Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Nuclear Power Debate

I have no opinion as to what the best mix of sources will be for future electrical energy production in the UK.

I strongly suspect that there will have to be a mix of sources. But apart from this I have no opinion. This is rather worrying: I feel it is only responsible to have an opinion and evidence to support this opinion.

The reason I have no opinion is that there is no evidence. I have no idea if building a new generation of nuclear power stations is a good idea. I have no idea if acquiring all the power we need from wind-turbines is feasible or desirable.

I do have an opinion on global warming. It is happening and human beings are causing it. I know this because smart people have told me that it is so, and they have Charts and Graphs and Scary Stories about hurricanes and flooding and melting ice-caps and the Gulf Stream Shutting Down.

Unfortunately there seems to be a dearth of such information concerning the relative merits of nuclear power, wind power, tidal power, and solar power. Everything I do find seems tainted by spin, anger, and uninformed opinion.

There is an interesting article in today's Guardian by Jim Al-Khalili. He is for a concerted research effort into energy-amplifier technology as a way of solving some of the problems with current nuclear power plants.

The benefits of energy-amplifier nuclear reactors over conventional reactors include the reduced threat of runaway nuclear reactions (i.e. a meltdown, or "unrequested fission surplus"), the use thorium as a fuel (which is more plentiful than uranium), less plutonium produced so the risk of nuclear proliferation is less, there is the possibility of the energy-amplifier reactor being fueled by plutonium, reducing the global stockpile of this extremely dangerous material, less long-lived radioactive waste, cheaper once the total cost of building and decommissioning conventional nuclear power plants is taken into account, and the relatively small scale the reactor can be built on.

The main obstacles seem to be technical difficulties, but as no "new science" is needed (i.e. the theory behind the concept is based on sound and well-understood principles) we should be able to overcome these problems.

But that's enough about that. I wonder how George Monbiot will respond to Al-Khalili's article? Monbiot has raised many important points about nuclear power over the years, including the incompetence of the British nuclear industry (2). I've always felt you shouldn't blame people for their mistakes, just make sure they pay for them. If the British nuclear industry cleaned up its act and embraced better standards of storage and general practice, as used by Posiva in Finland, then the strongest arguments against nuclear power in the UK disappear.

Monbiot, like many environmentalists, has been looking at nuclear power anew as nuclear power has been brought up as a possible part of the solution to the problem of global warming and depletion of fossil fuels. He raises good points about the past and ongoing mistakes of the British nuclear industry in this article ten years ago.

I argue that these are stories of human incompetence - they do not affect the central argument over whether to build new nuclear power plants. In fact, building new nuclear power plants would require a plan as to what to do with the waste, meaning that a lot of the problems Monbiot mentions could be solved. People will feel more inclined to look after waste properly if they feel they are receiving an ongoing benefit - electrical energy from nuclear power plants.

Then there is this article from 2004. The first few paragraphs imply a mild resentment that people like George W Bush are finally agreeing with people like Monbiot over global warming. He suggests premier eco-guru James Lovelock is of a generation that will always be disposed to nuclear power.

He then gets to the meat of the issue: "the cruel moral calculus with which we became familiar during the arguments over the Iraq War". This strikes me as a suspect piece of writing: he is trying to subliminally associate nuclear power with something dreadful like the Iraq War. I would say that there is a necessary moral calculus (calculus can be difficult, but it isn't cruel) to be considered when dealing with global warming and energy policy.

Monbiot then admits: "The daily discharges from a plant like Sellafield probably kill several dozen people a year. A meltdown could slaughter thousands, possibly tens of thousands. Climate change has already killed hundreds of thousands, will kill millions, and, if we don’t do something pretty dramatic pretty soon, could kill billions."

He then seems to waver around: he cites Posiva, then worries that it could be used as "a Potemkin village by the rest of the nuclear industry: a showcase project which creates the impression that the problem has been sorted out."

Although this is true, as with the problems with the British nuclear industry mentioned earlier, this is a human problem that we need to solve. Being cynical about it is not helpful.

Monbiot goes on to assert that "we certainly can’t expect Britain’s nuclear generators to behave as responsibly as Finland’s." Well why not? Is there some universal law that says Anglo-Saxons are wasteful, lazy, stupid, and irresponsible and Scandinavians are universally thrifty, hard-working, environmentally-conscious and conscientious (although TBH Scandinavia does seems to be a brilliant set - kudos to the Scandinavians!)?

My point is that if there are problems with the British nuclear industry then it is a problem with how the industry is run and operated, not a problem inherent in the technology.

He goes on, citing various horrific examples of the state of the storage of nuclear material in Britain:

"...the European Commission took the British government to court over Sellafield’s refusal to let European inspectors examine one of its dumps. (Didn’t we go to war over something like this?). Some 1.3 tonnes of plutonium has been sitting around in ponds there for about 30 years. On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed that British Nuclear Fuels has secretly buried 10,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste from other countries. This sort of thing goes on all the time. The UK Atomic Energy Authority used to chuck its waste into two open holes in the cliffs beside its power station at Dounreay. One of the shafts exploded in 1977, scattering plutonium over the beaches, but the authority didn’t bother to tell anyone for 18 years."

He then asserts "This, rather than Posiva’s expensive method, is the kind of disposal we can expect from most of the world’s nuclear generators. So it’s probably fair to say that the nuclear industry WILL kill tens of thousands. If, as seems ever more likely, terrorists get hold of some of this stuff, the deaths could run into millions."

Again, the problem is with how the industry is run, both here in Britain and worldwide, and if a concerted effort is made on a technical front (c.f. Al-Khalili's energy amplifier technology) and an organisational front then the twin problems of storing the waste and terrorists stealing plutonium would diminish over time.

I agree with Monbiot that saving energy and increasing energy efficiency everywhere in our economy and technium (neat new word coined by Kevin Kelly over at - required reading) is an obvious step, but I'm sceptical that we can close the gap between reduced need through improved efficiency (and bear in mind we still need to promote standards of living in the developing world) and renewable energy technology.

In another article Monbiot deplores the lack of clean facts and goes for a rough-and-ready back-of-the-envelope calculation. After going over various measures of electricity demand and estimates from increased efficiency and renewables he concludes thus:

"...the choice then comes down to this: we make up the shortfall either with nuclear power ... or with gas or coal accompanied by carbon burial (pumping the carbon dioxide into salt aquifers or old gas fields). The first option means uranium mining, nuclear waste and the threat of proliferation and terrorism. The second means insecurity (gas) or open-cast mining and air pollution (coal) and a risk (though probably quite small) of carbon seepage."

I agree. I may well change my mind about nuclear power, but at the moment I still don't see any reason why it shouldn't be adopted as a method to reduce CO2 emission. But I really want to see reliable, solid, comparative data.

Unfortunately the whole arena of debate is full of propaganda, barely-concealed political and ideological ulterior motives and snide ad-hominem bickering.

I want a thorough and quantitative study concerning the relative benefits of wind-power, solar-power, nuclear-power and CO2-sequestration techniques. Please.

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