Monday, March 06, 2006

Nuclear: No Quick Fix

The Sustainable Development Commission has reported on the subject of nuclear power. This is a finely balanced question, and what worries me is quite how weak most of their arguments are.

Links: News item, SDC, chapter on C02 (pdf)

These are the arguments:
1. Long-term waste – no long term solutions are yet available, let alone acceptable to the general public; it is impossible to guarantee safety over the long- term disposal of waste.

Yes. Bang on. Of course if nuclear diminishes the threat of global warming, then this a question of what is the greater threat. Also how much nuclear may diminish global warming depends on the other arguments.

2. Cost – the economics of nuclear new-build are highly uncertain. There is little, if any, justification for public subsidy, but if estimated costs escalate, there’s a clear risk that the taxpayer will be have to pick up the tab.

Correct. The new Finnish reactor is getting hidden subsidies. Of course environmentalists will usually argue that it is worth paying more to fight global warming.

3. Inflexibility – nuclear would lock the UK into a centralised distribution system for the next 50 years, at exactly the time when opportunities for microgeneration and local distribution network are stronger than ever.

No, sorry, this just stinks. Microgeneration may be an alternative to grid power for people who are off-grid, but it is only a complement to grid power to those of us who have the benefit of a grid connection.

The SDC clearly sees nuclear as a political rival to renewables and microgeneration. They may be right, but it is still unfortunate. Nuclear, renewables, efficiency and microgeneration can all reduce carbon emissions, and are all alternatives to fossil fuel use.

There is absolutely no sign of an economically sound engineering case for dismantling the 'centralised distribution system'. It is driven by 'small is beautiful' wishful thinking. There is an engineering trade-off between capital-efficient and thermally-efficient large plant on the one hand, and distribution costs on the other.

4. Undermining energy efficiency – a new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers and businesses, implying that a major technological fix is all that’s required, weakening the urgent action needed on energy efficiency.

This is just ridiculous. We should not use techonological means to reduce carbon emissions, because people may conclude that technological means can reduce carbon emissions. Sorry, this is not just ridiculous, it is gob-smackingly mind-bogglingly ridiculous.

And of course, what actually drives energy efficiency, is not the spin we put on how we generate the energy, but the price of energy. If we have more, expensive, nuclear power, cross-subsidising from gas and coal, then costs will be higher and efficiency will be promoted.

In the pdf linked above, the SDC talk about "demand reductions". Demand reduction if not a result of "technological fixes" will be much the same in economic impact as huge price increases, worse in fact if they are not brought about simply by huge price increases.

5. International security – if the UK brings forward a new nuclear power programme, we cannot deny other countries the same technology*. With lower safety standards, they run higher risks of accidents, radiation exposure, proliferation and terrorist attacks.

I largely agree with this, or rather I agree that it is a very good reason to develop and promote renewables ahead of nuclear. But it is not so compelling a reason not to use nuclear in preference to fossil fuels in already-nuclear powers such as the US, Europe, China and India, representing a lot of energy demand growth.


It is suggested that maintaining nuclear capacity would only make a difference of 8% to our carbon emissions. That may not seem much compared to a target of 60%. But it is a lot compared to what we seem to be on course to achieving. United against nuclear are anti-technology environmentalists, and "economic contrarians" who consider that global warming is inevitable and the costs of doing anything about it would be disproportionate. What an alliance!

There are sound reasons for having a mix of energy sources, both for security of supply, and because they have different characteristics of cost, flexibility and so forth. Taking nuclear out of the equation altogether means taking it out of the roles it is best at. There is no case for trying to do without renewables, or without coal or without gas. It will take better arguments than those of the SDC to defeat nuclear.

Tag: nuclear power


Peter Pigeon said...

"It is suggested that maintaining nuclear capacity would only make a difference of 8% to our carbon emissions. That may not seem much compared to a target of 60%. But it is a lot compared to what we seem to be on course to achieving."

It also strikes me as a dodgy comparator: nuclear power generation will not make much of a difference to transport emissions.

Well of course not.

(It might be me who is wrong here - grateful for advice - but this is the impression I get from the SDC site).

Like you, I don't want us to go for the nuclear option . but I want this to be based on sound arguments.

greenman said...

I think you are misinterpreting point four. IMO It is not arguing against dealing with the issue in a "technological way" - after all renewables are a "technological fix" also. It is arguing that with with nuclear pushed as "the problem solved" the generation issue will be put on the back burner again until the next crisis, and further progress hindered. (And the precedents for this are in dependence on nuclear in the first place and then the "dash for gas")

Joe Otten said...


So the problem is the way that nuclear might be pushed?

The argument doesn't apply to renewables because they won't be pushed this way? Because they are a less plausible solution to the problem of carbon emissions?

We seem to be leading towards the argument that nuclear power is bad because it would be too good at reducing carbon emissions.

Shomething wrong shurely?

Any kind of substantial progress on the carbon emissions issue will reduce the attention we need to give it, and potentially it will sneak up on us again.

This cannot be a good argument for rejecting opportunities for substantial progress.

This just sounds like hostility to the idea of problems being solved. Not only do we dispair about the environment, but we ought to dispair. Our actions should symbolise our connectedness with nature, but have little practical benefit or people might think that progress is possible again. To be fair I think this is a pretty gross caricature, but I hope you can see where it is coming from.

greenman said...

Yes it is a gross misrepresentation. A nuclear fix would be short term as it is *not sustainable*, whereas investment in renewables (and clean coal/carbon capture technology that can be used in developing economies dependent on fossil fuels for the time being) IS long term and sustainable. Therefore, the public response might be the same - "problem solved" - but at least with the options I am advocating they are nearer the truth, and the development of these *new* technlologies, as opposed to (admittedly jazzed up - which incidentally leads to a larger percentage of heavily radioactive waste compared to now)old nuclear, will have a long term positive future - as opposed to a very long term waste problem .

Joe Otten said...

Greenman, are we still arguing about the validity of argument 4? The waste issue is point 1, which I agree with.

Coal is expected to last 200 years. Uranium 100 years once-through, or thousands/millions with reprocessing. So strictly speaking the last option is the most "sustainable".

Although of course we expect fusion in 50 years (as we did 50 years ago), so perhaps everything else is short term.

But argument 4 is, that if we generate electricity well, this reduces the need for, and therefore undermines the case for efficiency savings. This is of course true. But it isn't and cannot be a case for generating electricity badly. It is like opposing efficiency savings, because they would (as they do) reduce the need for renewable energy.