Archive for the ‘Nuclear Matters’ Category

What do you do with an old nuclear reactor?

September 11, 2014
To search for tiny additional additional amounts of radiation you first need to screen out the normal level of radioactive background.

To search for additional amounts of radiation in the scrap from a nuclear power station you first need to screen out the normal level of radioactive background. To do this you must build a ‘chamber’ using special, non-radioactive bricks.

I find myself in the Hotel Opera, Prague this rainy Thursday evening, tired after having spent a fascinating day at the Czech Centre for Nuclear Research UJV Rez.

There I saw one outcome of a European collaboration (called MetroRWM) designed to answer just one of the difficult questions that arises when one needs to take apart an old nuclear power station. This is something Europe will need to become good at in the near future.

This didn’t concern the highly-radioactive parts of the power station: that’s another story.

This concerned the 99% of a nuclear power station which is no more radioactive than a normal power station.

What should happen is that this material should join the normal scrap system and be re-used.

However, the understandable surplus of precaution that surrounds nuclear matters will prevent this, unless every single bucket load of concrete or scrap metal can be verified to have a level of activity less than a specified standard.

The collaboration based at UJV Rez have built an apparatus to do just that. And most importantly, they have proved that it works i.e. that tiny hot-spots on the inside of pipes can be detected quickly and reliably.

Here is how it works.

To detect the tiny levels of radiation potentially coming from hidden radioactive particles, the apparatus uses ultra-sensitive radiation detectors.

However these detectors are useless if they are not shielded because our normal environment contains too much radioactive material. So the first step is to shield the detectors.

The low radiation chamber at UJV Rez At teh far end you can see a fork lift truck loading a pallet which will travel through teh chamber and emerge at this end.

The low-background chamber at UJV Rez At the far end you can see a fork lift truck has just loaded a pallet which will travel through the chamber and emerge at this end. The doors at this end are currently closed.

The UJV team did this by building a ‘room’ using a special type of brick which is almost as good as lead at keeping out radiation, but much cheaper, much lighter, and much easier to work with. Using this they lowered the level of radiation inside to just 1% of the background radiation.

The sensitive radiation detectors can be seen inside the room as the doors open to allow the entry of test pallet.

The two ultra-sensitive radiation detectors can be seen inside the shielded room as the doors open to allow the entry of test pallet.

They then built a system for loading pallets of material on a conveyor at one end, and drawing it through the shielded room to check the radioactivity in all parts of the pallet. The measurement took about 5 minutes, and after this the pallet emerged from the other end (Video below).

The key questions are:

  • How do you ensure that ‘not detecting something’ means that there is none there?
  • Could some activity slip through if it were shielded by some gravel, or steel piping?
  • Could it slip through if it was in the bottom corner of the pallet?

To answer these questions the UJV team, in collaboration with scientists across Europe, created samples that simulated many of these possible scenarios.

Pallets of 'radioactive' waste

Pallets of ‘radioactive’ waste. These pallets are a standard size, but there thickness is determined by the need to be sure any radioactivity trapped inside can be detected. The pallets above have been made very slightly more radioactive than the background.

One of their clever ways of testing the machine was to create samples of known radioactivity and place them inside hollow steel balls (actually petanque balls!).

A colleague showing a very low level sample of known activity coudl be place inside a hollow steel ball,simulating radiation trapped inside steel pipes.

A colleague showing a very low level sample of known activity which can be placed inside a hollow steel ball,simulating radiation trapped inside steel pipes.

The machine could then search for the activity when the balls were arranged in many different ways.

A pallet filled with steel balls, some of which have radioactive samples of known activty concealed inside.

A pallet filled with steel balls, some of which have radioactive samples of known activity concealed inside.

The aim of all this effort is that at the end of the day, scrap material like that in the picture below can be rapidly screened on-site and sent to be recycled in the confidence that no hazard will ensue at any time in the future no matter how this material is treated.

The aim of the system is to screen very diverse scrap such these old pipes and ducts.

The aim of the system is to screen very diverse scrap such these old pipes and ducts.

These measurements are not easy – but this work really impressed me.

Why headlines matter

July 22, 2014

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

President stabs woman through heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.

P.S. (A blog is not a newspaper article, but for the sake of accuracy, I edited the text in red on Tuesday 5th August 2014)


  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

Best wishes,

Thom Davies

Nuclear Nonsense in The Independent

April 28, 2014

Can you spot the difference between the two headlines below?

Two headlines for the same independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine

Two headlines for the same Independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine. The first one claims there are ‘cemetaries the size of cities’: this is not true.

That’s right: The first shocking headline claims the existence of’cemeteries the size of cities’. The implication is clear: that vast numbers of people have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

This was not my understanding, and  I was so shocked by this claim that I tweeted the author: you can read our conversation below:

weets exchanged with Thom Davies. I have no idea if this was personal or public conversation - twitter is like that!

Tweets exchanged with Thom Davies: Thom didn’t reply to my last question. t have no idea if this was personal or public conversation – twitter is like that!

After this exchange I thought I would re-read the article and was surprised to find that the headline had changed. Indeed, I wondered if I had been mistaken in what I had seen, but fortunately I had left a browser window open and was able capture an image of the earlier page.

So what have we learned?

Firstly we learn that there are no ‘cemeteries the size of cities’ containing the unacknowledged dead from Chernobyl.

Secondly we learn that despite the absence of ‘cemeteries the size of cities’, the Chernobyl disaster was just that: an ongoing disaster played out in the lives of poor people trying to earn a living.

The ‘point’ of the article was probably to draw attention to their plight and to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK. However by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?

And finally we learn that The Independent is continuing its splendid tradition of nonsense front page ‘scare’ stories. They have sadly taken down their front page story from  Sunday 20th January 2008.

That story began routinely reporting results of an unrefereed conference article which claimed that mobile phone radiation affected the sleep of a cohort of people studied. Scratching around for supporting evidence they wrote:

It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.

I would like to finish by saying that ‘you can’t make this stuff up’. Except that The Independent can. And continues to do so.

Do we really want lower energy prices?

October 31, 2013
Graph from the Daily Mail, 16th August 2013. It shows that increases in prices of electricity has resulted in a reduction in consumption. The question is

Graph from the Daily Mail, 16th August 2013. It shows that increases in prices of electricity has resulted in a reduction in consumption. The question is this: “Is this a good thing, a bad thing or just an ‘obviously true’ thing?”

The gist of news stories about our energy supply in the last few weeks is that energy – electricity and gas – is ‘too expensive’. However I disagree: I think that energy is not just ‘too cheap’, it is much too cheap. Let me explain.

Cheap energy feels great. When energy is cheap, poor people can keep warm in winter: in the vernacular of the press, they can heat and eat. And importantly they don’t worry about their fuel bills which makes them both warm and happy. Likewise transport becomes cheaper, and everything that we manufacture or grow becomes cheaper to produce and move – and so we make more things and sell more things to people who are not using their money to pay fuel bills. So the economy grows, and we all – on average – benefit.

However there are two problems with cheap energy. Firstly  when energy is cheap we use more of it. And then we spend less on things which helps us reduce energy consumption. For example, if energy is cheap it makes less sense to insulate houses well. Then when energy prices do rise, we will find ourselves doubly disadvantaged. The cause of this expected rise is not to do with the environment but simply that many more people on the planet want to use the finite amount of coal and gas to which we have access. Of course, if we took advantage of cheap energy to increase our investment in energy-saving measures then that would make sense: but sadly that is the opposite of what happens.

The second problem is that cheap energy is dirty energy. Cheap electricity comes from coal and gas and is associated with emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous post, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is phenomenal and rising year on year. To the best of our knowledge and understanding, it has, in our lifetimes, changed the climate of the planet and we expect the effects to increase over the coming decades. This effect is irreversible. Energy sources which don’t cause this pollution are all much more difficult in one way or another than burning fossil fuels. In other words, energy produced sustainably is more expensive.

So cheap energy feels good, makes everyone happy (except me), and gives rise to economic growth. However, it causes us to reduce investment in energy-saving measures and makes sustainable energy generation uneconomic. It also makes the effects of Global Warming – whatever they turn out to be – worse.

So what can we do? The only realistic way to reduce energy consumption is to increase the price of energy – see the graph at the head of the page. This makes sense in the long term, but results in suffering in the short term. Is it still possible to imagine a United Kingdom in which some sense of social justice could ameliorate the effects of increasing energy prices? I would like to think it is, but I am not sure.

Hinkley C: Is it a good deal?

October 21, 2013
A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong?

A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong? Click for a larger view. Image from AREVA – see link at end of article

So the UK is finally ready to embark on building some new nuclear power stations. I – like most people – don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel a sense of relief that we have finally made a decision.

My thoughts consist of three tangled strands concerning the price of electricity; the wider issue of energy costs; and the barely mentioned issue of carbon dioxide emissions. For this evening, let’s just look at the costs.

The power station, planned to begin operating in 10 years time in 2023, consists of two massive plants each generating 1.6 GW of electricity. The build cost is estimated to be £16 billion  which French and Chinese government-owned companies will invest. Yes, this really is an investment backed by foreign governments.

The ‘strike price’ is the guaranteed minimum selling price of electricity generated by the stations and the figure agreed with the government is £92.50 per MWh – with the possibility that the figure will drop slightly if further reactors are built. This is equivalent to 9.25 pence per kWh – the electricity units on our electricity bills.

If the plants operate for 90% of time generating 3.2 GW of electricity then the guaranteed minimum income for the plant is £2.3 billion per year. Subtracting the operational costs – typically relatively low for nuclear plant – then after 10 years of no income and substantial risk of construction problems and delays, the operators should generate around 10% per annum return on their investment for 35 years.

Is the ‘strike price’ right? Well I obviously don’t know, but it is interesting to compare it with the current wholesale price of electricity which is quoted to be around  £55 per MWh. This price is dominated by the price of coal  which (as I write) is generating 43% of the UK’s electricity. Coal is not in short supply worldwide but it does emit lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: nearly 1 tonne for every MWh of electricity produced.

The guaranteed  price of offshore wind power is currently £155 per MWh, although this will fall to £135 by 2018. Onshore wind is currently guaranteed £100 per MWh, falling to £95 in 2018, with large solar farms getting £125 per MWh, due to fall to £110 per MWh by 2018.

I am not an economist, but in this context £92.50 per MWh doesn’t seem a crazy price for electricity which has very low associated carbon dioxide emissions. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best possible thing we could do. But it is probably not the worst either.


New Nuclear?

April 3, 2013
Tony Blair with the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the background. Basically there has been no progress on the of re-building nuclear plants  since 2004.

Tony Blair (remember him?) with the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the background. Basically there has been no progress on the of building of new nuclear plants since 2004. (Image from The Guardian)

When I began Protons for Breakfast back in September 2004, one of the big questions we looked at was whether the UK would actually get around to commissioning new nuclear power stations. In that first presentation I quoted an article from the Daily Telegraph (11th July 2004)

“…even if the next administration decides in 2006 to build new nuclear stations, the planning and construction process means that new plants could not come on line until 2015 at the earliest.

I also quoted the then prime minister, Tony Blair.

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…”*

As we end the 17th presentation of the course in April 2013, we are still asking exactly the same question. If we had made a decision back in 2006, then we would now be just a year or two away from switching on perhaps 3 GW low-carbon electricity generation.

Back then it seemed as though the British Government would make the choice. Now it seems the choice lies with a company (EDF) owned by the French government, who will assess our offer of subsidy to see if it suits them. However did we get here?

The reason has to do with the uniquely capital-intensive nature of nuclear power and the essentially uninsurable nature of its risks.

We can build up wind farms, one rotor at a time with each rotor costing only a few million. Private capital can do this. We can build up solar power in the same way.

Conventional coal and gas power plants costing on the order of 1 billion pounds and with a well-understood lifetime cost can just about be built by private capital.

But putting up on the order of 10 billion pounds for which there will be no return on investment for a clear decade at best, requires a rock solid guarantee of a return on investment which only governments can provide. At the moment it looks like the subsidy for the first station might guarantee a price as high as £0.10p per kWh for the next 20 or 30 years.

EDF are perfectly reasonable in asking for this subsidy. Our weak position as a country is because of decades of under investment in the massive costs of generating and distributing electricity. There is no reason to think that ‘market forces’ will drive the level of investment required – only governments can do this.

Now you may think that we shouldn’t build any new nuclear power stations. This is a fair point, and we could discuss it at leisure. However, it really does feel like a matter of national shame that we can’t even make up our minds one way or the other and just get on with it.

* 🙂 Actually Macbeth Act 1 Scene 7


March 30, 2013
The Ratio of the Energy Returned divided by the Energy Invested in producing electricity. The Green bars are global estimates and the purple bars apply to the US. There is considerable uncertainty in the numbers

The Ratio of the Energy Returned divided by the Energy Invested in producing electricity. The Green bars are global estimates and the purple bars apply to the US. There is considerable uncertainty in all the numbers.

How should we decide on the mix of technologies to use to generate electricity? There are pros and cons for all the choices.

  • Coal is cheap but emits carbon dioxide.
  • Gas is a bit more expensive but emits 50%  less carbon dioxide.
  • Nuclear requires eye-watering up-front investment but is low carbon.
  • Wind energy is intermittent but sustainable

So it is interesting to make quantitative comparisons between the differing technologies. We have many choices in comparing parameters. Initial costs; running costs;  immunity to world fuel prices; sustainability – the list goes on.

One interesting choice is EROEI: the Energy Return on Energy Invested. It is the answer to the sum:

EROEI = Useful energy produced ÷ Energy invested

So for example, if I use one unit of energy to dig coal from the ground, ship it around the world,  and then burn it to power a steam turbine and make electricity, how many units of electrical energy do I generate?

This is a simple question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. For example, one would obviously consider the energy used in shipping the coal. But what about the energy used in building the ship? Or some fraction of it? Using standardised rules one can produce estimates of EROEI and the results – in a chart at the top of the article are interesting.

Several things struck me about this chart

  • First there is massive discrepancy between world-wide coal (18) and US coal (80). This is presumably because of the ease of extraction of US coal, and the short distance from mines to coal-powered  electricity-generating plant. The large numbers in each case help explain the popularity of coal in generating electricity both world-wide and in the US. The energy return of course takes no account for energy which might be needed to cope with the consequences of the massive carbon dioxide emissions, or the appalling environmental legacy of coal mines.
  • Second is the number for wind (20 or 18) – which is more-or less the same as coal. At Protons for Breakfast many people ask whether in energy terms wind power is ‘worth it’. The answer from these studies is a definite ‘Yes’. However I suspect that the time to reap this return on investment may be longer which affects the financial return on investment.
  • On reflection I was not surprised that hydroelectricity represents the best EROEI, but of course this does not cover the environmental costs of such schemes.
  • The low value for gas (7 or 10) surprised me. I suppose this reflects the costs of discovery, transport, storage and delivery.
  • And finally the numbers for solar energy more or less match the numbers for nuclear energy. These are not specific to the UK and so the same numbers are unlikely to hold here. However I was surprised at the low number for nuclear power and the relatively high value of Solar Photovoltaic generation.

EROEI is not a magic number – but it is a fundamental number. If this number is below unity, then in energy terms the activity makes no sense. And if the number is close to unity, then the activity is barely worthwhile unless there is some other benefit. Scientific American suggest that activities where the EROEI is below 5 represent a borderline below which electricity -generating technologies are no longer worthwhile. It is interesting that several current technologies – including nuclear power –  come close to that suggested border.


Mason Inman: Scientific American 2013: This contains lots of links to his sources – but many of these are behind pay walls 😦

Wikipedia EROEI  This contains lots of links to sources – but many of these are behind pay walls as well 😦

A message from Mars

August 12, 2012
Curiosity on Mars looking at the rim of Gale Crater

Curiosity on Mars looking at the rim of Gale Crater. Picture from NASA.

The pictures from Mars take my breath away. I am lost for words to describe the bravado and brilliance of the engineers and scientists who placed this robotic laboratory so gently onto the surface of Mars.

NASA should be very proud. Americans should be proud too: they paid for it -around $10 per head. And we should all reflect on just what human beings can achieve when we put our minds to something.

The brilliantly-conceived mission has revived talk about a possible manned mission to Mars. And I have even heard people talk again about the possibility of colonising the Moon or Mars. While such extrapolations are understandable I think it is important  to understand that human beings cannot live anywhere except planet Earth.

This is not fundamentally true. It is conceivable that we could create ‘bubbles’ of survivability far distant from the Earth. Overlooking the many challenges (e.g. the increased radiation doses; the atrophy of muscles in reduced gravity; and the creation of a stable microbial population etc.), I will concede that it  is possible that we could create ‘bio domes’ in which relatively large groups could live for extended periods away from the surface of Earth. But there is one problem that any colonists will not easily overcome: energy.

Curiosity is nuclear-powered which will allow it to operate through the Martian winter and at night when solar power is weak. Our putative colony might be nuclear-powered too, but for how long? Let’s say (optimistically) that the initial colonists brought with them enough nuclear power to last a century. In that century the colonists would undoubtedly achieve great things. But after the nuclear power station was shut down, what would they do? It is unlikely that a colony could develop the capability to build and fuel a new nuclear power station in just a century. Even if they struck oil on Mars – and refined hydrocarbons flowed easily from the rock – they would be of little use because there is no oxygen in the atmosphere with which to burn the fuel. Ultimately, the colonist’s engineers would find that the only sustainable method of generating energy was solar power.

Back on planet Earth we are in a similar position to our putative Mars colonists. Using fossil fuels we have achieved great things. But our use of fossil fuels is now affecting the flow of energy on and off the planet. Worryingly, the evidence that this is happening is becoming irrefutable. We could use nuclear power for a century or two. But if we want to replace all current energy use with a sustainable source then we have no choice: we need to capture 0.01% of the solar energy which reaches Earth’s surface. Yes. We need just one ten-thousandth part of the 123 000 000 000 000 000 watts of solar energy that constantly warms the Earth’s surface.

Earth is a ‘bio-dome’ driven by solar power. The flow of energy on and off our planet allows plants to thrive – and they provide us with the food and resources we need to live from day-to-day. It is the only place in the Universe where humans can live sustainably. If we want to avoid disturbing the climate that creates this home to which we are uniquely adapted, then we need a truly sustainable energy source. And there is only one

If our planet’s engineers and scientists can put the Curiosity rover onto Mars, and if taxpayers can fund this noble mission, then surely we can collectively decide to live sustainably on Earth and ask our scientists and engineers to make it possible. Can’t we?


Earth. The only place in the Universe in which human beings can live. But can we live here sustainably? Picture from Apollo 17 courtesy of NASA.

Recognising the future when we see it

May 17, 2012
The future: Just how different will it be? Picture Copyright DIsney

The future: Just how different will it be? Picture Copyright Disney

Fifty years ago, when I was 2 years old, the Scientific American wrote:

The possibility of applying machines of the digital-computer type to the problem of information retrieval has spurred an increasing number of workers. If we could perfect an information retrieval machine, the wisdom accumulated in the libraries of the world would be more readily available.

And during my lifetime, the seemingly unfeasible challenge of ‘perfecting an information retrieval machine’ has been solved. In other words, 50 years ago someone spotted the possibility that already existing trends could transform the world. And it happened.

I was reminded of this by an optimistic TED talk by Amory Lovins on how we can continue to live advanced lifestyles, but perfectly sustainably. He asserted that by 2050, the USA could transform its energy outlook, living sustainably, reducing carbon emissions by 80%, and all without any new inventions.

Now 2050 is a year I could conceivably live to see. I had planned to die in 2040, but if things are looking as good as Mr. Lovins implies I might stick around. His presentation style is dull, but the prospect he outlined seems exciting, at least as realistic, and much more desirable than that foreseen by Tim Jackson in his vision of a sustainable future.

The talk is filled with details but there are two basic themes: transportation – which currently is based around oil – and electricity supply – which currently is based around coal and gas. He envisages that both fields will be transformed. Transportation will become primarily based on electric vehicles, with residual use of biofuels by aeroplanes. The electricity for the electric vehicles and much else would be generated by a smart electrical grid  driven by sustainable technology, but with some residual use of gas.

His basic narrative is as follows:

  • Currently 67% of fuel use is used to move the car, not its contents. When carbon-fibre composites replace steel in the construction of cars, then the weight savings will allow smaller engines, which will require lighter bodies and a virtuous circle will drive big fuel savings and make electric cars economical. Eventually the change would happen for lorries and buses. Various policies and trends would drive the elimination of petrol as a fuel.
    • ‘Feebates’ would tax older cars and subsidise newer more efficient ones.
    • Road pricing would reduce congestion
    • Alternative communities – ride sharing – would use cars more efficiently.
    • Smart growth – building houses near places of work and shopping – reduce the need for car travel.
    • Traffic management efficiency will reduces stops and starts.
  • As a result of all these changes, ‘peak oil’ will come in demand not supply.
  • At the same time demand for electricity would fall:
    • Referring to a retrofit of the windows in the Empire State Building, he cites massive improvements in the use of heating and cooling
    • 60% of energy is used to run motors, and he says 32 specific improvements will reduce this load
    • Plant re-designs using fatter pipes and smaller pumps save energy and capital costs.
  • And renewable costs would fall
    • Germany has more solar workers that the US has steel workers
    • For each of the last 4 years half of new capacity has been renewable and total installed capacity now exceeds nuclear (60 GW). This much renewable power generation can be built every year.
    • Replace coal-fired stations with gas-fired stations.
    • Use a distributed grid model with linked micro-grids.
    • Reward utility companies for reducing people’s bills not selling them more electricity.

Now there are any number of holes that can be picked in this narrative. Will electric cars really take off? Do we even know how to mass produce carbon fibre products? Do we have enough lithium on Earth to build all those batteries? And so on. That is not the point.

  • Firstly it is good to hear any narrative which explains how, starting where we are now, we can make things better without having to beat ourselves up about bad we have all been.
  • Secondly, the USA that Mr. Lovins anticipates in 2050 is quite different to that which exists today. ‘Alternative’ communities and ‘building houses near to where people work’ while mundane ideas in themselves, represent significant departures from historical trends. These social changes are just as radical as the technological changes upon which he dwells.
  • And finally, the details don’t matter. The person who wrote the words at the head of the article might have envisioned – as the head of IBM was alleged to have done – that there might be a need for as many as 5 computers world-wide. The idea was correct, but the implementation was radically – and unimaginably – different.

My friend Ed – aneasthetised  by the dullness of the talk – asked me: is this really possible? And the answer is, ‘Yes, it is possible. But it is far from inevitable’. As you might imagine, Shell and BP have a more conventional view of how things will develop.

Tsunami sinks UK nuclear revival

April 3, 2012
Part of the meltdown sequence at the Fukushima Reactor. Follow the link in the text for a reminder of what actually happened.

Part of the meltdown sequence at Fukushima. Follow the link in the text for a reminder of what actually happened.

One year on, the consequences of the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant are becoming clearer. Aside from the distress to the displaced people who used to live around the plant, the disaster has also damaged the possibility of a revival of nuclear-powered electricity generation in the UK . Some consider the setback is temporary, and indeed it may be. But in my opinion, the setback will prove fatal.

There are two reasons for my belief. Firstly, the meltdown sequence was completely understood and preventable. Secondly the world has become sceptical about the financial cost of nuclear power.

  • Fukushima was a ‘loss of coolant’  (LOC) accident. Despite years of design work, no reactors currently under construction world-wide are immune to a similar LOC accident. The different designs have multiple levels of back-up and different degrees of passive cooling capability, but none of the designs are unconditionally stable against meltdown. There is no reason why nuclear power stations can not be built which are unconditionally incapable of meltdown. But we have chosen not to build them. Why would we do anything so unwise?
  • Because building an unconditionally-safe nuclear reactor requires ‘research’. Unfortunately over many decades, the nuclear industry in the UK has (collectively) lost all credibility when it comes to promising the results of ‘research’. When that research was funded by taxpayers it could continue for decades with little to show. The research had to funded by the state because the level risk of the research is beyond even the largest industrial companies. Now that large portions of the industry are privatised, their only viable business option is to promise to build something they have already built and to make relatively minor modifications. These designs are what is on offer to the UK now by the consortia detailed at the end of this article.

Some might point out the damage routinely caused by coal-burning world-wide is dramatically worse than a nuclear accident. I agree! In addition to the greenhouse gas issue, coal-burning causes terrible air pollution, shortening the lives of millions. Also radioactive emissions from coal plants are much larger than those from nuclear plants. And coal-mining destroys the environment on an almost inconceivable scale, and kills hundreds of miners every year. This is all true. But when a coal-fired power station explodes, it cannot cause the evacuation of an entire region for decades. In my view in the UK at least, it is no longer publicly acceptable for a technology to have even that possibility.

So what is going to happen? Well obviously I don’t know.

  • In the UK, the recent withdrawal of Eon and RWE reflects the delicacy of investment decisions. This leaves only French and French/Spanish consortia (see appendix below for details). Is it just me, or is it a bid odd to have nuclear power stations in the UK owned and run by French state-owned company? In any case, I predict that over the coming year they too will withdraw, blaming either a lack of capital or a lack of political support. The UK government promises that it will not subsidise nuclear power. However, without government backing, no company can face the uninsurable losses associated with a meltdown, even one like Fukushima in which no one was directly harmed.
  • World wide,  it seems likely that more vigorous industrial countries, particularly China, will develop new nuclear technology which is intrinsically incapable of meltdown. And in coming decades they may well export it back to us.
Altogether, this leaves the UK in an even tighter energy squeeze than previously envisaged. The short-term solution would be to invest urgently in gas-fired power stations which emit considerably less carbon dioxide than the coal-fired stations we rely on now. In the longer term it makes the considerable challenges of building a truly sustainable energy supply seem quite attractive.


Appendix:  Details of the UK nuclear consortia from the Financial Times website

EDF/Centrica – Hinkley and Sizewell: EDF Energy paid £12.5bn to buy British Energy, the country’s nuclear generator, in 2008. Together with Centrica, which owns a 20 per cent stake, the company plans to build Britain’s first new reactor at Hinkley Point by 2019. Four new reactors are planned, two at Hinkley Point and two at Sizewell, with a total generation capacity of 6.4GW. France’s Areva will provide its EPR reactor.

Horizon – Wylfa and Oldbury: German utilities Eon and RWE yesterday put Horizon up for sale citing financial constraints, notably in the wake of Germany’s decision to abandon atomic power. The groups had planned to build reactors with generating capacity of at least 6GW at Wylfa and Oldbury. The consortium had been close to choosing the reactor designer, with Areva’s EPR and Toshiba’s Westinghouse AP1000 in the running.

NuGen – Moorside near Sellafield: GDF Suez of France and Spain’s Iberdrola each own half of this venture. Scottish and Southern Energy, a third partner, pulled out last year citing a decision to focus more on renewable energy. The partners plan to develop 3.6GW of power at their Moorside site close to Sellafield in west Cumbria. No design has been chosen yet.

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