Bitching Brew

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Nuclear Power?

For a long time, I was vehemently opposed to nuclear power. Foremost in my mind were the safety risks, second the problems of waste storage and plant decommissioning, and somewhere in the mix were cost concerns. Never mind Chernobyl - the negative publicity surrounding Sellafield was a big influence on my thinking, and the opinions of most people on this island. For those of you who don't know, Sellafield is a large nuclear park on the Cumbrian coast (England). It's notorious for: (a) pumping large quantities of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, and (b), a serious fire in one of the reactors, in 1957. At the time of the fire, the facility was known as Windscale; it was renamed Sellafield in 1971. These two issues have induced extreme opposition to nuclear energy among the Irish.

Despite all this, over the last 18 months or so, my opposition to nuclear energy has gradually waned. I admit that nuclear fission is still an unattractive option. However, I've come to realise that we need to supplement (and eventually replace?) our current fossil-fuel based energy sources. Oil, gas, coal and peat are all non-renewable resources. There's a lot of debate about "peak oil": many argue it has already occurred, while others disagree, some arguing there may be multiple peaks; all accept that petroleum supplies are finite. Here's a couple of opposing views on the topic: this from MIT Technology Review, and this critical article by Mark Brandly.

Realistically, we're going to be burning fossil fuels for many decades to come. While today we're grossly dependent on them, the hope is that in time they'll form a sensible part of our energy mix, in conjunction with other sources. The other sources, bluntly, are renewables and nuclear. Does anyone seriously think renewables (wind, solar, tidal, etc.) can provide, say, 60% of our energy needs in the foreseeable future? It's true that certain regions may be able to derive great benefit from wind, others from tidal, still more from solar. The mix in each region will be different, determined by climate and topography. Alternative power sources will always be needed though - renewables' energy output fluctuates massively according to the prevailing weather.

I think we're going to need nuclear energy, unpalatable as it sounds to many people. Like other sources, it will have to make up a part of our energy basket. With five decades of experience behind us, it has become quite safe. The new pebble-bed reactors appear to be our best bet in that regard. Look here and here for some champions and critics, respectively.

There are a lot of questions I haven't touched on in this piece. Think of it more as a jumping-off point. I decided to write something about nuclear energy after reading this article in yesterday's Guardian. Interesting piece. I liked the following quote about energy conservation:

One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.


It's a salient point. Not only do we need to find new energy sources, we need to improve energy efficiency and develop mechanisms for storing large quantities of electricity. The storage problem merits an article of its own, by the way.

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