Friday, May 27, 2005

Loving the Bomb

Is nuclear power, once again, the way ahead? In doing some reading on energy questions, I concluded that it might be - and then started finding the same view popping up in a lot of places.

A dog-eared 2003 North and South I picked up while on the cycle at the gym had an unusually interesting story on the nuclear power station planned for New Zealand in the 1970s. The history and abandonment of these plans is also discussed in a recent article in the Salient, which makes a cogent case for nuclear power to again be considered for New Zealand. In Britain, pre-election debate stimulated considerable discussion of energy issues, and the New Statesman recently claimed to have uncovered a pro-nuclear industry conspiracy.

Whether on a world or local scale, there's a straightforward reason why nuclear power might be gradually shedding its dire image. As a sober majority start acknowledging the necessity of developing renewable energy sources, nuclear is the only (semi-) renewable that might plausibly provide a significant proportion of our energy in the near future.

For doubters, it's worth clarifying the rationale for pursuing renewable energy. On the one hand, there's the much-polemicized issue of global warming. There are some reasonable doubts about the scale or impact of global warming, and the image of the Earth as a potential fireball dragging a carbon-fulled vapor trail through space is a stupid exaggeration. But the scientific consensus (which we laypeople tend to respect on most other matters) is that the planet is probably warming up, this probably has something to do with carbon dioxide emissions, and this is probably going to create more harm than benefit in the longer term. Therefore, it makes sense to look for alternatives to fossil fuels.

On the other hand, fossil fuels themselves are eventually going to get scarcer. Oil, which produces 40% of the world's energy, may reach peak production as early as next year. It will keep going for a while yet, but will gradually get more expensive, especially as demand continues to increase. This actually alarms me more than global warming, as it's not clear what alternative source of fuel there is for the ships, planes and trucks on which our economies depend. But the least we can do is try and leave the oil for these and other important purposes like plastics and pharmaceuticals, while getting our industrial and household energy elsewhere.

Some environmentalists claim that the solution is a combination of greater energy efficiency plus "green" energy sources such as sun, wind and wave power. All of these are important, but won't do the trick alone. Energy efficiencies might slow the increase in energy use, but in a growing economy (to which I'll return later) won't stop it. Of the green technologies, the most well developed - wind power - is already running into limitations. Both in Britain and New Zealand, even wind power proponents estimate that it could produce a maximum of 10-20% of national electricity supply.

And in both countries schemes to expand wind energy have faced opposition. In rural Auckland and Britain's Lake District, planned windmill farms have been blocked by locals as "blots on the landscape".

I digress here for a moment. The opposition to windmills on aesthetic grounds is partly a failure of imagination; people just don't like what they're not used to. I'm not saying they should cover the entire countryside, but they are sleek, futuristic machines which can be attractive in some settings. I remember being excited to see the windmill farms near Palm Springs in California when I passed through there a few years back; they looked romantically space-age against the desert. Closer to home, most people like the single wind turbine up near where I used to live on Brooklyn Hill in Wellington.

How much uglier are power pylons, which people usually don't even notice? Or regular telegraph-style poles? Or roads, which nowadays people mostly view as part of the natural landscape. Driving through New Zealand's North Island, for me the ugliest technology of all is the endless, dreary, rolling-country sheep and cattle farm, with its fences and deforested hills. But this supports our cloven-hoofed animals, who pay all our bills, so must be tolerated (take a look at these pictures; do the windmills enhance or detract from the landscape?) .

Returning to the point, wind power is limited at present. To provide enough power for a country like Britain, you would have to cover most of its landmass in windmills. Solar is worse; while it will be great to promote the integration of solar panels into new houses (where are the tax breaks, Michael Cullen?), whole deserts worth of panels would be needed to produce major amounts of electricity. And while I fondly imagine the days when fleets of offshore turbines combine wind and wave power to bring light to our cities, by the time that technology really gets going we'll all be buzzing around at skyscraper height in pod-cars like Anakin Skywalker.

Some environmentalists, like the Guardian's George Monbiot, purse their lips and say that we just have to use less energy. We can't expect to keep on with growing populations and growing economies, because Mother Earth has got a finite store of resources to give us, and is already under too much stress.

This simplistic view effectively thumbs its nose at the entire developing world. Huge chunks of the world's population continue to live in poverty - the single biggest challenge facing the world today. Everyone has the right to a decent standard of living. History suggests the only thing that will achieve this is development, meaning economic growth.

And developing-country economies won't grow in isolation. In addition to investment and development aid, they need freer and fairer trade - in other words, for other countries to buy their stuff. It would be nice to imagine we could just "share out" the world's wealth a bit better, but there's no known mechanism for doing this directly. Thoroughgoing socialism hasn't worked within societies; there's even less chance it could work on a global scale.

So a globalised world economy which continues to grow is a necessary prerequisite for improving people's lives. We are going to have to generate and use more energy. Which is where nuclear power comes in. Aside from oil and gas, it's the only currently available way of generating large amounts of energy in a relatively efficient way. There are also reasons to think that the risks and side effects aren't as bad as are sometimes made out. I defer to the Salient article to make the technical case, but even Monbiot is now admitting that it may not be as bad as all that.

It's likely to be difficult to advance this debate in New Zealand. We'll see a lot of emotive reaction and a reluctance to consider the issue with an open mind. People see "nuclear-free New Zealand" as a badge of identity. Though surely, the refusal to accept American warships in the 80s was more a stroppy assertion of foreign policy independence than a reasoned rejection of nuclear technology. Wasn't it?

Either way, we'll have to face up to the questions sooner or later, as our demand for energy continues to increase. We've run out of rivers to dam, our natural gas is dwindling, and wind will only go so far. For many people, the key ibjection to nuclear power is the possibility of a catastrophic accident which produces toxic pollution and harms the environment. It's worth remembering that our other option is burning lots of coal - which definitely will produce toxic pollution.

11 comments:

Susan said...

A propos of this, I heard on Morning Report this morning that Auckland will be running out of power by 2010 unless major new generation capacity is started now. But the current plans are being blocked by people who don't want anything on/near their house/land etc. Wind farms etc are not going to be enough and nobody wants one near them either. There's enough coal in the country to keep us going for years but it's so out of favour that it seems likely we will just keep exporting it to countries which haven't signed the Kyoto Protocol instead of using it ourselves. And what does that leave us with... yes, nuclear energy. When I first travelled to Europe I was shocked and horrified to see nuclear powerplant towers in the countryside in Germany, but I realise now that it was an emotional reaction from the years of being in "nuclear-free New Zealand" Millions of people live out their lives in countries that rely on nuclear energy. It seems to have cured the "acid rain" disasters of a previous generation and the populations do not seem to have a higher rate of morbidity or mortality than we do ourselves. We are probably more at risk from overeating and lack of exercise than we would be from nuclear power plants!

Simon Bidwell said...

or from burning coal...

Chernobyl was a disastrous accident at a plant intended mainly for military purposes, and managed with staggering stupidity. Apart from that, there's no evidence that anyone has been harmed by living near a nuclear power plant.

The pollution from burning coal and other substances, on the other hand, has been an ongoing source of harm to human health and the environment.

perceptualChaos said...

Damn if I had a few hours I would rip this blog to shreds... =)

I'm thinking about writing an article on future energy requirements when I finish exams in about three weeks so I'll let you know if I do get round to it...

Initial points I would make are:

Coal fired power is bad for the reasons you outlined, wind power would probably not satisfy NZ's net energy requirements, But Energy requirements minus Coal Power minus Wind Power does not equal nuclear fission, no way.

Your Dad sent me some research on Biofuels from the 80's and I am not up to the stage where I can write my physics thesis (which I plan will be on something or other to do with energy) but Biofuels look incredibly promising as a replacement for fossil fuels.

With peak oil impending over the next couple of years as predicted by Hubbert and others, the price of oil will rise exponentially and I predict that it will be economically feasible and physically possible to begin the process of a transformation of the NZ energy economy to biofuels as soon as we realize that it is the way forward and that a hydrogen economy is a bad idea, and we need to start preparing a large amount of land for it.

Being a farming country, we have a lot of land available for the task - this is not so in a lot of developing countries, but here there is no such problem.

Biofuels are part of the carbon cycle - they absorb greenhouse gasses and then emit them in a continuous cycle.

The direct products and byproducts from the fission process are very unsafe and toxic, the latter being the worst, and accidents do happen; accidents with fission are dire as demonstrated not just by chernobyl.

The statement that there's no evidence that anyone has been harmed by living near a nuclear power plant is wrong. There is evidence documented by a group of the top radiologists in the world who have lost faith in the IAEA's simplistic model's lack of correllation with the evidence. The y are called the European Committee on Radiation Risk

To quote:

The committee lists its recommendations. The total maximum permissible dose to members of the public arising from all human practices should not be more than 0.1mSv, with a value of 5mSv for nuclear workers. This would severely curtail the operation of nuclear power stations and reprocessing plants, and this reflects the committee's belief that nuclear power is a costly way of producing energy when human health deficits are included in the overall assessment. All new practices must be justified in such a way that the rights of all individuals are considered. Radiation exposures must be kept as low as reasonably achievable using best available technology. Finally, the environmental consequences of radioactive discharges must be assessed in relation to the total environment, including both direct and indirect effects on all living systems.

that will do for now considering I have a test tomorrow morning...
By the way, check out links to news on my blog posted this morning.

- Tim

perceptualChaos said...

I would contest that the biggest obstacle to development in the developing world is the IMF/World Bank partnership. Most developing countries have paid far more than their initial loans back in interest and the conditions imposed on them in order to get the loans in the first place have crippled many countries and made damn sure that corrupt tyrranies stay in place to make sure profits from their resources go to western corporations rather than the people.

Simon Bidwell said...

Solid points, Tim. Though these guys are charging 75 euros for the whole report! I guess I was being flippant when I said that there's no evidence for people being harmed by living near nuclear power plants. There's some interesting literature on PubMed - enter "sellafield AND health" in the search bar.

The ECCR's "consider all factors" recommendation seems sensible. The technology is improving, and Finland has recently decided to build a new nuclear unit.

Re: biofuels. I'm interested to know more - on a number of occasions I've asked Dad about his research and he always said that it was unlikely to be economic any time soon. As you're probably aware, Monbiot has pronounced negatively on the issue, but more sciency types are quite positive, in particular as regards New Zealand.

Simon Bidwell said...

btw, when are you going to solve all this by developing cold fusion?

perceptualChaos said...

Nuclear fission

These guys are charging 75 euros for the whole report!

Yes, it is the size of a decent text book; these guys are serious. They have virtually duplicated the IAEA book in format but with different suggestions. The website does not do them justice, it is just a couple of people - the main one being Dr Chris Busby, but like I said, they have the support of most of the top radiologists of the field. The main work they do is on Depleted Uranium.

Talking to one of the postgrads at uni about it, another point about fission is that the energy efficiency is actually about the same as wind and contrary to pro-fission propaganda, there is hardly any room for modulating the output power - i.e. they need to run at the same level so this can not be used as a reason for fission against wind, hydro, solar, geothermal, etc.

When I finish my exams I am planning on writing an article which deals with the topic with a far less cursory approach.

Nuclear fusion

Muon-catalyzed fusion works but it is unlikely it will ever be useful or sustainable. ITER should get a net energy gain of about 5 if it ever gets built but - I will be writing about fusion more in the article...


Biofuels

I think there are two factors that will make biofuels economically possible: 1) The push for clean energy from e.g. The kyoto protocol. 2) The fact that the oil is running out - i.e. peak oil

With current biofuel methods/technology, we would run out of earth before we met global energy consumption, but in NZ I have no doubts that it would work. A subsidiary of the US DOE were doing experiments with shallow algae ponds where they pump CO2 into a pond with high intensity incident sunlight and were getting yields many times higher than from for instance rapeseed. They report 10k-20k US gallons/acre as opposed to that of rapeseed which is typically 110 to 145 gal/acre.(One gallon=3.785 litres)

If we figured out a cycle to get the CO2 in and fixed a few of the other problems it turns out that this would be more than enough to satisfy the US petroleum market with a fraction of the unused desert land. I have their main report at home but I haven't finished it yet.

perceptualChaos said...

Oh yeah, the Wikipedia entry is a good resource on biodiesel

perceptualChaos said...

Ha, its not just wishful thinking:

‘On-road’ testing and economic analysis has determined that crude oil would need to reach about $30 per barrel for ‘biodiesels’ – made out of animal fats – to become a feasible proposition.

source - 2002 massey article

Crude oil for April delivery rose to US$56.46 a barrel yesterday, the highest price on the New York exchange since crude oil futures trading began in March 1983, following OPEC's admission.Meanwhile, at least one oil industry analyst is saying that oil may rise to US$100 a barrel before demand slows

source - 2005 greens article

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