Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peak oil - it's already happened.

Sometimes there seems to be a convergence of unrelated activities, that nevertheless have a greater collective bearing than the sum of their parts. To me, the past seven days demonstrated such a synchronicity between the looming energy and environmental crises as they draw closer.

In the same week as oil prices hit over $90 a barrel, and share prices on both slides of the Atlantic went into freefall, a clarion call to act came from a group of energy experts. The respected German Energy Watch Group published a much needed independent report on our remaining oil reserves (EWG Oil Report). Unlike most other future mapping reports (such as the fair-weather approach of the IEA), this analysis does not rely on unverifiable and unreliable reserve data. Rather the analysis is based primarily on production data. It concludes that world oil production had in fact peaked in 2006.

Production, it says, will start to decline at a rate of several percent per year. By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. So what of it? Well, this steep resource depletion will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame. Crude oil is the most important energy carrier at a global scale. All kinds of transport relies heavily on oil and the future oil availability is of paramount importance as it entails completely different actions by politics, business and individuals. With a 3 - 7% decline per annum, the UK's proposed 4% plug by nuclear by 2025 is woefully inadequate. A matter of too little too late. By my simple reckoning, at the most conservative estimate, we are looking at a 54% decline by 2025, almost 70% by 2030. Peak oil is now they say, but in the UK our government and the energy industry seems to be in denial - what Jeremy Leggett, Solarcentury CEO and former member of the British Government’s Renewables Advisory Board, calls "institutional denial".

Remaining world oil reserves are estimated to be 1,255 Gb (Giga barrel) according to the industry database HIS (2006). For the Energy Watch Group (EWG), however, there are sound reasons to modify these figures for some regions and key countries, leading to a corresponding EWG estimate of 854 Gb. The report concludes that world is at the beginning of a structural change of its economic system, a change that will be triggered by declining fossil fuel supplies and will influence almost all aspects of our daily life. Climate change will also force humankind to change energy consumption patterns by reducing significantly the burning of fossil fuels. Our way of dealing with energy issues will have to change fundamentally.

The point is made that we are now entering a period of transition. A period which will probably has its own rules which are valid only during this phase. Things might happen which we never experienced before and which we may never experience again once this transition period has ended.

Just as oil prices ebb and flow before it's own tsunami breaks, so too do our climate warnings. It was reported that absorption of atmospheric CO2 by the North Atlantic ocean has plunged by half in the last ten years. This of course has major implications: one of the world’s main carbon sinks is, for a reason that scientists can not explain, breaking down. The just released Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4) UNEP report is equally hard hitting in outlook and serves to underline the fact that the world does not face separate crises - the “environmental crisis”, “development crisis”, and “energy crisis”. They are infact all one.

The question is, what sort of framework should be and could be put in place? To that end, I trotted off to hear Jonathon Porritt speak at the RSA . He proffers a workable framework: Capitalism as if the World Matters. Like Jeremy Leggett, he recognises the lack of readiness of governments and industry to engage and suggests that the pending oil crisis will focus minds. He believes that there is a case and an opportunity for capitalism to become sustainable, providing it is also equitable. The environment and society, sustainability and social equity - these are the cornerstones of our future, if we are to have a future. You can listen to what he said here: podcast of Jonathon Porritt at the RSA

And who's going to take up the mantle of this good leadership? At governmental level, in the UK The Environmental Audit Committee has just called for a Climate Minister to have overall responsibility for co-ordinating the Climate Change Programme and a Climate Change and Energy Secretariat, with the duty to provide clear political leadership on climate change. That strikes me as an eminently sensible and vital first step. How long will it be until this is done?

I shall be off to Seville at the end of the week - a 24 hour train journey each way. It should give me ample time to read the newly revised and updated Capitalism as if the World Matters .

  • For other recent podcast interviews with various experts on Peak Oil see David Strahan's short and pithy interviews at
    The Last Oil Shock
  • oil price graph: Cleantech Collective
  • Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    Why I say No To Nuclear

    50 years to the day after the Calder Hall fire at Sellafield (then called Windscale), we find ourselves back at square one. 10 October 1957 was day the world’s first nuclear reactor generating commercial electricity caught fire. Fuel melted, the fuel cans burst, uranium ignited and fission products were released into cooling ducts and ejected out of the cooling chimneys. The plutonium-producing reactor sent clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Fast forward to half a century later; last week there was another explosion. This time it was deliberate. The four 88 meter high cooling towers at Windscale were blown up as part of Sellafield’s decommissioning. In total, 50 years of nuclear capacity in the UK brings with it an additional £90 billion price tag to decommission.

    And so the Windscale legacy lives on. Scientists are still trying to work out how to safely dismantle the chimney-top filter that trapped much of the radioactive smoke 50 years ago. In an ironic twist of fate, 10th October 2007 heralds the closing date of the government’s consultation on their proposed reintroduction of nuclear to the UK.

    You have just today left to have your say on whether you support or oppose a new generation of nuclear plants. The only way you can have your say is by submitting your views online at nuclearpower2007.direct.gov.org. Yes, there were consultation meetings. But no, I could not attend. God knows, I tried.

    As a former employment lawyer, I understand the importance of appropriate procedure and the merits of a properly conducted consultative process. As a British citizen I was entitled to take part, and felt it my duty to do so. For a consultation so important - of a controversial technology that would present a legacy for future generations stretching over many thousand of years – I discovered that it has been remarkably difficult to take part.

    Various meetings were held by the government throughout the country. Seven of them, called Citizen Deliberative Events, took place simultaneously and notification was by random phone book selection |(1000 were invited, 949 attended). There were also 12 Regional Stakeholder Meetings. Representatives from local authorities, business, NGOs and other community-based organisations were invited to attend and share their views. I wanted to attend. I received notification of when the events were taking place 12 – 24 hours prior to each event. But even where I was prepared to travel last minute, the exact locations were not disclosed. They were by invitation only. Me? NFI. Problem was, I am just a concerned citizen, I was not part of an organization so therefore I was precluded from being invited to the Regional stakeholder events, and as I was not randomly selected for the Citizen Delibertative event, that avenue was closed also. There were no events open to the largest stakeholder group of all – the general public.

    The thing is, I really wanted to find out more. But the government seemed unable help me on that too, so off I went to do my own research. And research I did. I have spent many hours pouring over books, data, reports and presentations. I have looked at nuclear of the past and present as well as the only reactor that is currently being built in Europe, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto, Finland (already €700 million over budget, beset with construction problems and now two years behind schedule), to see what lessons may be learned there. I have listened to those who know better than I and I have sought the opinions (for and against) of energy experts. I have looked to see what the alternatives are and whether they are viable. I examined the immediate, mid-term and long-term social, economic and environmental costs. Finally, I looked at the worse case scenario: the possibility and the consequences of yet another reactor explosion – accidental or malicious. It seemed to me that in our current political climate, nuclear power stations are especially vulnerable to terrorist attack. We have after all witnessed how easy it is to fly into skyscrapers.

    In short, I entered into my own period of consultation. As is important during a period of consultation, I remained open-minded. I believe I gave as much if not more time to this issue than I would have, had I had been given the opportunity to attend a government meeting. So I guess, had the consultation process explored the same issues and had I been given the opportunity to enter into the consultation process I would have come to the same conclusions. Maybe you, had you been given the opportunity, would come to the same conclusions too. Maybe not.

    Here are some of the questions I asked and the conclusions I have reached. (If you wish to read my fuller answers to the government consultation, please contact me direct for a copy)

    What is the proposed capacity of new nuclear programme?
    A complete replacement of the current UK’s nuclear reactors, the combined output of 10 GW. This would generate just under 4% of total UK energy needs.

    What are the proposed costs?
    £15 billion is proposed for the construction programme. Inevitably decommissioning costs for a new generation would be substantially more than the current £90 billion price tag. Additional costs include the cost of providing protection against terrorist attack for nuclear plants, and for additional protection of movement – of trains and ships carrying nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. There are the costs that will extend over and above the 40 – 60 year lifespan of the reactors and will continue for thousands of years. These costs will be born by future generations – citizens that will receive no compensating benefit.

    Insurance is an unknown quantity. Currently the industry is only required to pay a small fraction of the cost of insuring fully against claims, and it still remains an unresolved issue as to who would pay in the event of a disaster.Ultimately, new reactors could potentially store up substantial future costs for taxpayers which they will have to accept whether they like it or not, regardless of the potential long-term damage and the associated indirect costs.

    Can it be said that Nuclear is a 'clean' energy solution?
    No. What is often overlooked is the fact that large amounts of fossil fuels are required to mine and refine the uranium needed to run nuclear power reactors, for plant construction, and to transport and store the toxic radioactive waste created by the nuclear process. Furthermore, large amounts of the now banned chlorofluorocarbon gas (CFC) are emitted during the enrichment of uranium. In addition, there is the increasing use of fossil fuel required over the 20+ year lifespan of a reactor plant - as available global supplies of uranium ore declines (like fossil fuel it is a finite resource and in decline), more fossil fuel will be required to extract the ore from less concentrated ore veins and to enrich the remaining poor grades of uranium. Furthermore, current legislation allows each reactor to emit hundreds of thousands of ‘permissible’ curies of radioactive gases and other radioactive elements into the environment every year which are not factored into the equation. Thus, it is arguable that it is not a low carbon solution.

    Is it correct to state that Nuclear would be a ‘home grown’ solution?
    No. A new generation of nuclear power would be dependant on the mining of uranium and plutonium which is not available in the UK. Thus, the essential ingredients will need to be obtained from countries such as Kazhakstan and Russia, which raises issues of security of movement of materials and dependency on potentially politically unstable countries.

    Can safety from accident be guaranteed?
    Where humans are involved, safety can never be fully guaranteed. Calder Hall in 1957 was not an isolated incident. Last year Sellafield was fined half a million pounds after admitting a radioactive leak the size of a lorryload of thallium, and 160 kgs of plutonium from a relatively new Thorpe plant, raIsing concerns that new generations of technology are no safer. Numerous incidents have taken place over the decades, most recently in late July 2006 an accident at Sweden's Forsmark nuclear power station was described as a near-meltdown. Whilst not on the scale of the Three Mile Island (1979) and the Chernobyl (1986) disasters, the memory of those tragedies serve as stark reminders of the potential catastrophic consequences (See also "22 accidents since Chernobyl"). As Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala stated in the Scientific American, September 2006: “Nuclear plants are mutual hostages: the world's least well-run plant can imperil the future of all the others."

    What is the true risk of terrorist attack on any one of our 17 plants?
    Given that terrorism is promoted by our government as a very real threat to the UK, disproportionately this seems to have received the least attention. The online consultation commentary dismisses terrorist concerns in one single paragraph. This is worrying given the high level of concern, a concern that the government has often portrayed terrorism as our greatest threat (or, ironically, second only to climate change in terms of threat). That high level threat must surely extend to the most dangerous of all targets - the destruction of a nuclear plant. After all, as 9/11 clearly demonstrated, it only needs only one aeroplane to fly into a plant to imperil the lives of thousands (if not millions).

    How dangerous are radioactive gases?
    They can be life-threatening. Each cooling pool store tons of solid radioactive waste which contain toxic elements. In the event of a disaster, when released into the atmosphere they pollute the environment and human food chains, giving rise to cancer, leukemia and genetic disease, and ultimately also death to untold numbers of humans, spreading thousands of miles, as Chernobyl so clearly demonstrated.

    Has a solution has yet been found to the problem of disposing of dangerous nuclear waste?
    The only proposal that has been put forward is that the waste be placed in interim storage until a solution is found, much of which will remain dangerous for more than 10,000 years. In short, there is still no solution.

    Are there other alternatives?
    Nuclear power only provides electricity, which accounts for a 4% of the energy mix in the UK and about 3% globally with little prospect of much increase. It does not address the problem of reducing CO2 emissions from space heating and road transport
    Currently Britain's centralised power stations, including nuclear, waste two-thirds of the energy put into them in the form of waste heat that escapes up cooling towers or as cooling water. Industrial sites alone in the UK could provide the potential for enough CHP capacity to deliver the same electricity output as an entire fleet of new nuclear reactors while also meeting those sites' heat needs at the same time. New build gas or coal-fired power stations could all have heat capture, providing both efficiency and energy security. Renewable energy technologies such as geothermal, hydro, tidal, solar, wind are all technologies that do not pollute, are benign, do not attract the same insurance, legacy and terrorist risks.

    Microgeneration has huge potential once legislative restraints are removed, mandatory new-build and existing housing and business stock standards and supportive feed-in tarrifs are put in place.

    Looking globally, there are vast resources of solar in deserts, with Concentrating Solar Power providing safe, benign, zero carbon, and inexhaustible supplies. Only 112 x 112 km of desert could provide the whole of Europe with all it's energy needs. 10 gigawatts of CSP would command €47 billion (£32.56 billion) to build (including €5 billion for the HVDC transmission links, see TRANS-CSP 2006 report) - that's approximately 1/3rd the cost of decommissioning our current 10 gigawatts of nuclear power stations. And with no risk to future generations.

    Such is the abundance of our natural resources such as wind and sun that all the worlds’ energy needs can be fulfilled many times over. This all leads to one inescapably conclusion: I say no to nuclear.

    If you too are concerned about our future energy supplies, then add your say to the government's consultation - it can be as brief or as long as you want (be warned, it took me 7+ hours to read and complete the online consultation document). If short of time why not sign up, log in and just write “As a concerned citizen I say No to Nuclear”. As justification, you can always put a link to this page if you endorse my findings and would like to use them in support of your position. The important thing is to voice your opinion. It’s our future, make sure you have your say. You have until 7pm tonight to do so.