Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Oxford groves of academe suffer nuclear knowledge meltdown

Letter submitted to Financial Times:

I have rarely, if ever, read such an egregiously inaccurate letter as that from Professors Anton van der Merwe and Wade Allison of the University of Oxford. (“Policymakers should focus on building nuclear plants,” Letters, 29 October; https://www.ft.com/content/14025b74-d90b-11e8-a854-33d6f82e62f8)

What on earth has happened to scholarship at the august academia at Oxford?
The authors put France on an energy pedestal, asserting it has already shown that "building nuclear reactors allows greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced very rapidly at low cost."

Just over last weekend it was reported that the French public is becoming increasingly less in favour of nuclear power, with over half (53%) of French people stating they now oppose nuclear energy, in a survey conducted by the pollster Odoxa, compared to 67% who said in another  poll five years ago they supported nuclear power. (“French public opinion growing against nuclear power”; Connexionfrance, 29 Oct;https://www.connexionfrance.com/French-news/French-public-opinion-is-growing-against-nuclear-power-as-awareness-of-environment-and-renewable-energy-grows)

The French media last week reported that France’s environment minister, François de Rugy, has insisted no decisions will now be taken before 2021 to build any new French-designed European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs), due to escalating costs caused by persistent unresolved technical problems with  pressure vessel steel and quality control at steel forges

Additionally, on 11 October Le Monde reported Pierre-Franck Chevet, the outgoing président de l’Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN),  the French nuclear safety authority, warned about the future safety concerns over the French nuclear progrsmme, as well as highlighting skills shortages. (Nucléaire : « La France fait face à une perte d’expérience » https://mobile.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2018/10/11/nucleaire-la-france-fait-face-a-une-perte-d-experience_5367740_3244.html)

Moreover, a detailed academic research paper by Professor Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis - based in Laxenburg, Austria - that reviewed the history and the economics of the French PWR nuclear programme, found that even this most successful nuclear expansion in France  was characterized by a substantial escalation of real-term construction costs, concluding:

 “the French nuclear case illustrates the perils of the assumption of robust learning effects resulting in lowered costs over time in the scale-up of large-scale, complex new energy supply technologies. The uncertainties in anticipated learning effects of new technologies might be much larger that often assumed, including also cases of “negative learning” in which specific costs increase rather than decrease with accumulated experience.” (“The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing,” Energy Policy, Volume 38, Issue 9, September 2010, Pages 5174-5188; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.05.003).

Surely the Oxford professors were aware of these problems before submitting their letter.

 Policymakers should focus on building nuclear plants
Financial Times, 29 October 2018
     From Prof Anton van der Merwe and Emeritus Prof Wade Allison


   Martin Wolf, in “ The shameful inaction over climate change” (October 24), reports that, in order to minimise the risk of catastrophic climate change, net greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced rapidly to zero. But how may this be achieved with any confidence? France and Ontario have already shown that building nuclear reactors allows greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced very rapidly at low cost. So why aren’t other countries rapidly expanding nuclear power? Largely because of two tragic misconceptions.

The first misconception is that radioactivity is very dangerous. Fear of radioactivity is absurdly high, given actual evidence of its health risks. Even the most catastrophic nuclear accidents, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, caused few deaths (43 following Chernobyl, none after Fukushima). Indeed, nuclear energy has a much better safety record than fossil fuel generators, and is as safe as any renewable energy. Fear of radioactivity has resulted in onerous regulations, which have made nuclear energy unnecessarily expensive.

The second misconception is that renewables can meet our energy needs. Unfortunately their low energy density means that unfeasibly large (country-sized) installations of solar panels/wind farms and hydroelectric schemes would be required, immensely damaging to the environment. More serious is the intermittent supply, which requires renewables to be backed up by carbon fuel generators. No storage technology on the scale required to overcome this intermittency is available or likely.In spite of these misconceptions, environmentalists and policymakers concentrate on plans to increase renewable capacity, a strategy that greatly increases the risk of catastrophic climate change. They should be focusing more on building nuclear energy plants.

Prof Anton van der Merwe, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, UK; Emeritus Prof Wade Allison, Department of Physics and Keble College, University of Oxford, UK

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