Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lynas and Lucas on nuclear power

Environmnental writer Mark Lynas and Green Party leader(!) Caroline Lucas debated nuclear power on the today programme this morning. It brought what I thought was the most astute question I've heard for a while on Today:

[Is there something] almost dogmatic in the theological sense about where the Green movement stands on this question, in that people are perhaps looking at the facts through lenses tinted by the historic opposition of the green movement to nuclear power?

Lucas didn't entirely disagree, but argued her point nonetheless in the usual way:

  •  "Nuclear would lock us into a centralised energy system...." which is largely cod. They are all good ideas that come under the "decentralised energy" agenda, but the agenda itself is simply a way of packaging all carbon-saving technologies except for nuclear for the purposes of promoting them. By all means do that if you have already decided that nuclear would be a mistake, but it doesn't work as an argument against nuclear.
  •  "Nuclear is not necessary..." - perhaps not. Arguably wind is not necessary either, or coal or gas or even energy efficiency. What is necessary is the generation of enough low-carbon energy, and we cannot afford to let dogma get in the way of this.
  •  "Nuclear delivers too little too late." - that all depends on how much of it we build and how quickly. As Lynas pointed out, Germany built more coal fired power stations after the Greens had their nuclear plant shut down. That is an undeniable harm to the climate.

On their own these arguments might sway some but seen together they are horribly weak. We don't oppose wind farms because they deliver very little as a percentage of our total energy needs. We don't dismantle the interconnector to France's nuclear electric riches on the grounds that that is too "centralised", nor should we. We maintain spare generating capacity so that no single plant is "necessary". Lucas' objections are paper thin when stood against the need for large amounts of low-carbon energy.

Now maybe nuclear is just too expensive. Perhaps filling a percent of a percent or two of the Sahara with CSP, and linking to it with HVDC would be a better investment. But my guess is that we should do both - that we are a long way from being in a position to turn down feasible low-carbon energy sources. It is madness to frame the debate as nuclear v renewables and efficiency, when we are still building coal-fired plant.

And in any case the unknown factor in the cost of nuclear is the underwriting of the decommissioning cost, which is some time away. This would represent off-books liability that puts PFI to shame. No other low-carbon energy source can defer its costs like this. I don't think that our descendents whose climate will have been saved will mind that much the decommissioning cost. It is not as if they would be better off suffering climate change.

So with that in mind, it seems that nuclear capacity is almost certainly probably worth building, and probably probably worth building in sufficient quantity to replace all our coal-fired plant. (Gas, on the other hand, complements wind well.) I realise that my party, the Lib Dems, is opposed. I guess this is due to a desire to do the right thing for the environment, but with too much deference to the environmental movement. But environmentalists should heed Lynas:

We are no longer living in the 1970s. Today, the world is more threatened even than it was during the Cold War. Only this time nuclear power – instead of being part of the problem – can be part of the solution.

8 comments:

Wit and wisdom said...

Three key reasons why nuclear is pants:

1. It is not low-carbon, never has been and never will be. The carbon costs of building, running and decommissioning nuclear power stations dwarf the carbon output of other technologies.
2. The only new nuclear power station being built today is in FInland and it is going through huge difficulties. It is massively over budget and behind schedule. Any sensible government or other energy procurer would wait and see how that project develops before committing us to new nuclear power stations
3. No new nuclear power stations are going to be built in this country because the government says it will not subsidise them at all. Only if the government is lying (perish the thought!) could this change.

The only answer is for us all to cut our energy use through less driving, better insulation, more local food and all sorts of sensible, low cost ideas which will do a hell of a lot more than some ultimately pointless white elephant like a host of new nuclear power stations.

If nuclear power worked, it would be great. It doesn't so it isn't.

*sniff, yawn*. Hmm, is that coffee?

jamesshaddock said...

I caught this on the Today programme too and was struck by the narrow mindedness of Caroline Lucas in debating the issue.

Seemed to me that as far as she's concerned, nuclear power is the devils tool and that utilising it would lead to an increase in nuclear weapons.

We need a sane and sensible debate on nuclear power sooner rather than later if we're to effectively combat climate change and having the likes of the Greens going around scaremongering will not help that.

Joe Otten said...

W&W:

From "somewhere on the net"

Coal: 1,006 gC02/kWh
Oil: 742
Natural gas: 466
Solar: 17 to 39
Nuclear: 16 to 55
Hydro: 18
Geothermal: 15
Wind: 14

This suggests that nuclear and renewables are very low carbon compared to fossils. Much of the nuclear emissions are in refining, which if powered by nuclear electricity, almost vanishes again. Similarly for renewables.

Similar figures at madeuppedia

Not great sources I grant you - do you have any better?

Sure, lets be more efficient, but don't change the subject. We are talking about how to generate low-carbon energy. Nobody says let's not bother with wind, we should be more efficient instead.

Auberius said...

Good heads-up Joe!

The dogma of the Church of EnvironMentalism is definitely an issue, but I do have some sympathy for finding it difficult to get one's head around all the issues; understanding nuclear waste disposal technologies requires you to consider the effects of the sudden destruction of all human civilisation, for example...

On the energy costs of the nuclear fuel cycle, it's worth noting that the largest uranium mine in the world is a copper mine that extracts uranium as a by-product. Unfortunately all this is in the world's second most anti-nuclear nation (Australia) and so it becoming zero carbon is fairly unlikely in the near future.

Wit and wisdom said...

Okay, I went away and checked my sources and I exaggerated. Nuclear will produice as much carbon, not more than coal or gas. Ths costs are in the mining of uranium, the construction of nuclear power stations and the storage of nuclear waste. The notion that this can all be done with nuclear power in the first place is pretty much what you call a circular argument.

There is an excellent piece from Cllr Alexis Rowell on 14th July 2008 on his Belsize Lib Dems blog at http://www.belsizelibdems.org.uk/search?q=nuclear

or through the libdemblogs site. This gives some very compeling arguments against nuclear, along with some evidence, which my original rant singularly lacked.

Joe Otten said...

W&W, "as much"? Can you share this source?

The Belsize link seems to contain much the same sort of stuff as Caroline Lucas was saying. I can fisk it if you like...

Auberius said...

Of the points in Alexis Rowell's "excellent piece";

1 is based on a study by two innumerate propagandists (Google Van Leeuwen and Smith for any number of explanations as to why their study is moronic)

2 and 3 contradict each other

4 and 9 contradict each other (Google "Hydrogen Production" for why nuclear is about to get a lot more efficient and a much bigger likely source of primary energy)

5 ignores the extent to which quite easy to fly 500 feet over Manhattan and only hit the WTC, but rather harder to fly 50 feet over the sea and not hit the sea

6 is fine up until the point the shareholders of British Energy vetoed the sale to EDF because they thought the company was UNDERvalued

8 is nicely disproven by this study reported by The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/03/wind_power_needs_dirty_pricey_gas_backup_report/)

And as for 10, try telling that to the Finns and the Americans...

thomas said...

I think I should add a point.

If we want to improve a technology it's no good destroying everything we have to start again from scratch sometime in the future.

Nobody really knows what profitable applications will be derived from the integration of new knowledge with existing knowledge (look at Cern and ask why?), and nobody really knows how we can use (reduce, reuse, recycle) the current byproducts of the nuclear power industry in a safe and productive way.

So we definitely shouldn't give up looking.