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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Sharing the benefits of wind power…

‘Most Britons like wind power, but the minority who don’t exert a painful electoral grip on the Conservative party. The only solution is to ensure those who live with the turbines also profit from them.’

This is such a simple and obvious solution. Bring communities into the deal and spread the benefits.

Another eye-opening set of figures from Germany (again, leading the way)…

‘In Germany, 20% of all electricity comes from renewable energy and over 65% of the turbines and solar panels are owned by individuals, farmers and communities. Bringing power to the people, at the expense of unpopular utility companies, has delivered overwhelming public acceptance.’

But…

‘In the UK, less than 10% of renewable energy is owned locally. Over 90% is owned by the big energy firms, seen as untrusted giants dumping turbines into the countryside and taking the proceeds out.’

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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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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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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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/02/environmental-fixes-all-greens-lost

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.

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Nuclear monbiot…

This is getting scary… This is the third article in as many days from George Monbiot which i’ve agreed with!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/mar/16/japan-nuclear-crisis-atomic-energy

This article is basically how I see the nuclear debate. Renewables over nuclear but with a massive pinch of realism thrown in. I started counting the number of coal power plants in China, on the Wikipedia page but lost the will to live after 180! There were at least twice that number in all (in terms of capacity over 1KW).

If either commercial nuclear power or far more efficient renewables technology isn’t brought forward very soon, it won’t matter about the debate. Countries like Russia, China, Brazil, USA who have access to huge coal reserves will just concentrate on that. The other avenue to explore is ‘clean’ coal, but this is even less appealing than nuclear!

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Nuclear energy = green…?

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 GREENGreen 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.’

  • PaulGMorris

    3 October 2010 3:48AM

    ‘Nuclear is not the solution for three main reasons:
    1) Current nuclear nations would not permit other nations to develop nuclear to reduce their carbon emissions
    2) Nuclear produces highly radioactive pollutants that will remain dangerous for generations
    3) We would need to rely on overseas sources for the uranium, which is itself a finite resource that cannot support global energy needs.

    Energy efficiency and renewable technologies are the solution. Investing in nuclear would be investing in the wrong technology.’

  • eightball

    3 October 2010 4:16AM

    @PaulGMorris

    ‘You make the common assumption that Nuclear power means Uranium based reactors. The historical reason that Uranium reactors were the most popular is that part of the waste, Plutonium, is needed for the production of nuclear weapons. Now that building bombs is less of a priority we are still stuck with the same waste. But Uranium is not the only base material that can be used. Modern Chinese and Indian reactors are being built to use Thorium, which is a far more common resource. Thoriums main advantage is that the reactor produces far less radioactive waste than Uranium. Cheaper, cleaner and safer.’

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

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