26 May 2014

Humanist Debate on Nuclear Power

April's monthly debate organised by South West London Humanists  tackled the controversial subject of Nuclear Power.

We went led in our discussion by John Gallop, a physicist working at NPL who had an interest in the topic. He gave a thorough presentation on the history and technology of Nuclear Power and of the UK electricity market that it feeds.

What follows is my usual mix of statements made during the talk, comments made during the subsequent discussion and my further analysis which I do when writing up my notes, and that is the main reason that I do write them up.

Nuclear Power has been used for around 70 years in UK and has been (largely) uncontroversial for most of that time. It has become a current topic of discussion again because of Climate Change (where Nuclear Power is seen as a good thing, or at least a less bad thing) and the Fukushima Daiichi incident in Japan in 2011 (clearly a bad thing).

The European Pressurized Water Reactors (EPWR) used in the UK generate c 11 gigawatts (GW) of power. This compares to the two coal fired power stations that I worked at which each had 4 units producing .5 GW, i.e. 2 GW per station and 4 GW overall.

Baseload demand is around 20 GW. This is the amount of electricity that we consume irrespective of the time of day, the weather or other factors driving demand.

Nuclear Power is well placed to provide baseload electricity but it is difficult (i.e. expensive) to modify generation capacity whereas it is quite simple for piped fuel generators like coal and gas.

Taking all factors in to account, coal is the most dangerous fuel. This is bad both because of the safety issues with mining and the pollution produced. Nuclear Power incidents are rare and do not necessarily kill many people. Nobody has yet dies at Fukushima.

We've already released more CO2 in to the atmosphere than required to meet the relatively safe 2% temperature increase. The need to act is growing.

While it is tempting to move to more Nuclear Power it takes a long time to bring on-stream, well over ten years, and is also very expensive. The recent deal with EDFE to get them to commit to Hinkley Point C guarantees them a price of £92.50 per Mwh for thirty years against a current markey price of around £50/Mwh. There are other hidden costs and subsidies on top of this.

Nuclear Power is a very long-term commitment because of the time they take to build and then need to run to be profitable and this does not fit well in a world where we are moving away from a few large central generators to very many small local generators that operate at the house, street or community level.

Things like smart meters, electric cars and LED lights have the potential to be a game changer by dramatically changing the pattern of demand, i.e. only using electricity when it is freely available, and by giving homes local storage that can be used when electricity is more expensive.

Nuclear Waste is another issue. The only solution we have is to put it into storage for a few thousand years in the hope that it will stay safe all that time or that somebody finds a technical magic wand to get rid of it. Perhaps we'll throw it in to the Sun one day.

The Sun is also a possible solution to most of our energy problems. For example, we could put a large number of solar panels in the Sahara, something around the size of Wales which is a small fraction of the desert area, and that could provide enough energy to power the world.

Most of the discussion in the room was on ways to reduce or manage electricity demand and so remove the need for Nuclear Power or on ways that renewable forms of generation could be used instead. There were no obvious fans of Nuclear Power in the room, which was a shame as we might have had a more rewarding debate if a more diverse range of views had been presented.

Personally the debate helped to shape my view that Nuclear Power is a reasonable technology but it is neither the short-term nor medium-term solution that we need now. And any debate that helps to form views has been a good debate.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe you should ask yourself only one question: can a major accident cause hundreds of thousands of deaths from the "fallout" of a nuclear plant when its reactor contents are exposed? (The answer is yes, by the way.) The second question is: how probable is that? (The answer is, though the calculations are based on very questionable reasoning, say, "once in a million years".) then you must ask: will it happen at the end of the million years or could it happen tomorrow? (The answer, as with a lottery, is of course, it could happen anytime.) then ask yourself: if it did happen today or tomorrow - would i still think nuclear energy is worthwhile pursuing or would I then not wish I had asked that question yesterday and switched the hellish apparatus off while there still was time?


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