The Chinese on Nuclear Energy: Ahead of Everybody!

Never forget ChernobylImage by freestylee via Flickr
Nuclear energy has taken a beating since Japan's Fukushima crisis. Most political leaders in Western democracies, reacting to a panicking public opinion, have declared some form of moratorium on nuclear energy plans. With the exception of France of course, the only Western country truly committed to nuclear energy.

But there are others who are quietly moving ahead, first and foremost Russia, busy selling its technology around the world, claiming to all and sundry that it has learned from its Chernobyl disaster and knows how to make "safe" reactors. Hardly a convincing argument, mostly because the technology it promotes is the standard 1970s one. Russia even plans to build a nuclear plant in Kaliningrad, right in the heart of the Baltic. It will be interesting to see how countries around it - the Baltic states, Finland, Sweden, Poland and Germany - will react.

Actually, there is a rather wide range of countries in the Third World that are not deterred by the Fukushima crisis, including Turkey and China. Turkey is like Europe 30 or 40 years ago: in love with its economic boom, enamored with consumerism and blind to nuclear energy's dangers. And China? Well, the population has little say as we all know, and the Chinese authorities are determined to solve their energy problem at all costs. They plan to build some 50 nuclear plants over the next ten years, more than the whole world combined. And public opinion be damned!

Most of these plants will be of standard design - except two that will be radically different, as reported today by the New York Times (do check out the article here, it's fascinating!). They will use uranium-enriched "pebbles" coated with protective graphite rather than rods as is currently used in nuclear reactors, such as those in Fukushima. This makes it  easier to control reactors in case of accident in the cooling system, as the pebbles, whose radiations are better controlled, cool down automatically and on their own. It also makes it easier to store after use, thus (partly) solving the long-term storage problem, one of the biggest issues of nuclear energy. In short, it appears to be a truly innovative, "third-generation" type of nuclear energy. One up to the Chinese!

What is interesting is that the Chinese have revived a technology first developed by Germany... in the 1960s (yes, that long ago!). The Germans hit a snag in the 1980s when a pebble jammed. Then they abandoned it after the public outcry caused by Chernobyl. The US did likewise, because of the Three Mile Island nuclear incident, although some American labs continue to work. South Africa ditto, because the research into it proved to be too expensive. The Chinese, of course, have been careful to develop a design for their new pebble-bed reactors where pebbles won't jam.

Meanwhile, the Chinese, ever excellent tradesmen, are pushing their old 1970s nuclear technology around the world, and have just signed an agreement with Pakistan to build two new old-style plants...

Let's hope that the Chinese will soon share their advanced design with the rest of the world, so that we can all at last enter into a nuclear-safe age.

Bottom line, the problem here is that it is a political one - not an economic one. It would be important to consider pebble-bed reactors seriously and in particular those against nuclear energy should do so. I would make that call to the Greens everywhere. It's no use pushing for the abandonment of nuclear energy: that will NEVER happen. The world is too far gone into nuclear energy, there are already way too many plants built and functioning (some 500) and more plans to build them all over the planet.

Nuclear energy, no matter how many Fukushima will occur, is here to stay with us.

But it's up to all of us to demand that it be made SAFE!
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