Monday, March 13, 2006

No Grounds for Nuclear?

Who's word will carry the more weight with Tony Blair? Sir David King, the U.K. government's Chief Scientific Advisor, or Sir Jonathan Porritt, Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC)? Jonathan Porritt was one of the founders of the Ecology Party (which became the Green Party) and then leader of Friends of the Earth. David King is of the opinion famously that "climate change [is] a greater threat than terrorism"and is in favour of nuclear power. Both he and James [Gaia] Lovelock support an expansion of nuclear power on the grounds that this energy source is free of CO2 emissions. It isn't quite, since it takes about 10 years to recoup for the CO2 emissions incurred in the construction of a nuclear plant, but over the entire operating lifetime it is estimated that it would produce only 20-40% of the CO2 emissions that a typical fossil fuel fired plant would, of similar generating capacity. However, as rich uranium ores become depleted and thinner supplies must be used, the CO2 cost of its extraction will rise, and so ultimately this argument, so often used in favour of nuclear, may find itself without foundation as most of the others have, e.g. "electricity too cheap to meter"!
The opposition view, espoused by Jonathan Porritt is based upon a number of separate considerations. Not surprisingly, the issue of nuclear waste remains paramount. Finding a safe long term means for disposing of nuclear waste is a matter of much current effort, as I have commented previously "Nuclear waste - if not in my back yard, then whose?" The nuclear industry seem convinced that a phased disposal programme will do the trick, but the SDC seems less certain that the problem is solved. I recall that the environmental group Friends of the Earth produced a lovely poster bearing an image of a Roman centurion and the caption: "If the Romans had had nuclear power, we'd still be guarding their waste." Nicely put, and the point is well made that nobody really wants it and no-one is entirely happy with any of the suggestions as to what to do with it. As I have already noted, the best solution appears to be sealing it into cement inside a copper container and burying it in bentonite clay (a good absorbent material) inside a concrete bunker (I didn't phrase it exactly in this fashion, but that's about the size of it).
As a matter of fact, if the Babylonians or the Egyptians had had nuclear power, their nuclear waste would still be a thorn in our sides, let alone the Romans - and what language would they have written the sign "Danger! High Level Nuclear Waste!" in? Presumably the Egyptians would have used Hieroglyphics; not much help to the common man such as myself, untrained in the arts of Egyptology.
The SDC have come up with further objections to the nuclear issue, however, not the least being the cost of the whole enterprise. If the scale of the task is stupendous, that is only matched by the quotation for it. It is estimated that the costs of decommissioning the 31 current reactors are £85 billion, or about £3 billion per unit. Having costed and funded quite a number of projects over the years, I am aware that the required level of financial support is apt to shift capriciously, often in ways that one could not reasonably have forseen. I will therefore assume a similar price per nuclear reactor for building it to that reckoned for pulling it down, i.e £3 billion. (This is probably as good a guess as any other). As noted in my previous listing, 14 new Sizewell B capacity (1.2 GW) reactors would be required to supplant the current nuclear output and hence should cost about £42 billion. If we were to go the whole hog of providing the entire nation's electricty by nuclear, we would need 54 of them, when the sum runs up to £182 billion. Now that is a hell of a lot of money in anybody's budget.
It is interesting that the authors of a new report have concluded that sea energy could provide 20% of the U.K.'s electricity requirements ( science/nature/4645452.stm), but not more than that. Coincidentally, 20% is about the proportion of U.K. electricity currently supplied by nuclear, and the inescapable thought surfaces that rather than replacing the existing 31 reactors by Sizewell B's at a cost, say, of £3 billion x 14 = £42 billion, investing that sum in wave farms and tidal stream installations might prove the more prudent course of action. It is thought that 50 terawatt hours (TWh) could be produced annually from wave power and another 18 TWh from tidal power, which equates to a mean generating output of (50+18) x 10*12/8760 (hours per year) = 7.8 GW, and is the equivalent of 19,500 2 MW offshore wind turbines (assuming a capacity factor of 0.2, i.e. only 20% of rated capacity is actually generated by the turbine because of variations in the wind speed relative to the dimension of the rotor). While 19,500 turbines placed 0.5 km apart (as they have to be in order to maximise efficiency) would occupy a band nearly 2 km thick around the entire coast of the U.K. mainland, I'm not sure how much sea area the wave and tidal installations would occupy. Any thoughts, anyone? For example, would we end up obstructing the Bristol Channel, say, with some leviathan tidal turbine?
The SDC report further cites issues of inflexibility, security and efficiency within its anti-nuclear manifesto. Nuclear is inflexible in the sense of tying the U.K. into a relatively inefficient centralised electricity system for the next 50 years, rather than a more efficient localised system of "micro-generation", such as has been adopted by the town of Woking, in Surrey. Essentially, if Woking were suddenly disconnected from the national grid, the lights would stay on, mainly through the use of solar panels and CHP (Combined Heating and Power) units. Even Her Majesty, The Queen, has had a couple of hydroelecrtic turbines installed in the River Thames, below Windsor Castle. It is also argued that the nuclear option is seen as a "quick fix", and distracts attention from issues of energy efficiency - i.e. using less of it in the first place - which is without doubt the direction we should (and will, as ultimately there is no choice) be going. The final objection concerns security, i.e. if the U.K. goes all out for nuclear, it cannot morally deny the same technology to other countries, and where lower safety standards pertain - I note that this year will witness the 20th anniversary of the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl - and so there is an increased risk of another such event if everyone gets their hands on nuclear.
An increased level of nuclear activity (no pun intended) also means an increased risk of terrorists getting hold of radioactive material, which they might fashion into a "dirty bomb", or of blowing-up a nuclear plant directly. These potential outcomes would be all the worse if the plants were powered by fast-breeder reactors, which run on plutonium, a very nasty material. A few grams of it and a hand grenade and probably an entire city like London would need to be evacuated, causing social and economic mayhem.
So my response to the SDC's conclusions is "Hear! Hear!" There is an intriguing tug of conflicts, though. Jonathon Porritt, Chair of the SDC, is telling Mr Blair "No", while his Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King is saying "Yes". I wonder who's word will carry the greatest weight, since the government must decide "Yes" or "No"; there is no middle ground. As the two sets of arguments swing in the balance, which of them will seed the fruit of the government's actions? Personally, I suspect we will "go nuclear", but only time will confirm or discredit the veracity of this prediction.

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