UK nuclear: Walking into darkness with eyes screwed shut
'Watching brief' will be difficult when lights go out
Comment So the House of Lords Science and Technology committee has reported on the state of the UK's nuclear industry and government plans for carrying it forward: and, as anyone who follows these matters would expect, the noble lords have reported on a situation of total, shambolic chaos.
That chaos has come about, not by unavoidable circumstance or by carelessness, but almost with malice aforethought. Successive governments have failed, pretty much on purpose, to give any clear message on nuclear power and have maintained pathetically low levels of research funding into it – lower, indeed, than some nations which don't even have an active nuclear sector.
The facts on nuclear are pretty clear. It is far and away the safest means of generating a given amount of electrical energy known to man – regardless of cretinous media coverage of Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island (health consequences: nil, 56 deaths and nil respectively). If you want to generate some power and don't want to cause needless deaths and injuries, you should use nuclear.
Nuclear, in fact, generates almost all the low-carbon and strategically secure energy at the UK's disposal: approximately 80 per cent of it, in fact, according to the Lords' report. The only other secure low-carbon source which can even be discerned in the figures is wind, which is already driving up electricity bills very uncomfortably, and which makes a contribution less than a quarter the size of that from our small and aged nuclear fleet.
And one has to remember that most of our electricity is still generated by burning coal, oil and gas: and electricity accounts for only a tenth of our total energy consumption. The other 90 per cent – transport, heating, industries etc – is almost entirely fossil-powered. Nuclear electricity accounts for less than 2 per cent of our energy use, and wind (big daddy of UK renewables) is utterly – totally, completely – insignificant.
And yet the government says it will cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by the year 2050. This is to be done by largely electrifying surface transport, heating, industry etc. Even if we also become enormously more stingy with energy – bear in mind the only way this can be done is raising its price, meaning a big hit to the lifestyle of anyone who isn't rich and a probable departure overseas of much of our remaining manufacturing – we will need immense amounts more electricity, not less.
At the lowest, most poverty-stricken level, UK plc would require say seven times as much electricity as it now does – and pretty much all of it would need to be low carbon. Wind could certainly supply some of this, at tremendous cost, but realistically the bulk of it would have to be nuclear. Even the government states an aspiration to get 40 per cent of UK electricity from nuclear.
In other words the government's stated aspirations call for an expansion of nuclear capacity by not less than 17 times over the present level – most probably much, much more. And yet we learn that ministers have more or less washed their hands of it (they describe this a "taking a watching brief"). They will let the current aged generations of British nuclear scientists and engineers retire without replacement, perhaps buying in some French kit and expertise to maintain a largely moribund capability, meanwhile hoping wishfully that some miracle will happen.
But if one doesn't – no shale + carbon capture, no fusion, no miracle algae more efficient than solar panels to the rescue – we'll wind up with the worst of all worlds: expensive electricity subject to frequent blackouts, high carbon emissions, massive energy imports from suspect regimes all at once.
When we could have a clean, safe, largely electric Britain fuelled by uranium from our good friends in Canada or Australia – many years' national supply of which could be kept in reserve in a few small buildings here in the UK. With electricity abundant rather than kept artificially expensive to discourage its use, we could even use it to make hydrocarbons out of wastes or sequestered carbon. And almost nobody would need to die keeping astonishingly dangerous and primitive coal mines, wind farms or gas fields running to do it.
The Lords' committee report can be read here. ®
I'm curious about this statement
What are the cleaner and cheaper alternatives? Seriously - I'm cautiously pro-nuclear, but I try to keep an open mind, but I can't see anything else that has the generation potential with such ease.
The options as I see them are thus:
Wind - expensive, not reliable, can't be used for baseload. Only works in certain conditions. Changes the weather downwind of the site, requires enormous amounts of space.
Solar - panels are a nightmare to manufacture, the energy budget in creating them is huge to the extend that 1m² of high-quality polycrystalline panels has a whole-life breakeven after 14 years, and require enormous amounts of space. Extensive maintenance requirements.
Geothermal - has potential, but widescale applications would require a lot of wells to be sunk, and deep, which would be expensive. There is also the concern about the amount of hot steam released into the atmosphere through cooling having climate effects surely? Would be ideal for baseload otherwise.
Tidal - has potential, but again expensive. Needs development to arrive at best solution. Long-term environmental effects from restraining free water flow around the world could be a problem (you're taking energy out of a system).
Hydro (pumped storage or otherwise) - Proven technology, and allows to come online at periods of high power. Not really a long-term solution without significant inflow into reservoir. High expenditure in terms of both budget for construction, and required land-take.
Nuclear - proven technology. High capital expenditure in both commissioning and decommissioning, but when you amortise cost per kWh over life then much more reasonable. Relatively low carbon power. Issue with long-term storage of waste, but correct infrastructure can 'burn' waste to reduce toxicity. Safety issues (ref Chernobyl et al), but number of directly-attributable deaths still probably much much less than from coal mining / oil drilling etc. Newer reactors much much safer than 30-year old ones in Japan.
Fossil fuels - proven technology. Well developed, but not as efficient. Creates massive amounts of CO2, and even worse when considering CO2e. Coal (both in mining and burning) release significant quantities of radiation into the atmosphere.
For my way of thinking, nuclear to provide a significant proportion of base load, with other 'sustainable' options providing back-up, with wind available but used to top-up pumped storage for high demand periods would be the best balance. Excess energy (ie overnight base load) could be used to crack hydrogen from seawater or create hydrocarbons for transport etc.
I fully expect to get heavily downvoted for this, so let the flaming commence. It just bothers me when people from ALL sides of the argument can't see that the only way we can realistically achieve what we have said we will is by significant efficiency improvements and a good, balanced mix of supply sources.
It's either that, or we all go back to the Dark Ages.
Even if Chernobyl cancer cases are well into five figures (and it's extraordinarily difficult to prove a causative effect), it's still chicken feed compared to the fossil fuel industry in terms of overall health impact. Nobody is pretending that nuclear is 100% safe, but neither is any other means of generation. The main difference is that fossil-fuel related deaths, injuries and illnesses tend to happen in far away poor countries. With nuclear we have to take on board the (tiny) risk ourselves.
I think you may be disappointed when it comes to spotting cancer clusters after Fukushima too - standing outside Fukushima town hall would have given you the same dose as driving a lorry full of bananas. If you happened to be driving those bananas around Cornwall then you'd clearly be truly screwed, by your estimation.
Chernobyl was clearly the worst nuclear energy accident that has ever happened - but the chances of such an accident happening again are miniscule, with proper current safety regimens and reactor designs. How many significant nuclear accidents have happend in majority-nuclear France since they started building reactors there? Clue: none. When was the last time there was a Tsunami hit the UK? Prehistory.
Chernobyl was bloody awful, but stopping nuclear energy because of it would be like banning water because sometimes people drown in it.
Oh, and mass evacuations are a social effect, rather than a health one.
It has ever been so. Rather than calculating the cost to the country of nuclear by the costs of decommissioning reactors, they should realise that these costs will be miniscule when compared to meeting our energy requirements from all the other sources put together.
I have always maintained the only viable option is nuclear and this only serves to strengthen my belief. UK government needs to wake up and smell the coffee, while it still can before they're making it on a wood burning stove.