The Trenches of the S&T of Nuclear Energy and what it means for emerging regions (such as SEA)

This post considers what goes on in nuclear science and energy research that could have implications on states, who might add nuclear power into their arsenal of energy production, embarking on expertise acquisition. These potential players, especially in Southeast Asia, still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to technology and infrastructural development for research, both of which are expensive unless they could be developed indigenously.

PhysicsWorld is offering a focus issue on nuclear energy. Just last week it has published a blog post rounding up what one can expect from the issue, which gives centre-stage to the issue of nuclear safety. The AP1000, unveiled by Westinghouse Electric (parent firm being Toshiba that had actually exhibited their new technology at the last Asia Nuclear Power meeting in March), since to promise an important  development in next generation reactor technology and security. However, all is not well in the nuclear industry sector, as Westinghouse has filed for bankruptcy and French ENGIE, had pulled out from the NuGen project (for building new generation power plants in the UK). That said, the focus issue contains some highlights on emerging nuclear technologies (offering higher gradient of precision and safety considerations), a reconsideration of the Chernobyl legacy, and the seemingly success story of Hinkley Point (which is still a work in progress and not exactly a proven concept).

Given the current events happening in the US, with the March for science to protest against the Trump’s administration’s policies on US S&T, especially in the latter’s slashing of funding to various agencies responsible for the various science and tech programmes in the US. One of the greatest concerns right now is centred on how Trump’s policies are rolling back whatever progress made in dealing with climate change, all the while rendering impotent many of the protection laws that are in place. At a time when new and emerging economies are concerned with how to attain a sustainable development that is environmentally-friendly, while dealing with alternatives to fossil fuels as energy providers, Trump’s apparent reversal of the world’s still biggest superpower’s responsibility in this area does not bode well for the IPCC. As it is, we know that all that talk about alternative energy sources (to nuclear) remains largely rhetorical, as the operationalisation of the technologies in a mass scale remains as expensive and unsustainable as when the nuclear energy advocates of the 1970s (such as Edward Teller) made similar arguments for deploying nuclear power technology.

But now, it appears that the ‘safest’ and ‘cleanest’ form of nuclear technology, nuclear fusion, is in trouble. The long-delayed International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (ITER) in France is expected to be commissioned by 2025 (within the ten-year range when emerging nuclear players in the world, including in Southeast Asia, expect to commission their first nuclear power plants). However, there are naysayers who do not think that nuclear fusion will better than nuclear fission, but rather, produce the sort of ‘side-effects’ of increased side-production of plutonium as well as more investment for keeping the reactor running rather than in producing new energy. Of course, as with all things that intertwine science with politics, trolls and advocates each has their own reaction to such critiques of terrestrial nuclear fusion. It is uncertain now, with the current climate regarding science and tech funding in the US, whether the US government, through its Department of Energy, will continue the financial support, despite the promise to do so until 2018.

All the reports, including the most recent one by Physicsworld, point to the greatest challenge of making terrestrial nuclear fusion workable – the efficient support of the infrastructure for efficient and safe fusion energy production. An interesting aspect of nuclear fusion is its strong relations to plasma physics, with one of the simplest natural and observable manifestation of it coming in the form of lightning. On a side note, it has been the stuff of science fiction to harness the power of lightning to produce sufficient energy to do the seemingly impossible – ignite a new life-form (such as in Frankenstein), time-travel (Back to the Future franchise as one example), and other forms of intense-energy harness, all before high-energy big science became the aspirational norm.

Therefore, it is important to consider what all of these mean for countries interested in deploying nuclear energy. Much of the discourse has focussed on nuclear security/proliferation matters, costs and liabilities, and potential disasters, but little about resource depletion, expertise development, social-impact, and even development plans that require the increasing consumption of electricity. There is also no discussion concerning the need for increasing expertise (and necessary resources) in other areas of S&T that are not unrelated to the development of nuclear S&T since the latter is also the result of accumulation of fundamental and applied knowledge as outcomes of  improvements in the other areas of sciences. Although more ‘advanced’ Asian countries such as China, S Korea, and Japan appear to be making inroads in nuclear technology, they are still adapting from known technologies rather than building from more fundamental foundations – in other words, what we get are different permutations of the application of the same knowledge that had been circulating rather than new breakthroughs. That itself could also be what is plaguing current developments of nuclear fusion in more technologically matured societies, or even the development of technologies for alternative ‘clean’ energy deployment. The question remains: could emerging nuclear energy players do anything different or are they beholden to the structure already set-up for them through the medium of the IAEA and states with more mature nuclear technological deployment?


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