Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Debate: Nuclear Power (2011)

Matt Dumont & Imogen Michel, Debate: Nuclear Power’, The Student (Edinburgh), 18 October 2011

It is undeniable that the greatest challenge facing the world in the 21st century is and will be climate change. The 2-4ºC rise in global mean temperatures by 2050 will not only damage our global economy, but it will also bare its consequences on biodiversity, land productivity, and human lives. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 has done little to abate global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and renewable energy alternatives are simply not being produced fast enough to accommodate our burgeoning energy demand.

Despite the disasters at Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl; nuclear fission power still remains the safest of all the non-renewable energy sources. Fortunately no one has died as a result of the poorly operated and incompetently engineered Fukushima plant meltdown, and that particular facility was built close to a fault zone of all places.
We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions now. The only way to do this is by cessation of coal and gas electricity production and promotion of a nuclear-powered baseload supply in conjunction with a gradual switch to renewable alternatives.

There is absolutely no denying that climate change is one of the most serious challenges facing humanity today, and needs to be tackled urgently. However, nuclear power is simply not the answer to climate change.  Even if we reached the most optimistic estimate of building nuclear power stations in the future of 10 new reactors built by 2024, we would only cut the UK’s carbon emissions by four per cent. This is not enough to combat climate change.
Given that nuclear power itself cannot make a significant impact on climate change, it is therefore an expensive and dangerous distraction from real solutions to this problem. We only have a limited amount of money and resources to spend on tackling climate change and they must be used in the most effective way possible. Even major utility companies such as EDF and E.on admit that nuclear power and major new renewable energy developments cannot coexist, and so to develop one we must necessarily cut back on the other.
If we are serious about combating climate change, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by dangerous, expensive and unnecessary nuclear power.

I absolutely agree that a cost-effective approach must be encouraged to prevent needless wasteful expenses. What Greenpeace and you do not make clear in their figures is that seventeen reactors are due for closure by 2023. This ‘energy gap’, exacerbated by rising demand, will result in a deficit on the order of 60GWe. Fortunately the government has pledged to fill much of this gap with renewables.  However it is projected that 2020 offshore wind turbines will produce at 12.5p/kWh, which is actually more expensive than nuclear power reactors at 7.8p/kWh. Onshore turbines are continually subject to planning permission rejection and inefficiency due to buildings and topography. The ten new reactors that could be constructed will surpass the energy output of the older generation preventing further fossil fuel stations to be built.
I believe our immediate future lies with carbon capture and storage and de-carbonization of transport, however this would put further strain on the UK’s waning energy budget. Wind power is currently too expensive and would still require a baseload power supply from constant reliable sources such as nuclear, coal, or gas to prevent dangerous blackouts occurring during peak hours and periods of low wind activity.

Greenpeace and other environmental organisations have never shied away from explaining how any future ‘energy gap’ could be met much more easily and safely without nuclear power.  Part of Greenpeace’s work is publishing papers, and in the last few years have written reports on meeting the energy gap several times! Most importantly, they have pointed out that the biggest energy gap is in providing heat rather than electricity.
Rather than investing money into further developing our heavily centralised, outdated and inefficient power grid, if we worked to create a network of small-scale, localised combined heat and power (CHP) plants, we could massively increase the efficiency of our energy generation in a safe way, which would give us time to develop long-term renewable energy solutions. In addition, plenty of research has been done showing that wind speed variability can be easily managed (such as Milburrow, Managing Variability, 2009), and that CHP is more than capable of providing any necessary extra power.
In addition, whilst many claims are made for the supposed cheapness of nuclear energy, there are frequent problems in that the nuclear industry has always been massively subsidised by the state, and in the case of another accident, the costs will be far greater than simply financial.

I agree that the idealised energy network in the UK would be total CHP utilization. Cogeneration can be applied to all forms of electricity generation including both renewables and nuclear, therefore there is no reason why both cannot be utilized.
Milburrow’s points on wind energy variability mitigation should be noted; unfortunately however he describes wind power supplying a maximum of 40% of the UK’s energy and not an energy network dependent entirely on renewables. Moreover to achieve 40% of the UK’s energy production wind farms would occupy an area over three times the size of London (4800km2).  Yes much of this can be used offshore but even there space is limited and of course expensive.
In September this year 11 wind farms were forced to shut down due to Hurricane Katia amounting to 750MW of power.  Also very cold spells, resulting in ice formation can cause damage to wind turbines when power is most needed in the winter months, and subsides are provided to the energy companies by the UK government to help pay for their loss. These events exemplify the need for a constant reliable energy source for both heating and electricity, which unfortunately renewables cannot provide yet.

I would agree that there are limitations to Milburrow’s article, particularly the focus on wind alone. However, given the wide range of renewable technologies available to us, including wave and tidal, which are improving rapidly every year, taking on renewable technology as a major source of energy in the UK has been shown in many studies to be completely viable.
We have enough versatility through using a range of different types of renewable technology, when combined with CHP, to provide secure and clean energy for generations to come. There is no need to go down the path of building more nuclear power stations, which produce vast quantities of radioactive waste (which remains dangerous to life for thousands of years) and pose a constant risk to the safety of those working in it and living around it.
If we put money, time and energy into improving renewable energy rather than pouring it into dirty, dangerous and unnecessary nuclear power stations, we stand a chance of combating some of the worst consequences of climate change. However, if we allow the development of new nuclear reactors to distract us from this, the future looks very grim indeed.

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