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

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.


Getting rid of fossil fuels…


This gallery contains 3 photos.

As news of weather stations reading beyond the 400 parts per million of Carbon Dioxide comes in, I ask when and how will we be able to leave fossil fuels behind and therefore be able to avoid runaway global climate … Continue reading

The nuclear debate: Monbiot v Simon…


Probably the most interesting 5,000 words i’ve read for many years. If you are into energy production, the environment or sustainability, this small exchange between George Monbiot and Theo Simon will really bring the issue of nuclear power into focus.

The article in full: Theo Simon response to George Monbiot

The two issues which really do need to be investigated are the ‘need’ for new nuclear power (can renewables fill that gap and quickly enough to prevent runaway climate change?) and the issue of what happens to the nuclear waste?

As things stand, i’m in favour of a new generation of nuclear waste-processing power stations, not power stations which will create the next waste legacy for generations to come. I’m also very interested in exactly how renewables will fill the gap, but fear that coal and gas will inevitably fill the gap instead, as is happening already in Germany and Japan.


Iran, ‘according to’ The New York Times…

I was considering doing a series of posts generally titled ‘according to…’ where i’ll scan a newspaper clipping of a prominent news story or interesting event. Instead of lots of waffle from yours truly, i’ll just give a very brief explanation of what I thought stood out of the featured article, maybe using the technique developed by the Achitects Journal where a highlighted section of text is used in place of traditional ‘quotes’.

But, this being me, my creative energy is greater than my implementing energy, meaning things just get left in ‘drafts’ or in notebooks, without the time or energy to finish them off or bring them to life! Claire calls me ‘half-job’! Charming. : )

So, here is the the first ‘according to’ post, without my opinions – Facing the Prospect of a Nuclear Iran, by David E. Sanger, writing in the New York Times.

A very well written article which neatly sums up many of the relevant issues. This is a story to watch and could shape the next generation of Middle East relations.


Experimental Thorium reactor…

This is just too much to take – the UK is continuously giving up and falling behind every other country in terms of renewable technology. Now India is pressing ahead with an experimental Thorium reactor!

Article pdf: India plans ‘safer’ nuclear plant powered by thorium | Environment | The Guardian

This is exactly the sort of technology which governments need to get behind and develop as there is no profit for private companies to make from this very early stage of development, or maybe only after 10 years, which is a long timescale for an investment.

Tidal, wind, CCS, nuclear thorium… when is the Government going to get the idea and invest in our future manufacturing industry – renewable technology? Shocking.

And here is why it is so annoying… Green house gas levels are rocketing and the time-scales for hitting the 2 degree warming level are reducing.


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


Energy and pollution…

I just realised it’s been at least a day since my last rant about energy/pollution and the environment, so here goes… : )

Another great article from Monbiot on the issue of pollution, from one of the most feared sources on Earth – Nuclear power!

‘Let’s begin with safety. The best evidence for the safety and resilience of nuclear power plants can be found at Fukushima. Not at Fukushima Daiichi, the power station where the meltdowns and explosions took place, but at Fukushima Daini, the plant next door. You’ve never heard of it? There’s a good reason for that. It was run by the same slovenly company. It was hit by the same earthquake and the same tsunami. But it survived. Like every other nuclear plant struck by the wave, it went into automatic cold shutdown. With the exception of a nuclear missile attack, it withstood the sternest of all possible tests.

What we see here is the difference between 1970s and 1980s safety features. The first Daiichi reactor was licensed in 1971. The first Daini reactor was licensed in 1982. Today’s technologies are safer still. The pebble bed reactors now being tested by China, for example, shut themselves down if they begin to overheat as an inherent property of the physics they exploit. Using a plant built 40 years ago to argue against 21st-century power stations is like using the Hindenburg disaster to contend that modern air travel is unsafe.

Compare it to the damage and death that climate change will cause, and you find that our response is so disproportionate as to constitute a form of madness. It’s a straightforward pay-off. Germany’s promise to ditch nuclear power will produce an extra 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. In June Angela Merkel announced a possible doubling of the capacity of the coal and gas plants Germany will build in the next 10 years. Already Germany has been burning brown coal, one of the most polluting fuels on earth, to make up the shortfall. The renewable technologies which should have replaced fossil fuels will instead replace nuclear power.’

In terms of pollution reduction, David JC MacKay (Professor of Natural Philosophy Department of Physics, Cambridge) has developed an amazing resource website which covers every topic within the field of sustainable energy.

Here are some extracts from the website.

Fast breeder reactors use nuclear fuel 60 times more efficiently than once-through reactors and use the waste produced by standard reactors.

– The nuclear energy available per atom is roughly 1 million times more than the chemical energy per atom of conventional energy, meaning the waste in theory is 1 million times less. As an illustration, the amount of natural uranium required to provide the same amount of energy as 16 kg of fossil fuels, in a standard fission reactor, is 2 grams – 8,000 times more power per weight. This isn’t a million times more because most reactors only use 1% of the total nuclear potential of the uranium used as fuel.

– The period of time nuclear waste is dangerous = 1000 years, not 100,000 as suggested by other sources. The 100,000 year figure is apparently the time the Uranium will take to decay to a safe radiation level, but as a raw material found within uranium mines, it is as radioactive as nuclear waste which has been stored for 1000 years.

If this technology can be refined and properly controlled (still a big question mark) then the cost and efficiency of this power source could easily decarbonise our whole existing economy, as well as provide the bridge to the longer-term solution which is renewable energy from solar, wind, tidal and thermal.


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.

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.


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.’

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.(

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


Film: ‘Into Eternity’…

A human made structure capable of lasting 100,000 years, designed to store nuclear waste. The Onkalo nuclear waste repository.

This is the subject of the documentary film Into Eternity, directed by Danish director Michael Madsen. We just watched this last night and it was an amazing film. It explores the psychological, political and philosophical issues behind the very long-term storage of nuclear waste.

One of the lasting images was the ‘landscape of thorns’; one of the potential methods of depicting to future generations what is stored there. One of the major concerns was if at some distant (or not so distant) point in the future, human society had broken down to a level where the knowledge of the facility had been lost, but also our modern communication methods and languages had also changed. What if humans tried to uncover the facility and could not understand the markers left behind by our generation?

The main conclusion was that we cannot predict what the distant future will hold and what the fate of Onkalo will be. The scientists and engineers interviewed basically said they had to deal with the theories and information that exist as at this time and the necessity to deal with the nuclear waste legacy of the previous generations (as well as our own) was too big a responsibility to just ignore. They had to take action and after considering all the issues, this was their conclusion.

There will have to be many more Onkalo facilities in other countries, but the issue of reprocessing waste still needs to be very carefully considered, if we are to reduce the waste stock and try and get as much use out of the limited resources. Thorium also needs to be considered as an alternative to plutonium, given it only stays radioactive for roughly 100 years!


Wind vs nuclear & coal – lost in energy…

So, what is the future source of electrical power?

The candidates are coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric and tidal. There are other smaller options, such as biomass, but these are the main ones.

Since Fukushima, there has been a lot more of an open debate, and increasing public awareness, of the issues surrounding future energy provision. The key issue has obviously been about nuclear power, but there are equally important questions about other sources of power. If nuclear is not considered an appropriate contender, what will take it’s place?

So, according to Wikipedia, the UK’s existing nuclear output is 10,982 MW, which is 16% of the total consumption in the UK.

A comparison can easily be made with wind power, which is probably the front runner for the UK. The large off-shore wind turbines produce roughly 5 MW each (max. output) and this type of wind power seems to be the trend right now, given less planning restrictions and economies of scale. Approximately 2,196 of these 5 MW wind turbines would be needed to replace the existing nuclear output.

A few recently developed offshore wind farms give an indication of what’s possible right now.

Thanet (off the coast of Kent) is the UK’s largest wind farm and comprises 100 of the 5 MW turbines, for a total of around 300 MW (3 MW per turbine due to inefficiencies). The UK would need 36 of these (100+ turbine) schemes to equal the present nuclear output!

Greater Gabbard wind farm = 500 MW from 140 turbines, at an estimated cost of £1.5 Billion. That’s £3,000,000 (£3M) per MW produced.

London Array scheme in the Thames Estuary = 1000 MW when built, at a cost of £2.2 Billion. That’s £2,000,000 (£2M) per MW produced. This will be the biggest anywhere and will also be the most cost-efficient, due mainly to the economies of scale.

In terms of a comparison with the nuclear option, the Olkiluoto nuclear power reactor being built right now in Finland, will produce 1500 MW and is costing a fixed price of €3 Billion (£2.6 Billion), although there appear to be cost and time over runs! That’s £1,733,000 (£1.73M) per MW produced.

So, the latest nuclear power station being built produces a third more power at a lower cost per MW.

Coal in another major world power source and is the default option for any country, given the vast reserves found in many areas of the planet and the relative cost efficiency of coal. There are 12 coal power stations (over the 100MW output level) in UK, which equals approximately 23,000 MW output. This is more than double the nuclear output.

There is an apparent need to get these off-line as quickly as possible, due to their huge environmental impact (air pollution, radiation, carbon dioxide, acid rain). If all of these were to be taken off-line, this would equal another 76 (100 turbine+) wind schemes.

So to replace just the existing coal and nuclear output with wind, it would need more than 115 wind farms, each of over 100 turbines. This would be more than 11,500 turbines, at 3 MW average each.

This is one of the main problems at the moment. The cost of installing and maintaining completely new grid systems for the wind farms to feed into is massive. This is another reason why conventional land based power stations are more efficient, as they tie into existing grid infrastructure.

Add to this the energy demand of the ‘cost’ of switching every car to electric, rather than petrol, to reduce then eliminate the pollution and carbon from the transport sector. A quote from George Monbiot’s blog on this subject.

The case against reducing electricity supplies is just as clear. For example, the Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology urges a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030 – a goal I strongly support. It also envisages a near-doubling of electricity production. The reason is that the most viable means of decarbonising both transport and heating is to replace the fuels they use with low-carbon electricity. Cut the electricity supply and we’re stuck with oil and gas. If we close down nuclear plants, we must accept an even greater expansion of renewables than currently proposed. Given the tremendous public resistance to even a modest increase in windfarms and new power lines, that’s going to be tough.

A major consideration concerning the roll out of any number of nuclear reactors is the cost of processing the nuclear waste and the long-term storage of that waste. The example from Finland also includes the world’s first (very) long-term, purpose built nuclear storage site, 3 miles from the Olkiluoto power station. Named Onkalo, it will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, for the next 100 years. It will then be back-filled and sealed for 100,000 years.

A recent documentary on this facility, titled Into Eternity (by Danish director Michael Madsen), explores the process which the Finnish authorities went through in deciding to give permission for this facility, as well as the construction itself. I’ve just ordered this film from Amazon so will do a review once I’ve watched it!

An alternative method of dealing with the nuclear waste, and one which I fully support, is to reprocess and recycle the waste. There are many ways to do this and the conclusions to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, ‘spent fuel reprocessing options’ report includes re-processing as an important part of the process. The report also concludes multi-national fuel centres, operating within an independent international framework, are needed.

IAEA – spent fuel reprocessing options – aug 2008

‘The design of advanced reprocessing methods must deal in a comprehensive manner with (1) safety, (2) the control and minimization of plant effluents, (3) minimization of the waste generation, (4) the production of stable and durable waste forms, and (5) economic competitiveness. International collaboration on the development of advanced reprocessing methods, considering the magnitude of the challenges, is essential to facilitate the future deployment of these technologies.’

The significant other side to the whole energy debate is the need for energy conservation and lifestyle changes. This is the tricky part, given it involves billions of individual decisions by members of the public. There is some scope for Government intervention in this issue but, call my cynical, the majority of people really don’t care, let along even accept there is a problem. Hardly furtile ground for a mass uprising towards the necessary clean and sustainable future!

Unless people, companies & organisations are forced by law into it, they generally won’t, unless it’s part of a marketing strategy. The motivated few will not make a big difference, unless that is, you happen to be a senior policy maker in whitehall, and your boss also happens to be that way inclined, and most of the Cabinet are too… etc etc.! They are not getting strong signals about this from the general public and so will be less inclined to act.

The next time you turn on your microwave, tv, computer, ipad, ipod, radio, dishwasher, wireless router, washing machine, blender, kettle, toaster, grill, clothes dryer, hair dryer, camera, fridge or freezer, oven, mobile phone, calculator, lights, car, DVD/CD player, stereo, shaver, clock, bike lights  – think how hard it’s going to be to alter billions of people’s lifestyles and reduce our reliance on these things, in an age of dependence on computers and technology.

Changing people’s perceptions, attitudes and choices is the hard, and I would say, unrealistic path to the solution. How many people still smoke, even with overwhelming evidence which says it causes cancer? Nicotine, like modern electric-eating technology is addictive. Consumerism is addictive. The internet is addictive. No wonder 4 Billion people in the developing world want to experience what we have had in the ‘west’ for the last few decades.


Evidence meltdown – radiation…

Another great blog post by GM. He questioned the evidence against nuclear radiation and got some surprising answers back.

Contrary to popular belief, the actual deaths as a direct or indirect result of Chernobyl seem to number not in the hundred’s of thousands, but only in the 10’s. It’s a shame there is so much scare-mongering surrounding this issue. I think a lot of it is connected with the thought of nuclear weapons, but there must also be some problem with contaminated soils.


BBC Viewpoint radiation article…

A logical BBC article on nuclear radiation…

BBC radiation article

I suppose it’s always useful to have a logical or reasoned viewpoint to try and balance out the understandably over-emotional reactions to what’s going on. If I had been commenting on the events at the Fukushima plant a year ago, I would have been very emotional and unbalanced about it.

It’s an amazing feeling being able to look at this issue in a new light and be a lot more rationale about it. This approach has allowed me to really look into these sorts of issues and not be swept away in negative (or positive) feelings. A very liberating experience!

Maybe James Lovelock was right!