Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Going nuclear: in discussion with Chris Goodall

Quite a few of the readers of this blog will be aware there has been a mini-storm over nuclear power recently, with a group of reasonably high profile environmental campaigners calling for a rethink on the question of nuclear power. One of the threads that helped form the green movement were the anti-nuclear campaigns and organisations like the Green Party take a very clear and uncompromising approach in their opposition to new nuclear power stations.

I thought it would be worthwhile opening up a discussion on this issue with Chris Goodall, who is the Green Party's parliamentary candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon and one of those voices calling for a new approach on nuclear.

CHRIS: Reducing the carbon emissions from electricity generation is vital. The Climate Change Committee showed in December that unless the UK almost wholly decarbonised electricity production we have no real prospect of meeting our emissions reductions targets. I haven’t seen any Greens disputing this.

Today about 95% of our electricity is made using fossil fuels. So in the space of about 20 years we have to utterly transform an industry with annual turnover of about £50bn. This is, to put it carefully, a very substantial challenge.

That challenge is currently becoming more difficult not less. Coal prices have collapsed. Carbon pollution permits now cost a third of what they did a year ago. So coal is the fuel of choice for power generators. As all Greens know, this is the worst possible outcome for climate change.

At the same time as coal revival, renewables have suffered reversals. The big offshore wind projects are all struggling to get financed. Any proposed Severn Barrage will suffer in a similar way. Venture capital is not available for many of the most exciting wave and tidal technologies. It seems to me that Greens need to reassess nuclear because we need all the non-carbon sources of electricity that we can lay our hands upon.

About a third of the UK’s existing power generation capacity is due to close by the end of the next decade or shortly after. If the UK doesn’t get replacement low carbon technologies running by about 2016, the lights will (occasionally) go out. It’s a cliché, but it’s almost certainly true. We will also be forced to keep the old dinosaurs of coal-fired power stations open. In my opinion, it is irresponsible of us not to ask ourselves the question – which is the lesser of these two evils, coal or nuclear? I regretfully conclude that the answer is nuclear. (More details of this argument on Carbon Commentary)

Several people have said to me over the last few days that Green policy is to focus on energy efficiency, principally house insulation. This is good of course, but people may not be aware that very little electricity is used for home or business heating. (Some people off the gas grid use electricity for heating and some factories and warehouses use radiant heating but this is broadly true). Electricity, already about 38% of the UK’s total emissions, is likely to become more important rather than less as we switch to electric cars over the next decade. We are going to need more electricity, not less, and ensuring that this power is made with minimal amounts of CO2 emissions is a vital aim.

I hope I am not being dogmatic about this. I’d love to see a carefully thought-through plan that bases the UK electricity industry around renewables. (My book Ten Technologies to Save the Planet gives one view of how this might be possible). But Greens like me also need to recognize the huge public opposition to onshore wind, the escalating costs of offshore and the very difficult issues of how to connect large scale renewables to the electricity grid. Our rate of progress on decarbonisation of electricity is so slow that I am personally finding it difficult to work out how 400 terawatt hours of electricity is going to be produced each year without nuclear power.

JIM: The first thing I want to say is that I don't think you're being dogmatic and you’ve been far more nuanced on this than the Independent made you out to be. There are a number of points where we disagree though.

We don’t have space to list where we agree so I’m going to take it as a given that we both want to radically increase the amount of energy we get from renewable sources whilst drastically cutting our level of energy consumption. It seems to me the points of disagreement are more about how much we can cut and how significant a contribution renewables can make to our energy mix.

We are also looking at different time scales. I’d say that if we haven’t already made massive inroads into this problem in twenty years time we’re in deep trouble – and whilst we’re waiting for nuclear to come online we’re still contributing to it. One big advantage of renewables over nuclear is how quickly they can be brought online so that we can make near immediate contributions to the cut in our national carbon footprint.

There are long term problems with nuclear power that we cannot simply dismiss. Whilst I see the logic behind regretfully discounting the long term problems of nuclear waste, an inheritance that we are leaving countless generations in order to survive the current crisis, there are other problems that can’t be put aside so easily.

If the pessimists are right then no matter how good we are at cutting our emissions now we will still be subject to unpredictable weather and rising sea levels. The vulnerability of nuclear power stations to climate disaster (or terrorist attack) does not make them safe neighbors. Unfortunately in times like these this is something we have to insure against, by ensuring that our energy sources do not have the capacity to poison the environment still further should the worst happen.

More importantly nuclear is not carbon neutral so we have a problem if we want it to help us decarbonise our economy. The carbon footprint of building and maintaining nuclear power plants has been consistently underestimated in the media and as the uranium supply gets lower the mining footprint increases [1].

Creating a reliance on an uncommon material [2] not found in significant amounts in this country is dangerous indeed, opening ourselves up to severe market fluctuations and the kind of energy blackmail that Russia has demonstrated with its gas supply. The cost of a resource that we cannot rely on in even the medium term as a global energy crisis kicks in is not good forward planning. More than that climate change requires global solutions and we are simply not going to see the whole world taking up nuclear power. We don’t trust most of the countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America to have it – but also there are not the raw resources to sustain a global take up of nuclear in a safe and sustainable manner.

What are we going to do to help China and India meet their energy needs in a sustainable way? How are we going to make the maximum possible contribution to a global reduction in carbon emissions? If we’re not investing heavily in the technology and production of renewable energy to become a major exporter of the cheapest, most effective technologies possible we’ll be putting our own house in order as the planet plummets towards disaster. If we’re not prioritising renewables we could be in danger of taking a far too parochial view of an international crisis.

But you’re right that there are significant obstacles. The energy industry is powerful and obstructive, the financial crisis has heaped further problems upon us and the government is simply committed to doing it anyway. I don’t think we should accept a fait accompli though when nuclear has so many inherent problems in such dangerous times. I don’t have the space for a full discussion on how we overcome these problems, or to deal with all your points, but I would say that if the private energy industry wont play ball perhaps its time to nationalise. If energy, that crucial public resource, is not brought under democratic control and taken out of the hands of vested interests we may well be unable to meet the challenge that faces us anyway.

To my mind if the government is determined to take a bad course of action it’s up to us to help it change its mind. We can’t wait for nuclear, nor allow it to distract us, we don’t have the time when we could be making real advances by focusing on energy efficiency and renewable technology – not just for us, but for the world.

CHRIS: I’m sure that we are not very far apart. I shall regard it as a failure if we see more nuclear power stations in the UK. The risks are as you say. However, I'm very unsure that the UK electorate is willing to pay the price for an energy policy that is reliant on renewables or to accept occasional interruptions to electricity supply.

In the last few weeks I have had several conversations with Oxford Greens who passionately believe that we should avoid both coal and nuclear at all costs. Rather than have electricity generated by these fuels, these people have said we should accept that we will have to make do with much more limited and erratic supplies of electricity for homes and businesses.

My concern is that this stance will be unacceptable to all but a minute fraction of the UK population. By their resolute and principled stance against nuclear, these Greens are implicitly encouraging the use of more coal. When I make this point, my Oxford colleagues don’t disagree with my analysis. It is better to be ethically right, they say, than to compromise on such an important issue. I profoundly disagree.


Strategist said...

Great stuff. A very important debate - too important for it to be obscured by personal stuff (that is not an implied criticism of Sian Berry, who is entitled to blow off steam in a personal blog).

I don't know the answer, but I'm guessing that it's either Conservation+Renewables+Nuclear or Conservation+Renewables. The Government and the energy lobby are going to give us a solution that is either Coal+bullshit (NB not CCS coal, which the industry has absolutely no intention of progressing) or Coal+Nuclear+bullshit.

So maybe the role of the Green Party is to say where is the serious conservation and renewables effort, and less bullshit please.

Real economics can assist in finding the answer in a way that short termist free market hyper-capitalist economics cannot - and so Jim you are absolutely right, public democratic control has to be asserted over the energy privateers.

Joe Otten said...

Jim, China and India are an odd example for you to take because they are already nuclear powers.

It is a fair question to ask: what about the non-nuclear rest of the world. And I would guess that most of it has the land and solar irradiation sufficient for massive CSP.

Meanwhile the vast bulk of the worlds carbon emissions are from countries that are already nuclear powers - so proliferation is a bit of a red herring.

A final point. If we were really worried about significant depletion of fissile material, that would be something to celebrate - because it would make nuclear weapons impossible to build and maintain, in any quantity. But we're not.

Jim Jepps said...

Pro-nuclear sources who care to put a figure on it say that on current consumption levels the uranium would run out in 200 years time. Certainly without expansion our generation don't have to lose much sleep over the uranium running out. But the argument is about a massive and immediate roll out of nuclear power.

Even if this only means a four fold increase (and people are arguing for a much more significant global increase) the fuel supply runs out in 50 years - which is very soon. Let's call it 65 years to account for increases in efficiency and we'll pretend that a depleting resource is unaffected by any market or political hoo ha. Not very long, and definately not long enough to justify the level of investment and carbon required for this massive roll out.

So on India and China I think you may have misunderstood what I was getting at. If both these powers decided to go for the same level of nuke power use as France then we run out of fuel almost "overnight". They can't take this route even if they wanted to.

Nuclear weapons are actually a different issue because the amount of material required to make a bomb is very small compared to that used in the nuclear power and, as far as the West goes, there is no danger of being short of enough material to vaporise stuff - it's only really an issue these days for people, like Iran, who don't have any.

But I brought them up because they are massive emittors of greenhouse gasses and that we should be contributing to their ability to source their energy through renewable technologies. For our benefit as much as anything else.

If we ignore the rest of the world to prioritise nuclear power (that can't be rolled out globally) we are not contributing to the necessary global effort. If we prioritise renewable technologies improving efficiency, manufacturing, technique, etc - and ensure these are exported - we can significantly improve the lives of those in the developing world and cut emissions from the largest contributors too. Win, win.

As you say some parts of the world are ideal for solar - turning a dessert into a zero emission powerplant could be a fantastic step forward, although I do have concerns about implementation and ownership, but to some extent that's a seperate question.

Our ability to help make that dream come true would be massively hindered if we divert resources away from research and development of renewable technologies.

Strategist said...

>>>turning a dessert into a zero emission powerplant could be a fantastic step forward

What did you have in mind, spotted dick or jam roly poly?

(I think I've joshed you about this spelling mistake on a previous occasion, sorry couldn't resist another.....)

Jim Jepps said...


I typed one s and then thought "oh no - hold on - that's pudding, I've made this mistake before"

Is there a easy way to remember this, otherwise I'm doomed to make the same mistake over and over!

Joe Otten said...

Even if uranium were to run out in 50 years, it would still be worth building plant with a 50 year lifetime. Perceived shortage of uranium is not much of an argument not to build sufficient plant to burn the uranium we know there is.

But reprocessing works - it just isn't cost effective when uranium is so cheap. Not a clean process, sure, but compare with coal! And spent fuel stockpiles are insurance against the supply being cut off.

Jim Jepps said...

But Joe - surely you see that the last years of uranium supply isn't just when the pile runs out - it is a crisis point where the specific areas/mines/companies that supply uranium for the world's nuclear power plants are the focus of extreme stress.

Of course the actual argument of replacing coal with nuclear would involve increasing the consumption of uranium by vast amounts, not just the modest x4 that I posited earlier.

Currently the world produces under 70% of the uranium that is demanded by the market - to increase demand for uranium without inventing a new supply of uranium doesn't appear to be feasible to me. A handful of stations could be accomodated - a massive roll out - no.

Joe Otten said...

Jim, I don't see how the risk of making a few Uranium mines the focus of "stress" is a proportionate objection to an available and working technology capable of displacing enormous quantities of carbon emissions.

But we're not limited to the U mines. Seawater, phosphates, reprocessing, novel fuel cycles (eg Thorium). There is plenty of fuel around. They may be expensive, but the fuel cost is a tiny fraction of the cost of electricity. They are not already used mostly because Uranium is cheap and plentiful.

And even if there were as little nuclear fuel around as you suggest, we should still burn it in preference to coal.