Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Nuclear Option

Blogging on energy policy is a tricky business for me; I have to declare in the register of interests that I’m currently finishing an MSc in Nuclear Reactor Technology and have worked previously for both British Nuclear Group and National Nuclear Corporation. In any case, if I were to post an extended pro-nuclear polemic, the grief received would not be worth it.

Instead, I thought I’d offer a few of my favourite insights into the underlying science. Because if anything strikes me about coverage of energy matters, it’s that no-one in the political or journalistic spheres really understands how energy production works. So, in no particular order;

  • Installed capacity is not the same as available capacity. Actually, I can’t stress this one enough; Installed capacity is not the same as available capacity! The easiest argument in the world is “nuclear makes up 20% of our electricity generation, we have 20% overcapacity, so if we close the nuclear stations it’ll be fine”. Installed capacity represents the maximum generation potential of a power station, but a reserve is required to allow for planned shutdowns, faults, climate factors… 20% overcapacity is probably okay, though 25% would be preferable.
  • Foreign interconnectors do not count as installed capacity either. In recent years we have boosted our capacity to take electricity from grids in continental Europe, but this should not be considered as if it were just another power station. Italy had major power cuts in 2003 because they did just that, then found that a heatwave left both Italy and France with low reserves. At that point, the French told the Italians just exactly where they could shove their interconnectors and shut them off. Even if we had a European electricity market (and we’re so far away from it it’s laughable), no politician in their right mind is going to risk power cuts in their own country by helping out another country.
  • Again, one I really can’t stress enough; It’s not that “we” don’t know what to do with nuclear waste, it’s that “you” don’t. Technically, long-term storage of nuclear waste is a solved problem, the argument is merely political. And if you doubt it, here’s the measure. Assume we do what we currently propose, namely vitrify, pack in grouted steel canisters, bury in a concrete-lined chamber 500m underground, then concrete up the chamber itself. Then assume that on the day the chamber is sealed, all civilisation on Earth is brought to an end by an earthquake of unprecedented global, let alone British, magnitude. Then assume that this earthquake breaks the chamber and all the canisters and exposes them all to the water table. Then assume that a person establishes a farmstead on the 1km square around the point where the flow from the chamber hits the surface. Then assume that that person never leaves the farm and only eats things grown in that 1km square area. Then consider that that person’s chance of contracting cancer from radiation is increased by the same amount as that of a person who moves house from London to Truro
  • The largest source of uncertainty in the economic case for power stations has nothing to do with the stations themselves, it is a function of the way the government has decided to structure the market. Under BETTA (British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements), generators must sell half-hour tranches of capacity onto what is essentially a commodities trading market. Now, dairy farmers get screwed by supermarkets because they cannot control the timing of the milk supply and they must sell it during its shelf life; electricity has an even shorter shelf life, so the transmission and supply companies can screw them in exactly the same way. The tranche system also screws renewable generators, who cannot with 100% accuracy predict how much capacity they will have in any half-hour period, leaving them often having to buy make-up capacity at inflated prices.
  • Despite what I’ve seen some bloggers try to argue, nuclear does help security of supply and lessen dependence on foreign resources. In the first instance, the majority of the world’s oil comes from the Middle East while the bulk of the world’s uranium comes from Australia and Canada. In the second, a 1000MW coal-fired power station requires between 3 and 9 million tonnes of a coal a year, depending on quality; a similarly sized nuclear plant requires 27 tonnes of fuel a year. This just in; stockpiling of uranium is practical, stockpiling of fossil fuels really isn’t…
  • On the matter of security, how feasible is it that terrorists will intercept a nuclear fuel transport and extract the plutonium from it? Well, even if we assume that they can evade all the spy satellites ever built with sufficient forces to overwhelm a fully armed transport vessel in the middle of the ocean, break open the thick steel transport cans and remove the fuel, consider that in order to remove plutonium from uranium, Britain has constructed a factory bigger than most cathedrals. Are we really to believe that while it costs us £2 billion, they could do it with the chemistry kit they got at Toys ‘R’ Us?
  • Hydrogen is not the great saviour of all renewable energy sources. Hydrogen production by solar energy and biomass may well prove possible, but for wind, wave and tidal power the only feasible production process is electrolysis. Unfortunately, electrolysis of water for hydrogen requires temperatures approaching 1000°C as well as electricity, and wind, wave and tidal are never going to get there. In reality, hydrogen production is best suited to systems that produce consistent high temperatures, allowing the thermal output to be used directly for electricity generation during high demand or for hydrogen production during low demand. Gee, I wonder if we have anything like that at present…
  • Energy efficiency is not the great saviour of anything. If nothing else, we must remember that energy savings themselves are not 100% efficient; if new technology makes something use 10% less energy, the cost of doing that thing reduces and hence people do it more (the Khazoom-Brookes hypothesis). You cannot escape it by restricting what you make more energy efficient; if you make an industrial process more energy efficient, the product of that process becomes cheaper so more people buy it so production increases so more energy is used. In an economic world, energy use is always going to be a function of energy cost.
  • Uranium is only a scarce resource if you ignore just about everything. Current estimates of available resources assume something like 3% utilisation of fissile uranium; with reprocessing, utilisation in the high 90’s is possible. As the cost of uranium mining increases with scarcity, reprocessing becomes economical and your reserve lifetime goes up thirty times (from around 50 years to around 1500). Then factor in breeder reactors that convert uranium from its inert to its fissile form, increasing overall utilisation from 0.7% to the high 90’s again, giving another factor of around 125, increasing the lifetime estimate to 187,000 years. Then factor in thorium (four times more abundant than uranium, can be converted to fissile uranium with existing reactors, hence your resources go up from 187,500 years to 937,500 years). Would anyone like to argue that that constitutes scarce?
  • There’s nothing worse in this debate than the ton of arguments that blindly ignore the rest of existence. Ed Davey recently said that no nuclear power plant in Europe had ever been built on time and on budget; would he like to identify for me please the vast swathe of buildings of all types across the continent that have?

My overarching point is this; the 21st century will be the energy century. The decisions we make now, about energy for industry, energy for domestics, energy for transportation, will dictate our position on climate change, on geopolitics, on commerce, on industry… Whatever we do, we must make the decision on the facts; at a time when we face such threats from one group of religious zealots, we must not allow another group of religious zealots to dictate the future of our society. Particularly when (and this is my favourite of the whole bunch…)

  • If you lived one mile from both a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant, which would give you the highest radiation dose? Coal contains uranium, thorium, radon and carbon-14, all of which is ejected directly to the environment when it is burnt. The answer, counter-intuitive though it may be, is that the coal station gives you a higher dose.


Tristan said...

You're not the only pro-nuclear LibDem out there ;)
I'm broadly pro-nuclear, the only problem I see is the one you havn't mentioned: Decomissioning.

It is very expensive at the moment, although from what I know we're learning a lot from the current round of decomissioning which will enable us to design better power stations which will be cheaper and easier to decomission.

I'd like nuclear to be given an equal chance alongside other forms of power.

Unfortunately the problem is highly political: Peple don't like nuclear power for two main reasons:
1) Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (people don't respond to facts about these incidents)
2) Nuclear power was first developed to produce nuclear weapons, so it is inextricably linked in people's minds.

James Aach said...

"... no-one in the political or journalistic spheres really understands how energy production works."

It's the same here across the pond, where I've written a fictional profile of the real world of nuclear power and energy production. (I've been in the biz 20+ years.) Take a look - it's free.

Among other things, in comments in an early episode I get into the installed capacity versus available capacity conundrum as it applies to wind turbines.

Tony Ferguson said...

A lot of interesting and fair points. However, I am not entirely convinced by the lack of damage which would be caused by a breach of the deep storage containers. More importantly you have to get to the point where the stuff is "safely" stored underground without having first encountered a Chernobyl like event

Joe Otten said...

Comment here: