28 November, 2005

Fission back in fashion?

The nuclear debate has reared its ugly head again, with Our Glorious Leader apparently 'convinced' (which sounds awfully familiar; does he never learn?) that we must turn to nuclear power to meet emissions targets and ensure energy security.

My views on the nuclear question are complex. I'm aware of the disadvantages, of course: the production of long-lived, highly radioactive waste products (and, more importantly, still no clue about how to provide safe long-term storage for them), the reliance on expensive technology which is difficult to maintain and dismantle, and the horrific consequences if something goes wrong. There are, however, potential benefits: the cuts in CO2 emissions resulting from less use of fossil fuels, and the reduced dependence on diminishing supplies of oil and gas, most of which comes from areas of questionable political stability (and that's before we stick our oar in). So the question is, do these benefits outweigh the risks?

When this first hit the news last week, I took what I thought to be a pragmatic 'lesser of two evils' line: it's not ideal, and in a perfect world we wouldn't touch nuclear fission with a barge pole, but given the likely gap between our energy use and that which is probably going to be supplied by renewables (in the near future at least), if we're serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions then we might well have to consider it.

Then I read this op-ed by Magnus Linklater in The Times, which is mainly based on the work of Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Bartlett Smith. Unfortunately, I can't find any of their stuff on-line as a primary source, but their biographies (pdf) indicate that you can't just write them off has raving eco-hippies; they have both spent large parts of their careers involved with the nuclear industry.

According to Linklater:

What they have done is look at the entire life cycle of a nuclear power station, from the mining of the uranium to the storage of the resulting nuclear waste. Their conclusions make grim reading for any nuclear advocate.

They say that at the present rate of use, worldwide supplies of rich uranium ore will soon become exhausted, perhaps within the next decade. Nuclear power stations of the future will have to reply on second-grade ore, which requires huge amounts of conventional energy to refine it. For each tonne of poor-quality uranium, some 5,000 tonnes of granite that contains it will have to be mined, milled and then disposed of. This could rise to 10,000 tonnes if the quality deteriorates further. At some point, and it could happen soon, the nuclear industry will be emitting as much carbon dioxide from mining and treating its ore as it saves from the 'clean'” power it produces thanks to nuclear fission.

And that's before you've even considered the enrichment stage, where you separate U-238 from the non-fissile U-235, which also requires energy. We will of course meet this point even sooner if a new generation of reactors increases the global appetite for enriched uranium; after which the CO2 emissions 'saved' by nuclear electricity generation will be insufficient to offset that used to produce the fuel for it. Worse still, as demand for uranium ore increases, where will it all come from?

Not friendly Canada, which produces most of it at present, but places like Kazakhstan, hardly the most stable of democracies. So much for 'secure'” sources of energy. We would find ourselves out of the oil-producing frying pan, right in the middle of the ore-manufacturing fire.

Hmmm...suddenly I'm not so sure about that cost-benefit ratio. Especially when you consider that electricity generation as a whole only accounts for about a quarter of the total UK energy usage - getting on for 50% of the fossil fuels we burn are presently consumed by transport and domestic gas (The DTI provides some only slightly impenetrable figures here). Switching some gas-power stations off and replacing them with nuclear isn't going to affect those sectors at all.

So, could nuclear be an intermediate option in a long-term strategy - buying us time to switch over to more sustainable energy sources and usage? Possibly, but building nuclear power stations is a long and drawn out process (even the optimistic projections of proponents seem to reckon if we started right now it would be at least 10 years before we could add new nuclear capacity to the National Grid. And the cost will be fearsome. I wonder what you could do if you invested those billions in renewables (still scandalously cash-starved despite the high-minded rhetoric)? Or used it to every house in Britain loft insulation and solar heating systems?

I won't deny I have environmental sympathies, but I'm willing to be convinced that nuclear has a role in providing for our future energy needs. But I do have severe doubts which I'd like to be addressed. In detail. Unfortunately, if you'll forgive my cynicism, I have a feeling that this 'debate' which is currently being called for might well consist of 'this is right, anyone who disagrees is out of touch with the issues'. Don't know where I could have got that idea from...

1 comment:

Dean W. Armstrong said...

What needs to be done with the nuclear industry is a broad new look at reprocessing and recovering the 95% usable uranium leftover after the spent fuel rods are removed. Add that and breeder reactors and the fuel supply problem is solved, in addition to huge savings for repositories.