Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Nukes and nous

James Meek does a good job summarising questions about new nuclear build in the UK (Back to the future, 4 Oct). But his concluding paragraphs give too easy a ride to James Skillings, director of strategy and energy policy at E.ON UK. Meeks writes:

"One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.

'Somehow or other, we've got to find a commercial answer that makes us money and makes our customers' lives better by them consuming less energy', says Skillings. 'If I knew the answer, I could go away and collect my Nobel prize right now'."

As the analogy in the first of those two paragraphs hints, the challenge is not as hard as Skillings disingenously suggests. There is lots of useful work and experience out there to draw on, and this is where the government needs to focus as a basic national priority - a point I stressed in a short piece for the New Statesman's energy supplement published last week (noted at Blair and Kyoto).

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

The Guardian printed these letters in response to James Meek's article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1588402,00.html)

Searching for the energy to power Britain

Monday October 10, 2005
The Guardian

All existing nuclear power plants will be replaced over the next 40 years as they meet their service lifetimes (Back to the future, G2, October 4). The cost of replacing them is an unavoidable expense but also an opportunity to install sustainable alternatives. Nuclear power is unpopular mainly because few people know of recent developments which have dramatically altered the picture.

Nuclear power is 20% of EU capacity but supplies up to 35% of actual electricity. Dirty coal stations run at a 30% load to comply with emissions regulations, which is comparable with wind farms. We are heavily dependent on nuclear power and it is a huge error to abandon it. Only wind is able to contribute to the new energy regime.

Article continues
International studies of new nuclear reactors are focussed on recycling, fuel breeding, transmutation and burning of high-level wastes to reduce the waste decay times to only 1,000 years, and many other applications. The other contenders for advanced nuclear capabilities are under design and construction in France, Russia, China, South Africa, India, Japan, and Korea, often with US collaboration.

The paucity of effort within the US and the EU indicates a massive political failure. There is so much more to be shown to the public. There is not yet a real debate on nuclear power, only a reprise of old history. The UK has steadily closed research institutions and laboratories, regulated against nuclear power, and is now apparently divesting itself of all remaining assets, including any vestiges of independence.
Brendan McNamara
Bournemouth, Hants

James Meek's comprehensive summary of energy options skips over the most cost-effective policy option with the dismissive phrase "with the government's energy efficiency measures having less effect than hoped". This is wrong. The main residential sector programme, the energy efficiency commitment, has already delivered 40% more savings than anticipated during its first three years of operation. Between them, the 42 industrial sectors which made binding energy efficiency agreements, in return for 80% discounts on the climate change levy, have delivered many millions of tonnes more carbon saving than predicted in their first four years of operation.

Both the National Audit Office and the Parliamentary public accounts committee conclude it is far cheaper to reduce consumption than invest in conventional new power sources.

Andrew Warren
Director, Association for the Conservation of Energy

The new requirement for power companies to inform their customers as to how they generate their electricity (Report, October 5) means that, for the first time ever, the public is being given the opportunity to influence the national supply mix through exerting the power of their choice. In the UK electricity market, which has been liberalised since 1999, over 50% of consumers have switched supplier, mainly on the basis of price. Now, with greater transparency of information, consumers will be able to choose electricity on the basis of its environmental impact.

The introduction of this legislation comes at a crucial time given the ongoing debate about a new generation of nuclear plants in Britain. Everyone throughout the country now has the chance to take part in this debate by harnessing the market forces and voting through their choice of electricity supplier - sending a message that the government and suppliers cannot ignore.

Jane Palmer
Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

James Meek repeats a common misconception about nuclear power - that nuclear power stations generate almost no CO2 after they are built. In fact, the whole life output of CO2 from nuclear, including decommissioning and fuelling, may be very significant indeed, depending on the grade of ore used to produce the fuel. The known supply of rich ore is only sufficient to power 1,000 large stations for about 20 years, and nuclear stations powered with fuel from weak ore may be no better than gas, or worse. Huge amounts of conventional power are required to convert weak uranium ore to fuel. In the unlikely situation that Britain goes nuclear unilaterally then this may work, but if there is a large worldwide programme, then the amount of rich ore will rapidly disappear, and nuclear will be a millstone on humankind.

Leon Di Marco

Your report fails to mention the emerging need for ever more energy to extract hydrogen from water to power cars and reduce dependence on petrol. Toyota and others will be introducing these vehicles in two years and a major barrier to their introduction will be the need for large amounts of energy that will be used to fuel hydrogen extraction.

France is already working closely with the pioneers in this domain and sees nuclear as the obvious option to meet this need. Your failure to mention this new and significant energy requirement suggests either that hydrogen is not seen as a significant alternative to hydrocarbons in the UK for transportation, or that it can be created with energy from non-nuclear sources; both these scenarios deserve to be a part of the debate.

Brendan Dunphy
Nice, France

Your article on the future of nuclear power makes an error in assuming that there can be a wind v nuclear option. I do not like the fact, but the vagaries of wind prevent it from giving totally reliable baseload generation as does nuclear. The sustainable development commission recently told the government that "it would be unrealistic to assume that wind energy would displace any nuclear capacity ...".

Dr John Etherington
Llanhowell, Pembrokeshire