Thursday 23 February 2012

Whither nuclear?

A friend sent this article from the BBC entitled, 'New nuclear has 'lots of support' locally - EDF Energy'.  (27 January) (Incidentally, for readers in Japan, EDF stands for Electricite de France. In a privatised industry foreign companies own large slices of UK electricity generation and supply. Gas, water, telephone, railways too.)
I quote, 'Germany imposed a moratorium on future nuclear expansion after Fukushima but the UK's nuclear inspector has said there is no reason to put plans on hold to replace the UK's existing plants as they are decommissioned from 2016 onwards.' The UK plans on building 8 new reactors by 2025.
"The debate is different and definitely more reasoned because there is a deeper understanding of the risks", opines Bob Brown, corporate director of Sedgemoor District Council in Somerset.
BBC News: New Nuclear has 'lots of support'

'A deeper understanding of the risks'. I wonder what he means. Maybe he should spend a week here. But let's look at nuclear and let me put in my two penn'orth from Fukushima.

In my view, nuclear power poses a security risk. It's easy to think it won't happen to you. "One council official said residents near Hinkley Point had lived in the shadow of nuclear power for a long time and were aware how conditions differed in the UK and Japan." Well you may not have earthquakes and tsunami in England, I'll grant you that. But there is a terrorist threat and there are many crazy people in the world. Accidents do happen. People make mistakes. Fukushima was a boring backwater that nobody had ever heard of and now it's famous for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the residents of Hinkley Point might be interested in this piece of news. A few weeks ago a government committee produced their interim report on whether iodine tablets should have been issued at the time of the accident. Their conclusion was that they should have been but logistically it was impossible. So their recommendation is that all households within a 30 km range of a nuclear power plant be issued with iodine tablets. The logistics of backup distribution in case of an emergency are being worked out and the proposal should come into law in the summer. Now if this was rolled out worldwide and residents near all nuclear plants were issued with iodine tablets, would this focus people's attention on how an accident might afffect them personally?

In retrospect, we may have got off lightly. No one has died. But you only have to read my blog of the last eleven months to see how our lives have changed as a result of the accident. I wouldn't wish this on anyone.

The other argument against nuclear power is the disposal of waste which still has no long term solution. Just on a small scale, Koriyama currently has 250,000 tons (that's 25,000 trucks worth) of  low level waste (the top 5 cm of soil scraped from school playgrounds etc) that it can't dispose of. The plan is to dump it in a landfill site near one of the refuse plants on the outskirts of town but the locals won't have it. And this is nothing compared to the high level waste created by decommissioning. The Victorians gave us black buildings and global warming. We've managed to clean the soot off the buildings but climate change threatens our survival. What are we going to leave the next generation? Sustainability is supposed to be the keyword but the waste from nuclear fission makes nuclear energy unsustainable. There should be a moratorium on new nuclear plants with resources going into research on nuclear fusion and on clearing up the mess we've already made.

And then there is the argument that we need nuclear power to provide enough electricity and to meet carbon reduction targets. Last summer Japan as a nation cut its peak electricity usage by 15%. (Incidentally, it's emerged recently that estimates for usage were exaggerated. Some companies are preparing to sue the electric companies for the extra costs.) I would say that if people get serious about it, big reductions can be made in demand. Only two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are currently in operation and these are due to shutdown for routine tests mid April. The country is still working and the Minister of the Economy recently said he thinks we can get through the summer without nuclear.

We do have to cut emissions. Interestingly, even though Japan depended for 30% of its energy needs on nuclear power, now, with most nuclear plants shutdown, Japan's emissions have actually gone down due to reductions in usage and promotion of energy efficiency (grants for eco-cars, appliances etc.).

Certainly, alternative energy needs to be developed. But necessity is the mother of invention. The governor has declared Fukushima will be nuclear free and there isn't a day goes by without you hearing of some new source of energy being developed. From the small Fukushima company that's developed a small turbine that will produce electricity from  a mere 1 metre fall of water, to the news that the seas around Japan are rich in metanhydrate. Then there are solar panels and a plan for a flotilla of floating wind turbines (world first) off the coast here. This is where people's energies and jobs should be focussed, on a clean, safe and sustainable future.

I used to think these difficult questions should be worked on by the people who know best. But I've changed my mind. I now think that these are much more basic value judgements and we can all have a view. I've mentioned this guy before but take a look at David Mackay's book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air'. It's an attempt to get us all thinking in practical terms about the energy mix we're prepared to accept. The link below is to the 10 page synopsis of the book (the book is free to download, by the way) and on page 6 there are various plans you can look at. 

Still cold here in Koriyama. But rain today not snow.
Good night.


  1. With regards to the security risk you mention and the threat from terrorists, are there any examples of this happening in the developed world?

    You also say that carbon reduction targets can be met without nuclear. As you can see from this graph:

    Japan has only 10% of electricity produced via renewable sources. The vast majority of capacity lost from nuclear power plant shut downs has been and will be replenished using fossil fuels. Renewables are in no position to cover 100% of energy demands in industrialized nations, although we all wish they were.

    France has a staggeringly high proportion of its energy needs supplied by nuclear and as a consequence has one of the lowest carbon footprints among industrialised nations.

    The trials and mental stress inflicted on the inhabitants of Fukushima have been terrible. But as you say, one year after one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history and not one person has died. Meanwhile, coal power plants kill people every year and climate change will certainly kill far more.

    There is no perfect solution but a detached, objective look at the evidence would suggest that nations without earthquake and tsunami risk should seriously consider nuclear.

  2. Thanks for your comments.
    I wish I had time to reply at more length. Can I just say for now that 9.11 must have changed views regarding security. And the rollout of construction of new power plants in developing countries (Japan currently in talks with Indonesia, Vietnam and Jordan) I find worrying from the security point of view.

    Regarding nuclear being necessary to meet carbon reduction targets, did you know that even though the current shortfall from nuclear in Japan is being met by increased use of LNG, consumption of electricity has fallen so much overall in the last year due to restrictions and energy saving incentives (eco-points) that Japan has met it's carbon reduction targets? Actually I only know this as a politician said it last Sunday on NHK's programme 'Sunday Debate' and I need to verify it, but very interesting and maybe the way forward for deleveloped nations.
    I do agree with you about global warming.

  3. I would agree that energy conservation is generally underrated as an effective measure against climate change, however it can only take us so far.

    Japan's setsuden program last summer was spectacular. In my office in Tokyo, the hallways were dark, electrical facilities in the toilets were all off and we were all permanently sweating due to the higher temperatures set on the AC. However, these efforts didn't last and there has been no equivalent program in the winter. In both seasons, these programs can be quite dangerous for the elderly.

    Japan may be meeting its carbon reduction targets this year and possibly next year, but these targets must necessarily get tougher and tougher. Reducing energy needs will only take you so far. From the link I posted before, if 60% of energy production is from fossil fuels, energy conservation could allow this percentage to be cut significantly. But to zero? It doesn't seem feasible at all. Could renewables + conservation remove the need for both fossils and nuclear? It doesn't seem possible unless there is a major technological innovation.

    The effects of climate change are hard to predict but it seems clear that the developing world will suffer the most. If developed nations like Germany and Japan choose to abandon nuclear power, their citizens may be happy, but they owe it to others to have credible carbon reduction policies in place. Looking at the numbers, small nations like New Zealand can probably meet their electricity needs using renewables alone. Larger, industrialized nations cannot hope to do so in a reasonable time frame and the climate change problem is urgent.

    If nuclear power wasn't so effective at reducing carbon emissions, I would join the chorus for its abolition in an instant. The downsides are plain to see and innocent citizens of Japan have paid an awful price for corporate and governmental incompetence in its handling.