It would be really easy to write a reactionary post about nuclear power, based on the recent and ongoing events in Japan! But this doesn’t really do justice to the subject, particularly given the present importance of nuclear as a power source for much of the developed world.
This is one of about 5 draft posts i’ve been adding to over the last few months (on various subjects, including the Israel – Palestinian conflict, fuel costs and the basis for war in Iraq) and which i’ve just not had enough time to finish! Energy production and climate change are two of my top blog interests and any post will fall short of the importance of the subject, but it’s useful to put out some thoughts.
So, what don’t I like about Nuclear or why am I a sceptic?
– takes vital funding away from research into renewable energy technology
– it’s a bridging technology, from dirty fossil fuels such as coal, to cleaner renewable technology, including wind, solar and wave
– massive financial costs associated with building and decommissioning of reactors
– uses or has used fairly scarce and sometimes hard to obtain materials as an energy source
– long-term storage of waste products which never stop being dangerous
– possible use of associated waste materials for nuclear weapons
– susceptibility of reactors to external influences, including terrorism and natural disasters
Not exactly a simple ‘TO DO’ list of issues.
It’s easy to fall into the tried and tested groove of being sceptical about nuclear power, but i’m trying here to look beyond the issues i’ve listed above and to really consider how important each of them is. Part of the problem is that each of those issues could easily take a year of research to fully investigate, so, on second thoughts, maybe not!
Each of the issues has a varying amount of importance to different groups or people, but the thing I keep coming back to is the issue of renewable energy. Renewables are by their nature sustainable.
In no way is nuclear energy production GREEN. Green energy = renewable energy. Just because in some ways it is a better source of power than some of the fossil fuel sources (such as coal and oil), doesn’t mean it is green.
My main issue with the approach to nuclear power is about funding. New renewable technology requires significant levels of funding to get them to a commercial efficiency/output level. Without this start up research & design investment, the technologies never reach the level where private companies are able to invest in them, therefore vastly limiting their further development. State funding is great up to a point, but for renewable power to really take over from the fossil-fuel based sources, a greater level of start up funding is needed. If the main start up costs have been traditionally met by governments, this doesn’t bode well for the renewable technologies, given the apparent trend, both historically and at present, for large infrastructure projects, including a new generation of nuclear power stations.
One key example of the difference that governments can make is the agreement of the private power companies to pay for the Feed-In Tariff for private energy production. This is making energy production affordable to large numbers of households and will in turn drive the costs associated with this technology down. The more governments and private companies invest in nuclear, the less there will be to invest in clean, renewable power sources.
The environmental impact of nuclear is also significant. A nuclear power station may not emit much CO2 while operating, but this type of analysis always misses the massive impact of mining and transporting the source energy materials, the materials to build and run the power stations and the equally massive impact of decommissioning and waste storage. The REAL full-life environmental impact of a nuclear power plant is rarely mentioned. What is the cost of storing and maintaining the nuclear waste for the next 1000 years? This is NEVER mentioned.
What’s the power output of wind versus nuclear? A 5MW large offshore turbine v 4,696MW Fukushima Nuclear plant (which is large compared to the average). You would need 940 wind turbines to equal the output of that one power station. This is why governments love large, centrally planned power stations.
The future of nuclear? Fusion? Thorium reactors? Fusion has not been shown to generate more power than it actually uses, but Thorium is interesting. Check out this article for more… China enters race to develop nuclear energy from thorium.
‘Imagine how the nuclear energy debate might differ if the fuel was abundant and distributed across the world; if there was no real possibility of creating weapons-grade material as part of the process; if the waste remained toxic for hundreds rather than thousands of years; and if the power stations were small and presented no risk of massive explosions.’
The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is a research project by the Chinese government which aims to produce energy at 6.8p per KWh. more…
There is also some interest in recycled plutonium, but the current estimates are £250 Million to subsidise the production of the necessary fuel from the nuclear waste.
Two comments from various articles…
‘I suspect the response to climate change will be more like ‘How Buildings Learn’ – gradual, messy, piecemeal, subject to huge mistakes, only done when necessary or financially possible and sometimes not actioned at all. I see no evidence people are acting in a way that’s different to before – the race to secure resources has already begun and geopolitical or military solutions might be more in line with nation state thinking.’
Finally, solar power = the energy of future…
‘A March 2010 experimental demonstration of a design by a Caltech group which has an absorption efficiency of 85% in sunlight and 95% at certain wavelengths (it is claimed to have near perfect quantum efficiency).’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaics