September 23, 2008

Caroline Lucas on the Today programme

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If you were listening to Radio 4 at 7:50 this morning, you would have heard a rather firey (considering it was between two environmentalists who are theoretically therefore on roughly the same side of a debate) discussion between Caroline Lucas, who heads the Green Party, and Mark Lynas, who is a well-known activist in environmental circles. The feature came about because Mr Lynas has spoken in favour of nuclear power as something we need to decarbonise the electricity generation sector, which has resulted in him receiving a very harsh backlash from his fellow campaigners. We saw a similar reaction a few months back with George Monbiot, when he voiced his opinion that climate change was a far more important issue than the traditional opposition to nuclear power of the green movement, and that he “no longer cared” if we went nuclear or not. So why the emergent rift? And who is right?

It seems to me that Monbiot and Lynas are part of a growing cluster of people within the environmental movement who have begun to look past the traditional Chernobyl/atomic weapons opposition of the past and really think about how we can practicably meet the very tough environmental targets of the future. They have tried not to simply criticise current policy, as others have, but actually respond to the policymakers question of “well, what would you have us do?” with something implementable.

The facts are these: currently, electricity generation makes up for 20% of our energy consumption in the UK, about another 30-35% being transport and the remainder falling to space heating and industry. If either hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars/public transport is to grow in the future, this electricity demand will increase significantly. This is coupled with a projected future increase in population of the UK of about 10m by 2050, and a continued growth in the economy (a key efficiency measure used in policy making is one of emissions relative to economic output, thus a growing economy may make use of its energy more efficiently yet still have rising emissions as a nation) which will likely outstrip any marginal gains in efficiency once everyone has had their lofts insulated and pipes lagged. Nuclear power currently accounts for just under 20% of our electricity generation, with all but Sizewell B currently scheduled to come offline by 2023. Add this up, and what you get is a gaping hole in electricity generation both in the short and medium term. Unless the economy is to rapidly shrink and the lights are to go out (which would result in the quick breakdown of civilisation as we know it – not a palatable thought), this gap needs to be filled.

Anyone within the power industry will tell you that this hole will likely be plugged by gas fired power stations. While a lot more efficient than coal, there are three big problems with gas power: firstly, most of the generation cost is in the fuel, so volatile commodity prices as we have seen recently result in a very unstable wholesale price. Secondly, the UK is a net importer of gas now the North Sea fields are depleted, and relations between the UK and the big gas exporters are, shall we say, frosty. This leaves us exposed to the political whim of nations who aren’t afraid to do us some serious damage – not an ideal position to be in. And thirdly of course, this doesn’t come close to meeting our emissions reduction targets. So beyond plugging very short-term gaps in generation, an expansion of gas-generated electricity is not a very wise move, and the UK would do well to reduce this sector in the long term.

One of the main hot topics in energy at the moment is carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Long-term, this may well prove to be a silver bullet for the energy sector, allowing the use of plentiful supplies of cheap coal around the world to be used to generate electricity without an environmental side-effect. However, there still has yet to be a demonstration of the technology on a large commercial scale, and no-one can really give any guarantees as to how successful technically or financially this will be. To rely on CCS at this stage of saving our bacon would be more than a little risky given these facts.

The darlings of the environmental movement, efficiency gains and renewable energy, will of course play their part in the future energy mix. However, efficiency measures will only take us so far, and as outlined above growth in the economy, population and usage for electricity means that demand is likely to increase, not decrease. The renewable energy sector is currently estimated at taking a 60% share in electricity generation by 2050, but what about the other 40%? Furthermore, renewable energy requires backup for when the wind isn’t blowing etc, and this adds to the cost. The higher the percentage of renewables, the more backup you need and the more expensive it becomes. Backup is also likely to be a fossil fuel burning power station, which again doesn’t do much to help those emissions targets. Expansion of unreliable renewable energy to such a large (or even larger) share is therefore likely to be firstly very expensive, and secondly require environmentally unfriendly backup. It’s also not been demonstrated that it’s even implementable on such a scale.

Where this leaves us then is nuclear energy. Proven? Well it’s been working in this country since 1956, and with new designs is becoming ever safer, cheaper and more straightforward to decommission. Nuclear proliferation is also not possible with PWR (pressurised water reactors – the type likely to be built as the next generation of reactors) designs, as creation of weapons grade plutonium requires very frequent refuelling to prevent build up of unwanted plutonium isotopes. PWRs are operated commercially on a flat-out basis with no on-load refuelling for a lengthy period of time, making extraction of fuel for use in weapons impractical. Low carbon? Current estimates suggest a carbon emissions figure of 7-60g/kWh for nuclear (through-life cost including uranium ore mining and refinement), which is on a par with/lower than many renewable energy sources, leave alone gas at over 350g/kWh and coal at over 700g/kWh. Waste? Waste repositories are currently being constructed at several sites around the world, which is widely thought will store waste securely for thousands of years until it is no more active than the radiation from background sources. Evidence that this will succeed includes examples from nature, where active materials have been securely stored in rock for billions of years with no escape of active materials despite sub-optimal conditions. Cost? New stations are now designed with over 50 years of experience, and designed to be decomissioned safely and economically. Experience with legacy equipment should not be allowed to be confused with what is being proposed for the future. Fuel costs are also around 10% of operating costs, which provides much more stability in costs. Studies show that an appropriate mix of nuclear power is projected to be significantly cheaper than increasing renewable energy usage beyond the 60% planned level by 2050. Reliability of supply? Newer designs have excellent load factor performance.

So, the next time you hear Caroline Lucas tell you how expensive nuclear power is compared to other technologies like renewables, how we don’t need it because we can all save energy usage by efficiency measures, how dangerous it is because of nuclear wastes and the risk of proliferation, take a moment to consider her claims and do some research for yourselves instead of believing the rhetoric. And realise just how much twaddle her and her ilk talk.

- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. One question: You only mention Uranium mining once, when talking about carbon emmisions. As you’re ‘in the business’ of nuclear power you’ll likely know how much Uranium is lying around. Do you know how long the current stocks will last before the energy expended mining it outweighs the energy outputed from power stations?
    At a lecture a couple of years ago I heard that it wasn’t as much as we might like.

    You still working on Oldbury, btw?

    23 Sep 2008, 18:30

  2. A lot of sources quote uranium reserves lasting approximately 85 years at current rates of consumption. As I’m sure you’re aware, this doesn’t factor in fast breeder reactors or any reactors running on the Thorium cycle, both of which would likely be implemented if reserves become uneconomic to extract (the 85 year figure is based on an extraction cost of $130/kg (this is the approximate cost of uranium in 2006 – source Government white paper on nuclear power, Jan 2008). The stable extraction cost implies that this would be without significant extra energy per kg required to extract and refine the ore. The economy of extraction would also of course be affected by future emissions taxes, which would drive us to use nuclear fuels more efficiently rather than extract them at uneconomic levels. Furthermore, it’s my understanding that the cost of extraction in carbon terms is measured against the current carbon output per kWh of electricity generated where electricity is used, so in theory if the mining and refining is powered by a low-carbon grid then this would act to reduce the carbon cost per kg of ore refined. There’s also the issue that in comparison to oil, very little has been spent so far on finding high-grade ore deposits, so it is widely anticipated that large reserves will be discovered in the future. To give you an idea of the relative proportions of high to low grade deposits, there is a 300-fold increase in the amount of uranium recoverable for every tenfold decrease in ore grade.

    What sort of figure did you hear for the expected lifetime of current stocks? I am still at Oldbury yes, likely to be there for a few months yet!

    23 Sep 2008, 20:05

  3. Chris Hinds

    As ever Chris, a wise and reasoned insight into what the engineering community have known for a long time… about nuclear power I mean, not about environmentalists being naieve and expecting us all to head back to our caves. I wonder how many environmentalists live in a house not a flat, drive an X5 not a Pious or a small Diesel and fly rather than take the train… more than would like to admit it I suspect. Environmentalism it seems is something for everyone else to do first. Having said that if you’d been round the bits of Scotland I have today you’d wonder what the issue really is.

    P.S. Have found some roads you need to travel on with me. It’s morally wrong that you have yet to experience them.

    23 Sep 2008, 21:56

  4. Scott Redding

    I think the key phrase is “current rates of consumption” of uranium. “The Future of Nuclear Power,” a 2003 study by a commission headed by former CIA director John Deutch, concluded that by 2050 the PRC could require the equivalent of 200 full-scale nuclear power plants. We’ll always have to import uranium, but we have some of the world’s best offshore wind resources. The BWEA (British Wind Energy Association) figures that the UK has over 33% of the total European potential offshore wind resource – enough to power the country nearly three times over. If we ignore wind’s potential, it would be like Australia or Canada ignoring uranium.

    24 Sep 2008, 18:44

  5. 200 full-scale reactors, assuming a reactor power of 1GWe (which is roughly what modern large plants run at) would obviously equate to an additional 200GWe of installed capacity. “Current rates of consumption” relates to the current ~450 reactors around the world with an installed capacity of close to 400GWe. What you’re therefore proposing (solely to meet China’s needs) is something like a 50% increase in consumption rates of uranium, which would reduce the 85 year figure by a third. As I additionally indicated in my response above, this figure takes no account of increased efficiency in our use of uranium nor the highly likely possibility of further significant reserves as yet undiscovered. And that’s before you even go down the road of proposed demonstrated technologies such as removing uranium from seawater (which contains something like 1,000 times as much uranium as all the reserves going into that 85 year figure). I’m merely pointing out that there is a lot more to working out how long our uranium stocks will last than dividing current reserves by current rate of consumption – as you point out, consumption may well increase, but at the same time so will our stocks (and breeder reactors would reduce rates of consumption by a factor of ~60 anyway, which becomes economic as the cost of uranium rises).

    I agree with your overall synopsis that it would be daft of us to ignore the potential of offshore wind – however at the same time please re-read a number of points from my post. Firstly, renewable sources such as wind cannot meet our electricity demands alone as there is no guarantee of supply. Secondly, this lack of a guarantee means that the cost of renewables becomes uneconomic beyond a certain point in the energy mix when compared with other low carbon sources such as nuclear. And thirdly, a point that I missed – nuclear plants can be built in significant quantities within the next decade; an expansion of wind energy to the required levels in this time is neither planned nor feasible. Solving the challenges of global warming in 50 years time isn’t really what most environmentalists have on the cards right now I believe…

    24 Sep 2008, 20:48

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