Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Environmentalist's Nuclear Debate: (3) My response

My response to Mark Lynas:

Why is it that you support 4th generation nuclear when Concentrating Solar Power can provide such an enormous slice of the baseload generation required, without any of the political, environmental and social detriment of nuclear?

CSP is mature technology, overnight storage is not a problem, it will be fully commercialised by 2011 - 2012, when (going by current known contracts) 9GW will be online globally, and it is anticipated if expansion continues at a conservative rate of 29% per annum, then 200GW will be online by 2020 (compare with 100GW online for wind as of this year, after 25 years). It's environmentally benign - even positive when you combine it with desalination, fast build (2 - 3 years from granting of licence to grid connection), no high insurance costs, no decommissioning and waste headaches, no trans-border devastation when bombed by an irate terrorist - only 7 years bad luck (and why bother to bomb a bunch of mirrors where each fresnel mirror can now be built and replaced in 3 minutes in any event) ...and even the political will is cranking into action now with the Med Solar Plan (20GW in North Africa by 2020) under the recently endorsed Union for the Mediterranean, the removal of the Feed-in Tariff cap in Spain due later this year (20GW by 2020), another 16GW is expected in other southern sunbelt EU countries, the generous state credits in South West America esp in California (30-50GW by 2020 thanks mainly to Arnie's ambitious targets), the Masdar Project (500MW by 2013), India (generous FIT's for solar put in place earlier this year), China (test plant outside Beijing) etc etc. CSP does not pose an energy security risk; it is not a finite resource that is being threatened (and therefore one that we go to war over). It is dependent on the heat from the sun in the deserts - an abundant resource and, moreover, less than 1% of the world's deserts can give us all our global electricity requirements - so no worries on that front either. We can therefore switch all land-based transport over to clean electricity as well. As for transporting the stuff - easy: High Voltage Direct Current lines (which have been in use since the 1950's), such as the HVDC links that run from the 3 Gorges Dam in China to Guangdong - 2,000 kilometers away - with just 3% losses per 1000 km.

So, why do we not hear more from you guys - the heroes of the environmental world - supporting, lobbying, promoting, fighting, shouting for CSP, rather than announcing your qualified support of nuclear? Shame on you.

If you would like to know more about CSP, check out TREC-UK and for an easy intro: concentratingsolarpower.info.

[table reproduced from CSP v Nuclear, Carbon2Share, Colin Challen's interparliamentary newsletter, July 2008]

The Environmentalist's Nuclear Debate: (2) Mark Lynas

The nuclear debate continues, with that other environmentalist and climate change author of note - Mark Lynas - proffering his position. Last week in the New Statesman he took, as he himself admitted, a rather stronger position than Monbiot: "that increased use of nuclear (an outright competitor to coal as a deliverer of baseload power) is essential to combat climate change." He too qualified his position, but from the point of view of the need for technological advancement. He gave as an example of potential improvement the Integral Fast Reactor (a design of fast breeder plant).

This is what he had to say about the IFR:
1. "It could generate power by burning up nuclear waste leaving only short lived by-products unfit for nuclear bombs (thus could cancel out concerns about nuclear proliferation);
2. the reactor design, is close to “fail-safe”, automatically shutting down if things begin to go wrong, because the safety mechanisms are inherent, and do not depend on human or mechanical intervention.
3. Lynas admits that such “4th generation” nuclear power stations are still a dream, but believes that they are potentially much more realistic than CCS.
4. Lynas proposes that 4th Gen plus renewable energy could provide complete decarbonisation of the worlds electricity supply and on a timetable that Dr Hansen and fellow climatologists demand."

Although I cannot respond on the technological potential of 4th generation nuclear plants such as the IFR that Lynas proposes, I know a man that can: Paul Brown, the venerable ex-Guardian environment correspondent, expert on all thing nuclear, author of the heavyweight tome Global Warning (a copy of which was sent by the President of the Republic of Maldives - a man uncomfortably close to the effects of global warming - to all 193 Heads of State, so they really have no excuse) and more recently of Voodoo Economics and the Doomed Nuclear Renaissance.
So, I wrote to him asking the following:

1. Is it true, as Lynas asserts, that 4th gen nuclear would prevent nuclear proliferation?
2. Is the design indeed close to fail-safe?
3. Is it accurate to say that 4th Generation nuclear is more realistic than Carbon Capture and Storage?

This is the response I received from Paul Brown:

"There are no grounds for saying that a fourth generation of nuclear power would prevent proliferation. There are three generations at present, the third generation is the one being constructed in Finland and another in France. It is the type the government wants to build in England.

Many "new" designs for new nuclear power stations exist, all of them called fourth generation reactors. What this means is they could be the new form of reactors adopted after this present third generation. For all of them it is claimed they will be cheaper, safer, and better in every way than the present generation. All this is unproved hype. None has been built so it all theory - like so much else about the nuclear industry. The reason they have not been built is essentially because the first one (of every design) would be very expensive to build and might not work. No government is prepared to fund them so far.

The fourth generation that Lynas is talking about is a design that will burn existing stocks of plutonium and uranium thereby reducing stocks of these bomb making materials, therefore reducing proliferation dangers. The UK government was asked by British Nuclear Fuels to sanction research and development into building one of these at Sellafield but was refused on the grounds of cost.

So the answer to your first question is no - Lynas is not correct - and no one knows whether an "integral fast reactor breeder plant" would really work. Fast breeders only worked on small scale dustbin size projects and broke every time France, Japan, and Russia tried to scale them up.

Second question: Note the "close to" fail-safe. Could have said in theory the design is fail safe. In other words it has not been tried, so how can you know? Nuclear fission is a controlled nuclear explosion. It is virtually impossible to make it fail-safe.

CCS? There are lots of problems with it. Carbon capture and storage is an unproven technology unless you count pumping carbon dioxide directly back down under the sea as they do in Norway. Carbon dioxide has no use so everything you do with it has a cost. Transporting it, pumping it etc is all expensive. Even if you worked out how to do it efficiently there are very few places in which it is possible to pump it and expect it to stay there. Old oil and gas wells have to be near the carbon dioxide capture sites and leak proof to have any chance of being viable. In my view it has limited application even if we could make it work, simply because there is nowhere to put the carbon dioxide. If you could convert it into something like else like a fuel by growing algae to make biofuels it might be a runner. It would at least reduce the impact. My view is that CCS is a red herring in the real debate. CCS and fourth generation nuclear are diversions and will never deliver on the scale we need in the timetable we need it by.

My view is that concentrated solar power, tidal turbines, wind power, solar PV, wave power, geothermal and massive improvements in energy efficiency, combined heat and power, insulation and the like, could deliver faster and enough to solve the problem. Anything else is putting off the reality and hoping technology will provide a fix. We have the technology, what we do not have is the political will. Only political will brought about by campaigners like you is going to save the planet".


Global Warning

The Environmentalist's Nuclear Debate: (1) George Monbiot

Things seem to stirring up the debate over nuclear and it's making quite a few greenies hot and steamy, to say the least. So, in order to unravel the issue at hand here is a lazy environmentalist's dummies guide to the issue in hand (part 1):

Earlier this month, George Monbiot posited his thoughts on nuclear. What he stated was that “I no longer care whether the answer (to our future electricity supplies) is nuclear or not” providing all new build meets the following stringent conditions:
1. the government sets a maximum level for carbon pollution per MW hr of electricity production, eg 80kg of CO2 – then leave the rest to the market;
2. so, total emission are taken into account;
3. the public are informed as to where and how waste is to be buried;
4. how much this will cost;
5. who will pay;
6. a legal guarantee put in place that no civil nuclear materials will be used by the military.

His qualified support is predicated on the belief that "we can no longer afford any rigid principle but one: that the harm done to people living now and in the future must be minimised by the most effective means, whatever they might be.”

Interestingly Monbiot, no slouch when it comes to reading pertinent reports (including the TRANS-CSP report), suggests that the likely outcome will progress towards the majority of our electricity being generated by a wide range of renewable energy systems interconnected by transnational supergrid networks, and with the use of storage no subsequent loss in the reliability of power supplies. "Unlike Carbon Capture and Storage," he says, "wind, wave, tidal, solar, hydro and geothermal power are proven technologies. Unlike nuclear power, they can be safely decommissioned as soon as they become redundant." So, a powerful argument in support of renewable energy, Mr Monbiot.

Here's my take on this: Monbiot's position on nuclear is one cushioned with conditionality. In essence he qualifies his view on this basis: nuclear is potentially fine to have in the equation providing certain stringent conditions are met. And, if Monbiot’s conditions are followed to their logical conclusion, the market is more than likely to dictate that other renewable technologies will fill the gap in any event.

Monbiot: Coal Scuttled

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Climate Camp, Kingsnorth

It was an early dash through Smithfield, with cheeky Bummarees calling out at me as I ignored the anti-cycling signs (what signs?) and whizzed through the tail-end of the morning's meat market. Down to St Pauls, swooped round and along then over London Bridge to meet my fellow eco-warrior Vicki (Director of the Kingsnorth No New Coal film, and fellow Wise Woman) before hopping on the train down to Strood in Kent. So off we headed to support the protest against the proposed new-build coal station at Kingsnorth.
[Vicki, part of the radical wing of WW in action]

The boys in blue were out in force, (which I can only presume for them is a bit of a holiday from any serious work as this is a peaceful demo), taking inordinate care and time to stop, search and video us all. Very polite, proud and patient in explaining their PACE powers. One gets the impression they've all just passed their Advanced Activist Management Skills course. They had a super new toy parked up that was later put to much use - an all singing and dancing yellow and black helicopter which buzzed like an oversized busy bee away above the camp for most of the day. (Do plod-squabbles break out over whose turn it is to play with the machine? Ooh to be a fly on the wall of their conversations)

Into the camp, eventually, and it's glorious - a haven of peace and commonality of purpose, with hundreds of tents smattered around clustered in geographical areas (Londonium I am told has the best facilities, naturally. They have sofas in their feeding tent), composting loos to rival those at CAT, the odd freestanding turbine and PV panels. Bunting billows in the early morning breeze as the sun starts to warm the early morning haze and the clouds begin to disappear, opening up to a warm blue-skied summer day.

I am speaking on Concentrating Solar Power in the main space - the one with electricity, so I am informed. I am offered a bike to power my presentation, but sadly it seems to only give power to either the laptop or the projector, not both at the same time. How great that would have been to have had it generating clean energy to give my talk on the ultimate clean energy solution, courtesy of a fast pedlar.

By 10.30 the camp has woken up, and tent A fills. There are workshops running throughout the day and all week, which is a marvellous way to tap into some excellent speakers on all matters climate change related. It's a good turnout, and later as I survey the site I reckon there are in around 1500 folk there and some kids. One pretty eight year old tells me he will make me a paper fan for anything(!). So we seal the deal for half a choccie bar, but only once he has been assured on the contents - that it is indeed vegan and is made of raw chocolate and agave syrup. He seems very pleased. I am equally pleased with my fan.

I bump into chums old and new, catch up with more radical WW's - and Oliver Tickell, author of Kyoto 2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse, which delights me greatly. I've been itching to read it, as my gut instinct had been telling me that it will be an important one. In a nutshell, Tickell is advocating upstream control of greenhouse gases at point of production, not of emission (ie nail the oil companies, not the consumer).

Lunch at Londonium is delicious before scooting off to the site media tent for a bit of an interview, then off to hear a few workshops: Shaun Chamberlain on TEQ's (who argues from the other end of the spectrum - downstream control: carbon rationing of the consumer), David Flemming (the originator of TEQ's) on Anarchy (whom, upon arrival at the site, was reputedly chased by eager journos wanting to know if he was an elderly Tory MP. What anarchy he could have had there!).

It's hard to leave. The evening light is long, the banter fun (Meyer Hillman is stomping around furiously, indignant about some comment made by George Monbiot), fresh garlic wafts across from Wales (no sofas here; they have hay-bales from Machynlleth), and I had promised to pop in to commune with my fellow Scottish countrymen and women (bet they do great porridge first thing). But no time, we have to go (having hitched a lift back - thank you Oliver, much appreciated). We head of into the sunset as more people are pitching up in preparation for the day of mass action and march to Kingsnorth Coal Station on Saturday. I wish I could be there - the preparations sound fantastic. The only blot spied on the landscape is the batallion of 22 police trucks filled to the gills moving in with yet more troops. What kind of world do we live in when the state deems it neccessary to lavish £7 million on policing such a well-organised, peaceful but vitally important (and legal) protest?

Climate Camp
No New Coal
Monbiot: Coal Scuttled
Kyoto 2

Friday, August 01, 2008

100 months

We have a hundred months to save the planet. When the clock stops ticking we could be beyond the climate's 'tipping point', the point of no return, so says the Green New Deal report just published today by the New Economics Foundation.

onehundredmonths.org has just launched today - I'm supporting it, Wise Women are supporting it, and I hope you will too.


75 years since President Roosevelt launched a New Deal to rescue the US from financial crisis, a new group of experts in finance, energy and the environment have come together to propose a ‘Green New Deal’ for the UK.

And, as the Green New Deal Group launch their proposals, new analysis suggests that from the end of July 2008 there is only 100 months, or less, to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before we hit a potential point of no return.

Proposal’s set out in the Group’s report include:

* Executing a bold new vision for a low-carbon energy system that will include making ‘every building a power station’.
* Creating and training a ‘carbon army’ of workers to provide the human resources for a vast environmental reconstruction programme.
* Establishing an Oil Legacy Fund, paid for by a windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies as part of a wide-ranging package of financial innovations and incentives to assemble the tens of billions of pounds that need to be spent. These would also include Local Authority green bonds, green gilts and green family savings bonds. The monies raised would help deal with the effects of climate change and smooth the transition to a low-carbon economy.
* Ensuring more realistic fossil fuel prices that include the cost to the environment, and that are high enough to tackle climate change by creating economic incentives to drive efficiency and bring alternative fuels to market. This will provide funding for the Green New Deal and safety nets to those vulnerable to higher prices via rapidly rising carbon taxes and revenue from carbon trading.
* Minimising corporate tax evasion by clamping down on tax havens and corporate financial reporting. A range of measures including deducting tax at source for all income paid to financial institutions in tax havens would provide much-needed sources of public finance at a time when economic contraction is reducing conventional tax receipts.
* Re-regulating the domestic financial system. Inspired by reforms implemented in the 1930s, this would imply cutting interest rates across the board– including the reduction of the Bank of England’s interest rate - and changes in debt-management policy to enable reductions in interest rates across all government borrowing. This is designed to help those borrowing to build a new energy and transport infrastructure. In parallel, to prevent inflation, we want to see much tighter regulation of the wider financial environment.
* Breaking up the discredited financial institutions that have needed so much public money to prop them up in the latest credit crunch. Large banking and finance groups should be forcibly demerged. Retail banking should be split from both corporate finance (merchant banking) and from securities dealing. The demerged units should then be split into smaller banks. Mega banks make mega mistakes that affect us all. Instead of institutions that are ‘too big to fail’, we need institutions that are small enough to fail without creating problems for depositors and the wider public.

The Green New Deal Group urges the UK Government to take action at the international level to help build the orderly, well-regulated and supportive policy and financial environment that is required to restore economic stability and nurture environmental sustainability, including:

* Allowing all nations far greater autonomy over domestic monetary policy (interest rates and money supply) and fiscal policy (government spending and taxation).
* Setting a formal international target for atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that keeps future temperature rises as far below 2°C as possible.
* Giving poorer countries the opportunity to escape poverty without fuelling global warming by helping to finance massive investment in climate-change adaptation and renewable energy.

For further details and full report: NEF
The Final Countdown

Wise Women