Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Nuclear Future?

Saturday, December 10th, 2005

Right, my first serious post seems to be about a comment in the guardian by Simon ‘Tory Boy’ Jenkins, found here about how bad renewable energy is and how we all need nuclear power. This was going to be a measured opinion of my own reasons why nuclear power is not the answer, but I was encouraged to give Jenkins a thourough Fisking in order to court controversy and so that people might actually read my weblog. So here goes…

Anyway, the comment begins by saying that global warming is a problem and that we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I don’t think anyone apart from the US government will deny that. It also says that noone can agree on the figures, so I will feel justified in cherry-picking the results that agree with what I want to say in the same way that Jenkins does, but in a less well-researched way (I have to work for a living, ish).

First fiskage:

One thing at least is new. The prime minister, in close conversation with his chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, wants urgently to revise perhaps his worst-ever white paper, on energy policy in 2003 (a vintage year for dodgy dossiers). It was a monument to the doctrine of unripe time, concluding that nuclear power was messy, renewables glamorous and the whole business problematic. It was not a white paper but a fudge paper.

Since then the great god of legacy has been gnawing at Blair’s vitals. He finds himself trapped by a syllogism. His target is that Britain must make a 20% emissions cut by 2010. There is no way of coming close to such a cut except by recourse to nuclear power. Therefore meeting the target means building new nuclear stations immediately. Don’t build the stations and you will not get near the target. QED.

Hmm, I have a great respect for David King, but it seems like the latest energy review is the fudge given that nothing has changed since the last paper but suddenly nuclear power is seen as indespensible rather than messy, expensive and unneccessary. Apparently we can only get a 20% reduction in emissions by 2010 using nuclear power but it will take about 15 years to build a new nuclear power station, including planning etc. - there was planning permission to build new stations on current sites but it has expired. Thus build new stations and you will get near the target 10 years after the deadline.

Even if every beauty spot in Britain were coated in windmills their contribution to the Kyoto target would be minuscule.

Right, according to the susdainable development comission report “Wind Power in the UK” , to get 10% of our power from onshore wind using an average of 2MW turbines would use up 2,340 ha, which is about 0.0001% of the available land in the UK. Compare this with 3.3 million ha used in urban areas about which Jenkins has no complaint.

Jenkins goes on to say that nuclear power stations can be built quicker if planning systems are bypassed, not caring that wind farms take about 7 years to build, most of which is due to gaining planning permission (told to me by a guy who works for a company that builds wind farms). The construction rate for wind farms are only limited by the rate at which permission can be granted for them (see later), so they could also benefit from relaxed planning. He then goes on about the new Finnish reactor, although it is heavily subsidised by the French (although again I can’t remember where I found that information).

The nuclear company EDF Energy claims not to need subsidy for such stations. The claim is at least worth testing.

EDF Energy is not a nuclear company. Or at least they won’t admit to it. To be pedantic most of the nuclear power stations are run by British Energy apart from a few other types of reactor. If nuclear is cost effective then I will tell the industry to put it’s money where it’s mouth is and ask to build new reactors, although apparently there is nothing stopping them at the moment. This means that the only reason new reactors are not being built is that they are not considered economical.

there is no point in wasting subsidy on the relatively small relief to global warming offered by most renewables. Nuclear can do it all, as France shows. Spend money instead on energy-saving - with money raised by taxing energy-greed.

Energy saving, what a good idea, unless it happens to collide with the interests of the construction lobby. Personally I feel that any group that has the money to afford a really good lobby group should be taxed as much as possible as they are clearly making too much money, but that is a side issue. But anyway energy efficiency is a good idea as there is no reason why energy use should continue rising. On the other hand, nuclear cannot do it all as it takes a day or so to change the power output of a nuclear plant so it is only sufficient to supply base load. The reason economy7 electricity was introduced in the UK (cheap night time electricity for any foreigners reading this) is that there was loads of cheap electricity available at night time from nuclear power that could not be shut down. For this reason, electricity from nuclear power sells for less than that from gas and coal, which can be continuously varied. Renewable energy is subsidised by the renewables obligation, which would represent an increase in the electricity bill of aroud 5% in 2010 compared to using no renewables.

Next point: energy not always available from wind. Essentially the capacity factor of an onshore wind turbine in the UK is around 30% (about 40% offshore due to higher wind), so a 3MW turbine will produce an average of about 1MW over the course of a year. The output from a wind farm broadly follows demand, producing more power in the evening as shown here but this is not always certain. However the National Grid need to keep capacity in reserve in order to deal with unschedudled shutdown of conventional power stations (70-85% reliability for gas power), and it is estimated that such a system would allow for around 20% of the power to come from wind without any additional reserve.

And that is the end of the comment, not as annoying as I remember it being when I first read it. Now for my opinions:

Another argument for nuclear power has been about security of supply, in that it is more secure than gettin gas through all sorts of nasty countries in eastern europe, and the fact that the cost of uranium has remained fairly constant in recent years. Interestingly the best comment I have read comes from the massively pro-nuclear Times, suggesting that the easily extractable uranium will run out fairly quickly if everyone goes nuclear. The article makes no mention of Australia, considered to have the largest deposits of uranium, much of which is contained in the wonderful Kakadu national park, a UNESCO world heritage site where Crocodile Dundee was filmed. It is interesting that we would rather destroy a priceless part of another country than suffer a few wind turbines in our back yard.

It seems interesting that a government that is so keen on the markets would be so keen on nuclear power, especially when it would require a massive rigging of the market to make it affordable. Currently onshore wind power is only slightly higher in cost than the wholesale electricity price (see SDC report linked above), and with the renewables obligation to encourage renewables investment offshore wind is very attractive. In fact, developers can’t build the things quick enough, and are limited only by the length of the planning process. Even if nuclear power were eligible for renewables obligation certificates, onshore wind would still be the preferable option, with offshore wind and carbon capture and storage also cheaper. What is more, the cost of electricity from a wind farm only depends on the initial investment and the rate at which this is repayed (usually fixed) and this is much more stable and secure than gas or nuclear, which rely on the prices of gas and uranium on the open market.

To be honest it all comes down to what resources the UK has. We can get energy from nuclear, but we no longer have a nuclear industry, so we will end up buying cheap pressurised water reactors from the US with low thermal efficiency and low uranium usage and be reliant on the technology of other countries. On the other hand we have the following resources:

  1. Lots of wind (at least 27% capacity factor, compared with 20% in Denmark and 15% in Germany)
  2. Big tides - the Severn Bore is fairly huge, and a tidal power station could generate around 8GW. Unfortunately this is only at certain times of the day. Tidal barrages are expensive and controversial, and tidal stream turbines untested but tidal lagoons are a good option.
  3. Big piles of coal, enough for 150 years or so. Bit dirty, but coal gassification will allow combustion in a combined cycle power station for higher efficency, plus it can be zero emission with carbon capture and storage.
  4. A load of half-empty oil wells. Ripe for pumping excess carbon dioxide from coal power down, which will also improve the yeild of the oil well.

Although leaving huge piles of carbon dioxide for future generations is not exactly sustainable, it is better than the alternatives of either giving them a dead planet or a whole load of nuclear waste. Investing in the technologies mentioned above will make the UK energy sufficient, while also giving us a homegrown industry rather than buying nuclear technology from other countries, while also saving us money. It is for these reasons that I can’t support nuclear power.

A final thought: we have the best wind resources in europe, so surely it is our duty to exploit them as best we can, and even sell the resulting energy to the rest of europe. Maybe we can buy their excess nuclear power or something.