Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Time to consider the nuclear power option?

This opinion piece by Robin McKie in the Guardian newspaper warns "we are heading for a power supply meltdown". The more I've read and the more research I've done in recent months the more I'm inclined to agree with him. Seeing British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, recently before a parliamentary committee sidestepping questions about how we are going to meet future energy requirements here in the U.K. did not inspire confidence.

However the quote which was widely reported by the media at the time from Tony Blair, "I am NOT ruling out the nuclear option" sounded a lot like politician speak for "I want to build lots of nuclear power stations but I don't want to say so."

So is it time to consider the nuclear option?

One of the difficulties in my opinion is there seems to be no middle ground. The anti-nuclear side is convinced that nuclear power is fundamentally dangerous and therefore can never be an option. The pro-nuclear side is convinced that nuclear power is the answer to our energy problems if only the environmentalists could be silenced.

At the moment I'm closer to the anti-nuclear position but perhaps for different reasons. Putting safety, environmental and economic concerns aside I'm concerned from an energy standpoint. If we include all the energy costs of mining uranium, building expensive power plants and then storing the waste indefinitely does nuclear power actually contribute significantly more energy than it uses?

Another important point is that uranium is a limited resource. According to some sources there are less than 40 years worth of uranium reserves in the United States. There seems little point in investing in nuclear technology if it isn't going to be a long term solution.

The problem in assessing the argument is finding unbiased information as there seems to be a lot of propaganda from both sides of the divide.

The article points out that if all the world's wind turbines were relocated in Britain they would still only provide 10% of our electricity requirements. However to me this is not an argument for building nuclear power plants rather it shows how underutilised renewables currently are and how much more we could be doing.

I think we do need to invest in nuclear research particularly in the areas of breeder reactors (which recycle uranium) and nuclear fusion (an area which has received lots of money and decades of research however we need to keep trying).

Firstly we need a big push to increase our utilisation of existing renewable technology like wind and solar power. Currently for example the United States generates less than 1% of its electricity from these sources. We can and must do better.

Guardian News Article


Blogger Matt Prescott said...

A lot more needs to be done to prove that existing military and civilian nuclear waste can be disposed of safely.

All of the radioactive pollution dumped in the North Sea over the past 40 years represents only 1% of the waste the UK has sitting around in storage or in weapons and power stations that are due to be decommisioned.

The Royal Society has estimated that existing waste will cost $85 billion to deal with and I don't think we should generate any more waste until this situation has been changed for the better...

James Lovelock disagrees with this view and feels the threat from climate change is far greater than that posed by a resurgent nuclear industry, but I agree with you that investment in renewables makes a lot more economic and environmental sense.

Increases in energy efficiency, carbon taxes and changes in human behaviour could also offer considerable gains, and we cannot keep putting off change until new technologies have been invented.

Especially, as so much is already possible, without delay.

7:35 am, August 18, 2004  
Blogger Stumbling Bumbler said...


One issue is that many think nuclear power can be a "bridge to the future"- ie- most alternative sources aren't quite ready for prime time yet, and we need to do something to generate power until they are. I wrote a more detailed response here-

11:04 am, August 19, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My biggest problem with a lot of alternative energy sources is that they're highly geography-dependent and space-intensive. There are only a few places where wind power is practical, and then solar power isn't practical in places that get a lot of cloud cover, and anyway, our photovoltaic cells just aren't that efficient. The largest solar power plant in the world only produces 10 megawatts, and the plants aren't space-efficient, making it harder to place them near cities, meaning that more energy is lost in transit. Hydro dams have the annoying side effect of causing erosion. And wind power can't be done in many places. Also, some groups that are otherwise in favor of alternative energy oppose specific wind projects because the turbines are unsightly and require cutting down forests. For example, the Appalachian Trail Conference opposes a wind power project in Maine because they don't want to have something like that in the Appalachian Trail's "viewshed." And geothermal is great in Hawaii and on the West Coast, but it's completely impractical in other places.

I think that eventually, if we develop practical superconductors that allow us to cheaply transport energy across a continent and increase the efficiency of generators, and if we develop efficient photovoltaic cells, we will be able to switch to renewable energy.

But in the interim, we need a power source that is relatively clean, but is also economically feasible, and nuclear power (along with clean coal) could provide that bridge. I think that's the big thing James is missing. We have energy needs in the short term, and alternative energy just isn't up to filling them yet in anything approaching an economical fashion. Sure, nuclear waste costs a lot to store, but there are economies of scale there, and we can develop reactors that use some of the waste.

It's not the answer, but it's an answer.

John's detailed response taken from:

(posted by James - Alternative Energy Blog)

2:45 pm, August 19, 2004  
Blogger James said...

John makes a number of different points (each followed by my comments):

1) We urgently need an energy "bridge" which could be provided by nuclear power & clean coal. Using these power sources are economically feasible.

Coal is certainly economically feasible as natural gas costs up to six times as much. At the moment there are over 94 coal power plants planned for the USA. If around half of these end up being built they would supply around 10% of America's electricity. However the big question is how clean these would be. Burning coal produces airborne mercury and greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. How clean are the coal power plants which are planned?

The decision to build nuclear power plants (or not to build) has usually been a political rather than economic one. The jury is out as to whether nuclear power really is economically feasible. If you have solid figures to suggest it is I'd like to see them.

2)We need practical superconductors to allow us to transport energy long distances.

Edison's original vision of electricity generation was local with a generator in each neighbourhood as opposed to the national grid system we currently have. I believe the future lies in local & micro-generation. When we have efficient photovoltaic cells this will allow us to generate our own electricity and potentially generate hydrogen for use in our own personal filling stations.

However with existing technology we will have to continue to run a national grid however with more and more people generating electricity locally and living off-grid or putting excess capacity back into the grid.

3)Photovoltaic cells are not that efficient. Solar power plants don't produce much electricity.

I agree. Photovoltaic cells are becoming more efficient however they are not at the stage where they can be adopted en masse. If technology improves they could be ubiquitious being on every roofing tile and car roof.

4)Wind power is only practical in a few places.

Giant wind turbines are obviously not practical in the middle of cities. However America (like many other countries) have vast areas of open space which are perfect for wind power. Wind turbines can also be sited off-shore near coastal cities. I have little time for the objection that wind turbines are unsightly. To me they are the most aesthetically pleasing source of power generation at present. They are also economically viable generating electricity at or below the cost of fossil fuel sources.

America could be generating up to 60% of its electricity from wind power. If we add 10% from hydro and 5% from solar power that leaves a 25% shortfall. This can be met from traditional sources until we are able to make it up with renewables.

3:32 pm, August 19, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the blog entry states ...

"The article points out that if all the world's wind turbines were relocated in Britain they would still only provide 10% of our electricity requirements."

Out of interest, does anybody have an idea of, what percentage of Britain's area 'all the world's wind turbines' would consume?

4:40 pm, August 19, 2004  
Blogger James said...

I don't have a figure for the area of land all the world's wind turbines would take.

However I did a google search on "how many wind turbines" and found this page by Greenpeace:

This states 660 offshore wind turbines could replace one nuclear power station. It also says the UK has enough wind resources around its coastline to meet our (current) electricity needs 3 times over.

Which is just as well because if we make the switch from oil to hydrogen we will need to generate 4 times more electricity.

6:16 am, August 20, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TommyA says...

"There are currently (March 2004) 1,043 wind turbines in operation at 84 sites around the UK, providing 649.4 MW or over 0.3-0.4% of the UK's electricity supply." [ from: ]

High amounts of supply from wind would appear difficulty to achieve. E.g. full supply by wind power generation could see approximately 3 million wind turbines (1 for every 20 people in the UK)

12:33 pm, August 20, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TommyA said...

James it might be nice to post an article stating the current state of alternative energies in the UK.

I've collected these from


Wave (2003) 0.5Mw
Solar (current) 4.0MW
Hydro (planned for 2003) 1579Mw
Biomass (2003) 735Mw


Hydro: Most commercially-attractive and environmentally-acceptable sites have by now been utilised.

Typical Costs:

Solar PV: 60p-70p/kWh.

12:49 pm, August 20, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TommyA said...

Missed wind

Wave (2003) 0.5Mw
Solar (current) 4.0MW
Hydro (planned for 2003) 1579Mw
Biomass (2003) 735Mw
Wind (2004) 649MW

12:56 pm, August 20, 2004  
Blogger Stumbling Bumbler said...

Regarding the coal power plants, from what I understand, scrubbers can cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and NOx by something like 90%. And then a lot of the stuff they're doing by processing the coal beforehand should also help. That's not perfect, but building those would be good.

My point was merely that nuclear waste storage gets cheaper as we store more of it because we can fit a lot of waste down one of those holes. Granted, that's not the only cost of nuclear power, but it's a big one

Regarding 2), it may be that once we have 3), two will no longer be necessary, though I suspect that 3) will be helped by superconductors.

Also, by having a national power grid, we can better leverage regional and seasonal advantages in alternative energy production. Also, if you're talking about fusion as a possible future form of production, then having a national grid will still be necessary, at least at first.

Regarding wind, I don't have much sympathy for aesthetes, and I hope it didn't sound like I was sympathetic, though at least back east, it does require chopping down trees (or at least the one project I heard about in Maine did).

And if you're talking about local generation, that might be fine for rural areas with open space (most places fitting this description in the US are low-density areas out West, though there is potential on farms).

A big issue, for me at least, is that wind power costs varying amounts of money depending on the season, or rather that a turbine will produce varying amounts of power. Solar power varies some because of shorter days in winter, but from what I understand, average wind really varies a lot from season to season, and since wind's power rises with the cube of its velocity, even small variances can lead to huge differences in cost.

4:00 pm, August 20, 2004  
Blogger James said...


Thanks for your posts and the great link to the dti website. I'm happy to say you've miscalculated the number of wind turbines necessary to supply 100% of current UK requirements.

If we take the dti figures of 1,043 wind turbines supplying 0.4% of the UK's electrical supply that gives us

1% = 2,607.5
10% = 26,075
100% = 260,750

However realistically I don't believe we will ever install 250,000+ turbines in the UK as either there will be a significant gain in efficiency or a breakthrough in alternative energy technology (if we spend enough money on research).

You have however identified an important issue, one I've become increasingly aware of since starting this blog. Renewable energy generation is low density i.e. it requires huge numbers of generating sites to produce significant amounts of electricity. When we talk about wind power making a significant contribution that means a minimum of 10,000s of wind turbines (onshore or offshore). To supply the UK's current needs based on the current efficiency of wind turbines (which is improving over time) we will need approximately quarter of a million. To supply all the electrical needs of a large country like the United States we are talking millions of wind turbines. I did not start this blog because I thought our energy problems can be solved easily, the very reason I started it was because the scale of the challenge is huge.

You suggest a report on the current state of alternative energy in the UK. I think the dti website gives a pretty good view. If you know of additional sources please email them to me.

The dti website offers a number sources of hope.

Hydroelectric Power

it notes that 15% of UK electricity could be supplied by small scale hydroelectric

Tidal Power
If all the reasonable exploitable estuaries were utilised Tidal Power could supply 15% of current consumption.

Wave Power
The DTI site notes technology is currently 10 years behind wind power. That means within a decade or two we could see wind power provide 10% of our electricity needs.

Wind Power
Predicted to produce 1.3% of supply by the end of 2005.
Judging by the experience of Spain (which already produces 10% of its electricity from wind power and has a target of 40% by 2010) production could be scaled up quickly. Within a decade we could be producing at least 10-20% of our needs.

That means within two decades we could be producing 50-60% of our electricity needs from renewable sources (based on current demand) with significant investment and political will.

This asssume incremental advances in technology and no major contribution from solar power. However if a significant advance is made in solar technology which lowers costs and allows solar cells to be printed on common materials like roofing tiles the percentage could be higher still.

Do I think this is enough? No.

If we are to make the switch to a hydrogen economy we will need to generate 4 times more electricity based on existing energy usuage. However energy consumption is predicted to rise 40% by 2020. According to the peak oil theorists ( there will be significant challenges in the supply of oil and gas within the coming years.

That means the remainder of our power supply which would come from non-renewable sources would have to come from "clean" coal (of which there a few hundred years of worldwide reserves at CURRENT usuage levels) and/or nuclear power (limited reserves of uranium and significant questions as to whether it is energy positive when uranium mining and storage of nuclear waste is taken into account).

I repeat again. The scale of the energy challenges facing mankind in the coming years is huge.

5:24 pm, August 20, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TommyA said...

Ultimately I think the move to alternative energy will come down to economics. Look at the attention being given by the media and industry to the current oil prices. After taxes the net increase is not massive and even this is causing issues for industries heavily dependent on energy (transport ...).

If the move to Hydrogen as an energy carrier would increase the energy requirements by 4 then their is little chance of a large scale uptake, without new large supplies of very cheap energy.

James raises a good point about the low energy density of many alternative sources, and this obviously contributes to the costs.

I don't see the current lack of significant alternative energy supplies as a problem. I think it will be just a slow evolution that will develop naturally as the economies of alternative energy improve.

I am just reading the DTI's energy white paper and some predictions for economic viability are:

Biomass: mid-2010's
Solar PV: post-2020
Wave & Tidal: mid-2010's

Another report (130 pages, Oct/2002) I have found is
"This report quantifies the additional system costs that are likely to be incurred if the volumne of renewables in Great Britain were to increase from the assumed level of 10% of demand from 2010 onwards, to 20% or 30% of demand by 2020."

2:22 am, August 21, 2004  
Blogger James said...


The more research I do the more it becomes clear that we are going to have to rely on at least some fossil fuels while making the transition to 100% renewables.

I am currently doing more research into "clean" (I think perhaps it's more accurately described as "less dirty") coal. Given the fact that we have more than a few decades of coal reserves left (unlike oil & gas) "clean" coal electricity generation could make sense. Given my current reservations about nuclear power, "clean" coal could be the "bridge" fuel to help as make the transition. Although my position my change with continuing research.

The answer to the intermittent nature of wind is to have lots of turbines in different areas of the country.
It's always windy somewhere!

5:43 am, August 21, 2004  
Blogger James said...


The main reason world leaders are touting hydrogen power is not because they believe it's going to be cheaper (at least not for a long time). It is because there are serious problems with our continued use of fossil fuels.

How do you value a non-renewable resource (e.g. oil) that takes millions of years to form, which is incredibly energy dense, has no near substitutes and of which we only have a few decades of conventional reserves left?

When we take these factors into account a barrel of oil is way too cheap. It is kept cheap as our economies rely upon it for transport, medicine, plastics and food.

You seem to be willing to take the time to go through tables of statistics and figures. I therefore suggest you pay a visit to

The danger is the price signals that tell us cheap oil & gas are running out have or will be missed and we will leave it far too late to develop alternatives. We may not have a 100 years to switch to renewable sources, we may not have 50 or even 25 years. The scale of our energy challenges our huge. We need lots of smart people working on the solutions.

6:02 am, August 21, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tommy said...


Cheers, I will take a look at

I think I am more optimistic about the energy future, and believe the transition to renewables will be smoother. Like any resource oil will be subject to supply & demand; as reserves deplete I would predict we would see a slow increase in prices over time, and this will drive the demand for renewables. The key for now is to continue to research, development & improvements in renewables.

The biggest problem with oil is it is both part of the energy supply and energy infrastructure (i.e. car engines etc.) A real push to free the energy infrastructure from oil (i.e. fuel cells, battery powered vehicles etc.) is probably currently more important than freeing us from oil generated energy.

6:26 am, August 21, 2004  
Blogger James said...


"A real push to free the energy infrastructure from oil (i.e. fuel cells, battery powered vehicles etc.) is probably currently more important than freeing us from oil generated energy."

The problem is that moving to a hydrogen economy is that it is a chicken & egg scenario.

Automakers are investing in hydrogen cell research. However I suspect a lot of this is "greenwashing" rather than a belief it will yield a viable commercial product anytime soon.

The current state of play is that Chrysler has produced a few million dollar (each) A-classes which can go 250km between fill-ups. Who will want to buy a car which will be slower, smaller and more expensive than conventional cars? If no-one buys the cars why will energy companies invest in building a hydrogen infrastructure? Without a infrastructure who will buy hydrogen cars?

The benefits of freeing ourselves from oil generated energy are many. If we produce clean renewable electricity we can use that now while we are waiting for hydrogen cars to be ready for mass adoption.

I suspect what (if anything) will spur the mass adoption of hydrogen cars will be advances in renewable technology allowing individual homes to have their own personal filling stations which have no cost after the initial capital investment. Having no ongoing cost for fuel would be a huge incentive for automakers to build and consumers to buy hydrogen cars.

6:43 am, August 21, 2004  
Blogger Stumbling Bumbler said...


It may be that cleaner coal (perhaps that is the proper term for it, though I'm open to suggestions) is the answer. I like nuclear power, I guess, because if done properly, it really is safe and cleaner than coal could ever be. Obviously, new research could change this in any way, which is why I don't think all are eggs should be in one basket in any case.

2:51 am, August 22, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Jan Lundberg of Culture Change in California. My first reaction to reading about Japan's involvement with nuclear power, what with accidents and for chrisakes two atom bomb blasts on their cities, is that people are stupid.
My next thought was, after seeing Jame's openness to nuclear power, is that he has the typical "gotta have energy" attitude of modern consumers and entrenched interests. It's true that both sides of the "debate" (as if 240,000 years' half life of plutonium is just a debating point) have obscured the whole issue, but both sides are also guilty of imagining a need and justification for energy to power machines and processes that are simply part of the gross entropy onslaught that is going on prior to general collapse.
For more on energy, particularly in Britain, read The Ecologist magazine's new issue which contains something I submitted as an article but may have been turned into a letter.
Good luck to us all,
Jan Lundberg
Culture Change Media
Berkeley, California

1:36 pm, August 23, 2004  
Blogger James said...


My "openness" to nuclear energy is up for debate. I've been criticised on other blogs for not being open enough.

As to my typical "gotta have energy" attitude, this is a reflection of what I think is possible in today's society rather than my personal values. As George Monbiot recently commented "people have never rioted for austerity". There are many voices arguing for us to consume a lot less, equally there are many voices encouraging us to consume more - particularly from the most economically and politically powerful. If the majority are set on consuming ever more then the only way this can be sustainable (in energy terms) is that the energy that powers this consumption is clean and renewable. Therefore my belief that "we gotta have energy" is based on reality (as I perceive it) rather than any normative ideals.

2:29 pm, August 23, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your logic is great but then falls apart:
"the remainder of the power will need to come from
somewhere... coal generates co2. Some environmentalists think we would be better off therefore with the nuclear option."

You got to question both points;

(1) The power has to come from somewhere? For what, pray tell? Needless refrigerators? If you study our website you will understand that the end of the petroleum-driven economy will mean no more consumer infrastructure.

(2) There is no need to fall for a game of choice as if can only choose full energy by either one means or another. Any child would say "Neither!" I'm a dreamer and a child.

Jan Lundberg
Culture Change Media
Berkeley, California

2:35 am, August 25, 2004  
Blogger j&c said...

I agree with James (post of 3:32pm) in talking about the role of coal and renewables in a distributed grid system. In this system, the coal plants could supply the base load and the renewables the peak load.

One advantage of micro-coal plants is that they have better potential for co-generation with their neighbors. This would increase the effective efficiency of the plant. Another is that step-down and transmission losses would be minimized.

I also wanted to respond to one of the comments which asked about the energy inputs compared to the energy outputs of nuclear energy. There is a study by the University of Wisconsin that gives some answers. It determines that the ratio of energy produced over the energy required is about 16. This is assuming centrifugal enrichment and an active life of 40 years. is also a related study on building-integrated photovoltaics which determines the ratio to be about 6. This is assuming a location in Colorado, and a conversion efficiency of 6%. They do state that under better conditions, PV can achieve ratios of up to 22. blog!

11:29 pm, August 27, 2004  

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