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« All Trussed up - Josh 355 | Main | A state ideology »

About that tech solution to climate change...

I can still remember the early days of the internet, reading and Numberwatch on all the bad things scientists got up to then. They still do.

I was therefore thrilled to see that a familiar name from those days is still fighting the good fight, although I haven't come across him for years, as my interests have been elsewhere. Wade Allison has been trying to point out the preposterous stringency of our nuclear regulations and the scientific idiocy of the linear no threshold model for radiation exposure for decades. He was recently the subject of an article in the Wall Street Journal:

Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford, has a more realistic idea for fighting global warming than any being promoted at this week’s climate summit in Paris: Increase by 1,000-fold the allowable limits for radiation exposure to the public and workers from nuclear power plants.

Given what we know about the aftermaths of Chernobyl and Fukushima, it now seems impossible to argue that the LNT hypothesis holds. And given the sudden interest in technological fixes to climate change it may be that we have an opportunity to think again about just how much red tape and second-guessing is necessary.

But don't hold your breath. Removing regulations is not something politicians do very often, and certainly there is good evidence that nuclear regulators are getting worse. Armed with the LNT model they seem set to kill off any possibility of innovation on the nuclear front, which is a pity as new nuclear technologies are now said to be the best chance of saving us from the revenge of Gaia.

For example, in recent years interest has grown in the idea of small module nuclear reactors (SMRs), which could be "mass-produced" on a production line. However, a recent conference heard that even at this early stage regulators are causing problems that may prove insurmountable (h/t Philip Bratby):

A key area for the [design assessment] of SMR designs will be the passive cooling concepts which have been built into the plants, as they often do not have active systems to backup this passive safety system.

UK regulations require two nuclear-grade means of performing each safety function...

"The UK requirements tend to drive them into installing extra nuclear grade systems to back up the main line of protection...this I think is going to be a significant challenge for the SMR concepts that we have seen," he said.

I think the smart money will be laid on a regulatory triumph. Meanwhile, Greenpeace are already trying to prevent any progress on the nuclear fusion front. Expect BBC coverage soon.

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Reader Comments (43)

People in the Oxford area might be interested in Wade's talk this Friday:

'Nuclear is for Life, A Cultural Revolution' by Prof Wade Allison

Date: 11 Dec 2015 - 4:30pm - 5:30pm
Venue: Martin Wood Complex, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PU
Audience: General public (Age 14+)

The lecture will show that there is no reason why nuclear energy should not be the ideal source of carbon-free energy. Life has evolved protection against radiation, and high doses are used to cure cancer. Evidence from accidents, from medicine, from the physical and biological sciences -- these all confirm that nuclear energy is safe and beneficial, and should be cheap too. Current radiation regulations are based on 70 years of social appeasement. Nuclear power should be freed from these science-blind restrictions and so help save the planet.
The lecture relates to Prof Allison's latest book, to be published soon.

This is a free, public lecture, but registration is required. Please email stating your title, name, and matriculation and college attended if you are/were a member of the University of Oxford.

Spaces are limited, first come first served.

Dec 9, 2015 at 3:24 PM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

For decades, it has has been a sine qua non of the environmental movement that the best way to defeat nuclear power is to to delay deployment by tying it up in red tape. Nuclear still requires large capital investment, and capital does not like delays.

Even Steven kinetics-can-tell-you-nothing Mosher might grasp that one.

Dec 9, 2015 at 3:33 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

France went nuclear years ago simply because they didn't have North-Sea oil & gas, they had no alternative! In that nigh-on 50 year period I have heard all but nothing about accidents, waste issues, & the like! Sometimes, I wish our police were a little less PC about how they deal with "honest" protesters, whereas ours have to issued them polite requests in triplicate one month in advance, speak to them sweetly regardless of the foul language that issues forth from their technically & scientifically ignorant mouths!

Dec 9, 2015 at 3:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

"Nuclear’s share of electricty will drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025 due to loss of know-how and requirements for more renewable sources"

France done got stoopid too. Stoopid here, stoopid there, stoopid just about everywhere.

Dec 9, 2015 at 4:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Poynton

There is no doubt that the LNT model should have been thrown out years ago. However, the regulatory regime works on a ratchet system and only ever increases regulation. In the end, excess safety systems (such as adding active safety systems to passive systems) increase the risk of accidents due to the extra equipment involved, the extra complexity and the extra operational and maintenance burden. I reckon that at least 75% of the construction and operational costs of a nuclear plant is the result of unnecessary safety systems brought on by excessive regulations.

Dec 9, 2015 at 4:06 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

There is no need to reduce the radiation exposure limits. When I worked in the UK nuclear power industry the CEGB imposed limits that were 10% of the legal allowable doses and this was met with no problems. The only workers we had who were not allowed to enter rad zones were those who had received radiation therapy for cancers. Nobody else came close to getting a max dose

As a registered radiation worker and someone who worked on reactor commissioning teams I would strongly oppose any lowering of safety standards. They do not significantly increase costs but cutting corners can do so massively.

The reason the UK AGR programme cost so much was a combination of political interference and bad contracts written by the Department of Trade and Industry. Construction of Dungeness B was ordered to begin before design was complete to avoid laying off the workforce who were completing Dungeness A. This was a disastrous decision that affected the entire progress of the project as the initial reactor liner had to be removed and reinstalled to get the boilers to fit inside the reactor wall (18ft thick reinforced concrete doesn't have much give).

The other thing that caused havoc was the frankly LOW standards on the contracts for the non nuclear systems. At a time when every other industrial organization had rigorously enforced standards for welding with at least 10% radiography on water and steam piping the standard contract being issued only called for welds to be to 'a good commercial standard'

The nuclear side on the other hand was built to a very high standard with all welds inspected by independent experts and all material subject to chemical and physical tests. This actually ended up costing less as it was done right first time.

We spent over 5 years ripping out half the turbine hall piping systems when a belated NDT program found that the standard of work on initial installation a decade before had been appalling. The CEGB had no case for suing the initial contractors as the phrase 'to a good commercial standard' was widely understood to mean its all right if it doesn't leak when we test it.

Lowering standards can be VERY costly, ask any British car manufacturer - if you can find one.

Dec 9, 2015 at 5:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith Willshaw

"...I would strongly oppose any lowering of safety standards. They do not significantly increase costs..." --Keith Willshaw

Show us the numbers, please.

Dec 9, 2015 at 5:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

I don't think anybody is suggesting lowering standards, the plant should still be built to high nuclear standards . It is the over-regulation that is the problem. Increasing allowed doses, for example if the LNT model were thrown in the bin, could improve safety as, for example, workers would not have to rush jobs, or hand them over halfway through. Unnecessarily low radiological dose limits do cause problems and waste a lot of money. There are myriads of ways in which safety could be improved if more sensible regulations were put in place.

Dec 9, 2015 at 5:37 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Surely radiation therapy cures the patient (sometimes) by ....killing the cancer cells?

Dec 9, 2015 at 7:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhil D

Engineering reliability has increased exponentially over the years - just look at car reliability as an example - and much of the required 'safety' would be achievable simply by the improved engineering accuracies and tolerances.

Dec 9, 2015 at 8:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterDave_G

the linear no threshold model for radiation exposure for decades

That phrase is the money quote. The linear money came from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Their power was in excess of 20000 tonnes TNT and many people survived. The data, however, was missing the lower threshold values (below the radiation from the bombs). They extrapolated by distance by that is not, and was known not, to be a valid extrapolation. Then along came Chernobyl and everything changed. They were able to fill in the missing data points at the lower radiation and low and behold the extrapolation was completely wrong. The lower threshold turned out to be higher the lower threshold obtained by extrapolation.

Dec 9, 2015 at 8:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

Let's be practical: no-one will ever manage to sell nukes with the mantra 'and it's nearly as safe as real reactors'. Maybe we can intellectually grasp that twice a negligible risk is still a negligible risk, but that is not how the human danger system works.

Get real. Offer me nukes that are cheaper, safer and quick to build. Otherwise do a big demo about how safe, quick, cheap and non-disruptive modern CCGT plants could be, demonstrate that we have lots of shale gas, shout out the CO2 reduction we can get by converting to CH4 and then go for gas.

We will need the nukes eventually. Not yet.


Dec 9, 2015 at 9:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterJulian Flood

I have an interesting vision that involves a device not dissimilar to a mobile phone that has instead of a sim card a slither of thorium. This is then enclosed in something akin to a heavy duty wall safe and installed within a building accordingly. This way energy could be controlled to meet immediate demand and the systems mass produced in an economic way. You could buy your new home with say 25 years of energy included in the price ready installed. Other technologies have advanced dramatically over the last few decades. Perhaps you readers could have fun with this idea?

Dec 9, 2015 at 9:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterEdward Hurst

The creed of greed.

Dec 9, 2015 at 9:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterAila

@Keith Willshaw

...As a registered radiation worker and someone who worked on reactor commissioning teams I would strongly oppose any lowering of safety standards. ...

Limiting ionising radiation to microscopic levels is NOT a safety standard. It is a method of attacking nuclear power.

Limiting ionising radiation down to zero is actually very bad for you. Here is the first reference I googled...

Dec 9, 2015 at 9:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

@Keith Willshaw

Dec 9, 2015 at 9:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Very interesting comment Edward Hurst and I think your vision is heading in the right direction. Just out of interest do you have any idea what quantity of thorium would be required for your 25 yrs energy supply ?

Dec 9, 2015 at 10:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoss

Thank you Ross for your interest. I can only respond by suggesting that there would be a relationship between energy required to output performance, fuel volume and refuelling intervals. It would be nice to throw the idea in the direction of some innovative nuclear engineers.

Dec 9, 2015 at 10:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterEdward Hurst

Point of safe shutdown systems that the UK regulators would likely insist on is not related to exposure limits. It is based on the concept of multiple redundant systems, with it being assumed that no matter how low the probability of multiple system and equipment failures, the system was as close to fail safe as possible.

The advantage of newer generation passive safety systems is they elimanate most, if not all of the potential failure points - primarily equipment that requires power to operate (whether electric, steam or hydraulic).

I would generally agree with Keith. Exposure limits, though based on some shakey premises, are one of the primary cost generators in nuclear plant construction and generation.

Dec 9, 2015 at 10:55 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

Back in the 1980's I had to write a paper about nuclear waste disposal. That's when I found out a bunch of things that completely changed my mind:

- the glass disposal process used by the french is not actually all that good, but Synroc (developed in Australia and as far as I know not actually used anywhere) is orders of magnitude better [at entrapping the nasty things you don't want to escape]

- a book from the 1950's about radiation and life had long chapters (so it was known over 60 years ago) about how cells behave in the presence of radiation - loo little is as bad as too much. In general small doses of radiation do no harm and can even be beneficial, nobody really knows why but its based on actual studies.

The other thing is that yummy devices like fast breeder reactors can also burn up a lot of the waste from conventional reactors - it is possible to have a vastly more efficient and effective nuclear fuel cycle.

Activists and emotion have taken their toll, there is no longer any rational explanation about anything nuclear.

Dec 9, 2015 at 11:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterWally

lowering standards can be very profitable. Aldi for example lowered the standard of "customer experience and choice", and the aldi brothers are the worlds' richest now.

In fact, lowering price and materials costs , standards, is what makes for a notion alien to "progressives": PROGRESS.
milk came in heavy glass containers, now in cartons with a thin layer of metal and it made a few billionaires.

the comment of above nuclear industry pundit shows how a calcitrate industry makes for calcitrate thinking and frames of thought.

Dec 10, 2015 at 1:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterVenusCold

'any idea what quantity of thorium would be required for your 25 yrs energy supply ?'

No amount of thorium would provide any energy.

Dec 10, 2015 at 3:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

"I think the smart money will be laid on a regulatory triumph."

Yes, but the smart money will be spent in China. Already the Chinese are putting a lot of smart money into thorium reactors. Don't know about mini-reactors but if an Oxford professor is lecturing about it, the Chinese are probably aware of the potential.

Dec 10, 2015 at 6:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrederick Colbourne

There will of course be a regulatory triumph - that's the way our modern world works. The emotional load carried by nuclear is such that it's inevitable.

But to debate this is to miss the point; the last thing the Green Blob wants is any safe and affordable source of large-scale energy. Their aim is not to allow civilisation to continue, but with some changes and updates in certain areas; their aim is to stop it, shut it down, and return us all to a pre-lapsarian natural "golden age", which in practice would look pretty much like the Stone Age.

THAT is why they will never permit any nuclear technology to become affordable, no matter how safe it might be shown to be.

Dec 10, 2015 at 8:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

If you can't get planning permission even for shale gas wellheads then you can't get it for SMR's. So until someone sorts out the planning then like waste disposal sites you can stick them only on government land.

Dec 10, 2015 at 9:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG


"No amount of thorium would provide any energy."

Er, what?

Is this some kind of nuclear physics denialism?

Dec 10, 2015 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

'Is this some kind of nuclear physics denialism?'

It is your ignorance of BASIC nuclear physics. Thorium is not fissile.

Dec 10, 2015 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

Pedantry alert!

Dec 10, 2015 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Edward Hurst - "I have an interesting vision that involves a device not dissimilar to a mobile phone that has instead of a sim card a slither of thorium."

How do you propose to produce electricity from thorium?

Dec 10, 2015 at 2:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterSlywolfe

I don't actually think that there are too many safety features on nuclear reactors, but that's not for the same reason you will assume. Have you actually looked at the quality of education that is being instilled into the future workers that would be handling those facilities? Far too many are being dumbed down to the point that they should not be allowed near anything other than fully automated machines , and then only if there is a barrier separating them from the machine. But that is obviously over cruel to today's budding geniuses.

I lived in Maine for many years, and there was nuclear facility built there. Until the day that a 3+ earthquake struck the general region where the plant was operating, I had no problems with nuclear power. After the quake had hit, the plant was called to see if there had been any damage, and to see what the onsite seismometers had read. The operator assured the state that there was nothing wrong as the seismometers had shown no readings at all.

Two days later, a worker, on a routine inspection found a section of the facility that had suffered damage - nothing earth shaking from the earth shaking, but nonetheless, physical damage to pipe hangers, if I remember correctly. Surprised, the state inspector looked at the damage and then went to see why the seismometers hadn't given any warning. They had not been maintained and were corroded into uselessness. At that point I decided nuclear energy was a hazard because complacency tends to set in around any work force, and when there is the potential to do great damage, there is no room for complacency.

Whether Fukushima proved or not that melt downs are not catastrophic to human and other existence means little if you happen to be living in the potential kill zone of something that goes wrong. The scary part was that the nuclear plant in Maine was operated by well educated, relatively competent workers, not the current socially distracted types that walk around with their eyes locked on their cell phones in case somebody texts them. Had that been the case, the damage may never have been spotted, and who knows what the end result might have been had it not.

Dec 10, 2015 at 5:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom O

Thank you Slywolfe for your query.

I personally would not suggest any particular method of producing electricity from Thorium. I invite those with more knowledge and imagination to make comment.

Just think how early computers occupied large rooms and the size of a modern mobile phone. My prediction is that once sanity overcomes the current mass hysteria regarding carbon dioxide and changeable climate, research and development will be guided towards a more radical approach to energy requirements. New ideas must be considered. If for example my initial vision were possible there would be no need to be connected to an expensive distribution grid. You could buy your energy with your property or retrofit or top up in a 'pay as you go' manner such as you can for a mobile phone or with an electric meter key card.

Please compare my idea of having your energy supply say buried beneath your house with feeble solar panels uglifying your roof or perhaps those unreliable spinning giants scattered across our scenic countryside.

Progress towards sensible solutions would be faster if funding was diverted from renewable subsidies towards intelligent research and development.

Food for thought.

Dec 10, 2015 at 6:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterEdward Hurst

Tom O,

Regarding qualify of work force - I've been out of the industry for some time now and therefore am no longer up to date on industry hiring practices. However I do know that there is still one pool of people to draw from who have not been "dumbed down" and are among the highest trained and capable group of people you will find anywhere in the world. That is the US Navy and graduates of their Nuclear Propulsion Program.

Regarding safety - there is nothing magical about the nuclear industry which makes it immune from accident, natural disaster events or plain old human error. What separates the nuclear industry from almost every other (excepting the commercial aviation industry, where many of the standards and practices were borrowed from) is their attention to safety, both in design and operation. Nuclear plants have multiple redundancy built in. You can suffer the failure of more than one system and still get to a safe condition. Three Mile Island is proof of that. For that matter, Fukishima is as well. The plant was hit by both an earthquake and a tsunami well beyond the criteria they were designed to withstand. Yet they were able to get the plants into a safe condition and did not suffer any breach of containment. The problems arose after that point and were primarily due to the level of destruction to the surrounding infrastructure. People should actual look at photos of the area around the plant. There is practically nothing standing - except the plant. The transmission and distribution lines which should have supplied backup power were gone. The roads that should have facilitated relief efforts were gone. People complaining about Fukishima are similar to someone crying about their broken finger while the rest of their body is ravaged by cancer. To put things into perspective, the number of dead and missing is in the 10,000 to 15,000 range from the tsunami. The number from Fukishima is still at zero.

Dec 10, 2015 at 8:30 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

'I personally would not suggest any particular method of producing electricity from Thorium.'

Give us just one.

'I invite those with more knowledge and imagination to make comment.'

You brought it up, yet you have no knowledge. Deferring to others to defend what you said is silly. Your suggested 'sliver of thorium' is nonsense.

Dec 10, 2015 at 8:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

'Progress towards sensible solutions would be faster if funding was diverted from renewable subsidies towards intelligent research and development.'

Solutions to what?

Dec 10, 2015 at 8:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

Ahhh.....young Gamecock, I am beginning to feel the need to reach for my shot gun.....

Back in 1965 I picked up a quartz pebble from a beach, showed it to my Dad who admired it; enthused I collected more and from then on a life long interest in geology developed. Had anybody suggested at that time that our future would be so significantly transformed by such a simple component of that pebble they would have mocked perhaps like you do now. "A SLITHER OF SILICON....HA HA HA HA HA"

The reason I suggest Thorium to produce heat/electricity is that it is frequently suggested as a component of future technologies to do exactly that.

As regards my depth or width of knowledge on any subject - it is something you can never know.

As regards the method to produce electricity from a piece of fruit, for example a grape, perhaps one stabs an electrode in either side and waits for a current. If I had the definitive answer I would not be being entertained here.

As regards the problems to which I suggest solutions for - I direct you to what this blog refers to on a daily basis.

Maybe Gamecock your are just a mockingbird?

Dec 10, 2015 at 9:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterEDWARD HURST


A small packet of energy isn't very useful. Electricity is the goal. Currently (no pun), electricity is produced by photo-electric (Solar panels), thermo-electric (thermocouples, used in some space vehicles), chemicals (batteries and grapes), and magneto-mechanical (rotating generators).
If you can find a way to produce useful electricity directly from dense energy, whether thorium, uranium, plutonium, or gasoline, you will be a wealthy famous Nobel Prize winner before Christmas!

Dec 10, 2015 at 10:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterSlywolfe

LNT exists because it came from an era when you covered a zone of ignorance by putting your ruler on the graph paper and saying "what if it is like this?". It's madness still to cleave to it.

Dec 10, 2015 at 11:46 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

The mobile phone sized pack of nuclear material could be used to stick in the fridge keeping the vegetables and the milk
preserved. That would fix us a few billion a year (saved purchases, less Ecoli deaths etc)

However present technology demands for a roomsized nuke which can cater half a town (they exist already for submarines)

It is not an impossibility in the far future however but I believe we need to sort out our knowledge and improve on the hopelessly dodgy standard model first..maybe the mobile phone device will be built in 50y from now to unravel matter at sub atomic level thereby generating immediately electricity..might be sooner if we get AI singularity online sooner..remember ..AI singularity day 1, mobile sized electricity generating devices after, say, 3 days tops.

Dec 11, 2015 at 1:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterVenusCold

Given the blatant misanthrophic tendencies of the green movement, you would think they would welcome Nuclear power and associated nuclear disasters. I mean a few hundred thousand dead Europeans, that can't be a bad thing surely? And we now have an excellent nature reserve surrounding Chernobyl.
In fact even if the NLRT theory holds the signal from Chernobyl's fallout would be undetectable. You can't detect a few thousand extra deaths per year against the background noise of a population of 500million. That's the excess winter mortality in Britain. The Greens can't even be consistent in their misanthropy, their irrational fear of radiation manages to overcome a natural if unedifying human characteristic.

Dec 11, 2015 at 10:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterColin MacDonald

I think the hormesis theory is probably true, because biological systems have evolved to be able to deal with external hazards, and radiation is one hazard that has been around forever. However there is some truth to the "no known safe level of radiation" story that the anti-nukes use. One "hit" can cause a cancer. The issue is that there is no discussion of risk, and putting natural radiation into perspective, and no one talks about medical radiation or airplane travel.

The concept of using the LNT to generate estimates of "collective premature deaths" is particularly creative and misleading, at the same time But it is effective if you want to prevent a technology from progressing.

"Risk" is a concept that is hard for most people to really understand and be able to deal with. Too many people think that any risk from certain hazards cannot be accepted at all. This mindset is what needs to be fought, with regard to radiation and many other hazards of normal life. It is the fundamental tool of the nanny state zealots.

Dec 11, 2015 at 4:25 PM | Unregistered Commenterrxc

My mother was pulled off the job 3 times for over exposure to radiation. She was in Health Physics at the Savannah River Plant, the main U.S. nuclear facility.

She'll be 96 in a couple of months.

Dec 14, 2015 at 7:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

To everybody interested in discussing Nuclear Power, I strongly recommend the book "The Health Hazards of NOT going Nuclear", by Dr Petr Beckman.

Dec 15, 2015 at 11:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Morgan

If anyone has read Ralph Nader's "The menace of Atomic Energy", and like me found it compelling and believable, then Beckman's book (recommended above), provides essential additional information.
If I hadn't read that book, I would not have known what a deceptive pile of shit Nader is.

Dec 15, 2015 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Morgan

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