May 18, 2006

blair gets a clue

Blair has finally done something right. Or at least he is thinking of doing something right. He appears to want nuclear power as part of the supply to the national grid. Good, nukes are the best way of providing sustainable sustained power to the grid, if there are going to be renewables at all on the grid then there has to be something there to pick up the slack when the wind doesn't blown, the surf isn't up, or the sun isn't shining. Which is a lot of the time. Most of the renewables have this problem, they are intermittent and unreliable as a power source:

Windmills are very intermittent, I go to Cornwall quite often and the windmills there seem to be idle far more than they are working. Wind power is so intermittent that you have a reserve of capacity equivalent to 80% of what they generate. Which means a set of fossil fuel plants running constantly, but not always putting any of that power into the grid.

  • Wave power, better than wind but still intermittent. This can be seen by a stroll along the footpaths around Torbay where you will find that on many days the entire bay is flat as a pancake.
  • Geothermal. It's great, if you live over a plate boundry. Which we don't.
  • Solar furnaces. Requires direct sunlight, any cloud cover at all and the power output falls though the floor.
  • Photovoltic cells will take any photons that you care to fire at them, but that still doesn't change the fact that peak demand is between 5 and 7 pm during winter. When it is dark.
  • Biomass can not scale up to be a major contributor.

This just leaves hydroelectric, tidal, and nucleur fission as able to currently provide the kind of continous power that is needed for an industrial society if you exclude fossil fuels. Renewables cannot supply reliable power, like Peter Glover I wonder how long they will continue to praise them if they where the only power source:
The environmentalists would soon go quiet once the blackouts, failure of cold water, cold houses and aged deaths started to occur under their crackpot schemes.
Some of them, the ones that are more anti-people than pro-enviroment, quite a while. But if you actually don't like mass death then pure renewables simply isn't an option and nukes must be part of the mix. Enviromentalists such as James Lovelock put forward the pro-people view with a summary of his arguements here.

The anti-nuke people will also always bring up the bogey man of Chernobyl, ignoring that it was caused by the way it was run and modern reactors can be intrinsically safe. They always claim that there where tens of thousands of deaths when actually there where:
fewer than 50 deaths directly attributable to radiation, most of them among emergency workers who died in the first months after the accident.

The next line of defence is the waste, which they claim will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Actually it will take only 3,000 years for any waste is no more radioactive than the ore it came from. We know that humans can build structures capable of lasting that long, or longer, as we have already built some.

AFter this the fall back position is subsidies and to claim that nuclear power will need them when they don't need massive subsidies just a properly constucted carbon market. For this argument they will always fail to mention that all non-fossil fuel power currently needs subsidy, including their windmills, because of how cheap fossil fuel power is.


Blogger tomdg said...

I think you've got a good point there. I think you underestimate the impact of Chernobyl and the likelihood of a major accident; I think a lot of work would need to go into providing the right evonomic incentives to get to a comfortable level of safety (maybe one "Chernobyl" / "Windscale" every 1000 years in an area the size of the UK?) But I think it could be done with the right kind of regulation - look at the aviation industry.

And as for nuclear waste, I love your point about constructing buildings to last for 3000 years. I think the pyramids may even be 5000 years old, and I doubt they're on the verge of falling down. I don't know the facts about waste, I'd heard figures of around 100,000 years before the worst stuff was really "safe" and I wouldn't like to spend time in a room full of uranium ore, but at the same time I've heard that if anything as radioactive as Cornish granite came out of a nuclear powerstation if would have to be buried under 20 feet of concrete. My preferred solution would be to bury the worst stuff somewhere like West Australia (the Australian PM has been encouraging this too), one of the oldest and most stable landmasses on earth, and that is basically uninhabitable already.

I think you're right about environmentalists too. There is an extreme view that says that people are the problem. Pol Pot's vision for Cambodia was to return to "year zero" before technology messed everything up; it was essentially a green vision (and he murdered 15% of his population to help it happen). Personally I think people are what is important, and that the environment matters primarily because of how it affects people - and that is enough of a reason to worry about it. But I wouldn't support the argument that any environmental stuff we do can't be at the cost of reducing economic growth, because that argument isn't based around people, but money.

As far as the subsody argument goes - I heard a lot about that 10 or 20 years ago, but oil (and hence energy) was a lot cheaper then. And subsodies weren't that big then (25% maybe?) My guess would be that at current prices nuclear power is probably completely economically viable (even at the level of safety expenses I'd feel comfortable with), and that putting a system in place to maintain fossil fuel prices at least at their current levels (to guarantee the high capital investment required for nuclear and other types of energy generation) would be no bad thing in the long run.

I was very nervous about the rush to Nuclear power to help protect against climate change, but I agree it's starting to look like a quite reasonable option. Even an idiot (i.e. Blair) can be expected to get things right occasionally!

10:56 am  
Blogger chris said...

Have a look at pebble-bed reactors, these are inherently safe. Unlike conventional systems the reaction cannot get out of control, as the hotter it fewer neutrons can react with the fuel until an equilibrium is reached. They can get hot, but they cannot go Chernobyl. They should also be much cheaper to build.

3:02 pm  

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