13 Mar 2012

Coming to Terms with the N word

N is for nuclear.

Press that button and it changes everything. You enter a possible age of abundance and everything you have previously held dear becomes vaguely pointless. I suddenly feel myself turning a very pale green indeed, a milky eau-de-nil at best. And I wonder whether the main gist of what I have been writing about for the past twenty years has any relevance anymore.

It all comes down to risk. Is radiation more or less dangerous than carbon dioxide? It's all about dosage. Neither seems to be remotely harmful at low levels. At high levels, both are deadly. So it comes down to the lesser of two evils and, for me, the evidence is that it is better to risk radiation poisoning. And Fukushima has simply reinforced that view: it was nasty but and as yet no one has died. If that's the worst that can happen, then it's an acceptable risk, especially when set against the alternative.

I realise I am treading in the footsteps of many other dissident thinkers (Brand, Monbiot, Lynas are the obvious ones, and there are many more) and I'm certainly not feeling remotely original in all this. But as yet, no one seems to have really thought through the consequences of embracing a nuclear future. Because if you can live with one new nuke, you can live with 20, and maybe even 200.

And at that level, you can produce potentially all the energy we in the UK could ever dream of consuming and still leave enough to heat every house, office, school, hospital and swimming pool in the country all year long with the windows wide open. And surplus electricity could be used to manufacture fuels to power our cars and planes. And all of it without adding any CO2 to the atmosphere. And no messing about with carbon capture and storage, geo engineering, forests of wind turbines or seas of PV.

We could have a Jetson's lifestyle for a cost of around £600 per household per annum for the next 40 years. That would be enough to construct 5 nukes a year at around £4 billion per unit, which is what this overbudget one in Finland is costing. It would also create around half a million jobs. Compare that to the Green Deal! And if £600 sounds like a lot, remember that the power itself is very cheap to produce as about 98% of the cost of a new reactor is down to safety features, so £600 would end up being your annual fuel bill which is a lot less than you pay now (I bet). This is a technology that we have now at a cost we can afford.

You see, it changes everything.

And you can begin to see that darker greens than me will not like this option. Not because nuclear power is an unacceptable risk — funnily enough, no one says that about nuclear medicine which is the backbone of every cancer department in the world — but because it renders the whole world of sustainability and low carbon living pointless. In fact it plays into the hands of those right-wing tossers who have been throwing abuse at us for years for being closet socialists. You know, the ones who celebrated "Climategate." Maybe they have a point? Maybe we've all been posturing in a self-important way?

We may even be able to readily solve the CO2 problem without nuclear. I saw an interesting talk this afternoon from MIT Professor Dan Nocera about artificial photosynthesis which, he reckons, is much the most efficient way to store energy — beats batteries and pumped storage by an order of magnitude. He reckons that it may soon be commercially viable on a very small scale and that it could be powered by domestic solar cells, solving the old conundrum about not having energy when the sun isn't shining. Tata Steel have already licenced the research with a view to rolling it out in India.

OK, it's much greener, in the trad sense, than nuclear power, but the issue is that if it solves the problem easily, then we could still be facing an age of low carbon energy abundance. That's unsettling. Very.


  1. we could still be facing an age of low carbon energy abundance. That's unsettling. Very.

    Nae offense, but you can see how these right wing arseholes might have a point, no? Comments like that make it appear that the real goal is for people to suffer in order to become more virtuous.

  2. Didn't they say it wd be cheap, indeed free, last time - until cost of decomissioning dawned ...
    Anyway, this is craziness until ways of rendering the waste harmless, even useful, are in place, instead of just an aspiration (like carbon capture). Stocks of waste must not build up, especially if kept retrievable so future technology can usefully (profitably?) re-process it. If accessible, then it's accessible to any loony/criminal warlord for his (her?) special purposes anytime over the next few thousand years. That's the risk, not some present-day comparison between CO2 effects and (apparently) no ill effect (really?) from Fukushima. BTW, this 'no-one' says that radiation treatment for cancer is a) tightly controlled b) hideous nevertheless.

  3. World-wide, there is very little chance of nuclear power dominating, for many reasons. Chief among them is that the cost of renewables is continuing to fall towards commercially viable levels - Schilling and Esmundo's analysis is instructive at http://w4.stern.nyu.edu/research/technology_s-curves_in_renewable_energies.pdf.

    Investing in nuclear now is analagous to the situation in 1948, when British Rail chose to invest in building new steam locomotives instead of in electrification. The world is already moving on from nuclear. New nuclear plants are an abboration, not the future.

    1. Max,

      Nuclear went through a long, slow death after 3 mile island and Chernobyl. V little research carried out, just marking time. But it's changed. Now there are loads of 4th generation ideas coming forward which suddenly make it look a whole lot more exciting. The waste problem looks like it can be sorted. Thorium looks fascinating and will potentially work at a small, district scale. It's not just renewables which are getting cheaper.

  4. Talking of dealing with the waste, there was a very interesting TED talk given by Bill Gates that covered sources of energy. He was talking about Terra Power - a form of power that runs on nuclear waste. As for the comment about nuclear waste falling into the wrong hands - that's the same as saying we can't use nuclear at all in case the enriched uranium fell into the wrong hands. It's a consideration, but it's not insurmountable.
    I disagree with the assertion that the cost of renewables is falling at such a rate that it will overtake nuclear - this is also something that has been promised for years but has never materialised. If you look at the source document posted in the comment above, the cost of nuclear energy is mysteriously absent from the comparison table. Also, given the nature of the assertion on that paper that technologies only get better, it also infers that cheaper better nuclear is still to come.

  5. Nuclear power is well funded yet there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. This isn't going to change quickly as far as I can see. It would seem to make sense that if we can make solar power work more effectively and efficiently then there is no waste problem to worry about, we're using power that would otherwise have been wasted rather than generating power by burning/fission.

    In the 'one world' scenario we blanket the deserts with solar panels, create geothermal plants near volcanic areas and use dams and turbines near natural reservoirs and that's job done. Wind turbines wear out, fail and have to be stopped in high wind, that's a fail to me. The other option of sea turbines sounds great but difficult to maintain.

    In the 'not one world' reality we just fail, dismally. We need to work together to sort this and I don't think the middle east want that while they're sitting on a pile of profitable oil and can ensure we're dependant on it and the politicians just line their own pockets and shuffle their feet while waiting for public and scientific consensus to make the decision for them while they take the credit.

    Nuclear just plain scares the bejesus out of me.


  6. "that's the same as saying we can't use nuclear at all in case the enriched uranium fell into the wrong hands" Exactly what it means - until minimised storage/immediate re-use is truly in place and not just a hopeful prospect.

    The currently proposed programme is fundamentally still old-style, but on a scale far exceeding previous. No gd talking about hopeful developments - thorium etc - we're busy building the old monsters like never before, to which future technologies are irrelevant, except as PR smokescreen.

  7. Dont forget that the newer generation nukes at Fukushima were not greatly troubled by the tsunami - they had engineered in resilience. It was the first generation ones that succumbed. So these ideas that nuclear power is fundamentally unsafe need to be reexamined. Just how safe does it have to be?

    1. Mark, I don't think people are so worried about safety, it's more the idea of having thousands of tonnes of highly toxic radioactive waste in mountains or dumped in the sea where it will irradiate (and possible mutate) life for a millions of years (we all know the three eyed fish in the Simpsons ;-). At least with fossil fuels we know the end game of using it (co2, depleted rain forests etc) as a calculated risk. The most positive way forward is to advance passive energy generation as quickly as possible so we can get solar/wind/water generation efficient, reliable and scalable as soon as possible.

    2. Simon,

      We already have radioactive waste which isn't going to go away just because we cant decide how to deal with it. In terms of volume, its minute and it won't be added to greatly if we have lots more nukes, so just saying you don't like the idea of long life radioactive waste isn't very helpful because it's already there. In any event, these risks are identifiable and manageable, even though there is such a long tail. Indeed, fast breeder reactors are already in existence which burn 99% of the waste from standard uranium reactors and the residue decays far more quickly than plutonium.

      In contrast, the risk from dumping excess CO2 in the atmosphere is not really known. I think it's potentially far more dangerous.

  8. It is important to remember that there is a whole lot more to 'green' than just CO2 - biodiversity, pollution, contact with nature and sustainable use of resources are all green measures. Arguably many of these seem to figure much more in the public conciousness than scientific types would conclude is rational. If widespread nuclear is the option the green movement might find it faced far less opposition because it wouldn't be trying to turn everyone's world on it's head.

    As for other renewables, there is potential for cost to come down substantially with mass production of modular installations & improvements in design. Smart grids might also allow us to utilise fluctuating power sources more effectively, improving the return on investment in renewables.

    Personally I'm fairly pro nuclear, especially in the medium term because there aren't other options ready to do at the moment which don't involve CO2. But I wouldn't expect that large scale take up of nuclear would kill the green movement nor renewables nor efficiency, because there is more to these things than just CO2 and nuclear isn't a complete magic bullet.

    However it would be a major change of focus and, as you point out, one which would be a major challenge for those who approach the subject more as an ideology than a desired outcome.

    Realistically if we get nuclear it will probably be by the back door, initially as a stop gap measure and then increasingly taking a larger part in our energy mix. I think that's the political reality.

    In my ideal house there is a lawn on the roof and a big pond full of frogs over the extension (to keep them above the cats). All my travel is by bike/train. The air is clean and the environment is natural and healthy. There are no solar panels or pointless tiny windmills anywhere, and I don't live in the dark ages. That's what I want.

    Good post on a controversial subject.

  9. Just what happens at decommissioning time, with the 'new generation' of nukes? I suppose they'll say that like a compliant German electrical appliance, they're designed for easy dismantling and recycling, assuming that all present facilites will be available in 50yrs time and all goes exactly to present plan. Or is it something that's not been adequately costed, like the present lot that are having to be decommissioned all in the same timeframe at unforeseen public cost? Have the costs of the occasional Chernobyl or Fukushima been costed, or do we believe it'll never happen again to the 'new' ones? Are we ready for thousands of sq km and the lives lived there, to be abandoned every so often?

  10. *yet there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste.*

    I don't know why people think this, there are plenty of scientifically sound methods to dispose of it safely.

    *Just what happens at decommissioning time*

    When comparing costs, does anyone do this for any energy source?

  11. On the topic of nuclear, what do people think about the proposal to bury all the world's nuclear waste in central Australia, as proposed here...


    Sure, it's a stable zone, but would it really be a good idea to concentrate so much nuclear matter in one place?

  12. David,

    The most elegant solution would seem to be to develop fast breeder reactors capable of recycling the existing waste. As yet, they haven't proved to be that reliable or easy to operate. Short of that, I guess burying the waste is probably the best option but moving it around the globe in order to get to the storage area is something that must worry us all.

  13. Why? It's all supposed to be so much safer and problem free than coal burning.

  14. Tom,

    You'd have to be nuts to think there are no safety issues with nuclear power. Of course there are. The question is how you rank them in comparison with coal burning or with trying to build a power infrastructure using nothing more than renewables and efficiency.

  15. And the already-decided answer to that last sentence just happens to correspond to the choice of technologies that big corporations are best placed to make lots of money out of - i.e. nuclear and coal (both justified by faint hope of future fast-breeder and carbon-capture to solve their debris disposal).

    £1bn just earmarked in the budget for CC. If the resources being profitably ploughed into coal and nuclear, were spent instead on renewables R&D and particularly on full-spectrum demand reduction, then the rhetorical presumption the only coal and nuke can carry us through (to what?) wouldn't look so convincing.

    1. Of course nuclear and CC&S are big business solutions. That doesn't make it wrong to pursue them, unless you have an agenda which is anti-big business — which is precisely the point that the right-wing skeptics keep making.

      And it's just not true that renewables and efficiency have no R&D budget. I suspect it's quite the reverse in fact. Nuclear has had very little R&D done on it since the TMI and Chernobyl accidents put the industry on the back foot. If it had, then fast breeders and mini-thorium lifters might by now be mainstream instead of being "faint hopes."

      PS Nice piece in this week's Building about ITER, a £12.5blllion project in France to build a working fusion reactor.