Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Why Nuclear is an irrelevance in fighting climate change

Letter submitted to the Financial Times:
Jonathan Ford’s Opinion article on the UK's nuclear energy prospects (“Britain needs new nuclear, and the government should fund it,” Financial Times, I June 2020;
https://www.ft.com/content/a49369e7-cdd9-48b2-b853-e1c950b62dc8) has a contestable headline. followed by an aspirational, but physically unachievable, sub headline that asserts: “Future prosperity depends on securing reliable zero carbon power at the lowest cost.”

All energy conversion technologies require manufactured hardware of larger (eg nuclear, hydro-electric dams, gas-fired power stations, big offshore windfarm arrays) or smaller (low-head hydro, rooftop solar panels, geothermal extraction pipework)  physical  footprint: all have an embedded  carbon deficit, so none can ever be zero carbon.

For example, over last weekend, EDF-NNB Gen, the builders of Hinkley C twin-reactor new nuclear plant,  reported it had completed the [highly carbon intensive] 49,000 tonne base for the second nuclear reactor.

Mr Ford cites the UK Committee on Climate Change as having identified a need for 150GW of new "green" power capacity, of which “it thinks some 30-60GW should be ‘firm power.’ He then asserts that this would require “far more than a one-for-one replacement by nuclear,” which erroneously assumes nuclear is  "green."
Mr Ford draws attention to  a recent report by  engineering company Atkins that argued  it was “entirely possible that the least cost route to net-zero will require considerably more nuclear than is currently being considered”. But Atkins has ‘skin in the nuclear game’, having construction and consultancy interests in promoting nuclear.

Both Mr Ford and Atkins should be aware that independent recent energy analysis on comprehensive Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of greenhouse gas emissions from differing power generation technologies, undertaken  by Professor Mark Jacobson, at the department of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University ( and director of its Atmosphere/Energy Program) have indicated that nuclear CO2 emissions are between 10 to 18 times greater than those from renewables.  In a newly completed chapter in a  new energy book, ‘Evaluation of Nuclear Power as a Proposed Solution to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Security’ (In 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/WWSBook/WWSBook.html)  Professor Jacobson argues cogently that aside from significant CO2 emissions in the nuclear fuel production chain ( from uranium mining to  final waste disposal) : “all nuclear plants  emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.”



 

He adds: “because all nuclear reactors take 10-19 years or more between planning and operation vs. 2-5 year for utility solar or wind, nuclear causes another 64-102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years to be emitted from the background grid while consumers wait for it to come online or be refurbished, relative to wind or solar.”

 

What the UK needs in a post-coronavirus energy systems reconstruction to boost the economy is many more decentralized energy units of differing  renewable energy technologies to even out intermittency, backed up by a serious multi-billion pounds energy efficiency progamme.

Nuclear is essentially a very, very expensive industrial irrelevance.

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