 had also said that economics made nuclear an unattractive option as a source of carbon-free energy. Even if the UK government makes a nuclear turnaround, there is still likely to be debate over what technology will be adopted.

China, which has the most extensive nuclear programme underway globally, could provide some sort of indication as to which might be the leading new generation technology for the future. It is rumoured to have selected South Africa’s Pebble Bed technology for a unit to be built at Weihai. It is also considering proposals for designs for four 1000 MW reactors for two plants in Guangdong and eastern Zhejiang provinces. Among the proposals is one from Westinghouse with its AP1000 PWR design.

With political will turning and new technology waiting to be demonstrated, the nuclear industry seems to be once again on the cusp of an exciting time. As for fusion and where it will be developed? Toss a coin and let’s move on.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the English phrase: ‘who gives a toss?’, it is a slightly stronger way of saying ‘who cares?’ Is it really that important to squabble over where the development of fusion technology will take place? I suggest the nuclear industry would do better to direct its energy at simply getting nuclear back on the political table.

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Junior Isles, Publisher & Editorial Director

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