Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nuclear or not?

A potential client asked me to write a trial post for a forthcoming blog/debate on whether Britain should build new nuclear power stations or not. Here it is:

It’s perfectly obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to look around that the world is flat.

I had thought until recently that it was equally apparent that a fleet of new nuclear power stations in the UK was a bad idea. Is this view equally mistaken?

The UK government’s own Commission on Sustainable Development recently concluded there was no justification for bringing forward a new nuclear power programme at present. Case closed, I thought.

Wrong. The government says nuclear new build is still an option under the terms of the Energy Review (although Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks has stressed he has a lot of hard questions for potential providers).

Puzzled and in search of enlightenment, I went to Energy…for the future, a no-holds barred investigation and debate at the Royal Society earlier this week. Where better to go for first rate thinking and analysis?

Prof. Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith served up the entre with a well-honed presentation about fusion. It was on the verge of viability now, he said, and could be commercially available in forty to fifty years... providing sufficient funds are made available.

Next up, the main dish. Sue Ion, Group Director of Technology for British Nuclear Fuels, argued that fission could “plug the gap” until the potential of fusion was realised.

Britain had a great history of innovative design and improvement, she said; but the future was with internationally established standard designs like the Westinghouse AP1000 and the Framatome EPR.

According to Dr Ion, the economics of such stations were “well founded, easily verifiable and…compete well with other technologies… especially in the face of rising fossil fuel prices and the pricing in of costs for greenhouse gas emissions”.

Waste volumes from modern plants are a fraction of those from earlier designs, she said, and could be dealt with safely and effectively. There was plenty of uranium available for “sixty years or more”. Generation IV systems would be ready for deployment by 2020.

Responses from participants at the Royal Society meeting were muted. Oliver Morton of Nature asked what impact a single terrorist incident involving a nuclear site would have on the economics of nuclear power.

Afterwards I caught up with Prof. Keith Barnham of Imperial College. He said Sue Ion was playing fast and loose with key facts, including the quantities of uranium available, the nature of the waste that would be generated and the challenge of its disposal.

Dr Ion’s optimism also looks likely to get a knock from a report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee to be published in the next few days.

Looking ahead, our focus may be the UK, but we cannot just focus on our own navals. Britain import nuclear-generated electricity from France and we all live in world with mushrooming nuclear new build in China and elsewhere. The challenges are huge, and this is no time for flat earthers.

One thing is sure: the nuclear power debate is caught in a maelstrom of money and politics. Navigators will need foul weather gear and a compass and – for those who like to take argument at its strongest – this blog as their Fisherman’s Friend.

1 comment:

James Aach said...

While I can't contribute UK specifics to your debate, I'd like to point out there's an entertaining introduction to the good and bad of real world nuclear power at my blog. Here you'll find a thriller novel that tells the inside story of the US nuclear industry - which is much different that any media portrayal. A lot of this information applies to British and Western European reactors as well. The novel is available at no cost to readers - who seem to like it, judging from the comments they're leaving on the homepage.