Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Heat is on for Nuclear Power.

As the whole of Europe (including the U.K.) swelters in the unaccustomed summer heat, some unexpected limitations on the future of nuclear power have emerged. The heat wave that has pervaded since mid-June has compelled the governments of France, Germany and Spain to ramp-up their own environmental limits for draining hot water into rivers from the cooling systems of their nuclear power plants, in order to ensure that adequate electricity provision is maintained. France is especially vulnerable, since it generates around 80% of the country's electricity using nuclear installations housed at 58 nuclear power plants, of which 37 are located near rivers so to use them as a "drain" for their cooling water.
The volume of the rivers has been substantially depleted by the drought incurred in the hot summer, and hence the heating effect of the outlet water may be an ecological hazard, so forcing some plants to shut down. Under normal circumstances, there are environmental criteria including a maximum temperature for waste water from nuclear power plants, imposed to protect river flora and fauna. Stephane Lhomme, coordinator of the environmental network Sortir du Nucleaire (which I translate as "Leave Nuclear Power"), said: "For many years now, French authorities have defended nuclear power arguing that it is clean energy, good for the environment, and that it will help combat global warming, for it does not emit greenhouse gases.
"Now, with global warming leading to extreme hot summers, we are witnessing that it is the other way round. Global warming is showing the limits of nuclear power plants, and nuclear power is destroying our environment." And that's even without the nuclear waste.
During the hot summer of 2003, French authorities allowed the nuclear power plants to drain excessively hot water into rivers, and in consequence this may have raised the level of ammonia in the river waters, harming fish, and other river fauna. Meanwhile, France has been importing 2 GW of generating capacity from neighbouring countries to compensate for shortages in nuclear power production. In Germany, rather than override environmental restrictions, a decision has been taken to "throttle-down" some of its reactors to limit waste water temperatures and protect the ecology. The Kruemmel, Brunsbuettel and Brokdorf reactors have been "slowed" as have some coal-fired plants along the Rhine river. In contrast, the reactors Isar 1 (near Munich) and Neckarwestheim (near Stuttgart) have been given the green-light to discharge hotter water than is normally permitted.
In Spain, the nuclear plant at Santa Maria de Garona (one of eight in the country in total) was closed-down last weekend in response to the high temperatures measured in the river Ebro, to prevent the waters heating further. This action must not have been taken lightly since the plant produces 20% of Spain's entire electricity.
German energy expert Hermann Scheer has called for a radical change in energy policy. Scheer is president of Eurosolar (Europe's association for renewable energy resources), and winner of the "Alternative Nobel Prize" for his commitment to the environment.
French nuclear scientist Hubert Reeves has urged the government to "invest massively" in renewable energy; he said; "we are behind many of our European partners such as Germany, Denmark and Spain in this matter (although I doubt they are behind the U.K.), and cannot wait until the energy crisis reaches its climax to find an alternative to our present model.
He said further, that "a crisis is round the corner. Fossil energy sources are about to be exhausted, and nuclear technology will not solve present problems within a reasonable period of time. We should abandon nuclear power and invest in alternative sources."
Clearly the man is upset, and I don't blame him for that - who couldn't be. It's as though we are standing in the path of a speeding truck wearing a blindfold and with our fingers stuck firmly in our ears. But when will we begin to ramp-down our use of oil? Sooner, by choice; or later on, by default? The time must come eventually, but there is not even a consensus of "when". I know some experts in the oil industry who think that "peak oil" is already with us, but that is neither the official line of the oil companies, nor of the world's governments.
Surely we need to phase-in a rational strategy while phasing the pre-existing one out. Either way, like it or not, we may well need nuclear power's part of the energy-mix. Providing the vast quantities of energy that we use by "renewables" (let's remind ourselves of the list: wind, water, solar, micro) is probably not "on" in the short term, and most likely not in the longer run either. Whatever manner of vehicle is headed our way, energy efficiency must be our principal course of action.

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