Thursday, August 1, 2013
Nuclear madness- and its alternative
A poll by ICM for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers back in May found that 43% of the public would support a Government subsidy for the construction of new nuclear power plants in the UK –compared with 28% who said they would not. Supporters saw it as a secure supply of electricity (70%); as low carbon (55%); reliable (50%); providing jobs (50%); and as cheaper than other forms of electricity generation (43%). Opponents saw it as dangerous (73%) and as having waste issues (70%). Under 25% of them cited costs. IMechE felt this meant even a generous EDF deal would therefore not be a major issue http://www.imeche.org/news/archives/2013/05/28/Public_backs_Government_subsidy_for_new_nuclear
It is still in negotiation, but, if it does go through, EDF may well get at least as much as on-land wind, and over a much longer contract period. That of course ought to open up the issue of why there is allegedly so much opposition to investing in renewables, all of which are (and will remain) much lower carbon, most of which will cost less long term and none of which produce dangerous long lived wastes.
Nuclear power is expensive and getting more so. Whereas most energy technologies get cheaper as they develop (typically learning curve slopes of 20%) nuclear has demonstrated a negative learning curve- construction cost have gone up not down, doubling in many cases. Moreover, at current use rates, with current plant design, we have maybe 80 years of high-grade ore left, globally, so its price will rise. If we expand the use of nuclear, the fuel reserves will be depleted faster. Nuclear is not carbon free- it needs energy to mine and process the uranium fuel, and as the ore grades decline you need more energy, most of which will continue to come from fossil sources. Although nuclear or renewable sources could provide this energy, the EROEI 'energy return on energy invested’ ratio will continue to fall- it's around 16:1 at present but would fall to 5:1 or lower with low grade ore. To the point when it's not worth doing. New nuclear technology may reduce or delay some of these problems, but at unknown cost and with as yet unknown side effects - and EROEIs. And nuclear waste? Still with us for millennia, with, for the UK, a £80-90bn clean up bill for the mess for far. Plus the risk always of a major accident- Fukushima will cost around £250bn. Renewable energy does not have these problems. It’s available now. Some options are already cheaper than nuclear and all are getting cheaper. Winds EROEI is put at 40-80, depending on location, solar PV up to 25. Energy saving can have EROIEs of 50-100. Why bother with nuclear?
That is clearly not what DECC thinks. There is even talk of a 75GW by 2050 nuclear programme, at a time when most of the rest of the EU is exiting from nuclear as fast as it can www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/168047/bis-13-630-long-term-nuclear-energy-strategy.pdf That could increase the amount of high level waste we had to deal with by more than ten times, and we still have no idea where any of it can go long term. www.nuclearenergyinsider.com/nuclear-spent-fuel-management-forum/pdf/SpentFuelStorage.pdf
Meanwhile, the UK has taken over plutonium from overseas sources, currently stored at Sellafield. It’s nearly 3 tonnes of material that evidently no one (except maybe N Korea and Iran) now wants, but the UK can perhaps use it to make MOX, although no one wants MOX much now (after Fukushima), and so the UK will store it, along with the118 tonnes of UK Pu, at £2bn p.a. cost, in case we can find a use for it, maybe in a breeder reactor. You couldn’t make it up! The new ownership deal will avoid swops/risky movements, but actually some MOX has just been sent to Japan under an earlier contract. It’s not clear if they will need it. www.parliament.uk/documents/ commons-vote-office/April_2013/23-4-13/4-DECC-OverseasPlutonium.pdf
Though of course it may help temporarily avoid another problem- the looming shortage of uranium. Dr. Michael Dittmar, from the CERN nuclear labs in Geneva, has suggested that ‘It will be difficult to avoid supply shortages even under a slow 1%/ year worldwide nuclear energy phase-out scenario up to 2025’ and has therefore called for a rapid worldwide nuclear energy phase-out. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969713004579’
It’s hard to make sense of much of this, especially given that the UK has the EU’s best renewables resources, so far hardly tapped. The UK is near the bottom of the EU league in terms of capacity so far developed, only beating Malta and Luxembourg. Perhaps then getting out of the EU is the only answer! Then, as UKIP and some Tories want, we can pursue nuclear power in splendid isolation and forget about renewables.
There is an alternative, as I outline in a new book, out soon. It notes that renewable sources of energy are increasingly being used around the world, with many countries already getting more than 60% of their power from renewables and some aiming for 80% or more by 2050, with no nuclear. It explains how and why this expansion can and should continue and indeed accelerate. It looks at the basic technological options and at what is happening around the world, so as to convey the sense of excitement that abounds in this new area of technological development. But it also looks at the problems, including local environmental impacts and the need to deal with the variability of some renewable energy sources. It concludes that, despite the problems, so far, with often very minimal support, renewables have demonstrated that they can develop rapidly and that there is potential for even more rapid expansion around the world. And it argues that renewables, along with energy efficiency, should now be given a chance, and the necessary funding, to show what they can do. We don't need nuclear. We do have a choice.
Even so, there is no avoiding it: for the moment a sizeable part of the UK public has been won over to supporting nuclear, with opposition down to 20%, according to a recent Ipsos-mori poll. But it found that support for building new nuclear stations has fallen by 8% in the last year to 42%. Although there was no corresponding groundswell of opposition, the undecided or neutral proportion of the population has grown to 38%, up 8% since 2011, the highest measured in a decade of polls. It seems conflicting views/messages have produce uncertainty! Maybe there is hope yet.
My new e-book ‘Renewables: a review of sustainable energy options’, is being published by the Institute of Physics. Out soon.