Does the world need nuclear power to solve the climate crisis…?

This is certainly one of the most convincing anti-nuclear power arguments i’ve read. Oliver Tickell takes on the main issues with the energy industry as a whole and points out some highly significant issues with nuclear energy in particular.

San Onofre nuclear power station, California

San Onofre nuclear power station, California

Photo courtesy of http://endthelie.com/2012/03/18/nrc-dispatches-augmented-inspection-team-after-california-nuclear-facility-fails-test/#axzz2FRsW5G5h.

The first issue is the inability of nuclear as an energy source to meet existing and future demands from a growing population, with growing energy demands. This is where the theory of the massive efficiencies of nuclear comes hard up against the realities.

Secondly, the chances of serious accidents increases dramatically, in parallel with a dramatic increase of nuclear power stations – a total of 11,000 reactors would be needed. The article cites an historic incidence of serious accidents every 3,000 years of reactor operation, based on Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The article suggests a rate of 4 serious events per year. Even taking into account a reduced factor of accidents due to far greater safety baselines for modern technology, even a figure 4 times less would still mean 1 serious nuclear accident every year – this level of impact is just not acceptable.

Oliver Tickell talks about the effect that George Monbiot had (and is having) on the debate surrounding nuclear power, but Monbiot’s arguments are based more on cold theory rather than hot realities. On the other hand, renewable energy is clean, with costs rapidly spiralling downwards. Each part of the planet can contribute their own type of energy to the whole which can ultimately divert us away from serious climate change.

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Correcting the world’s wrongs…

Very interesting article on a few levels from the Guardian.

This article points to a number of the central themes of the climate change and renewable technology agenda. Ideas such as industrialised countries fighting against the prevailing world trend and actually lowering carbon emissions, the take up of renewable energy technologies within a framework of investment and remuneration (FIT), and the ever-present threat of dependence on the dirtiest fossil fuel energy sources, even in the face of vast renewables potential in all areas of the world.

Last, but certainly not least, is the reference to the main reason why Germany (and Germans) have embraced the concept of sustainability to the extent they have.

But despite the problems, Germany remains committed to its green agenda, driven, some say, by the need to correct the world’s wrongs – a sentiment that goes back to the second world war and the postwar generation who challenged their parents afterwards for just standing by.

“That has led to a very strong environmental and anti-nuclear movement,” says Green party MP Hermann Ott. “It ultimately led to the foundation of the Green party and made us very strong. If something goes wrong, you have to speak up and do something otherwise your children will ask you in 20 to 30 years, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?'”

Why didn’t you do anything? A powerful question and one which millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are already asking the industrialised western countries and one which many millions more will be asking countries such as India and China in the decades to come. One of this generations (and many to come) biggest problems, set against past tragedies. An example of what not to do can be very powerful.

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The Severn Estuary tidal power project awakens…?

An exciting past-project gets a flicker of life from the latest PM. The Severn Estuary tidal power project is now back on the agenda which is good news for renewable energy production.

The first thing to look at are the costs involved. The barrage would cost at least £30Billion and generate 6.5 GW of energy per year, equal to maybe 4 gas-fired power stations.

According to the article, it would have a lifetime over 120 years, compared with 30-40 years for a conventional gas, coal or nuclear power station, or 20 years for a wind turbine.

6.5GW per year for 120 years = 780GW over lifetime of barrage. This compared to a 2GW gas power station operating for 30 years (costing £2 Billion) = 60GW over lifetime of power station. How do you compare the two? We need to find out the total £ per GW produced (total cost / total GW), as follows.

Barrage = £30B / 780GW = £0.038B (£38 Million)

Conventional = £2B / 60GW = £0.033B (£33.3 Million)

So the conventional power station energy costs less than the barrage energy to produce, but there are many other factors to consider. Added to this are the potential cost over-runs which are likely, unknowns with project, environmental damage to existing fauna in the estuary.

But, positives include huge job creation, a massive and on-going renewable source of energy (how much non-renewable power generation could this project replace?),  environmental protection from rising sea levels, privately funded not paid for by public money and finally the potential new road link between Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare.

Just based on the cost of the energy produced, this doesn’t make economic sense, but this is the same argument used against renewables – the overall ‘cost’ of using fossil fuel-based sources of energy is more when all factors are taken into account. So, based on all the potential advantages of the barrage project, I would have to consider it in principle at least something to look into in more detail. The potential for 30,000 jobs and 6.5GW per year of renewable energy is really exciting.

Also, given how long these projects take to plan, build and operate, this would be a realistic source of jobs for both my boys, if they decide to become engineers one day : )

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Japan’s nuclear dream over…? Ummm, not really!

I posted something on the issue of Japan becoming a nuclear-power free country about a week ago and what impact this would have on the country, particularly coming up to the heavy power usage summer period.

I suggested that Japan would become a very important case study for other countries considering going away from nuclear power.

Well, it seems that this isn’t now going to happen and that at least two nuclear power reactors will be brought on-line very soon, to deal with a reported 15% power deficit in the western area!

I have to say i’m a bit surprised, given what has very recently happened to the country. In some ways it’s a good thing and will lead to far less CO2 being emitted from alternative power sources, including oil and gas. It’s also actually a bit predictable, given Japan’s renewable power system is not yet able to support the country’s power needs. A very tempting situation to be in for the Government – having a fleet of 50+ reactors just standing by, ready to supply vast quantities of power.

A bit more time needed for the renewable power sector.

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Full-scale floating wind turbine…

An awesome article about the first ‘floating’ off-shore wind turbine.

This makes so much sense and will mean hitherto unviable areas can be opened up. Seeing how the trend for on-shore turbines is for fewer and fewer to be granted planning permission, the obvious solution is to focus everything on the much larger off-shore turbines, where the wind is stronger and there are obviously no residents to object. There are larger concerns though, including providing new power infrastructures to transport the energy to the areas of demand.

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Lower carbon economy – exit stage left…

This article just about sums up the state of play for the lower-carbon economy.

Guardian article: Green issues

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Geothermal energy…

Interesting article about what could be a vast natural resource.

There are a few apparent issues with this and whenever there is some optimism there seems to be a balancing by the naysayers (but to be fair, there are a lot of good points made in the comments section).

‘Why do we have such a negative attitude in the UK to renewable energy? Every time some other Green group or NIMBYs comes up with objections or scares. Wind turbines they object to noise and visual impact, Hydro they object about damage to river or fish, Tidal they object to impact on mud flats. Okay, so what are their alternatives? Basically do nothing, no wonder we are becoming an Industrial museum and gradually losing wealth. Get a grip, we need more innovation, change and positive attitude to get things done.’ (lxy001 – January 2011 5:26PM)

Negative attitude partly because…

‘The problem is that the amount of heat available under the UK is just not all that much compared to our energy demand.
http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c16/page_96.shtml

David Mackay calculated that the amount of heat that can be sustainably tapped from beneath the Uk is only about 2kWh per person per day. That’s about 2% of what we need. And this would involve drilling to 15km and fanning out to cover the entire landmass of the uk at that depth. The equivalent, about 4 nuclear powerstations, would be quite a lot easier and cheaper.

Alternatively it is possible to extract heat at an unsustainable rate (which is gradually depleted therefore not strictly renewable). Picking the best sites for “heat mining” would yield about 1% of our energy needs by Mackay’s estimates; or the equivalent of perhaps 2 EPR nuclear powerstations.

To quote Mackay: “Other places in the world have more promising hot dry rocks, so if you want to know the geothermal answers for other countries, be sure to ask a local. But sadly for Britain, geothermal will only ever play a tiny part.” (ColinG – 18 January 2011 5:03PM)

Either way, we are way behind many other industrialised nations in developing our sustainable energy sources. Wind in catching up but this is a global green industry for the present and future which we’re sleep-walking out of.

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Lost in energy 2 – carbon footprints…

The last post which I published about this subject mainly dealt with energy output and costs associated with wind and nuclear power. The other major side of the equation is the carbon footprint of the various technologies. The carbon pumped into the atmosphere and absorbed into the oceans is having a direct and significant impact on every person on the planet, with the poorest people suffering huge economic and physical hardships.

There are many sources of data on both the operating and life-cycle footprints, but i’ve found a few which show the relative differences in different ways.

The first is from the parliamentary Office of Science and Technology…

carbon footprint of electricity generation – oct 2006 (POST)

This deals with the operating carbon footprint of the various technologies. It shows that nuclear has the lowest operating carbon footprint, at only 5 grams per KWh, compared with just over 5 grams for wind, or 1,000 grams for coal.
The thing that really pushes nuclear up (to around 85 grams per KWh) is the pre and post energy production stages, including mining of the uranium ores, enrichment and fuel fabrication. 35% of the total is made up of decommissioning the power plant and constructing and maintaining the waste stroage facilities.
A good ‘answers’ article has a good summary of the comparitive figures…
‘Early studies of the carbon footprint of nuclear power seem not to have included the construction, decommissioning, and waste disposal, which are always included in a total carbon footprint. Waste disposal is a particularly difficult area to deal with because no one know how it will be done, so no one knows what figures to use for carbon footprints.
So estimates from studies dated 1998 to 2003 at the carbon footprint were all in the range of 11-13 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour (g. CO2e/kWh). Four studies in 2004 and 2005, two of which agreed with the earlier estimates, produced an average figure of 43.5 CO2e/kWh. Five studies in 2006 produced an average of 84 CO2e/kWh. And three studies in 2007 produced an average of 93 g. CO2e/kWh for nuclear power.
Since the earlier studies were clearly not addressing the total carbon footprint, and the later ones were, we can probably use a figure of 85 g. CO2e/kWh. An article by Benjamin Sovacool arrives at 65 g. CO2e/kWh, averaging the early and late numbers, but the earlier numbers are clearly wrong, despite the fact that they are much quoted. To put this into context, the following are average estimates of total greenhouse gasses by production type with numbers of grams of CO2e/kWh:
1000 – coal
900 – oil
750 – open cycle natural gas
580 – closed cycle natural gas  (closed cycle natural gas combined with co-generation might bring this down to 400 g. CO2e/kWh)
500 – coal plant burning 50% coal with 50% miscanthus
110 – old solar photovoltaics
95 – biomass from miscanthus
85 – nuclear
40 – concentrated solar thermal with thermal storage
35 – new solar photovoltaics
25 – biomass from gasification of wood chips (used to fuel conventional natural gas turbines)
21 – wind
15 – hydroelectricity
<10 – geothermal doublet
These numbers come mostly from the Wikipedia article cited below. The figure for nuclear is extracted from the Sovacool article cited by using only studies dated after 2004. The figures for solar come from current solar literature as solar technology has changed a lot in the last ten years. The figures for biomass come from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. This places the carbon footprint of nuclear as 400% to 1600% of wind, hydro, solar, but about 15% of natural gas, and 8.5% of coal. Bear in mind that some estimates for the nuclear are much higher.’ http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_carbon_footprint_of_nuclear_energy#ixzz1NMp2O6Nb

Another article from Nature Reports Climate Change…

Nature reports climate change – nuclear energy (Sept 24 2008)

So, nuclear is pretty clearly better than any of the fossil fuel technologies. The Uranium mining and quality issue is important and relying on what are finite resources isn’t a good idea. However, the POST report has the following conclusion:

‘Some analysts are concerned that the future carbon footprint of nuclear power could increase if lower grade uranium ore is used, as it would require more energy to extract and refine to a level usable in a nuclear reactor. However, a 2006 study by AEA Technology calculated that for ore grades as low as 0.03%, additional emissions would only amount to 1.8gCO2eq/kWh. This would raise the current footprint of UK nuclear power stations from 5 to 6.8gCO2 eq/kWh (Fig 3). If lower grades of uranium are used in the future the footprint of nuclear will increase, but only to a level comparable with other ‘low carbon’ technologies and will not be as large as the footprints of fossil fuelled systems.’ (POST – carbon footprint of electricity generation)

Recycling and reprocessing existing waste will provide some releif, but still only part of the answer. The waste storage question for me is the single biggest problem. Reprocessing seems to be the answer, but will come with a cost. This seems a better solution than 100,000 years of bedrock storage, which just hides the problem and doesn’t deal with it.

Both forms of nuclear power, fission and fusion, have an important property: the nuclear energy available per atom is roughly one million times bigger than the chemical energy per atom of typical fuels. This means that the amounts of fuel and waste that must be dealt with at a nuclear reactor can be up to one million times smaller than the amounts of fuel and waste at an equivalent fossil-fuel power station.(http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c24/page_161.shtml)

Time-scales are often cited as another reason that nuclear power stations shouldn’t be built. Well, taking an average of 10 years for a nuclear power station, this is equal to the estimated time taken from start to finish for the Thames Estuary wind farm project (not yet completed). If you want very large amounts of electricity to be generated, it takes time to provide the systems.

France added 48GW of nuclear capacity – equivalent to more than half of our entire electricity system – in just 10 years. (Committee onClimate Change)

Base load is also often talked about. Nuclear provides this non-stop background energy, 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year. Solar and wind do not. These renewable systems have to be supported by non-renewable systems, often based on fossil-fuel technology. The large wind farms operate at around 70% and there has to be major energy production means for the other times.

The latest George Monbiot blog makes some interesting points. He questions why we are looking at the energy issue in terms of either renewables OR nuclear, instead of both together. He cites the Committee on Climate Change recommendations. The CCC is an independent body which advises the UK government on setting and meeting carbon budgets and on preparing for the impacts of climate change.

The Committee on Climate Change recommends an energy mix of 40% Nuclear, 40% renewables, 15% carbon capture and storage and up to 10% gas without carbon capture.

In terms of the issue of supply of uranium for nuclear power…

“Although there is a finite supply of uranium available, this will not be a limiting factor for investment in nuclear capacity for the next 50 years.”

What’s the answer? Well, I believe that nuclear power has vast potential to fill the 30 to 40 year gap from now until the time when renewables are realistically able to take up the very significant energy demand. Renewables just aren’t ready yet and cannot provide guaranteed power supplies. The solar PV panels on my roof are great, but only supply 50% of our electricity and not much at all during the winter months.

I also believe de-centralised power systems are the way forward, given the inefficiencies of the national grid (8% of total energy lost through heat from cables and transformers). Utilising locally produced energy, from renewable sources is the logical approach.

What will certainly be part of the solution up to the point renewables take over is an increasing emphasis on energy saving measures and renewable projects. You can’t just jump from our fossil-fuel dependent world to a clean and sustainable world overnight. It’s this bridge which is the real issue. No-one thinks renewables can’t offer a long-term energy solution, it’s just the process of moving from fossil-fuels to renewables which will be the real challenge. This won’t be a quick process and it won’t be without serious conflicts.

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.” Lester R. Brown (President, Earth Policy Institute): time for plan B

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New windows…

We’ve just had 2 new windows fitted in the back bedroom and bathroom. the old ones were roughly 10 years old and were on course to fail in the next year or so. There was a lot of condensation on the inside in the mornings and the room were quite cold.

Anyway, the first test was to see if there was condensation on them in the morning – nothing there!

The large bathroom window has a higher glazing bar with a small opening at the top, giving a large and unobstructed view over the back gardens. Really weird effect, given that usually windows have the central glazing bar. Really happy with it and it’s also resulting in far less condensation, even directly after showers.

The guys from Safestyle UK kept asking us if we wanted it frosted but we didn’t. There’s a really good view from there and it really helps to open up the internal space. We’ve got a blind which we use when it’s darker etc so no chance of anyone with a telescope having a sneaky look!

The windows are part of the grand plan for making the house more energy efficient and should help to keep the temperature more even.

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