Brown and Sarkozy to kick off new nuclear game

Posted by nathan - 25 March 2008 at 5:35pm - Comments

This week, Gordon Brown and the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, will sign up to an entente atomique and herald in a new era of cross channel cooperation.

The pact will be announced later this week at the "Arsenal summit" held at the Emirates stadium, the nominal home of French exiles and sportsmen alike, where Brown will open the proverbial front door to French utility Electricity de France (EDF), and its burgeoning workforce, to come build and operate any new nuclear power stations here in the UK.

They will claim that nuclear power is the bedrock of global energy security and a necessary tool in the fight against climate change, but do these claims stand up to scrutiny? Does political mantra really mean solid answers to the bigger questions on climate change and how to keep the lights on?

Sadly not.

The simple fact is that building new nuclear stations actually threatens our ability to reduce the UK's carbon emissions, and whilst the government would like most people to think nuclear power can deliver energy security, it can't. The government's figures speak for themselves - a new fleet of nuclear power stations would cut UK emissions only by around four per cent some time after the year 2025.

Yet despite this, it would appear that Carla Bruni is not the only one to fall for the eccentric little Frenchman's charms, as Brown panders to his more colorful political counterpart and succumbs to French foreign policy. See, the thing is, Sarkozy has recently been clocking up the air miles promoting nuclear power and selling the technology to emerging markets in the Middle East, South Africa and South America, and the UK is key to his sales pitch.

Because, after all, this is about seizing an opportunity to capitalise on the renewed interest in nuclear power and promote French business and not about global energy solutions. The French do not need to build more nuclear power stations - they generate a surplus each year which is the equivalent of 10 nuclear reactors.

This is about promoting their industrial philosophy. If nuclear power really was to be a panacea in the fight against climate change, and to have any real impact in reducing global carbon emissions, it would be necessary to build over 40 nuclear power plants every year for the next 75 years. That's three a month and that's not going to happen - there's more chance of Theo Walcott hitting a rather large barn door from 12 yards - and it is nothing more than a dangerous distraction and one that could suffocate the development of the real solutions to tackling climate change.

But what this week's summit does expose is the political schizophrenia at the heart of the government's energy policy. At a time when Brown is desperate to cast himself as a bold, global leader, he actually appears as nothing more than the ministerial equivalent of a rabbit in the headlights, not knowing which way to turn.

Indeed, Gordon Brown only recently committed the UK to generating around 40% of our electricity from renewables by 2020. If he means it, Britain could become a world leader in clean energy and the case for nuclear evaporates. These cuts could be delivered quicker, much more cheaply and do not come with the intractable and unresolved problem of radioactive waste.

If we looked to another European neighbour, Germany, which has developed 300 times as much solar power and 10 times as much wind power installed as the UK - installing the equivalent of the UK's total nuclear capacity from renewables and efficiency measures in the last five years - the case for nuclear would be on the first Eurostar back to Paris and the UK could genuinely depend on generating it's own secure energy and honestly claim to be leading the march in tackling climate change.

Germany is a perfect example of how renewables are not sufficient by themselves. Nuclear along with renewables provides a far more viable solution to CO2 emissions. Yes, Germany has the very laudable aim of producing 27% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. But it gets almost 30% of its electricity from nuclear power which it currently intends to phase out. Consequently all the new renewables development does nothing to reduce carbon emissions because it is replacing nuclear instead.

Germany currently has higher CO2 emissions per capita than the UK. They have been warned by Deutsche Bank and more recently by the IEA that they are very unlikely to meet their CO2 cuts if they phase out nuclear.

Germany certainly has very aggressive policies for encouraging renewables development. Their feed-in tariff for some solar power systems means that producers are guaranteed to receive 4 times the market rate for their electricity for 20 years! (And the market rate for electricity is high in Germany because of the support for renewables). Clearly such a level of support works, but it is not practical to scale this up - people won't pay that price for all their electricity. They end up with a lot of inappropriate, uneconomic renewables, ultimately paid for by the consumer.

Unbelievably Germany also subsidises its coal mining industry to the tune of 2.5billion euros per year. It gets 55% of its electricity from coal, which explains its massive CO2 problem. If it used the renewables to replace the coal instead of the nuclear it would be far better off.

As it is, it has expensive electricity, higher CO2 emissions per capita than the UK, and will probably fail to meet its carbon targets while becoming over-reliant on imports of gas.

http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9595481

So it is hardly surprising that the German Chancellor is reconsidering the decision to phase out their nuclear powerstations.

Today's front page story is yet another chapter in a 50 year fantasy that nuclear power will bring untold riches. The THORP plant at Sellafield, which has never worked properly, is to be demolished at £600m. In the 1950's nuclear electricity was going to be too cheap to meter. All of these false starts miss one vital point. Uranium is a fossil fuel. There are no Uranium reserves in Britain. Mining, refining and transporting Uranium generates significant environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions, which need 10 years of nuclear generation to balance. As a scarce commodity, Uranium prices will rise to follow oil. No one knows what to do with the waste, except make weapons of mass destruction. For 10% of the tax money spent without results on nuclear power, we could have retrofitted 100% of our housing stock to a zero carbon standard, and saved 40% of our energy consumption. Even if we have 100% nuclear electricity, that would only be 10% of our energy consumption saved. Perhaps Emperor Nero could might advise ?
Yours sincerely,
Professor Lewis Lesley
[address deleted]

Prof, we currently pay £1 billion pounds subsidy every year on the Renewables Obligation which produces less electricity than one nuclear powerstation. I have nothing against renewables, but nuclear is clearly the most cost-effective way of generating low carbon electricity. It is staggering that you suggest nuclear has produced no results when it has been our biggest source of low carbon energy for decades.

Uranium is not a fossil fuel. Fossil fuel is formed from once-living things. Uranium has been here as long as the earth has existed. We can expect to find it distributed throughout the earth's crust (and beyond the earth for that matter). It is true that there is little natural uranium in the UK (though there is some in Cornwall and Orkney) but this is of little consequence. The world's biggest suppliers of uranium are commonwealth countries: Australia and Canada. The lifecycle CO2 emissions involved in producing nuclear electricity, including all the mining and transport of uranium, are no higher than those of wind power or hydro - and they are typically 96%-98% less than burning coal. As we move away from using fossil fuel for transport, this will improve further.

The cost of nuclear electricity is hardly affected by the price of Uranium. Fuel costs are a very small component of nuclear electricity costs. If the price of Uranium doubles the cost of nuclear electricity rises by about 7%. Uranium can be extracted from seawater at a cost roughly two or three times the current price of mined uranium. There is enough uranium in seawater to last millions, if not billions of years at current rates of use.

We know exactly what to do with the waste to make it safe forever. We just have to agree where to put the deep repository.

I entirely agree that improving the insulation of housing would be a cheaper way to abate carbon emissions, but this is largely due to the disgustingly high proportion of fossil fuel used in the UK energy mix. Avoiding energy use is the cheapest method of abatement at the moment. But this will change as we reduce the carbon content of our electricity mix. And compared to all other methods of electricity _generation_, nuclear is the cheapest way to abate carbon emissions.
http://berc.berkeley.edu/flyers/McKinseyQ.pdf

Insulation and efficiency basically pays for itself in savings. It shouldn't require subsidy. Although it can save a lot, we will still have to generate some electricity from somewhere. And if we shift towards electric vehicles to tackle transport emissions we will need a lot more electricity. Nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon option.

You might be interested in this study in which scientists prove that Germany can be 100% powered by renewables.

Cheers,

Bex
gpuk

Bex, what your German study shows is that it is possible to select a combination of renewables that can supply electricity all the time. By relying on biomass for base load they can keep the lights on. But it does not demonstrate that the solution would be economic or that the choice of renewables is environmentally appropriate.

It uses wind, which is fair enough. But it also uses PV solar, which is inappropriate for central Europe. The same solar cells would generate twice as much electricity in California and even more if deployed in Africa. Given the global shortage of PV cells it is wasteful to deploy them anywhere north of the Mediterranean.

But my biggest problem with the solution is its dependence on bio fuel. It may be carbon neutral, but it is still polluting. Burning anything creates NOx and particulates, which are major constituents of air pollution. The external cost of burning biomass, in terms of health and environmental damage, is significantly worse than nuclear power. Decentralised powerstations would move these sources of air pollution right into urban areas.

The proposed solution would have to be scaled up to ten thousand times the size of the trial, in order to supply all of Germany's electricity. It would consume vast swathes of land. It may be possible theoretically, but it would not be cheap, it would not be quick, and it would not be appropriate.

A combination of nuclear with wind and hydro would be less polluting, cheaper and far easier to scale up. This is already being used very successfully in Sweden. They use 60% more energy per head compared to the UK, but have 40% lower CO2 emissions. Their electricity is also amongst the cheapest in Europe. Half their electricity comes from hydro and most of the other half comes from nuclear, with some wind and other small renewables. They, too, had decided to phase out nuclear over 25 years ago but are coming to the conclusion that they have to keep it.

It sounds like you accept that CHP / renewables can be reliable (and presumably you accept that, as graham said, nuclear power is about as unreliable a source of energy as you can get?).

In terms of cost, this report shows overall capital costs of a decentralised energy scenario to be more than £1 billion lower than a nuclear scenario - and the retail costs of electricity to the end user are lower too. The model doesn't include the cost of managing nuclear waste, so in reality the cost advantage will be much greater than the £1bn.

The same report ends also concludes that CO2 emissions are 17% lower when using renewables / CHP than in the nuclear scenario.

Amory Lovins (of the Rocky Mountain Institute) makes some interesting points on this - calculating that nuclear is so expensive that it buys roughly 1.5 to 11 times less carbon reduction per dollar than competing no carbon technologies or fossil-fuelled cogeneration [CHP].

On your idea that we need a combination of nuclear with wind, experience shows that you can't mix nuclear and renewables/CHP effectively: nuclear sucks investment away from renewables/CHP; it relies on a static, centralised model and as opposed to a decentralised model; and, as this report (pdf) points out, "nuclear and renewables may both be able to run on the grid as long as both are making relatively small overall contributions, but both cannot expand beyond a certain point without there being operational conflicts."

Cheers,

Bex
gpuk

I don't accept that nuclear power in general is unreliable. I know that the old UK nuclear stations have been showing their age, but any system reaching the end of its design life will have problems. In general nuclear powerstations have greater availability than other generating systems, and higher capacity factors than renewables. That is after all why they are used for base load.

I have read through your report on applying the WADE model to the UK. Although Greenpeace are nominally making the case against centralised nuclear power, in fact what the study shows is that decentralised gas generation would be better than centralised gas generation. Which is obvious. Either scenario would actually have lower emissions if it also incorporated nuclear. (The report doesn't say this, of course, but it is obvious from the model.)

The "centralised nuclear" scenario that the authors set up as the baseline is actually only partly nuclear - they assume that nuclear capacity is not increased beyond current levels (18.5%) and the rest is made by using centralised gas power stations. Note, nearly all of the CO2 in this scenario comes from the fossil power stations, not the nuclear power stations (they don't make this particularly clear, of course). Therein lies the conceit.

Their "convenient solution" involves using decentralised generating technology instead of centralised power stations. The report doesn't emphasise what this entails, but basically most of the decentralised generating capacity is powered by natural gas. (Renewable? Think again. Only a small portion of the decentralised solution is renewable).

Now, a decentralised CHP station using natural gas emits about 30% less CO2 per kWh than a centralised gas power station. (However even at this level CHP emits 20 to 50 times as much CO2 as a nuclear station or, for that matter, a centralised wind farm. Again, they don't explain this in the report.)

So obviously, by setting up a rather contrived comparison, it manages to show that the decentralised scenario generates less CO2 that the (allegedly) "centralised nuclear" scenario (which is actually more accurately characterised as "centralised gas").

However, as I stated, the decentralised solution would have even lower emissions if it incorporated some centralised nuclear capacity. The more nuclear, the lower the emissions would be. Notably, the UK govt intention seems to be to encourage more than the current nuclear capacity, which would reduce emissions far below what the gas-fuelled CHP scenario is capable of.

Moreover, the DTI (BERR) has studied WADE's models for decentralised generation and concluded that they were more expensive overall compared to centralised solutions. This is because the extra capital and maintenance costs for decentralised generation more than exceed the saving from reduced fuel, distribution infrastructure, transmission loss, efficiency and carbon saving.

Clearly Greenpeace are bending over backwards here to find any solution, at any cost, as long as it doesn’t include nuclear power. And even with optimistic assumptions they have only just managed to contrive a scenario that looks passable compared to the current level of nuclear generation. It relies heavily on gas, so it is not good for security of supply; and it brings added air pollution into the urban environment. Not only is it insecure, costly and probably unsustainable but it is also environmentally much more harmful than nuclear because of the NOx and particulates generated by the CHP.

On your other point, I accept that energy efficiency measures can reduce carbon more cheaply than nuclear; but, as i noted earlier, in terms of actually generating electricity this report indicates that nuclear is the cheapest way to abate carbon.
http://berc.berkeley.edu/flyers/McKinseyQ.pdf

Bex, your claim that renewables and nuclear can’t co-exist is demonstrably false. Sweden gets almost exactly half of its electricity from nuclear and the other half from renewables (albeit mostly large hydro). They also have about the lowest per capita CO2 emissions in Europe, and amongst the lowest electricity prices.

In contrast Denmark relies almost entirely on a combination of renewables (mostly wind power) and CHP with no nuclear, and it has higher CO2 emissions per head than the UK, with amongst the highest electricity prices in Europe.

I don’t accept that decentralised solutions are sensible in most cases. Greenpeace’s whole insistence on small-scale decentralisation is a deliberate ploy to try to marginalise nuclear. But even in terms of renewables it is almost always more efficient to deploy large scale installations in appropriate locations rather than trying to use micro-renewables in inappropriate urban locations. Large wind farms are more efficient than micro turbines; large hydro is more efficient than small hydro. Even looking purely at renewables, centralised solutions are better.

The only argument for local generation is when you are making heat, such as using CHP. But even CHP is not a generally applicable solution because it is only really efficient when you want heat and electricity at exactly the same time (ok in winter; pointless in summer). Thermal solar (not PV) and ground source heat pumps are really the only local solutions than make sense. A centralised grid is better for electricity.

Again, I think these points are answered in this comment, posting again in full:

Hi ColinG

Sorry for the length of this but I'm trying to respond to all your comments across the site in one go, as they all repeat the same myths.

I’ll answer your points on air pollution below but first off, I have to point out that you haven’t provided a credible alternative to our energy solution.

We’ve clearly explained how renewables + efficiency + CHP can lead us to a low emissions energy system, using CHP as a transition to 100 per cent renewables, providing heat and electricity for the whole of the UK. Initially CHP would be partly fossil fuelled and it would then go on to use zero carbon fuels like biogas. Over time more, renewable heat like solar and geothermal can also be introduced into the district heating networks – as they have done in the 100% renewable district in the city of Malmö, Sweden.

As I’ve said before, a replacement programme of ten nuclear reactors in the UK that the government's endorsed will only meet about 3.6% of our total energy needs - because they won’t provide heat. Around half our energy need is for heat (mainly gas based), while the next biggest demand is for transport (mainly oil based). Electricity generation is the smallest portion, and any new nuclear would be a small portion of that, making its role in tackling climate change / ensuring energy security almost irrelevant.

That's why the nuclear plan causes much more air pollution overall, for the total system; it can't possibly displace the majority of fossil fuel use, and leaves us running on the same kind of wasteful and polluting coal plants we have today. (Don't forget, the same ministers and companies that want to build new nuclear plants are also proposing the horde of new dirty coal plants across Britain – the most polluting power plants of all.)

According to our report, a UK energy scenario with high levels of decentralised energy using CHP and big renewables leads to less fuel burn over all than the government and industry plan of a centralized scenario with ambitious nuclear build. Less fuel use means less overall air pollution.

Your answer to that is that you want nuclear combined heat and power. No one in the nuclear industry or government is proposing that anyway – they wouldn’t dare propose to put them near to densely populated areas. But even if they did, you still haven’t explained how you’ll get rid of fossil fuels.

Are you suggesting we’ll be able to displace all our fossil fuelled power plants and all our individual boilers with nuclear CHP? Do you have an estimate for how many nuclear plants you’d need to do that? (In China, with the most ambitious nuclear programme in the world, they will still only generate a couple of percent of their electricity from nuclear when and if they built all 30-40 reactors that have been mooted there. Most of the rest of their electricity will still be coming from coal.)

How can the UK possibly get enough nuclear power to displace all our fossil fuel needs? Specifically, how are you going to find the enormous funds required to build small nuclear power stations near every town and city (the smaller ones you suggest, which won’t benefit from the economies of scale)? Where will you find the sites fit to host N nuclear plants? How will you persuade local residents across the UK to accept nuclear power and/or nuclear waste sites in the outskirts of their towns and cities? If you don’t want the nuclear plants to be close to urban centres, how will you fund the phenomenal costs of piping heat from, say, Sizewell to London? How will you find the nuclear engineers to build all the plants (there’s already a huge skills shortage)?

How will you persuade the government that the building of your nuclear plants won’t run massively over time and over budget like every other nuclear construction project (the average nuclear power station is finished four years late and 300 per cent over budget)? How will you transport all the radioactive wastes between the sites without putting the public at an unacceptable risk? How will you protect every plant and transport route from contamination / accident / terrorist attack? How do you propose to make nuclear power a globally applicable solution (at the moment, some countries, like Iran, are being told they aren’t allowed to have it)? For nuclear power to realistically meet our future global electricity demands, 2000 - 2500 reactors will need to be constructed between now and 2075 - an impossible task. How will you guarantee the weapons grade plutonium doesn’t get into the wrong hands? How do you plan to get rid of the significant fossil fuel use in the nuclear lifecycle (mining, transport, energy use around facilities, waste storage)?

And, if you agree that nuclear CHP will never fill the gap alone and you want renewables in the mix, how do you envisage stopping nuclear from undermining renewables as global experience and technical grid limitations both show it does (nuclear and renewables may both be able to run on the grid as long as both are making relatively small overall contributions, but both can't expand beyond a certain point without there being operational conflicts)? The nuclear industry itself says there is a conflict between nuclear and renewables and has lobbied to get the European renewable energy target weakened. Vincent De Rivaz, the CEO of EDF Energy stated at the Adam Smith Institute in March that if the UK actually started to make significant progress in meeting its Renewables Obligations, the economic viability of the new generation of nuclear power plants would be undermined and nuclear would be marginalised.

The case for decentralised energy based on renewables, CHP and efficiency has already been made and proven – in countless reports and in other countries. Why would you want to use an outdated technology that is more expensive and more dangerous?

I’m guessing you’re going to say because of particulates/air pollution (and you are right that air pollution is a big concern and a killer, especially in places like China). But, for all the reasons above, nuclear allows continued and even increased air pollution because of its undermining effect on energy efficiency measures – the nuclear option is more likely to lead to more air pollution than a system of decentralised energy based on gas / biomass / biogas CHP. And going nuclear can’t lead us to a 100% renewables scenario. Decentralised energy can. All the new nuclear in China is barely going to touch the air pollution problems there.

On your comments about CHP and particulates, larger CHP falls under IPPC requirements, and these control emissions to air. (And, as from the start of this year, some large CHP plants are covered by Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD), specifically targetting NOx SOx and particulates.)

Before a CHP plant can be built, modified or continue to be operated, emissions to air are mapped, taking into account all existing sources of emission (not just those of the new/existing plant – let’s not forget that cars and lorries are a major source of air pollution too) to ensure local air quality standards are met. If the model shows that the emissions "on the ground" get near to breaching the local air quality standards then the plant will not be built or, if it exists, allowed to continue to operate unless its output is restricted/other measures put in place.

Then there’s the fact that a decent sized gas-fired CHP plant will displace many hundreds or thousands of individual gas-fired boilers. Therefore, it can actually improve local air quality, because:

- a large heat plant will be sized more closely to actual heat loads than individual boilers, which are typically oversized to meet peak demand load. (A district heat plant overcomes this problem by having in-line boilers that are switched on or off progressively as demand for heat fluctuates throughout the day or the year.)

- a large CHP plant will burn gas more efficiently than the combination of all those numerous small boilers and the power plants providing the equivalent heat and electricity.

- it’s cost effective and quick to add emissions cleaning equipment to large plant, or to switch it to cleaner fuels as they become available, but not with many small ones like boilers.

- the maintenance of large plants will be more effectively managed than individual boilers, impacting on the efficiency and cleanness of gas burn.

I hope that answers all of your points. And sorry for the delay. As you can imagine, we don’t have the resources to post dozens of comments on the same point – unlike some well funded industries… ;-)

Cheers,

Bex
gpuk

I don’t follow your argument that nuclear power would increase air pollution. Hopefully you agree that kWh for kWh a nuclear plant produces far less air pollution (not just CO2 but NOx, SO2, particulates) than either a gas or biomass plant. This is true even if the gas or biomass plant uses CHP and we include the kWhs of heat. So whatever combination of solutions you choose to use, if I include more nuclear and less CHP then the overall air pollution will reduce.

As mentioned elsewhere, I am not arguing that nuclear should be used for everything as you seem insistent on assuming. I’m saying the more nuclear is used in place of fossil fuel, the better.

I note also that your renewables + CHP solution doesn’t address transport at all. Realistically the only way to significantly reduce transport emissions is by using electric transport or hydrogen. This means a larger requirement for electricity. The renewables + CHP scenario barely delivers our current electricity requirement (hence the need for efficiency). It could not address electric/hydrogen transport requirements.

Although it may be possible to run small communities on 100% renewables using biomass/biogas along with clean renewables, this won’t scale up. It is not feasible to produce enough fuel to run the country on biomass/biogas/biofuel. Your CHP “solution” is forever tied to using natural gas.

You ask “How can the UK possibly get enough nuclear power to displace all our fossil fuel needs?”, to which I would reply how can the UK possibly displace all out fossil fuel needs without using nuclear power? It is at least plausible to envisage a scenario where we got all of our electricity from nuclear and renewables. France and Sweden virtually do this already. It is not obvious that this would be possible without nuclear power. The only countries that get all their electricity from renewables are those that have suitable geography for massive hydro and geothermal; which the UK lacks.

The only country that I can think of with a national electricity solution using only renewables and CHP is Denmark, and that has failed to reduce their CO2 emissions per capita. They produce as much CO2 per person as the UK, even though they get 20% of their electricity from wind.

So your paper solution of using renewables + CHP + efficiency doesn’t stack up. And even if it did, a solution with nuclear + renewables + CHP + efficiency is more likely to succeed. Are you willing to bet the future of the climate on your fear of nuclear power?

I don’t need to persuade the govt of the economics of nuclear new-build because the govt already supports nuclear power development; as do the opposition; as would any party in power (eventually) because it is obviously beneficial. Nuclear material has been transported safely without causing harm for 50 years there is no reason to doubt that this will continue. Nuclear facilities and transports are well protected against accidents or terrorist attacks. Terrorists would have little to gain from attacking nuclear facilities because even in the unlikely event of them causing a release of radioactivity it would not have any immediate health effect. The fact that it might increase local mortality by 1% over 40 years is hardly the sort of impact that terrorists are looking for. For sure, it might generate fear in the general public, but in that respect Greenpeace are doing the terrorists work already.

The reality is that even a major release of radioactivity would be less harmful than current inner-city air pollution.

Peaceful use of nuclear power is an option for all countries including Iran. The NPT specifically permits this. Obviously the proliferation of weapons technology has to be policed, but the absence of a civil nuclear programme in the UK would not make this any easier. If reactors are not built in the UK then they will be built elsewhere, that is for sure.

The fossil fuel used in the nuclear fuel cycle is not a major concern because it is relatively small per kWh of electricity generated. Even with the current use of fossil fuel, the overall lifecycle emissions for nuclear are as low as wind power or hydro. Even the Sustainable Development Commission acknowledges that the CO2 emissions from nuclear are low and likely to reduce as we become less dependent on fossil fuel. As an obvious example, the electricity for fuel enrichment can come from nuclear power rather than fossil fuel.

I can see that there might be some limits to the coexistence of nuclear with some forms of renewables, but this is more of a problem of the renewables. Nuclear can easily coexist with dispatchable renewables such as hydro – as amply demonstrated in Sweden. The problem might come if there is a high penetration of intermittent renewables such as wind power. For example, if we got and average of 30% of our electricity from wind (which has a capacity factor of 30%) then some of the time, on very windy days we would be getting all of our electricity from wind; hence all other power sources would have to switch off or be wasted. Really this is weakness of wind power (and any other intermittent renewable) in that they have to coexist with large amounts of dispatchable generating capacity (probably gas powerstations) that can react to the variation. It would be possible to use nuclear powerstations in a load following mode, but this would not be particularly economic.

Obviously if enough subsidy is allocated to renewables then eventually they will become more commercially attractive than nuclear, but this would not be a good use of resource and there would be lost opportunity for abating carbon. At the moment nuclear power is the cheapest source of electricity generation for abating carbon as stated in the link above.

I accept your point that a CHP plant could displace many small gas boilers and therefore reduce local air pollution. However I can equally point out that a combination of nuclear power (or for that matter large scale renewables) combined with domestic ground source heat pumps would be just as efficient and produce even less pollution. Furthermore, the CHP plant would be pumping out local pollution to generate electricity even at times when heat is not in demand (during the summer when indidivual domestic boilers would normally be off). It is better to completely avoid burning fuel rather than just cutting back.

I note that the german economy minister is currently lobbying Brussels to ask that their CO2 emissions quotas be increased to compensate for the fact that they are phasing out the use of nuclear powerstations.
http://www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/news/index.cfm?articleid=18537403

As I said, they can either use renewables to replace fossil fuel and therefore reduce CO2 emissions; or they can use them to replace nuclear which won't save any emissions. It seems they have elected to try the latter. So much for renewables combatting climate change.

Germany is a perfect example of how renewables are not sufficient by themselves. Nuclear along with renewables provides a far more viable solution to CO2 emissions. Yes, Germany has the very laudable aim of producing 27% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. But it gets almost 30% of its electricity from nuclear power which it currently intends to phase out. Consequently all the new renewables development does nothing to reduce carbon emissions because it is replacing nuclear instead. Germany currently has higher CO2 emissions per capita than the UK. They have been warned by Deutsche Bank and more recently by the IEA that they are very unlikely to meet their CO2 cuts if they phase out nuclear. Germany certainly has very aggressive policies for encouraging renewables development. Their feed-in tariff for some solar power systems means that producers are guaranteed to receive 4 times the market rate for their electricity for 20 years! (And the market rate for electricity is high in Germany because of the support for renewables). Clearly such a level of support works, but it is not practical to scale this up - people won't pay that price for all their electricity. They end up with a lot of inappropriate, uneconomic renewables, ultimately paid for by the consumer. Unbelievably Germany also subsidises its coal mining industry to the tune of 2.5billion euros per year. It gets 55% of its electricity from coal, which explains its massive CO2 problem. If it used the renewables to replace the coal instead of the nuclear it would be far better off. As it is, it has expensive electricity, higher CO2 emissions per capita than the UK, and will probably fail to meet its carbon targets while becoming over-reliant on imports of gas. http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9595481 So it is hardly surprising that the German Chancellor is reconsidering the decision to phase out their nuclear powerstations.

Today's front page story is yet another chapter in a 50 year fantasy that nuclear power will bring untold riches. The THORP plant at Sellafield, which has never worked properly, is to be demolished at £600m. In the 1950's nuclear electricity was going to be too cheap to meter. All of these false starts miss one vital point. Uranium is a fossil fuel. There are no Uranium reserves in Britain. Mining, refining and transporting Uranium generates significant environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions, which need 10 years of nuclear generation to balance. As a scarce commodity, Uranium prices will rise to follow oil. No one knows what to do with the waste, except make weapons of mass destruction. For 10% of the tax money spent without results on nuclear power, we could have retrofitted 100% of our housing stock to a zero carbon standard, and saved 40% of our energy consumption. Even if we have 100% nuclear electricity, that would only be 10% of our energy consumption saved. Perhaps Emperor Nero could might advise ? Yours sincerely, Professor Lewis Lesley [address deleted]

Prof, we currently pay £1 billion pounds subsidy every year on the Renewables Obligation which produces less electricity than one nuclear powerstation. I have nothing against renewables, but nuclear is clearly the most cost-effective way of generating low carbon electricity. It is staggering that you suggest nuclear has produced no results when it has been our biggest source of low carbon energy for decades. Uranium is not a fossil fuel. Fossil fuel is formed from once-living things. Uranium has been here as long as the earth has existed. We can expect to find it distributed throughout the earth's crust (and beyond the earth for that matter). It is true that there is little natural uranium in the UK (though there is some in Cornwall and Orkney) but this is of little consequence. The world's biggest suppliers of uranium are commonwealth countries: Australia and Canada. The lifecycle CO2 emissions involved in producing nuclear electricity, including all the mining and transport of uranium, are no higher than those of wind power or hydro - and they are typically 96%-98% less than burning coal. As we move away from using fossil fuel for transport, this will improve further. The cost of nuclear electricity is hardly affected by the price of Uranium. Fuel costs are a very small component of nuclear electricity costs. If the price of Uranium doubles the cost of nuclear electricity rises by about 7%. Uranium can be extracted from seawater at a cost roughly two or three times the current price of mined uranium. There is enough uranium in seawater to last millions, if not billions of years at current rates of use. We know exactly what to do with the waste to make it safe forever. We just have to agree where to put the deep repository. I entirely agree that improving the insulation of housing would be a cheaper way to abate carbon emissions, but this is largely due to the disgustingly high proportion of fossil fuel used in the UK energy mix. Avoiding energy use is the cheapest method of abatement at the moment. But this will change as we reduce the carbon content of our electricity mix. And compared to all other methods of electricity _generation_, nuclear is the cheapest way to abate carbon emissions. http://berc.berkeley.edu/flyers/McKinseyQ.pdf Insulation and efficiency basically pays for itself in savings. It shouldn't require subsidy. Although it can save a lot, we will still have to generate some electricity from somewhere. And if we shift towards electric vehicles to tackle transport emissions we will need a lot more electricity. Nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon option.

You might be interested in this study in which scientists prove that Germany can be 100% powered by renewables. Cheers, Bex gpuk

Bex, what your German study shows is that it is possible to select a combination of renewables that can supply electricity all the time. By relying on biomass for base load they can keep the lights on. But it does not demonstrate that the solution would be economic or that the choice of renewables is environmentally appropriate. It uses wind, which is fair enough. But it also uses PV solar, which is inappropriate for central Europe. The same solar cells would generate twice as much electricity in California and even more if deployed in Africa. Given the global shortage of PV cells it is wasteful to deploy them anywhere north of the Mediterranean. But my biggest problem with the solution is its dependence on bio fuel. It may be carbon neutral, but it is still polluting. Burning anything creates NOx and particulates, which are major constituents of air pollution. The external cost of burning biomass, in terms of health and environmental damage, is significantly worse than nuclear power. Decentralised powerstations would move these sources of air pollution right into urban areas. The proposed solution would have to be scaled up to ten thousand times the size of the trial, in order to supply all of Germany's electricity. It would consume vast swathes of land. It may be possible theoretically, but it would not be cheap, it would not be quick, and it would not be appropriate. A combination of nuclear with wind and hydro would be less polluting, cheaper and far easier to scale up. This is already being used very successfully in Sweden. They use 60% more energy per head compared to the UK, but have 40% lower CO2 emissions. Their electricity is also amongst the cheapest in Europe. Half their electricity comes from hydro and most of the other half comes from nuclear, with some wind and other small renewables. They, too, had decided to phase out nuclear over 25 years ago but are coming to the conclusion that they have to keep it.

It sounds like you accept that CHP / renewables can be reliable (and presumably you accept that, as graham said, nuclear power is about as unreliable a source of energy as you can get?). In terms of cost, this report shows overall capital costs of a decentralised energy scenario to be more than £1 billion lower than a nuclear scenario - and the retail costs of electricity to the end user are lower too. The model doesn't include the cost of managing nuclear waste, so in reality the cost advantage will be much greater than the £1bn. The same report ends also concludes that CO2 emissions are 17% lower when using renewables / CHP than in the nuclear scenario. Amory Lovins (of the Rocky Mountain Institute) makes some interesting points on this - calculating that nuclear is so expensive that it buys roughly 1.5 to 11 times less carbon reduction per dollar than competing no carbon technologies or fossil-fuelled cogeneration [CHP]. On your idea that we need a combination of nuclear with wind, experience shows that you can't mix nuclear and renewables/CHP effectively: nuclear sucks investment away from renewables/CHP; it relies on a static, centralised model and as opposed to a decentralised model; and, as this report (pdf) points out, "nuclear and renewables may both be able to run on the grid as long as both are making relatively small overall contributions, but both cannot expand beyond a certain point without there being operational conflicts." Cheers, Bex gpuk

I don't accept that nuclear power in general is unreliable. I know that the old UK nuclear stations have been showing their age, but any system reaching the end of its design life will have problems. In general nuclear powerstations have greater availability than other generating systems, and higher capacity factors than renewables. That is after all why they are used for base load. I have read through your report on applying the WADE model to the UK. Although Greenpeace are nominally making the case against centralised nuclear power, in fact what the study shows is that decentralised gas generation would be better than centralised gas generation. Which is obvious. Either scenario would actually have lower emissions if it also incorporated nuclear. (The report doesn't say this, of course, but it is obvious from the model.) The "centralised nuclear" scenario that the authors set up as the baseline is actually only partly nuclear - they assume that nuclear capacity is not increased beyond current levels (18.5%) and the rest is made by using centralised gas power stations. Note, nearly all of the CO2 in this scenario comes from the fossil power stations, not the nuclear power stations (they don't make this particularly clear, of course). Therein lies the conceit. Their "convenient solution" involves using decentralised generating technology instead of centralised power stations. The report doesn't emphasise what this entails, but basically most of the decentralised generating capacity is powered by natural gas. (Renewable? Think again. Only a small portion of the decentralised solution is renewable). Now, a decentralised CHP station using natural gas emits about 30% less CO2 per kWh than a centralised gas power station. (However even at this level CHP emits 20 to 50 times as much CO2 as a nuclear station or, for that matter, a centralised wind farm. Again, they don't explain this in the report.) So obviously, by setting up a rather contrived comparison, it manages to show that the decentralised scenario generates less CO2 that the (allegedly) "centralised nuclear" scenario (which is actually more accurately characterised as "centralised gas"). However, as I stated, the decentralised solution would have even lower emissions if it incorporated some centralised nuclear capacity. The more nuclear, the lower the emissions would be. Notably, the UK govt intention seems to be to encourage more than the current nuclear capacity, which would reduce emissions far below what the gas-fuelled CHP scenario is capable of. Moreover, the DTI (BERR) has studied WADE's models for decentralised generation and concluded that they were more expensive overall compared to centralised solutions. This is because the extra capital and maintenance costs for decentralised generation more than exceed the saving from reduced fuel, distribution infrastructure, transmission loss, efficiency and carbon saving. Clearly Greenpeace are bending over backwards here to find any solution, at any cost, as long as it doesn’t include nuclear power. And even with optimistic assumptions they have only just managed to contrive a scenario that looks passable compared to the current level of nuclear generation. It relies heavily on gas, so it is not good for security of supply; and it brings added air pollution into the urban environment. Not only is it insecure, costly and probably unsustainable but it is also environmentally much more harmful than nuclear because of the NOx and particulates generated by the CHP. On your other point, I accept that energy efficiency measures can reduce carbon more cheaply than nuclear; but, as i noted earlier, in terms of actually generating electricity this report indicates that nuclear is the cheapest way to abate carbon. http://berc.berkeley.edu/flyers/McKinseyQ.pdf

Bex, your claim that renewables and nuclear can’t co-exist is demonstrably false. Sweden gets almost exactly half of its electricity from nuclear and the other half from renewables (albeit mostly large hydro). They also have about the lowest per capita CO2 emissions in Europe, and amongst the lowest electricity prices. In contrast Denmark relies almost entirely on a combination of renewables (mostly wind power) and CHP with no nuclear, and it has higher CO2 emissions per head than the UK, with amongst the highest electricity prices in Europe. I don’t accept that decentralised solutions are sensible in most cases. Greenpeace’s whole insistence on small-scale decentralisation is a deliberate ploy to try to marginalise nuclear. But even in terms of renewables it is almost always more efficient to deploy large scale installations in appropriate locations rather than trying to use micro-renewables in inappropriate urban locations. Large wind farms are more efficient than micro turbines; large hydro is more efficient than small hydro. Even looking purely at renewables, centralised solutions are better. The only argument for local generation is when you are making heat, such as using CHP. But even CHP is not a generally applicable solution because it is only really efficient when you want heat and electricity at exactly the same time (ok in winter; pointless in summer). Thermal solar (not PV) and ground source heat pumps are really the only local solutions than make sense. A centralised grid is better for electricity.

Again, I think these points are answered in this comment, posting again in full: Hi ColinG Sorry for the length of this but I'm trying to respond to all your comments across the site in one go, as they all repeat the same myths. I’ll answer your points on air pollution below but first off, I have to point out that you haven’t provided a credible alternative to our energy solution. We’ve clearly explained how renewables + efficiency + CHP can lead us to a low emissions energy system, using CHP as a transition to 100 per cent renewables, providing heat and electricity for the whole of the UK. Initially CHP would be partly fossil fuelled and it would then go on to use zero carbon fuels like biogas. Over time more, renewable heat like solar and geothermal can also be introduced into the district heating networks – as they have done in the 100% renewable district in the city of Malmö, Sweden. As I’ve said before, a replacement programme of ten nuclear reactors in the UK that the government's endorsed will only meet about 3.6% of our total energy needs - because they won’t provide heat. Around half our energy need is for heat (mainly gas based), while the next biggest demand is for transport (mainly oil based). Electricity generation is the smallest portion, and any new nuclear would be a small portion of that, making its role in tackling climate change / ensuring energy security almost irrelevant. That's why the nuclear plan causes much more air pollution overall, for the total system; it can't possibly displace the majority of fossil fuel use, and leaves us running on the same kind of wasteful and polluting coal plants we have today. (Don't forget, the same ministers and companies that want to build new nuclear plants are also proposing the horde of new dirty coal plants across Britain – the most polluting power plants of all.) According to our report, a UK energy scenario with high levels of decentralised energy using CHP and big renewables leads to less fuel burn over all than the government and industry plan of a centralized scenario with ambitious nuclear build. Less fuel use means less overall air pollution. Your answer to that is that you want nuclear combined heat and power. No one in the nuclear industry or government is proposing that anyway – they wouldn’t dare propose to put them near to densely populated areas. But even if they did, you still haven’t explained how you’ll get rid of fossil fuels. Are you suggesting we’ll be able to displace all our fossil fuelled power plants and all our individual boilers with nuclear CHP? Do you have an estimate for how many nuclear plants you’d need to do that? (In China, with the most ambitious nuclear programme in the world, they will still only generate a couple of percent of their electricity from nuclear when and if they built all 30-40 reactors that have been mooted there. Most of the rest of their electricity will still be coming from coal.) How can the UK possibly get enough nuclear power to displace all our fossil fuel needs? Specifically, how are you going to find the enormous funds required to build small nuclear power stations near every town and city (the smaller ones you suggest, which won’t benefit from the economies of scale)? Where will you find the sites fit to host N nuclear plants? How will you persuade local residents across the UK to accept nuclear power and/or nuclear waste sites in the outskirts of their towns and cities? If you don’t want the nuclear plants to be close to urban centres, how will you fund the phenomenal costs of piping heat from, say, Sizewell to London? How will you find the nuclear engineers to build all the plants (there’s already a huge skills shortage)? How will you persuade the government that the building of your nuclear plants won’t run massively over time and over budget like every other nuclear construction project (the average nuclear power station is finished four years late and 300 per cent over budget)? How will you transport all the radioactive wastes between the sites without putting the public at an unacceptable risk? How will you protect every plant and transport route from contamination / accident / terrorist attack? How do you propose to make nuclear power a globally applicable solution (at the moment, some countries, like Iran, are being told they aren’t allowed to have it)? For nuclear power to realistically meet our future global electricity demands, 2000 - 2500 reactors will need to be constructed between now and 2075 - an impossible task. How will you guarantee the weapons grade plutonium doesn’t get into the wrong hands? How do you plan to get rid of the significant fossil fuel use in the nuclear lifecycle (mining, transport, energy use around facilities, waste storage)? And, if you agree that nuclear CHP will never fill the gap alone and you want renewables in the mix, how do you envisage stopping nuclear from undermining renewables as global experience and technical grid limitations both show it does (nuclear and renewables may both be able to run on the grid as long as both are making relatively small overall contributions, but both can't expand beyond a certain point without there being operational conflicts)? The nuclear industry itself says there is a conflict between nuclear and renewables and has lobbied to get the European renewable energy target weakened. Vincent De Rivaz, the CEO of EDF Energy stated at the Adam Smith Institute in March that if the UK actually started to make significant progress in meeting its Renewables Obligations, the economic viability of the new generation of nuclear power plants would be undermined and nuclear would be marginalised. The case for decentralised energy based on renewables, CHP and efficiency has already been made and proven – in countless reports and in other countries. Why would you want to use an outdated technology that is more expensive and more dangerous? I’m guessing you’re going to say because of particulates/air pollution (and you are right that air pollution is a big concern and a killer, especially in places like China). But, for all the reasons above, nuclear allows continued and even increased air pollution because of its undermining effect on energy efficiency measures – the nuclear option is more likely to lead to more air pollution than a system of decentralised energy based on gas / biomass / biogas CHP. And going nuclear can’t lead us to a 100% renewables scenario. Decentralised energy can. All the new nuclear in China is barely going to touch the air pollution problems there. On your comments about CHP and particulates, larger CHP falls under IPPC requirements, and these control emissions to air. (And, as from the start of this year, some large CHP plants are covered by Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD), specifically targetting NOx SOx and particulates.) Before a CHP plant can be built, modified or continue to be operated, emissions to air are mapped, taking into account all existing sources of emission (not just those of the new/existing plant – let’s not forget that cars and lorries are a major source of air pollution too) to ensure local air quality standards are met. If the model shows that the emissions "on the ground" get near to breaching the local air quality standards then the plant will not be built or, if it exists, allowed to continue to operate unless its output is restricted/other measures put in place. Then there’s the fact that a decent sized gas-fired CHP plant will displace many hundreds or thousands of individual gas-fired boilers. Therefore, it can actually improve local air quality, because: - a large heat plant will be sized more closely to actual heat loads than individual boilers, which are typically oversized to meet peak demand load. (A district heat plant overcomes this problem by having in-line boilers that are switched on or off progressively as demand for heat fluctuates throughout the day or the year.) - a large CHP plant will burn gas more efficiently than the combination of all those numerous small boilers and the power plants providing the equivalent heat and electricity. - it’s cost effective and quick to add emissions cleaning equipment to large plant, or to switch it to cleaner fuels as they become available, but not with many small ones like boilers. - the maintenance of large plants will be more effectively managed than individual boilers, impacting on the efficiency and cleanness of gas burn. I hope that answers all of your points. And sorry for the delay. As you can imagine, we don’t have the resources to post dozens of comments on the same point – unlike some well funded industries… ;-) Cheers, Bex gpuk

I don’t follow your argument that nuclear power would increase air pollution. Hopefully you agree that kWh for kWh a nuclear plant produces far less air pollution (not just CO2 but NOx, SO2, particulates) than either a gas or biomass plant. This is true even if the gas or biomass plant uses CHP and we include the kWhs of heat. So whatever combination of solutions you choose to use, if I include more nuclear and less CHP then the overall air pollution will reduce. As mentioned elsewhere, I am not arguing that nuclear should be used for everything as you seem insistent on assuming. I’m saying the more nuclear is used in place of fossil fuel, the better. I note also that your renewables + CHP solution doesn’t address transport at all. Realistically the only way to significantly reduce transport emissions is by using electric transport or hydrogen. This means a larger requirement for electricity. The renewables + CHP scenario barely delivers our current electricity requirement (hence the need for efficiency). It could not address electric/hydrogen transport requirements. Although it may be possible to run small communities on 100% renewables using biomass/biogas along with clean renewables, this won’t scale up. It is not feasible to produce enough fuel to run the country on biomass/biogas/biofuel. Your CHP “solution” is forever tied to using natural gas. You ask “How can the UK possibly get enough nuclear power to displace all our fossil fuel needs?”, to which I would reply how can the UK possibly displace all out fossil fuel needs without using nuclear power? It is at least plausible to envisage a scenario where we got all of our electricity from nuclear and renewables. France and Sweden virtually do this already. It is not obvious that this would be possible without nuclear power. The only countries that get all their electricity from renewables are those that have suitable geography for massive hydro and geothermal; which the UK lacks. The only country that I can think of with a national electricity solution using only renewables and CHP is Denmark, and that has failed to reduce their CO2 emissions per capita. They produce as much CO2 per person as the UK, even though they get 20% of their electricity from wind. So your paper solution of using renewables + CHP + efficiency doesn’t stack up. And even if it did, a solution with nuclear + renewables + CHP + efficiency is more likely to succeed. Are you willing to bet the future of the climate on your fear of nuclear power? I don’t need to persuade the govt of the economics of nuclear new-build because the govt already supports nuclear power development; as do the opposition; as would any party in power (eventually) because it is obviously beneficial. Nuclear material has been transported safely without causing harm for 50 years there is no reason to doubt that this will continue. Nuclear facilities and transports are well protected against accidents or terrorist attacks. Terrorists would have little to gain from attacking nuclear facilities because even in the unlikely event of them causing a release of radioactivity it would not have any immediate health effect. The fact that it might increase local mortality by 1% over 40 years is hardly the sort of impact that terrorists are looking for. For sure, it might generate fear in the general public, but in that respect Greenpeace are doing the terrorists work already. The reality is that even a major release of radioactivity would be less harmful than current inner-city air pollution. Peaceful use of nuclear power is an option for all countries including Iran. The NPT specifically permits this. Obviously the proliferation of weapons technology has to be policed, but the absence of a civil nuclear programme in the UK would not make this any easier. If reactors are not built in the UK then they will be built elsewhere, that is for sure. The fossil fuel used in the nuclear fuel cycle is not a major concern because it is relatively small per kWh of electricity generated. Even with the current use of fossil fuel, the overall lifecycle emissions for nuclear are as low as wind power or hydro. Even the Sustainable Development Commission acknowledges that the CO2 emissions from nuclear are low and likely to reduce as we become less dependent on fossil fuel. As an obvious example, the electricity for fuel enrichment can come from nuclear power rather than fossil fuel. I can see that there might be some limits to the coexistence of nuclear with some forms of renewables, but this is more of a problem of the renewables. Nuclear can easily coexist with dispatchable renewables such as hydro – as amply demonstrated in Sweden. The problem might come if there is a high penetration of intermittent renewables such as wind power. For example, if we got and average of 30% of our electricity from wind (which has a capacity factor of 30%) then some of the time, on very windy days we would be getting all of our electricity from wind; hence all other power sources would have to switch off or be wasted. Really this is weakness of wind power (and any other intermittent renewable) in that they have to coexist with large amounts of dispatchable generating capacity (probably gas powerstations) that can react to the variation. It would be possible to use nuclear powerstations in a load following mode, but this would not be particularly economic. Obviously if enough subsidy is allocated to renewables then eventually they will become more commercially attractive than nuclear, but this would not be a good use of resource and there would be lost opportunity for abating carbon. At the moment nuclear power is the cheapest source of electricity generation for abating carbon as stated in the link above. I accept your point that a CHP plant could displace many small gas boilers and therefore reduce local air pollution. However I can equally point out that a combination of nuclear power (or for that matter large scale renewables) combined with domestic ground source heat pumps would be just as efficient and produce even less pollution. Furthermore, the CHP plant would be pumping out local pollution to generate electricity even at times when heat is not in demand (during the summer when indidivual domestic boilers would normally be off). It is better to completely avoid burning fuel rather than just cutting back.

I note that the german economy minister is currently lobbying Brussels to ask that their CO2 emissions quotas be increased to compensate for the fact that they are phasing out the use of nuclear powerstations. http://www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/news/index.cfm?articleid=18537403 As I said, they can either use renewables to replace fossil fuel and therefore reduce CO2 emissions; or they can use them to replace nuclear which won't save any emissions. It seems they have elected to try the latter. So much for renewables combatting climate change.

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