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Emissions reduction without tears

In recent weeks, I have been very critical of both the costs and feasibility of relying on renewable energy, particularly when it comes to the enormous task of converting effectively all land-based energy use to electricity. Normally, such a change would be driven by a quantum leap in technology (the distribution of first gas then electricity direct to individual homes) or economics (in a more limited way, the ‘dash for gas’ in the 1990s). The ‘rush for renewables’ on the other hand, is driven entirely by government policy on reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Targets have been set for renewables – which means wind and solar at present, plus burning imported wood pellets in lieu of coal – because conceptually they are clean and sustainable while generating no direct emissions of CO2 (none of which applies to wood-burning). However, because wind and other forms of ‘free’ energy are diffuse, they need expensive infrastructure to capture them, and because they rely on natural phenomena, they are intermittent and therefore non-despatchable.

All this means that they need essentially equivalent backup capacity and can realistically only fulfil a proportion of overall energy needs. This is one reason why another option preferred by policymakers is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which theoretically allows as much coal or gas as we like to be used as a fuel, with the resulting CO2 captured and buried.

The main problem is that, with the exception of one or two very specific projects, government-funded attempts to encourage CCS projects have ended in failure. The other issue is that net energy requirements would rise substantially to fuel the capture and transfer of carbon dioxide. Suffice it to say that this is not a technology that is likely ever to make a real contribution to emissions reduction.

Some people would argue that, apart from the waste of money (paid ultimately by consumers and taxpayers) the failure of these favoured technologies to produce the transformation envisaged doesn’t matter. In their view, trying to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is better done once we have a viable way to do it. If you take this view, then we also have to factor in the opportunity cost of going down what is currently essentially a blind alley. The money devoted to making electricity supply more expensive could be used in a whole host of much better ways.

If, on the other hand, you believe that drastic emissions reduction as envisaged by the IPCC in general and the Climate Change Act in particular are either essential or a justified precaution, you should be concerned that the current focus on renewable energy is not the way to meet the targets.

Unfortunately, there is rarely a meeting of minds between these two schools of thought, but there is a way forward that should be attractive to both groups is they are open-minded: nuclear energy. Despite the knee jerk opposition from some groups, nuclear fission has proven to be the only safe and reliable generation technology that does not produce CO2 in the process. Chernobyl – almost a worst-case scenario – resulted in the deaths of 47 workers and nine children with thyroid cancer, while wildlife has continued to thrive in the exclusion zone around the entombed reactor. This loss of life is tragic, but small in comparison to the ongoing deaths from coal mining or other industrial accidents. In the case of Fukushima, there have been no radiation-linked deaths, despite the high death toll from the tsunami itself.

While never going to be ‘too cheap to meter’ as former prime minister Harold Wilson unwisely said, nuclear power plants generate electricity at a very competitive price, which is significantly lower than wind when the cost of backup is taken into account. Fuel costs are very low, but there remains the difficulty of high capital cost. This is one of the reasons why the price agreed with EDF for electricity from their planned HInkley Point C plant is £92.50/MWh. This is unnecessarily high, but still good value for a reliable supply of electricity for half a century or more. Nevertheless, the price has been criticised by the renewables industry, whose plants would increase the cost of electricity to the consumer to higher levels still.

Another reason why the price negotiated with EDF was so high is that there are rather few companies in a position to get funding for nuclear new build at present. The planned closure of German reactors and the shrinking of the French fleet to make way for renewables have put potential suppliers in a very difficult commercial position. This has been exacerbated by severe cost and time overruns on new reactors in Finland and France, caused in part by the need to meet revised safety standards after construction had started.

One of the contributory factors to the very high capital cost are the exceptionally demanding standards on release of radiation. In the real world, it is rarely possible to relax safety standards, but the current ones are based on there being no safe dose for exposure, whereas the strong evidence is that the body copes very well with minor radiation damage (including from solar radiation) on a daily basis.

But if the will is there, the current commercial difficulties are not insurmountable. Once there is an order book, construction costs begin to come down as reactors are built to a standard design. There is also a good argument for building small modular reactors (SMRs) that could be factory assembled and delivered ready for commissioning. Although economies of scale would be lost, SMRs could also be used for urban combined heat and power schemes and production line techniques would bring their cost down.

The difficulties are well worth overcoming. Uranium is plentiful and much of the ‘waste’ currently generated represents additional fuel for a different fuel cycle. Current pressurised water and boiling water designs are not the only ones; molten salt-cooled reactors hold a lot of promise. In the longer run, thorium is an even more abundant fissile element that could supply clean electricity for centuries. And fission isn’t the only game in town. Nuclear fusion continues to be developed using various approaches; not just the planned ITER tokamak. Don’t hold your breath, but at some stage commercialisation may no longer be 30 years away.

Some more creative thinking is needed. Renewable energy is not able to transform our energy networks in the way envisaged by some, so we need a ‘no regrets’ policy that delivers the emissions reductions prescribed while leaving us with an affordable and reliable energy supply if climate change turns out to be less of a problem than we thought. At the heart of this lies nuclear.