Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Ed's energy errors

As expected Energy Secretary Ed Davey has today given planning consent for another nuclear power station - Hinkley Point C - in Somerset (picture of the announcement left). French energy giant EDF want to construct two reactors at the proposed power plant at a massive cost of £14 billion, though a deal with the government on a guaranteed long term price they can charge for the electricity generated – in effect the subsidy the Coaltion Govt said it would never give - has not yet been done though a compromise seems likely (see here).

We are told that the country must build new nuclear plants to help meet its climate change goals and to avoid overdependence on imported fuels amid dwindling North Sea oil and gas supplies. More nuclear might mean that we use less fossil fuel, unless of course total energy use rises as in the past and we use both more nuclear and more fossil fuel – nuclear is after all part of a strategy of economic expansion that in the past has meant more energy consumption. In addition if we don’t import as much gas we will still be import dependent - the uranium oxide from which nuclear fuel for power stations is made comes from abroad. This country has no uranium oxide of its own – the countries that can produce and supply concentrated uranium oxides include Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Namibia, Niger, Uzbekistan, the United States, Ukraine and China.

Expanding nuclear power to help fight climate change is a very slow, ineffective method and a misdirection of money that we are very short of.  The world has had nuclear power since the 1950's and we still have climate change! The latest reports say that Hinkley C will take ten years to build and once operating it will not save us any carbon at all until it has paid back the carbon costs of construction. Several years before the Government abolished them their own advisors at the
Sustainable Development Commission produced figures to show that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% after 2025. It takes quite some time to approve, build and get nuclear stations into full operation. In the meantime there is a high carbon cost in construction and also in the whole nuclear fuel cycle (in particular mining the ore, transporting it thousands of miles across the world and then manufacturing the fuel...). Plus of course the nuclear electricity generated can’t directly replace all of the fossil fuel used eg in gas central heating systems and petrol/diesel from oil used in cars.

It is several times cheaper to save energy through cutting our currently very high energy waste to a minimum than it is to generate it by any means. It pays for itself in a relatively short time through lowered bills. This is also the most rapid and effective way to cut carbon emissions, fight climate change, and reduce our dependence on imported fuels. Even though the Coalition Government claims to be green (many make this claim but far too few live up to it) they are still thinking in terms of energy generation when a sustainable society requires the establishment of a lower and more renewable energy culture. Government needs to be determined to help shape this future but currently is still stuck in the past.

There has always been a lot of talk from the Coalition Govt about an enterprise economy, built by entrepreneurs. But is nuclear technology the kind that can be tinkered with, adapted and developed by small and medium-sized businesses and individuals? Self-evidently it is not. Yet energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy technologies are amenable and are rapidly developing - the future is clearly with these and we should be ensuring billions are invested in them.

Nuclear power does not fit well with the basic engineering criterion of economy of means ie doing tasks with the minimum of energy supplied in the most effective way. Why split atoms just to boil a kettle of water?? In any case for how long will the source of the atoms split in the nuclear fuel be economically available? The more nuclear power is expanded the more uranium oxide is needed to make more nuclear fuel. Thus more uranium ore is mined, cutting the quality of the ore as it depletes. Energy and thus carbon costs of uranium ore mining rise as more mining is needed to obtain the same amount of oxide. Exhaustion of high quality ores happens more and more quickly if more and more nuclear stations are built. Continue with this policy and the uranium being mined would provide an ever decreasing amount of  energy for each tonne of rock mined, until any energy advantage over other fuels is lost.

Everyone acknowledges the very high capital
costs of nuclear power (and nobody yet knows for sure what the total decommissioning costs will finally be as we have too little experience of it to tell). Tens of billions are needed to build each station. This is a very large drain on resources that Govt and businesses should be investing in cutting energy waste and increasing renewable energy generation methods, which as the only sustainable option we must develop at some point anyway. There's no time like the present to do this.

We dont
assess ourtechnological options properly. Nuclear does not come out well if technical capabilities and limitations, total cost-effectiveness, socio-economic effects such as efficiency of job creation and the ability to keep safe and accurate records of nuclear waste disposal for thousands of yrs, and environmental impacts are all fairly considered. Yet this would not be where assessment of the technology should end, since we should progressively widen the domain of issues to be considered, introducing more factors and interactions - like the ripple effect of throwing a stone into a still lake. Nuclear fission, the only commercially proven nuclear technology, certainly does not fit in with building a sustainable society because no-one disputes that it leaves ongoing problems for future generations and of course the uranium fuel is a finite resource.
Plutonium,  whose natural occurance on Earth is measured in trace amounts only, is lethal. It is highly toxic as well as radioactive. An evenly distributed 500 kg could kill the Earth's human population approx 90 times (at one microgram per person). Yet when I visited Sellafield, the site of the UK's first nuclear station and where nuclear waste is reprocessed, several yrs ago, the tour guide said that approx 500kg of plutonium had been emitted to the Irish Sea over the sites lifetime. There are huge and highly expensive nuclear waste handling, storage and disposal problems and there is far too little scientific consensus on the best way to do it - for the existing waste let alone the extra produced from more nuclear stations. Waste can be active for thousands of yrs. How can it be guaranteed that the institutions needed to manage nuclear waste disposal sites would be stable for this length of time? If the future is anything like the past then whole civilisations can come and go in this time.
There are a wide range of safety and security issues for nuclear stations: learning lessons from major accidents like Fukushima in Japan, ThreeMile Island in the USA, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union and Windscale in the UK; attempting to predict and 'eliminate' human error in the design, construction, operation and decommissioning; establishing 'safe' levels of radioactivity; 'safe' transport of nuclear waste through urban areas such as Bristol for 'safe' disposal for thousands of yrs; planning what it is best to do in the event of a serious incident/accident; whether we can effectively prevent terrorist attacks eg by flying planes into stations, driving cars/lorries loaded to be bombs.

Then of course there are the major ethical issues involved in reprocessing some nuclear waste and providing material for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.

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