Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

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There’s a good deal of talk about power today: oil prices retaining their high levels in spite of Saudi offering to make up any shortfall due to Libya, nuclear back-tracking following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and so on.

How, the media seem to be asking, is the UK going to be able to generate sufficient power for its needs in an affordable manner?

Consequently, attention is turning increasingly to sustainable power – particularly as today (27th June), when much of the South East of the country saw temperatures break the 30C mark, was a day marked by the switching-on of the UK’s largest solar power plant, one near Wallingford in Oxford that is expected to generate nearly 700 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The trouble is, it’s just not the answer. Nor is wind, tide or any of the other “new technologies” being spoken about.

At present, around 75% of the UK’s maximum power generating capacity is from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas). But, as we know, these resources are being depleted rapidly all over the world (and that’s apart from the well-documented problems of global warming being brought on through the use of fossil fuels). However, for any country – including the UK – to continue to see economic growth, its power requirements grow. In fact, it is estimated that the UK’s power generating capacity will have to increase by at least 25% in the next 10 years – and this figure may be low if oil reserve issues accelerate the necessity to move to electric vehicles.

“Green Technologies” such as wind and solar suffer from a major drawback – a lack of reliability and predictability (and that’s before looking at cost issues which are significant – huge government subsidies benefit the builders but have to be reclaimed from the tax-payer). The fact is that while they will generate power during periods when the wind blows and there is sufficient daylight, this is far from constant, and power is needed on a 24-hour basis. It’s simply impractical from a cost, space, etc., perspective to store such power (assuming you’re generating excess) to any great extent. Yes, the UK has some level of stored-power reserves (mainly using pumped storage technology), but this is limited to around 3% of maximum capacity at present and is unlikely to be able to be increased to any great extent.  So, solar and wind generators need to be backed up by other technologies that can be switched on immediately the wind or light levels drop – effectively meaning a doubling of peak capacity.

Wave power and Tidal power technologies, although more constant, have not yet proven sufficiently scalable, nor reliable, to be of significant practical use either.

Hydro-electric power is well understood, but the UK geology does not really suit it – which is why only about 1% of current electrical power is from hydro-electric schemes here.

The only practical answer is nuclear.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, particularly in the light of the recent events in Japan, but the facts are that today’s technology makes nuclear plants infinitely safer than just about any other form of power generation. Of course, care needs to be taken that they are not sited where natural disasters are likely to cause a breach of the all-important containment vessels, but the UK is fortunate in being extremely stable geologically, so this is not an issue.

Nuclear “waste” – the by-products – can now be safely processed to remove the contaminants and reuse the rods in existing plants, or to utilise other up-coming technologies such as fast-breeder and fusion which can utilise the waste products.  Incidentally, Scientific America published an article showing fly-ash from coal-fired power plants pumps 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than any nuclear facility today…

France today generates something like 85% of its electricity, China is looking at 132 plants by 2030, Korea is planning to obtain 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2020, as is Japan (still).  The UK simply has no option but to embrace nuclear power – and to do so quickly – or face much higher utility bills and a “return to the dark age” as power shortages loom.

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7 responses to “Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

  1. Guy, it’s really a catch22 situation, isn’t it. Am not keen on nuclear power but at the moment it unfortunately has the huge advantage of keeping costs low. The drawback is how dangerous it is as was illustrated recently in Japan. And remember, Chernobyl?

    It doesn’t help that most European countries have privatized utilities in a way that makes power much more expensive for customers. Would like to see environmentally friendly sources widely used but until there are alternatives that really deliver, it’s unlikely to happen.

    • The problem with nuclear is more the fear factor than reality. Chernobyl was a big one but, having said that, far more people have been killed mining coal than in nucear accidents (and the radiation from coal fire power stations is something like 100x that from nuclear ones – see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste).

      Nobody uses the technology of Chernobyl anyway (old Soviet short-cut approach) and the “guts” of the power stations are in containment vessels which are incredibly strong so the likelyhood of a significant leak is extremely small. Of course, if you build them in unstable areas, you need to take extra precautions as Japan has now recognised.

      The problem with wind, solar, etc., is it’s not constant and storing power is not economical so you have to have the capacity backed up by other forms of generation – adding even more to the cost. Once Nucleau Fusion becomes a viable technology, the issue will become moot anyway as the cost dynamics will change dramatically.

  2. It’s a pity that renewable energy has been subsidised by fiat like this. It will reduce the vigour of those attempting to make it viable.

    My understanding of the Fukushima event is different. The information is leaking out but seems worse than I expected. Some points:

    1) The containments are GE BWR version 1 style. I’ve not seen the drawings but my undertstanding is that they are fragile. They have been modified a bit. I believe that there’s a very good chance that two of them cracked open from the quake. i.e. breached before the tsunami hit. Engineering failure in my book. Also spent fuel pond on 4 likely cracked on earthquake.

    2) To my horror I realised that these things absolutely need cooling (at least those as Fukushima). They got 8 to 10 hours of battery powered cooling, on the emergency (not primary) cooling circuit. I tweeted as follows on 17 May “At last. Technical details of Fukushima I meltdown Tepco: http://j.mp/mdIuO2 AT Analysis: http://j.mp/jDl8kb Info delay unacceptable” In about 5 hours the situation was lost in at least one core. Engineeering failure in my view. (The thing that struck me most was that I just assumed that loss of power still gave you containment, looks like I was wrong.)

    In my book the engineering is bad. Partly because the “design basis” accidents are so wimpy! (My impression was that at TMI corium did melt but was instantly quenched when it hit the metal shell which had huge heat capacity. Penetration into the steel was a few mm at most. I just assumed that that was the way you designed these things, huge excess that will handle just about anything.)

    I’m not currently a fan of the hot fusion tokamaks. They said give us thirty years and we’ll have it working. Now that 30 years have past they say, give us thirty years. A great money pit. Admittedly spin off results must have accrued. The money is the problem. It’s so much that it has sucked all effort away from alternative approaches. There’s for example an aneutronic, “cold” idea (wiffle ball…) which is fortunately getting funding from the USN. They are taking the bet because they want better ways to power warships!

    The press seem to be whitewashing the Fukushima event. (That’s where they actually understand what’s going on.) At least it’s not like the Kyshtym incident, which most people never heard about (me included until recently). Wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of the story behind current high world wide cancer incidence.

    • Since writing this I’ve seen another analysis made several decades ago. It was an American study and found that without power a large number of nuclear plants are going to breach. If used as a model for the Fukushima event it predicts breach times rather well.

      So, in my view, there is a better explanation for what actually happened than seismic damage. The designs were in fact pretty guaranteed to fail this way. If you just ran the calculations! (And that was known decades ago!)

      This is all predicated on the information to hand. Fortunately there is information available if you look. There is also clear cut evidence of how information was deliberately suppressed, http://j.mp/pX2MKZ. This suppression has already, I believe, killed some people though they may not physically die for some time. (Evidence that existing systems of governance and social organisation are not up to the job!)

      • Thanks, Mike – the US study to which you refer sounds very interesting.

        As you say, the supression of information on radiation cloud direction following the Fukishima explosions could well result in the death of many people: I’m afraid that’s politicians for you…

  3. It’s interesting to note that photo-voltaic i.e. solar cells have traditionally had a thing called an FIT (feed in tariff). That’s basically a fudge factor, a subsidy to pay you more for PV electricity than thermal. It’s an open admission that PV is not economic. I now see that a lot of Europe has been phasing out the FIT. That’s probably put a cat among the pigeons but it does take the load off the taxpayer! A guy in NSW tried to do it too, but the moron uproar was too loud so he canned the idea!

    On nuclear I also thought it was the inevitable answer, UNTIL FUKUSHIMA. I’ve had a look what went on there and have realised that this generation of technology is not good engineering. Most of the problem is now spread around the globe. If you’re interested look up something called “hot particles”. It’s little grains of medium life radio-isotopes (cesium, etc.) that float around in the air and that you breath in. They then stick in your lungs. Basically undetectable and not really monitored. Spread thoroughly around the northern hemisphere already. (If you change the air filter on your car, I suggest donning at least a face mask (hazmat suit would be better), cleaning the vacuum cleaner too…)

    There are other nuclear options, some of the best are still in the lab (South Africa had a pebble bed reactor program until the 9 billion and growing price tag shut that down). The answer is to spend big, wise and productively on getting something better than BWR (boiling water reactors) or even the PWR’s (pressurised…). And do it now. The things that China et. al. are building now have similar flaws to the BWR’s in Japan. The next generation devices may be corruptly licensed (regulatory capture…), the best bet might be the European design.

    ;-O The real disaster for the planet might be a solution of the energy problem (I know of at least one fission design that looks possible). We would then get an even bigger plague of humanity spreading over the face of the earth!

    • The FIT is being reduced sharply in UK for larger (non-household) solar installations as the only people really benefitting seem to have been the builders/installers. With wind power there is still a massive subsidy – the offshore farms get about £50 per MWh I believe – which makes them viable for the developers, although somebody will have to pay the ludicrously high bill…

      The issue with Fukushima was not the nuclear technology but the fact that theyhad not built against a big tsunami. If you build in an earthquake zone… Luckly, in spite of the massive level of destruction caused by the ‘quake and tsunami, the containment vessels held up very well or the fall-out could have been MUCH worse. Fortunately the UK is geologically stable so doesn’t face those issues.

      Pebble-bed’s an interesting fission technology, as are Fast-Breeder reactors. The big hope, of course, is fusion: have a look at the JET project at Calhum – http://www.jet.efda.org/ – and ITER in France – http://www.iter.org/ Seems we could be nearly there…

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