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Tuesday 14 September 2004

Nuclear might save us [Lurks]

It's annoying that it takes storm damage both in the UK and the Carribean to force climate change back onto the agenda, when there's almost certainly little about climate change which has influenced these chance events. However the BBC reports that Blair is finally admitting that it's time for action. A quick tour across our political parties turns up the fact that Labour is preparing for this to be a fighting charge, citing UK presidency of G8 next year as being a good time to try rail road in some action.
Less impressive are the Tories and Howard lambasting the government on inaction when they've never shown any indication to engage with the topic before themselves and amusingly dodge the thorny issue of nuclear solutions (which I'll get onto later). Typically, the most hilarious of them all was the Liberal democrates, whose environmental spokesman Norman Baker said;

"How many hurricanes and tornadoes will it take for the prime minister to realise that paying lip service to the environment is just no use?"

Obviously this chap has just seen The Day After Tomorrow and is feeling suitably scared that freak hurricanes are going to scour our fair lands of any sign of the human race. What a moron.
Getting back to the issue at hand, we need to cut down on our emissions - we all know that. Blair has mentioned at least one thorny subject and that's air traffic. This is a prime one and responsible for a dispreportionate amount of damage in the equation that probably ought to be looked at, so that's a good one. Elsewhere, people still lambast the yanks for failing to endorse Kyoto.
Which is right and proper, that was lame of them but in fairness there's little indication that this country or many other industrial nations are themselves on track to comply with the Kyoto agreement and the US wouldn't sign it because they thought it was unrealistic. So who are the bigger buffoons, those who sign up to an agreement they wont comply with or those who refuse the sign the agreement?
One of the things that's in the papers recently is the news that the director of the DTI's energy strategy unit (the bloke that is responsible for advising ministers on what policies should be considered on these matters) has come out and said that the Kyoto targets are just not achievable without a rapid about face on the issue of nuclear power generation.
The problem is that Britain's nuclear policy is currently that all of our nuclear power plants will be phased out after 2008. After that they're due to be shut down without any replacements being built. That actually means that we'll have to build something to take over and currently that would be gas or coal. So we'll be in a worse position, not the better position which we're trying to be in. The fact that most of the politicians are avoiding mentioning this at all, is pretty indicative of how much they fear the illinformed public opinion on the issue.
Greenies want it both ways of course. They want no nuclear and in fact wanted no nuclear well before climate change becoming an issue, even though they largely have absolutely no understanding of the issues surrounding nuclear energy at all (perhaps they're liberal democrats?). They're for action to curb climate change of course but you can bet most of them are doing pretty much arse all off their own bat to curb their own energy usage. Presumably we'd have to cover the entire English coast with wind machines and all of Wales with solar collectors so these fuckers can continue heating their green houses and feel good about themselves.
It might be ironic but the reality is, we really do need nuclear power to solve the problems we have ahead of us. The third world is going to start producing more polution and our own populations are growing too, increasing our demand upon power yet further. We need a pretty rapid program of commissioning nuclear reactors and we obviously also need to start factoring in the large costs for decommissioning and waste disposal and storage into the cost of electricity going forward. When people start getting hurt on the bottom line, then they'll start caring about conserving power.
However in order for this to happen, for even a chance of this at happening, we need to start delivering proper information and science to the average person so they can approve of these policites. Otherwise the braindead technophobic scaremongering greenie scumbags will convince everyone that your sister will mutate into a monster and that giant green-glowing cockroaches will emerge from the sewers and eat your children.
It's a frightening prospect that, when you look at the reality of politics in this country, what needs to happen can't really happen. Just wait until the first daily mail issue with children playing in front of a photoshopped nuclear plant backdrop plastered with a "BAN THIS SICK FILTH!" headline...


  1. The waste disposal thing is obviously the issue that isn't going to go away. Whatever the solution to that is, it needs to be long-term, safe and perhaps most importantly given the political climate, secure - which all adds up to "expensive". While Europe and the USA can afford that, there has to be a major concern over what corners third world nations will cut in order to make nuclear power feasible for them...
    There's a lot to be said for renewable energy sources, though. Offshore wind and tidal generation produces a lot of energy - not as cheaply as nuclear or fossil fuel power, but then again, there's an argument that our energy costs are too low anyway, and that the price we're paying for being stingy on energy costs is environmental damage.
    I think any plans going forward have to be based on a combination of nuclear and renewable sources of energy. The concept of building any kind of fossil fuel or biomass burning power plant in this day and age is just utterly retarded, but as far as I can tell, that's the option being pursued to replace our comparatively clean nuclear stations.
    Of course, it'd help if we didn't have genuine nuclear fuckups like Windscale / Sellafield to destroy public perception of nuclear power in this country.
    Here's really, really hoping that they can sort out the political problems about building the new experimental fusion tokamak and get the ball rolling towards commercially exploitable fusion power, eh....

  2. Renewable sources produce a lot of energy? They really really do not. Even the monster stuff crazy stuff on the drawing boards is enough for a town and that's about it. We need to power cities and that needs hundreds of megawatts of generation, not kilowatts. On the other hand you're dead right that we're not paying enough for energy. When we're paying more for power, suddenly then people will care about their heaters, washing machines and maybe insulate their house or pull on a jumper instead of dialling the central heating up to 27C in winter.
    It's interesting to see the uproar that British Gas' price rises are causing just now. As they've pointed out, the only reason prices were so low was because of the historically cheap North Sea gas supply.
    The third world is a big problem and actually there are some significant programs underway to construct sealed nuclear power plants which can be used in those circumstances and entirely removed when decommissioned. There's still a lot of problems to be resolved there of course and even if that was a goer, it's likely to be just a partial solution.
    Fusion is probably still 20 years away in reality, we need a plan of action in that time frame or we're screwed. The best solution would be to stop using as much power but that's not gonna happen...

  3. Interesting stat on this, culled from Slashdot today:
    Even without further expected improvements in turbine technology, the U.S. would now need to use less than 3% of its farmland to get 95% of its electricity demand satisfied by wind power. Plus, wind power is the only mitigation of global warming, because if the whole world converted to wind power in 15 years, the amount of power being extracted from the atmosphere would be more than the increase in greenhouse gas atmospheric energy forcing since 1600.
    Now, let's not beat around the bush - three per cent of the farmland in the USA is a fucking MASSIVE amount of land, and utterly unrealistic. But bear in mind that the USA is also an incredible consumer of energy, and each US citizen consumes far, far more energy than even citizens in developed Western European or Far Eastern nations - and we already largely accept that even we are using too much energy.
    Interestingly, that stat came up in an article about an initiative in Colorado which allowed people to choose whether to use standard energy or wind powered energy in their homes. Wind power is more expensive (although it's still dirt cheap at one cent per kWh), of course.
    I think that's an interesting initiative. It's not all that easy to remember to conserve energy at home, but given the chance to choose to pay a premium in order to source your power from renewable sources, I reckon quite a lot of people would go for it.
    Of course, ultimately, wind won't supply all our power needs. I'd hope that genuinely renewable sources could provide say 50 per cent of our power within a reasonable timescale, but you need nuclear to make up the rest - especially when you have cities the size of London to provide a steady power feed to. The really big problem though is the amount of power that people use. Your point about heaters in winter is a very valid one - I'd like to see figures for what percentage of our power consumption goes on climate control, I really would. It's not like Britain really gets extremes of climate - it's rarely hot enough in summer to require more than a desk fan, and very rarely cold enough in winter that warm clothing and fairly basic, energy efficient heating systems won't suffice. Yet people insist on trying to keep temperatures in the mid-teens in Summer, and in the mid-twenties in Winter... Sigh.

  4. Yes, I read that on slashdot yesterday as well. I can't say as I consider the source to be massively credible - typically a University could not be expected to account for every reality of this scenario. Certainly no mention appears to be given to the problem that non-constant power generation (which is what virtually all renewable sources are) is not the same thing as traditional power generation. After all, you still need generation capacity to make up for when there's arse all wind or sunlight, for example. Then you end up with the stupid situation where you have to have enough conventional generation capacity around anyway, but you run these wind farms which generate some power sometimes and... when they do it, they're a crap load more expensive than just running your existing power planet. Woohoo.That is simply not enough commercial impetus to turn this scenario into reality.They're also claiming victory on the cost of wind power having fallen to 'dirty cheap', as you call it, 1p a kilowatt hour. Or to put it in other terms, around about 10-15 times the current cost of electricity. Again no mention of the fact that much larger scale generation projects would have their own additional costs and a hence a raising of the cost compared to the small scale wind farm projects being examined by these guys.To put that price rise into perspective: British Gas wrote everyone a reasonable letter explaining the price rises. Nevertheless, a good number of 'providers' (re: billers) are promising price freezes in order to get people to switch provider. This is for a £50 a year rate. Just what the hell do you think will happen when you're talking about a ten-fold increase in cost? Obviously we'd all like to see renewable sources for sure but in the several years of reading the major scientific periodicals, I've never seen anyone be significantly upbeat to citing the possibility of running an entire nation of 50% of renewable sources.As for the Colorado initiative where people get to sign up to wind power. Actually exactly that sort of thing exists in the UK already. You can sign up to some providers for 'green' electricity. Of course it's utter rubbish, your power comes from the same place all the other power does but the firm which is billing you is making a pledge that when it comes to buying wholesale electricity, they will attempt to buy a greater percentage from renewable sources despite the cost. Nice idea right?Where it all falls down is that these firms actually don't buy any generation capacity themselves because they are too small and instead end up just paying the base wholesale price from thbe big boys. In effect they're just another header at the top of your bill and another greenie feel-good factor without any basis in reality.I think the solution has to be a government mandated strategy to change the landscape of all of our electricity generation because people aren't just going to decide to pay more to feel nice and green, unlike the student treehuggers quoted in that report (who will soon tire of the concept when they realise how much more beer they can buy if they scrap it).I'm not saying that wind wont be useful, it will be useful. Yet we're so incredibly far away from even being able to envision the day that we'd be able to meet 50% of the UK's power needs by renewable sources and what's more, our power consumption continues to rise.

  5. "Renewable sources produce a lot of energy? They really really do not. Even the monster stuff crazy stuff on the drawing boards is enough for a town and that's about it."
    What about hydro electric power? Hydro electric provides a significan't contribution to many countries total energy production, and is clean, often a by product of damming, and is renewable as sustainable. Norway produces 99% of it's electricity from Hydro, New Zeland 75%. The USA's hydro electric production isn't simply enough for whole cities, it's enough for whole states. According to their reports over the last decate, the Wisconsin dam in the USA produces 2.1 billion kwh, that's a shitload of homes sorted out. Canada is the biggest hyrdo electric producer in the world.
    Why all the fuss and hooha over Wind and solar, when hyrdo electric is an established technology over the last 30 years?
    I also read a viable future for fossil fuel power plants is to convert them to wood burning. The idea is you grow a shitload of fast growing trees such as pine, which is cheap, and the co2 produced by the plant is nicely sucked up by all the trees your growing. Sounds top to me...

  6. Right, but this topic was really about the UK... Furthermore, you have to grow a fecking jungle to make up for decent sized power planet. There's a lot of loony carbon-sink stuff being investigated now, including ocean fertilization. There aren't too many that think it's that viable at present.

  7. The UK hasn't got dams? If you're talking about the wood thing, I'm sure people would be more willing to have the land surrounding them covered in trees rather than windfarms. Wood is also importable, and a shitload cheaper than oil!
    I don't have the figures to hand, I just remember the article pointing out that if we used something like wood for the bulk of our power generation, it does put a lot of self sufficiency back into european countries, local jobs, viable farming, that kind of thing.

  8. Those that harp on about the dangers of nuclear fuel... well I get jolly cross at them, I really do.
    Pound for pound, nuclear is the only power source we have that actually delivers stonking amounts of wattage without pumping out a bazillion tonnes of effluent or crap every hour of the day.
    Now of course, it does have waste, and that waste is possibly much more dangerous than say, that of an oil fired power station. However, we're able to deal with that. Burying it in glass might sound crude, but it works, and it's not hugely damaging if done properly?
    But no, we've got people unhappy with this - in fact, unless we're generating heat by something 100% eco friendly (pray tell what this might be, my crusty tree dwelling humanoid?) then we're all Really Bad And Wrong.
    Nuclear will see us through, it has to - oil is going to vanish (and so with it the powerbase of a shitload of scummy ragheads, which'll prove interesting in the decades to come - bye bye Saudi Princes!) and current alternatives whilst "clean" simply do not offer enough power per unit without covering the face of the planet with windmills or solar panels.
    As Lurks has already said, fusion is a good way off, and hopefully that'll sort stuff out, but until then, face it Green Weenies, we need power, and nuclear will provide.
    And Hydroelectric really isn't the cure all either - look at the Three Gorges Dam; yes it'll provide lots of nice power, but fucking hell has it caused a massive, I mean mahoooosive shift in the environmental balance which is equally as bad.

  9. Nuclear isn't quite a free lunch like you describe. Downsides of Nuclear: Saftey/security, Heat, reactive waste. These things aren't cheap to deal with, especially when you look at just how long you've got to store and monitor that spent uranium you've just buried. Britains nuclear powerstations are also old and crusty and are due to be decommissioned after 2008, and new ones are flippin expesnive.
    Quite how you can equate the enviromnental impact of a dam to that of global warming is beyond me.

  10. Well I guess safety/security is a significant post 911 concern for a nuclear facility, but then, it appears that anything infrastructure related is, so we have to absorb that and deal with it.
    Reactive waste I've already mentioned; it's nuclear's big daily downside (I refuse to believe that properly built, maintained and operated reactors are the ticking time bombs that greenies would have us believe - British AGR reactors are actually very safe indeed).
    I'm not equating the environmental impact of a dam with global warming, I'm pointing out that flooding large tracts of land to provide hydroelectric power really isn't a cure all; displacement of persons, ecology and the subsequent environmental impact of filling whole areas of the country with water are serious enough.
    Then you gotta hope the dam never bursts!

  11. I've never actually heard of anyone mooting burning wood for power and so I don't really know enough about it to comment either way. The only showstopper off the top of my head is the low energy density in burning wood. I'm thinking we're talking about large areas of forrest and a pretty big transport industry. Yes people would be happier to live around trees than wind farms, that's obviously true but the two clearly aren't equivalent. Growing trees don't anywhere near make as much power as wind generators do, you'd need a heck of a lot of land. I'm guessing this would be a more interesting solution for a country like Russian than necessarily ourselves. I'm interested enough to look at it though!
    As for hydro. Scotland is a good fit for it because it's got lots of valleys and no fucker lives there. There is something of an industry up there as I understand it but not much in England and neither is that much of a goer. After all, you've got to flood a valley. People object. Also the impact Brit speaks of with hydro may not be of the same order as global warming but you can't really ignore the environmental impact of drowning an entire set of valleys.
    Hydro is, however, obviously the most practical renewable there is. Vitally, it's also constant which makes the output actually comparable to traditional forms and of genuine use for the grid.
    You wont catch me saying nuclear is a free lunch either but it's got a hell of a lot going for it. It is not actually that expensive to build a nuclear power planet, it's just that you have to factor in all the other costs into the equation of the cost of electricity. When you build one, you run the thing for 25 years by just shoving in some bars of metal you dug up and out comes absolutely fantastic quantities of power and zero emissions. You can't ignore that.
    The bottom line is, in terms of the problems that need solving to affect climate change, the problems involved in tackling the nuclear issues are pretty well understood and if there was a will, we could just get on with it. In other words, the biggest single plus for nuclear power is the fact that it doesn't have a showstopping problem - just the usual set of sizable problems.
    Incidentally, one of the reasons that the world has dealt so badly with radioactive waste in the past was because electricity was so cheap and so the cost of disposing of waste came as a shock and not something which could be commercially considered. As we've covered already, when you raise that bar up, you've then got the wonga to pay for what needs to be done. Eg. relocate radioactive waste into the tunnels of the Paris metro.

  12. Wood burning and other biomass powerstations are in use today. Finland apparently gets 20% of its power from biomass burners and Sweden 15%. Many of the biomass plants we have in the UK concentrate on wood waste, for example the bits left behind when you turn a tree into planks of wood. Apparently Britain has the largest straw burning power station in the world, in Ely which chucks out 30MW a year. Again, this meets emissions requirements, and promotes local farms who produce the straw bales. Biomass power seems to suit smaller local powerstations like this one, with local people employed in feeding it.
    I simply like this idea, I like the idea of britain once again being covered mostly with trees used for power production. You can then bomb about in your battery powered car, that's been generated from renewable tree power.
    I'm sure nuclear has to and will form part of the equasion, but I think the solution to our problems is a diversity of power sources, especially when things like wind and solar can be patchy.

  13. I guess the problem I have here is that I don't consider it enough to have a checkbox next to a power generation scheme that it 'meets emission requirements'. When you're burning straw, your throwing crap into the atmosphere. Sure you grew the stuff to take it out but it at best it's only greenhouse neutral and probably quite a significant source of nastier polutants?
    Could do with some linkage to find it this out.
    I don't think this utopia of Britain covered by trees to fuel our power requirements is really that much of a goer. After all, electricity will never exactly be a cash crop and people need that land to grow food to eat and to export. To say nothing of the fact that plantic the country with these crops would probably mean bad things for the biodiversity we already have.

  14. Finland and Sweden have tiny populations in fairness, Finland about 6m and Sweden about 8.5m at their last census. The UK has 58m.
    To generate a useful percentage of our power for our requirements with biomass for that number of people simply isn't viable given our available land mass / land usage requirements.
    Biomass is a great idea in theory however; I agree that using stuff like wood and whatnot which is renewable and constantly growing is a good idea - it just wouldn't be a viable source in the UK imo.

  15. You don't have to throw crap in to the atmosphere, you can filter it and stuff, but yeah it works better in comparrison to fossil fuels which produce CO2 but don't gobble it up. This produces less CO2 than it eats, apparently.
    Electricity not being a cash crop? Have you seen oil prices? I think we have suffered a bit from a long period of very cheap fuels, I gather that's now well and truly over. If biomass fuel can compete with fossil fuels, it could be very lucrative surely? People do need land to grow food, but that's all acheivable anyway, as to commercially use land currently you have to rotate cash crops with straw for example.
    As for biodiversity, plantations are superb habitats for wildlife. Stuff like red squirrels are damn near extinct because we've so badly fucked the forests this country used to have. Plantations are far better for wildlife than fields of wheat covered in pesticides or a field full of wind generators.
    I also quite fancy going back to it smaller scale as I said. We don't have mains heating in our place. We have a fire and a back boiler, on which we burn wood that we get off our local farm. It's cheap, and efficient, and I'm not led to believe CO2 effective. I'm greener than you :)

  16. Of course I've seen oil prices but take a barrel of oil (or more likely natural gas equivalent of course) and yank the energy out of it. You get a shedload and now you're saying plant your entire field with something to harvest which will yield about the same amount of energy (within an order of magnitude say, for the sake of argument). Had the farmer planted a crop he could take to the market, the return would be vastly higher. How much straw do you think you have to burn to generate one kilowatt of electricity for an hour? Quite a lot of straw that, right. Total amount that electricity is worth when, say, generated by wind generators as covered previously is one cent. One fucking cent. Current generation methods are more than ten times cheaper than that even.
    It strikes me that the only point in considering that is if you have this stuff lying around as a byproduct rather than a means to an end. That is, as far as I have seen so far, pretty much what the biomass stuff is all about and it's great, the more the merrier!
    I'm not saying I don't find the idea interesting but I can't think how there's enough money in all of this that you're going to turn the country into a nation of straw farmers.
    Also, a field covered with wind generators often has native scrub on it (or at least hedge rows given they'll often have actual earning crops on them too) which is a bazillion times better for bio diversity than a massive plantation of exactly the same kind of tree.
    Im not sure you are greener than I either because my central heating is based on natural gas which is a tightly controlled burn which is a good deal cleaner and doesn't piss out a shit load of polution and heat from my chimney stack.

  17. Yep, a lot of this is going to be meaningless until oil gets a lot pricier. Wind power just seems to generate pitiful amounts, so I'm just not taken with it, yet it seems to be our govts only answer to renewable sources.
    You're not greener than me, as you've taken a long haul flight this year, and produced more co2 than a country full of farting cows!

  18. Bah, you're right and all. What's more, I commute on the hideously electric-guzzling tube and a bucket of diesel puffing buses ever day. Bah.

  19. Wind wont work, it takes too much space, so its only a supplement. Burning stuff will always emit something bad, so shouldtn be considered. And when it comes to water... well, its a nice idea but very limited. You need a huge dam and an abundant supply of fresh water. Just take the hoover dam and what it has done to the enviroment downstream. It works here, but we got them all way up north, with no agricultural interests to worry about and no sun that wreck the land below. So that leaves us with nuclear, which is clean and safe. And how is it safe? Bury the shit way below. There are abandoned mines way below 2000 meters. Lets use em, we do :)
    And for the future its all about the sun. If the goverments started paying for what must be the future source, we would get proper kits for absorbing energy from the only source we got that hits us with an absolutely insane amount of energy every day.
    Fossil fuels? Lets not be rediculous. We shouldnt worry about what they emit, we should start worry about all the stuff we cant make when it runs out, which will be soon enough.

  20. There's actually been some good research on creating some types of plastics out of alternative substances than petrochemicals. Which is good news because as it stands, we're absolutely fucked without plastic. Anything else is likely to be more expensive but that's a good thing, I think. Plastic is far too cheap. We need curbs on the crazy throwaway consumer society. It bothers me that I was trained to fix electronic gear but that trade was essentially destroyed because it's just plain cheaper to build a new one than to repair something. That just seems wrong.

  21. What are the limitations of LPG, where the by-product is like, water or something? Why don't trains run on LPG? And how much can we refine using shit as fuel? The world is full of shit so we can use that...

  22. LPG burns more or less the same sort of way that petrol does, a little better. So it's not too bad but there's definately a polution issue. Diesel is the cheapest stuff to burn because it's the least refined petrochemical. Trains run on that by basically hooking up a huge diesel engine to a generator and then driving electric motors. For a bunch of mechanical reasons and stuff to do with how internal combustion engines work, this is more efficient than driving the wheels with the engine directly.
    I suspect you're thinking of fuel cells which have a bi-product of water. As for shit, you can make methane out of it and other stuff like that. Then when you're done with it, I think you can high-temperature incinerate to make power - same deal with just about any form of waste really. It's just that it's cheaper to chuck the waste out at present. In 100 years they'll laugh at the way we just piled our crap up in the country and bulldozed some earth over it.

  23. Isn't it the hydrogen cell things that make water? I understand there's a couple of hydrogen cell busses in london, but they cost something in millions to make.
    Back to me banging on about wood, I saw this in the papers today bedzed a co2 neutral development. They get power for all the houses from the site via a 135kwh wood burning genny, which runs off wood offcuts that the local authority previously threw in landfills. Each three bedroom unit sold at £189k, which isn't exactly huge money for something that's not only cutting edge, but practical. Apparently the best thing about the project, which has been running a few years now, is that you don't know you're living in an environmentally friendly house, it just gets on with its shit. That's how it's got to be really, or people just wont do this stuff.
    Now why aren't all new houses built like this, if they're this cost effective?

  24. Fuel cells = the hydrogen cell things that make water.

  25. My folks are currently in the planning stages of building a new house on the west coast of Ireland, and are having it designed in a "green" fashion. Some of this is simply necessary - it's in the arse end of nowhere and there's no centralised sewerage system, rubbish bags have to be driven eight miles to the nearest collection point, and electricity gets flaky when the wind gets up.
    Some of the stuff you can do in new buildings very cheaply is remarkable. They can do an astonishingly good job of heating the house in winter, and cooling it in summer, by using a heat exchange system with the underlying bedrock. Power can be generated by a combined septic tank and biomass disposal unit underground, which uses custom-designed bacteria mixes to generate vast amounts of heat from the reaction, and solar cells on the roof and a battery setup in the loft space provide even more power and emergency backup for the lighting circuit in the case of a power failure. They'll mostly burn biomass in the form of wood and turf for hot water, too.
    Thing is, building like this actually doesn't add that much to the cost of building the place, and while they'll still need to be on the grid for electricity, their actual grid usage will be tiny. Renewable energy seems to work much better on a small scale like this than it does in terms of large-scale generation - this house, for a few thousand extra in building costs, will use perhaps a quarter (or less) the amount of power that a normal house does. Course, it's a lot harder to do this stuff in the city...

  26. I read an amusing piece on another blog site about how much energy Gmail is going to need to run - could Gmail accelerate global warming and kill us all?
    You decide - here's the blog entry