Energy on credit
The back end processes of the nuclear energy system are still in their infancy. Completion of these processes are mandatory to keep vast and densily populated regions habitable. The timescale of the completion of the downstream processes might run into a century or more. Unfortunately this completion is systematically deferred to the future.
The efforts to consolidate the radioactive waste of one nuclear power plant in a safe manner will require investments of energy, materials and economic power of the same order of magnitude as the investments during the operational lifetime of the reactor. After closedown of a nuclear power plants a massive energy debt is left to society, increasing over time due to the unavoidable deterioration of the temporary storage facilities and increasing leaks.
This debt cannot be written off as incollectable, like a financial debt, because the health of millions of people is at stake. If it goes wrong with the radioactive heritage of a nuclear power plant - and it will go wrong if nothing is done - it will go terribly wrong. We just cannot move millions of people to another, not contaminated region. Obviously the economy will also suffer a heavy setback in case of a severe accident. The chance of such accidents increse with time.
Nuclear power delivers energy on credit.
Privatizing profits, socializing costs.
The barrier blocking the way to a sound completion of the nuclear chain is a paradigmatic one, the present state of technology is amply adequate. Main elements of that paradigm are:
• Short-term profit seeking
• Living on credit
• AprŹs nous le dŽluge attitude
• Belief in concepts only possible in cyberspace.
The monetary debt ensuing from the energy debt and material debt has a character completely different from the monetary debts economists are used to. Present economic concepts are invalid to handle the problems and risks posed by the nuclear heritage, in view of the following characteristics:
• Energy is a conserved quantity. The energy debt is not discountable and cannot be written off as uncollectable.
• Energy units do not depend on place and time, nor on politics, nor on economic concepts.
• The size of the energy debt is of unprecedented size in history. Each nuclear power plant leaves behind an energy debt as large as about one third of its lifetime energy production. During the next decades this debt fraction will rise considerably, as result of the decline of the quality of the required nuclear-related mineral resources.
• The timescale of the tail of the nuclear chain, over a 100 years, is unprecedented in history.
• The massive investments of energy, materials and human resources do not contribute to the improvement of the economic infrastructure and must be considered to be pure losses. As the investments are used to isolate the radioactive wastes including their packing from the human environment, they will vanish from the economic system forever.
• The energy debt is not subject to monetary-like depreciation, on the contrary, it will increase with time, for reason of inevitably deteriorating materials and constructions, following from the Second Law. The longer the adequate actions will be postponed, the more energy, high-quality materials and economic effort will be required to achieve a given level of safety.
Any country with an appreciable number of nuclear power plants, such as France, Great Brittain and the United States, should reckon on economic efforts of Apollo project size, many hundreds of billions of euros, to keep their territory (and of the neighbour countries) habitable. Would the decision makers foster such efforts, or does the world need another Chernobyl or Fukushima disaster? The current way of economic thinking, pursuing only short-term profit goals, is not reassuring.
With respect to radioactive waste problems and health risks the nuclear world seems to foster a culture of downplaying and concealing risks and of an unrealistic belief in unproved and unfeasible technical concepts, exacerbated by an attitude of postponement which may be best described as an aprŹs nous le dŽluge attitude. Usually this attitude is based on questionable arguments and fallacies, such as: 'Technology advances with time and future generations will be richer than our generation, so they will have more economic means and better technological possibilities at their disposal to handle the waste problem.'
A dangerous misconception
The view that the solution of the radioactive waste problem is just a matter of advanced technology is a misconception, for the immobilization of radioactivity is a Second Law problem. It will not be possible to prevent the spread and dispersion of radioactivity into the environment by less effort than it would require at this moment by use of advanced, yet to be developed, technology. Spread can only be limited by dedicated human efforts, involving massive amounts of useful energy and materials. As useful energy and materials are becoming increasingly energy-intensive with time, the chances of solving the radioactive waste problem adequately can only decline with time.
Energy is the limiting factor
Scarcity of materials and energy is a thermodynamic notion, in the long run not economic scarcity counts, for energy is the limiting factor of all economic activities. Ultimately the quality and usefulness of natural resources is determined by the consumption of useful energy and ordered materials required to recover one unit raw material from the crust. Useful energy from mineral energy resources (fossil fuels and uranium) is requiring increasingly more investments of energy and materials per unit useful energy as the easy resources are getting depleted. Materials, such as copper, are becoming increasingly more energy-intensive, as the high-quality resources (high grades, low depth, easy accessible) are getting exhausted. Both trends reinforce each other.
The nuclear process chain as it turns out to be, with paradigm barrier. The radioactive wastes from 60 years nuclear fission technology is piling up in the world, creating an ever growing energy debt. All wastes are still to be isolated from the human environment.
Figure 16-2. The energy debt of the nuclear energy system.
After closedown of the reactor a large energy debt has to be paid off, in order to safely isolate the radioactive wastes from the human environment. The energy debt increases with time for two reasons: first, the radioactive materials are getting increasingy dispersed due to deterioration of the containing materials and structures with time, secondly the materials needed for packing the radioactive waste will become increasingly energy-intensive.