Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Nuclear's unclear future

Letter sent to Financial Times on 13 July 2015
Your North of England Correspondent was somewhat gullible in reporting what he was told by the proponents of the new reactors planned for the site near Sellafield without probing the consequences (“Nuclear industry confident over long-term prospects,” July 13).

Tom Samson, the chief executive of NuGen, asserted to your reporter that nuclear power “is a clean and low-carbon source.”

It is neither; it is also extraordinarily expensive.
While it is true that most nuclear reactors do not emit CO2 at the point of generation, reactors are a small part of the nuclear fuel cycle, which emits large amounts of CO2. These arise from the so-called front end of the fuel cycle - uranium mining, ore milling, uranium hexafluoride conversion, fuel enrichment and, finally, fabrication of the fuel rods. Moreover, nuclear waste management at the "back end" is already energy hungry in treatment, conditioning, transportation and final disposal in some future repository (if ministers ever give the green light).
Thus life-cycle analyses are essential to assess the true impact of the entire processes. A number of such studies have examined CO2 emissions - commonly expressed as CO2 equivalents per kWh - for different methods of producing electricity. The most comprehensive model has been created by the Öko Institut, which advises the German environment ministry, and by Professors Smith and Van Leeuwen at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.
Both studies conclude that the nuclear fuel cycle can emit relatively large amounts of CO2. The lower the uranium concentration in ore, the more CO2 generated; and as a means of enrichment, gas diffusion was much more energy intensive - and thus CO2 emitting - than centrifuge separation.
Using sensible assumptions, Professors Smith and Van Leeuwen determined that nuclear generation produced about a third as much CO2 per kWh as conventional mid-sized gas-fired electricity generation.
Moreover, it is Panglossian in the extreme to believe the process to find a community that will volunteer itself as a site for all Britain’s ( and some foreign reprocessing ) radioactive waste. Despite attempts by ministers to fix the process in favour of any community offering itself up, with financial inducements, none seem likely to come forward. Even the most nuclear-friendly area of the country around Sellafield has voted against further investigation in their area.
Finally, Calder Hall at the Sellafield site was the first nuclear power station in the UK, but this is misleading, as it was actually built and operated as a plutonium production factory for nuclear explosive materials for British nuclear warheads

In fact it was clearly stated at the time of the plant’s opening, in a remarkable little book entitled Calder Hall: The Story of Britain’s First Atomic Power Station, written by Kenneth Jay, and published by the Government’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to mark Calder’s commissioning in October 1956. 

Mr Jay wrote: “Major plants built for military purposes such as Calder Hall are being used as prototypes for civil plants . . . the plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power . . . it would be wrong to pretend that the civil programme has not benefitted from, and is not to some extent dependent upon, the military programme."

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