Archive for June, 2015

Exploring space by exploiting nuclear

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 16th, 2015

The Philae lander has woken up. When Philae landed on the comet, it was on its side in a valley, so its solar panels could not generate enough electricity to keep the lander’s technology operating once the batteries ran out. As a result, Philae did excellent scientific research for 60 hours, then ‘went to sleep’. Seven months later, the comet is closer to the sun so the solar panels are generating enough power to resume research. This is excellent news. But seven months of research have been lost unnecessarily. Philae should have carried a nuclear power source, as NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover did. Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager, was asked last November why Philae didn’t have one. He replied that ‘launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology’. (

The safety issue is – as so often with nuclear power – overstated. Mars Curiosity was powered by a small, solid amount of Plutonium-238, completely insoluble in water. Physics professor Ethan Siegel writes that: “This means that even if there’s a disaster on launch, the radioactive material won’t go anywhere, and can not only be retrieved, but reused in future missions.” ( )

Would Europe have been able to obtain the necessary nuclear equipment from NASA? Surely the answer is yes. The space race is over. The Soviet Union put the first person in space; the USA put the first person on the moon. The European Space Agency, Philae’s owner, has been working with NASA on the International Space Station since 1998.

So it was down to politics. Theological opposition to all things nuclear, led by Germany (as most things in Europe are at present), meant that Philae was sent to land on a comet with only intermittent solar photovoltaics to replenish its power supply. Angela Merkel, who has a PhD in quantum chemistry, allowed her politics to obscure her scientific desire for knowledge.

How nuclear can help the Californian drought

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on June 15th, 2015

The benefits of nuclear power to mitigating the energy and climate crises are well known, but it now has the potential to mitigate water crises too. The mega-drought in California is one of the worst ever recorded; a State of Emergency was declared in January and the dry conditions are likely to continue well into the summer months. The only power facility in California that does not use any of the state’s precious fresh water is the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. However, not only does the plant have no demand for water, it could also play its part in providing supply. This is because the plant desalinates ocean water. The water is not only for the reactors but also to irrigate the surrounding area and even produce drinking water for workers. The desalination facility is currently not running at maximum capacity and with a few upgrades could produce a million and a half gallons of fresh water a day – providing clean energy and clean water for Califronia.

AWF are hiring!

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on June 10th, 2015

Job Title: Technology Officer for the Alvin Weinberg Foundation

Location: London

Salary: Competitive

Time: Part time


The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is the UKs only pro-nuclear charity, raising awareness of the potential of advanced nuclear power and working to see that potential realized. We are offering an exciting and rare opportunity to work at the forefront of the nuclear industry, furthering this solution to many future problems.

Your role would be to act as the technological expert and adviser for the organization. You will have the opportunity to research the wide array of exciting and innovative reactor designs as well as developments in the industry. Your responsibilities will be to use your knowledge to advise the Foundation, inform and contribute to publications and provide expertise at regular events.

Your Qualifications:

* Undergraduate degree – science or engineering related subject.

* Excellent communication skills.

* Able to give presentations and write written reports of a high standard.

* Skilled at researching a wide array of subject areas.

* Enthusiastic individual who is a good team player but also very capable of independent working.

* Able to manage your own time and meet deadlines.

* No prior industrial experience is needed – this position would suit an enthusiastic new graduate.


To apply please send your CV and cover letter explaining why you are interested in and suited for the role to

Japan needs to return to Nuclear

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on June 9th, 2015

The Japanese nuclear industry has been in the news again as the Japanese government announced greenhouse gas reduction targets which include re-opening the dormant reactors. The government is proposing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2030, from a base year of 2013. Achieving this target would require a power generation mix made up of 20 to 22 percent nuclear energy, with renewable energy making up 22 to 24 percent and fossil fuels making up the rest. Japanese reactors were shut down after the Fukushima accident, which despite provoking fear worldwide, has yet to have been proven to have killed a single person. The aftermath of the shut-downs was a large Japanese push for renewables, but also a massive unavoidable growth of fossil fuel use, to fill the gap left by nuclear. Recently the Japanese government has realised that it is unsustainable – both environmentally and economically – to leave their reactors off. So moves have been made to bring them back into work, with the first re-opening scheduled for August. Now, with emissions targets at stake as well, it must be hoped the public’s concerns can be settled, so that Japan’s nuclear reactors can help save the country from the rising costs and carbon emissions associated with their fossil fuel gap-filler.


Why I have joined the Alvin Weinberg Foundation

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 4th, 2015

“I cannot really complain too much about solar utopians: their dreams are noble and ought to be encouraged. On the other hand, when these dreams of solar utopia are used as political instruments to eliminate the nuclear option, I believe it is most important to object.”

Alvin Weinberg, ‘Toward an acceptable nuclear future’, 1977.

I am a former renewable energy utopian – though, since I live in the UK, I am more excited about wind power than I am about solar. I spent 20 years campaigning against nuclear, the last 5 of them as head of Greenpeace UK. I protested outside nuclear power stations. Then I realised that I had been wrong; that renewable energy cannot expand quickly enough to phase out fossil fuels and protect the climate. I concluded that opposition to nuclear power is not compatible with any attempt to control climate change. And, because many of my former colleagues in green groups were continuing with anti-nuclear campaigns, I too felt that it was important to object. So for the last 6 years I have been speaking out in favour of nuclear power, and was delighted last month to start working for the Alvin Weinberg Foundation.

Alvin Weinberg was not only a world-renowned nuclear scientist, but also one of the world’s first climate campaigners. He warned of the dangers of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the 1970s; over a decade before James Hansen’s historic Congressional evidence in 1988. (That is not in any way intended to downplay Hansen’s immense contribution to climate science or, indeed, to campaigning.) Weinberg also spoke out against the dangers of technology tribalism. We need to use every tool to mitigate the climate and energy crises. We do not need nuclear or renewables; we need nuclear and renewables. That is even more strongly the case today in 2015 than it was in the 1970s.

In the 1977 paper quoted above, Weinberg speaks of the need “to set the nuclear ship back on course”. Thirty -eight years later, it definitely needs to be set back on course again, particularly in Europe. The European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is supposed to be constructed in the UK may well get abandoned; EDF have not yet taken a final investment decision, and the EPRs being built in France and Finland are well over time and over budget. The latest in a long line of problems is that Areva have used the wrong type of steel at the EPR site in France, and the steel is already encased in concrete.

The EPR is a very complex design. Other existing nuclear reactor designs (so-called generation 3 or 3+) are less complex and need to be built, because they are proven, demonstrated and ready to go. However, more advanced designs must also be researched, developed and demonstrated. This should include both Integral Fast Reactors and Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), the technology which Weinberg himself pioneered at Oak Ridge in the 1960s. MSRs have many potential benefits over current nuclear reactors:

* The plant can operate at near atmospheric pressure. The fuel salt used in MSRs has no chemical reactivity with air or water. So MSRs cannot explode.

* The liquid salt returns to a solid form at ambient temperatures. This, combined with installed passive safety systems, would automatically shut down advanced reactors avoiding future situations like  Fukushima and Chernobyl.

* Some advanced reactors could be fuelled by existing nuclear waste from conventional nuclear reactors. This ‘waste’ still contains over 90% of the energy that was in the uranium, so can be used many times as fuel. At the end of the process these advanced reactors would still produce some waste, but much less by volume than the waste produced by a conventional nuclear plant.

* Certain next-generation reactors can use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, a result of two decades of reprocessing and failure to use mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel.

* Advanced reactors could be very fuel efficient – up to 75 times more electricity per ton of fuel than an out-dated conventional light-water reactor.

*Next generation reactors could be designed to be small and modular (producing up to 300 megawatts) which would suit power needs in remote locations. Compact versions of MSRs could be built in a central factory and assembled on site. This would reduce costs.

* Modular reactors could be constructed adjacent to industrial sites so that waste heat from the reactor could be used for heat-intensive processes such as desalination or the production of aluminium, cement, ammonia and synthesised fuels.

* Some advanced reactors are ideally suited to the sustainable production of medical isotopes, used for scans and to treat cancer. These isotopes are currently in short supply.

* Most next generation reactors would use approximately 97% less water than conventional nuclear reactors.

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is committed to highlighting these benefits, to politicians and the public, and seeing the potential of advanced nuclear power realised. There are companies seeking to build prototype MSRs in the UK. If the EPR is abandoned, a sensible reaction by the new British government would be to support an advanced nuclear technology demonstration project in the UK.

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