Posts Tagged ‘nuclear power

My German Anti-Nuke Protest

- April 26th, 2011

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF HAMBURG — I took part in a German anti-nuclear protest yesterday.

Not that I was planning to, of course.

What I was planning to do was take a leisurely toodle on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon around the neighbouring countryside on the ancient, eccentric motor scooter which putt-putts me through Schleswig-Holstein when I am here.

I was stopped at what passes for the main road in this neck of the woods (if there were woods of any substance in this neck) when the flashing blue light of a police car (Polizeiwagen) hove into view — slowly.

It was followed by a procession of eight buses and a scattering of private cars sprouting a variety of yellow, red and black flags. At the end of the convoy, two other police cars with flashing lights nipped at the heels of the buses like sheep dogs.

At first I thought it might be an especially large horticultural club on tour, but that was unlikely since there wasn´t a garden gnome in sight and the passengers staring out the bus windows had on their best Very Serious Faces (VSFs) — something the  Germans do perhaps better than any other nationality in the world.

The purpose of the VSF is to indicate to observers that the body attached to the VSF is engaged in Very Important Business (VIB), which said observers are encouraged — nay, impelled — to expedidate/facilitate/assist/abet/admire. Usually the VIB can better be described as VSIB (Very Self-Important Business).

Ach so,  eight buses full of VSFs escorted by police sheep dogs. The clues were piling up, but the dead giveaway to the group´s identity was the banners waving from the cars with the buses. Most were a nitrous-oxide yellow  colour with a smiley red sun in the middle encircled by black words:

ATOMKRAFT? NEIN DANKE

(NUCLEAR POWER? NO THANKS)

atomkraft

Ooooo, one of the German anti-nuke protests I had heard so much about.

So, as the rearguard Polizeiwagen trundled by, I decided to tag along. At best, I would see a Deutsche eco-political action in action or, at worst, I would be led on a jaunt into unexplored territory.

Somewhere in the middle of possibilities was the opportunity to find out where the nearest nuclear plant was. It had to be close or why else would the convoy of VSFs come through my rustic, off-the-beaten-track area.

(I´m sorry to say I had neglected to take a camera with me, so there´s no photo travelogue to go with these words, although I might try to add in some images from the Internet later.)

What followed was a 20-km serpentine journey through the flat, fertile moorlands of Schleswig-Holstein as the lead Polizeiwagen sought out every secondary farm road and one-lane cowpath in the district. I´m sure the official reason for the circuitous route was to keep the main arteries from being clogged up with similar congregating convoys of protesters, but I think there must also have been a bit of officious power-tripping involved too: “See what I can make you do? Now jump through this hoop and you will be allowed to express yourself.”

We had twisted and turned so often I had no idea where we were. I actually thought we were heading vaguely north when, in fact, we were headed south from my starting point.

Our parade crested a bridge over a bigger, busier road and we left the farmlands behind for a Gewerbegebiet (or something to that effect), an industrial zone of  recycling plants and the like.

At this point, my convoy of buses was swallowed up in a flock of other arriving buses and I lost track of my VSFs.

But there was plenty of other activity to follow. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were walking down the road from their parked cars and other hundreds and thousands were swarming in on bicycles. (And, of course, there were the lazy ones who parked their cars and unhitched  bikes from their car racks to pedal in the last kilometre or two.)

And a fine gaggle of Germans it was too: Frosty-haired grandparents who were probably veterans of the early 1970s German anti-nuclear movement, middle-aged folks — some hippie-esque, others nip-tuck tidy and proper — who might have come on board in the aftermath of 1986´s Chornoblyl (or Chernobyl or Tschernobyl, take your pick) disaster, plenty of earnest 20-somethings with eco-consciences newly awakened by Fukushima, and large numbers of teens and children — the ones who seemed to be having the most fun on this beautiful sunny afternoon and who had not yet been fitted for their personal VSFs.

Many of the congregants carried flags and wore costumes. The flags were predominantly the standard ATOMKRAFT? NEIN DANKE standard and the principal costumes were variations of yellow helmets, facemasks and plastic jumpsuits supposed to put one in mind of nuclear decontamination outfits — a poor, sweaty choice of costume, to my mind, for a hot, sunny day when T-shirts, halter tops and shorts would have conveyed a more positive and realistic message.

But who am I to criticize? Really. I was here as a curious gawker — a Nosey Parker — not to express my personal outrage and opposition to nuclear power in general and the Brunsbüttel AKW (AtomKraftWerk — nuclear power plant) in particular.

AKWbrunsbuttel

For the outskirts of Brunsbüttel was, indeed, where my bus convey had led me. I stopped to check a map and discovered I was down by the mouth of the Elbe River, the complete opposite direction from which I thought I had been travelling.

(A short aside on büttels: The world “büttel” essentially means the same thing as the English word “borough” — a medieval seat of local government. So Scarborough, for example, would be Scarbüttel — a rather fitting description in my jaundiced opinion. There are many büttels in northern Germany — Nienbüttel, Ottenbüttel, Westerbüttel, Oldenbüttel, Tensbüttel and so on, not to mention my favourite, Aasbüttel. Next door to Brunsbüttel there´s even a small town called simply Büttel — which is pretty much like naming a town “the Town of Town” or calling a cat “Cat” … showing either a serious lack of imagination or an excess of literal-mindedness.)

But Brunsbüttel was where we were, Germans in their hundreds and thousands parading down a tree-lined road toward a nuclear plant while I did my best to weave among them on my putt-putting, fume-spewing (but at least non-nuke-powered) mo-fa, as motor scooters and mo-peds are known here.

Lage_des_AKW_Brunsbüttel

North Germans have been congregating at AKW Brunsbüttel for decades, ever since it started operating in 1976, to protest against nuclear power. The fact that the Brunsbüttel operation was taken out of service 2007 has not seemed to dampen its attraction as a protest site.

Local authorities estimated the number of people at this protest as 6,000, but I wouldn´t know for sure: When I arrived at a polizei checkpoint that would not admit my mo-fa, I declined to carry my partcipation in the protest march/ride further. But I do think the number of protesters there was probably much higher than 6,000: I had counted about 300 people in my small bus convoy alone and there were many more bus convoys as well as the thousands upon thousands of people I had seen arriving by car and bicycle (and mo-fa).

aktionstag_banner_04

But I had decided to forego the ensuing speeches and other boring impedia of over-organized protest. I embarked on a demonstration of my own, a demonstration of the power and goodness of the sun, as best appreciated on a sheltered deck with a frothy cappucino at hand.

But I am remembering Chornobyl today, on the 25th anniversary of the start of that disaster, and wondering what we will think of Fukushima 25 years from now, a time when all nuclear power plants  are supposed to be gone from Germany. Gone but not forgotten, methinks.

Rewind: Is there safe nuke power in your future?

- March 15th, 2011

This Nosey Parker blog post originally ran almost a year ago (April 29, 2010) under the headline IS BILL GATES PLANNING TO NUKE US?

In the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster and the subsequent increased worldwide worry about the threat of current nuclear power facilities, it’s worth another look.

In Ontario — and the Toronto-Belleville  area particularly — we’re locked in to living under the constant possibility of a nuclear crisis at either the Pickering or Darlington nuclear plants. About five million people live within the danger zone for those two plants, but nuclear reactors provide about half of all Ontario’s energy supply. So we’re caught between a rock and a hot spot.

The next-generation technology being pursued by Bill Gates and pals through an outfit called TerraPower will — if it works out in reality the way the theory says it should — provide clean, safe nuclear power to replace the dirty, dangerous stuff our current CANDU reactors produce.

It’s still a big “if” but one that provides a hopeful alternative to Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.

So let’s take another look at ... Is Bill Gates Planning To Nuke Us?

Nuclear Bill Gates

The short answer would be, “Yes, he’d like to.”

But that’s actually a good thing. I think.

Let me explain.

I’ve been looking at billionaires a bit lately and one of the all-time billioniest billionaires is Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and for 14 of the last 16 years Richest Human Being Alive, according to Forbes magazine.

Gates has dropped out of day-to-day management of Microsoft and currently devotes much of his time, money and energy to saving the world with his wife through their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation’s three principal aims are to reduce hunger in the world, improve education in high schools and eradicate (primarily through the development of vaccines) some of the deadliest diseases in the world.

The Gates Foundation has a better shot at achieving its goals than any government-run or intra-government organization, mainly because the Gates organization is results-driven, not tied to any political agenda, and has superbrain Bill Gates calling the shots.

A private company that the Gates Foundation has working on a number of projects (including the elimination of malaria) is Intellectual Ventures, a 500-strong collection of scientists, inventors, physicists, biotechnologists, engineers and even patent attorneys devoted to “pure invention” (and, to be a little cynical, getting rich off “pure invention”).

Here’s how the company describes itself on its website:

“Intellectual Ventures is the global leader in the business of invention. We collaborate with leading inventors, partner with pioneering companies, and invest both expertise and capital in the process of invention. Our work has generated one of the largest and fastest-growing intellectual property portfolios in the world. Our mission is to energize and streamline an invention economy that will drive innovation around the world.”

The Washington-state-based company has a proven track record (with hundreds of millions earned already in royalty payments on its inventions) and a who’s who of high-tech investors — from Microsoft, Apple and Intel to Sony and Nokia to Google and eBay — that have poured about $5 billion into Intellectual Ventures.

(One of Intellectual Ventures’ working models for the elimination of malaria, by the way, is to go to the source and eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes in tropical zones by zapping them with lasers. The company has developed a system that identifies flying insects in a micro-second and sends out an instantaneous laser blast to kill only an identified mosquito, leaving butterflies and other non-targetted flying insects unharmed. When fully developed, it’s estimated that one of these handy, portable skeeter beaters can kill millions of mosquitoes in one night.)

Now I know all this is a long way from Bill Gates trying to nuke us, but I’m getting there.

A spin-off company from Intellectual Ventures is TerraPower, a group developing new-age, next-generation nuclear power that is truly clean, cheap, safe and does not require the enriched uranium fuel that also makes bombs and leaves stockpiles of radioactive waste collecting around the world.

nuclear waste cylinders
Inspectors check out cylinders holding depleted uranium fuel rods at a nuclear waste dump site in the U.S. There are hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of these storage cylinders full of radioactive waste piling up from about 400 nuke plants around the globe. Yes, Canada has more than its fair share, thanks to CANDU.

The technology that TerraPower is developing is called a traveling wave nuclear reactor.

(I’m using the American spelling of “travelling” because they’re the ones who named it and if you want to look it up on the Internet you really have to use the American spelling. There are thousands of articles on traveling wave reactors out there, but most of them are in professional journals for nuclear physicists and whatnot, so I get lost after the first six words — sometimes after the first three words.)

What makes a traveling wave reactor different from current (dirty, dangerous, expensive and toxically wasteful) nuclear reactors? And what does all this have to do with Bill Gates?

Firstly, a traveling wave reactor (TWR) uses a low grade of uranium as fuel — so low, in fact, that the uranium does not have to be reprocessed to make it enriched and so low that a TWR can be fueled by those stockpiles of still-ticking used nuclear rods that have to be pulled from current reactors every two or three years.

So that’s good: No enriched, bomb-grade uranium is needed anymore. The system also does not require the massive amounts of water that current nuke technology demands.

Secondly, a TWR is self-perpetuating: It creates a traveling-wave reaction that constantly creates new fissionable material as a byproduct of its energy production. I think the pros call it “burn and breed.”

That means when a new TWR is built, enough fuel to power it for the reactor’s entire life — probably 60 years, but 100 years is possible — can be loaded in and locked down tight. Meltdown and contamination risks are greatly reduced, if not entirely eliminated.

TWR concept
This Intellectual Ventures/TerraPower diagram apparently explains the “concept” of how a traveling wave reactor works. I’ve been reading quite a bit about TWRs but I still don’t understand the concept. Then again, I don’t understand how CDs or telephones really work — or how airplanes can stay in the sky even when there’s no volcanic ash.

So traveling wave reactors are much safer, cleaner, cheaper, more efficient and less destabilizing (politically and militarily speaking) than current nuclear technology.

They will also turn the whole debate over competing energy sources on its head. The flim-flam over government-subsidized wind turbine plantations is unnecessary. There will continue to be a vital role for solar power and fossil fuels (for very specific purposes) but the need to exploit massively expensive, environmentally damaging petrochemical sources like the Alberta oil/tar sands will pretty much disappear. (Sorry, Albertans — in your hearts, you know the tar sands project is so 20th Century.)

Here’s the link to a YouTube video of TerraPower CEO John Gilleland explaining how TWR technology works.

If all this is true (and it certainly seems to be more than wishful thinking), why haven’t we already shut down all the dirty old nuke plants and opened a Starbucks-like chain of these cheap, clean TWRs around the world?

Because the TWR does not exist yet.

TerraPower, the company on the cutting edge of this new technology, plans to have its first TWR prototype in operation by 2020 — still a decade away. And that’s just the prototype. Apparently you can’t build a scale model of this type of thing — you have to build the Big Daddy to see if it really works the way it’s supposed to.

Nuclear scientists have been discussing traveling wave reactors since the 1950s, but the stumbling block has been — until recently — the immense expense and complexity of the supercomputers required to initiate, operate and control the perpetual-ignition/re-creation sequence of traveling wave nuclear physics.

But Bill Gates (both privately and corporately) and Microsoft are on board now and Microsoft’s supercomputing muscle will provide the 1,000-plus Xeon core processors required to get the prototype plant in operation. There is apparently about five more years of preparation time required and another five years of construction before the first working TWR goes on line.

Pushing the whole process forward is a development deal Gates announced about six weeks ago between TerraPower and Japan’s Toshiba Corporation.

Toshiba is involved because it is already a nuclear industry leader and innovator. Toshiba currently is developing the 4S ultracompact nuclear reactor that, according to Wikipedia citing Japanese reports, “can operate continuously for 30 years without fuel handlings and generates 10,000 kilowatts.”

(AL NOTE: I think that’s 100 megawatts but you’ll have to doublecheck that, folks — they told me there would be no math in nuclear physics.)

(NEW NOTE: Electrical technologist Steve Hunter rode to my rescue. Apparently 10,000 kilowatts is only 10 megawatts. Thanks, Steve.)

The Wikipedia entry also says “some of the technologies used in 4S are considered to be transferable to TWRs.”

When they go into commercial production, the TWRs are expected to be built in large power units (kicking out a continuous energy stream of more than 1,000 megawatts) and low-to-medium power units (300 megawatts) described as being about the size of a six-person hot tub. Current nuclear reactors each produce anywhere between 500 and 1,300 megawatts.

If and when all eight reactors at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station (the largest nuke facility in North America) are online together, they can produce more than 6,200 megawatts of power.

A megawatt is one million watts, by the way. A kilowatt is 1,000 watts — or the power to keep 10 100-watt light bulbs burning at the same time. A large commercial office building consumes two or three megawatts of power when it’s busy.

So there you have it.

Yes, Bill Gates does want to nuke the world. But he’s doing it to provide the world with cleaner, safer, cheaper power.

He’s combining his current philanthropic bent with his business savvy and intellectual innovation to make himself and the Gates Foundation potentially wealthier while improving the lot of the world’s poor and powerless — and also the lot of those of us in the rich world facing the economic and environmental consequences of our gluttony for non-renewable energy.

It will be a decade before we really know if TWRs are the energy game-changer the experts think they will be. But I wouldn’t bet against Bill Gates on this one.