A new foreign report casts a further shadow over SA’s troubled nuclear project, but a local research company says there’s no need for alarm. Bobby Jordan reports.
The research centre that invented pebble bed nuclear reactors has rung alarm bells over the safety of the technology — which features prominently in SA’s R350-billion nuclear energy programme.
The safety concerns are contained in a report released this week by the world-renowned state-owned German Jülich Nuclear Research Centre.
Ironically, a team of Jülich researchers is helping SA develop a commercial-size pebble bed reactor based on the prototype that Jülich operated for more than 20 years. If successful, the project could provide much-needed electricity to the local market — and the reactors could be exported worldwide.
Now the latest report, authored by a senior Jülich nuclear safety researcher, casts a further shadow across SA’s beleaguered nuclear project. The report signposts higher-than- anticipated temperatures generated by fuel pebbles used in the prototype reactor (AVR), which was closed in 1988 — but is still the subject of much research.
The chief scientist in charge of exporting Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) technology at the Jülich Centre this week denied any crisis of confidence among the nuclear fraternity, and said that although the report was important, it would not undermine confidence in SA’s nuclear energy ambitions. The report has been slated as alarmist by SA’s PBMR company, which is spearheading local research.
PBMR spokesman Tom Ferreira said that although useful, the latest report was “no basis for concern”.
Some of the fears raised in the Jülich report include:
ý The graphite pebbles in the original reactor experiment in Germany generated much more heat than expected, sending temperatures soaring to more than 1450 C — at least 300 degrees hotter than the maximum temperature allowed for in the design of SA’s PBMR;
ý The movement of the pebbles brushing up against one another inside the reactor created a dangerous level of highly radioactive graphite dust — something that was partly unexplained;
ý The risk of graphite fires, like the one at Chernobyl in 1986, cannot be ruled out; and
ý The prototype reactor in Germany is extremely contaminated by metallic fission products, which escaped from fuel elements during operation. The contamination, possibly due to unexpectedly high temperatures, is higher by a factor of more than 10000 than acceptable for modern reactors. This also creates huge decommissioning costs.
The report suggests the SA government may have jumped the gun in pushing for a demonstration PBMR plant at Koeberg, when there is still a need for a prototype pebble bed reactor to understand reasons for high temperatures.
The German report also raises questions about whether senior SA officials have been downplaying safety concerns about pebble bed technology.
Jülich scientists this week confirmed that draft copies of the latest report have been in the possession of SA authorities since December.
So far the pebble bed programme has cost the SA taxpayer about R4-billion, is years behind schedule and is over budget. SA plans to build as many as 30 pebble bed reactors, which collectively would represent about 20% of Eskom’s potential R350-billion nuclear building programme of about 20000 MW. The country’s current mainly coalfired power supply is 39000 MW.
Ferreira said the report was not a consensus position for the Jülich centre. He said many of the points raised in the report were disputed by other scientists.
Tony Stott, Eskom senior manager of Nuclear Stakeholder Management, said: “Eskom is aware of the report and its findings. Eskom has requested independent nuclear consultants, who are assisting Eskom with the safety evaluation of the PBMR Demonstration Power Plant technology, to investigate and establish the basis of the report and determine whether any aspects warrant introduction into the safety evaluation of the technology.”
He said the safety analysis process was still under way.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 1:23 PM
Published: 22 Aug 08 - 17:16
Joint-venture company Murray & Roberts SNC-Lavalin Nuclear (MRSLN) has been awarded the contract for the provision of engineering, procurement, project and construction management (EPCM) services for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) demonstration plant project at Koeberg, near Cape Town.
The contract for the provision of the EPCM services was signed on Friday, in Pretoria.
The PBMR project entailed the building of both the demonstration reactor project at Koeberg, and a pebble fuel plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria. The current schedule was to start construction in 2010 and for the demonstration plant to be completed by 2014.
“MRSLN's expertise is critical to the success of the demonstration reactor project. While the licencing and environmental impact assessment process for the demonstration power plant still need to be successfully completed, the signing of the EPCM contract represents a significant milestone for PBMR,” said PBMR company CEO Jaco Kriek at the signing ceremony.
He noted that there was increasing international interest in advanced generation IV technology. “Our focus as a company is on developing and using this technology for the benefit of South Africa. We have already achieved many successes in this regard. We have created a large pool of intellectual resources locally and a sizeable company. As the signing of this contract shows, we partner with the best suppliers in the world. Globally, the work we are doing is having a significant impact,” Kriek added.
TSX-listed SNC-Lavalin is said to be one of the leading engineering and construction groups in the world and a major player in the ownership of infrastructure, and in the provision of operations and maintenance services, and is currently working about 100 countries.
Murray & Roberts offers civil, mechanical, electrical, mining and process engineering; general building and construction; materials supply and services to the construction industry; and management of concession operations.
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 1:23 PM
20 August 2008
THE review of the environmental impact report and public meetings for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) have been delayed, according to the project's environmental impact assessment consultant.
PBMR, a high temperature reactor with a closed-cycle gas turbine power conversion system, is central to the government's stated desire to diversify electricity generation mix. The PBMR is also central to Eskom's plan to double capacity by 2026.
It was not immediately clear yesterday if the delay would affect the deadlines for the project which has already fallen behind schedule. Construction work for the project was scheduled to commence in 2010.
According to initial forecasts, construction should have started last year and the demonstration plan should be ready by 2011.
In a newspaper advertisement, consultants Arcus Gibb and Acer Africa yesterday announced the delay which they attributed to unspecified "unforeseen circumstances" beyond their control.
The consultant said the report would be made available to the public during the comment period from last Thursday to September 30 in Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Findings of the draft report and specialist studies were also scheduled to be presented in the three provinces later this month and next month.
The studies for the project are an outcome of work by a team of specialists who looked at issues such as air quality, visual impact, flora, fauna, heritage and archaeology, marine biology, radiological safety and health and seismic risk.
According to the consultants , the project would entail setting up permanent infrastructure. These include an integrated reactor and generator building, a generator and associated electrical power plant, a cooling water plant and a transmission power line.
Dalene Murie of the consultants yesterday referred queries about the delay to Eskom, owners of PBMR. Attempts to get comment from Tony Stott, Eskom senior manager for nuclear stakeholder management, were not successful.
The government has thrown its weight behind the PBMR project. Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin has in the past said the government wanted to produce between 4000MW and 5000MW of power from pebble bed reactors.
PBMR was established in 1999 with the intention to develop and market small-scale, high-temperature reactors .
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 1:22 PM
PALISADES, New York, August 21, 2008 (ENS) - The nuclear power plant closest to America's largest city is more likely to be hit by an earthquake than previously thought because it sits atop a newly identified intersection of two active seismic zones, earthquake scientists warned today.
The Indian Point nuclear power plant, with its two nuclear generating units, is situated 24 miles north of New York City, on the Hudson River at Buchanan, New York.
Researchers from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have located a previously unknown active seismic zone running from Stamford, Connecticut, to the Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, New York, where it passes less than a mile north of the Indian Point nuclear power plant.
The Stamford-Peekskill line intersects with the known Ramapo seismic zone, which runs from eastern Pennsylvania to the mid-Hudson Valley, passing within two miles northwest of Indian Point.
The Stamford-Peekskill line stands out sharply on the researchers' earthquake map, with small events clustered along its length, and to its immediate southwest. Just to the north, there are no quakes, indicating that it represents some kind of underground boundary.
The pattern emerged when the Earth Observatory scientists compiled a catalog of all 383 known earthquakes from 1677 to 2007 in a 15,000 square mile area around New York City. The observatory runs the network of instruments that monitors most of the northeastern United States for earthquake activity.
Their paper appears in the current issue of the "Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America." "Indian Point is situated at the intersection of the two most striking linear features marking the seismicity and also in the midst of a large population that is at risk in case of an accident," says the paper. "This is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective."
Lead author Lynn Sykes says the data show that large quakes are infrequent around New York compared to more active areas like California and Japan, but that the risk is high, because of the overwhelming concentration of people and infrastructure.
"The research raises the perception both of how common these events are, and, specifically, where they may occur," he said. "It's an extremely populated area with very large assets."
Nearly 10 million people live within 25 miles of the Indian Point nuclear plant, including the 8.2 million in the New York metropolitan area.
Sykes, who has studied the region for 40 years, is known for his early role in establishing the global theory of plate tectonics.
Sykes and his team say the insight comes from sophisticated analysis of past quakes, plus 34 years of new data on tremors, most of them perceptible only by modern seismic instruments.
It is parallel to other faults beginning at 125th Street in New York City, so the researchers believe it is a fault in the same family. They say it is probably capable of producing at least a magnitude 6 quake, strong enough to damage structures.
Sykes said the existence of the Stamford-Peekskill line had been suggested before, because the Hudson River takes a sudden unexplained bend just to the north of Indian Point, and definite traces of an old fault can be along the north side of the bend.
"The seismic evidence confirms it," he said.
The findings come at a time when Entergy, the owner and operator of Indian Point, is trying to relicense the two operating plants for an additional 20 years - a move being fought by surrounding communities and the New York State Attorney General. Licenses for Indian Point's two reactors expire in 2013 and 2015.
Last fall New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, alerted to the then-unpublished Lamont data, told a Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel in a filing, "New data developed in the last 20 years disclose a substantially higher likelihood of significant earthquake activity in the vicinity of [Indian Point] that could exceed the earthquake design for the facility."
The state alleges that Entergy has not presented new data on earthquakes past 1979. However, in a little-noticed decision July 31, the panel rejected the argument on procedural grounds. A source at the attorney general's office said the state is considering its options.
The Earth Observatory research shows a pattern of subtle but active earthquake faults that makes the risk of earthquakes to the entire New York City area greater than scientsts had previously believed.
The evidence charts unseen but potentially powerful structures whose layout and dynamics are only now emerging, say the scientists.
Starting in the early 1970s Lamont began collecting data on quakes from dozens of newly deployed seismometers; these have revealed distinct zones where earthquakes concentrate, and where larger ones could come.
For data on the earlier quakes, coauthor John Armbruster estimated sizes and locations of dozens of events before 1930 by combing newspaper accounts and other records.
His research shows that magnitude 5 quakes - strong enough to cause damage - occurred in 1737, 1783 and 1884.
There was little human settlement in the area to be hurt by the first two quakes, whose locations are vague due to a lack of good accounts; but the 1884 quake, thought to be centered under the seabed somewhere between Brooklyn and Sandy Hook, toppled chimneys across the city and New Jersey, and panicked bathers at Coney Island.
Based on this analysis, the researchers say such quakes should be routinely expected, on average, about every 100 years.
"Today, with so many more buildings and people, a magnitude 5 centered below the city would be extremely attention-getting," said Armbruster. "We'd see billions in damage, with some brick buildings falling. People would probably be killed."
Based on the lengths of the faults, the detected tremors, and calculations of how stresses build in the Earth's crust, the Earth Observatory researchers say that magnitude 6 quakes, or even magnitude 7, are possible.
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 1:20 PM
Saturday, July 19, 2008
France orders tests on all nuclear power stations after leak
By Henry Samuel in Paris
Last updated: 8:18 PM BST 17/07/2008
Fears over France's nuclear reactors have been raised as the government orders ground water tests at its 58 power stations, after a uranium leak at one polluted local water supplies.
The safety lapse at a plant in Provence run by French nuclear giant Areva has raised questions over President Nicolas Sarkozy's drive to roll out reactors around the world – in Britain but also in states with less stringent safety norms.
"I don't want people to feel that we are hiding anything from them," said ecology minister Jean-Louis Borloo as he announced the blanket tests.
Residents in Bollène in the Vaucluse, southern France – a top tourist area – have been told not to drink water or eat fish from nearby rivers, after 74kg of liquid uranium was spilled on July 7 at the Tricastin nuclear plant.
Swimming and water sports were also banned along with irrigating crops with the contaminated water, which reached two rivers.
French authorities last week ordered the closure of a nuclear treatment facility at the plant, which also has a nuclear reactor, after liquid was spilled during its transfer from one container to another.
The site is run by Socatri, a subsidiary of Areva, whose president, Anne Lauvergeon, is due to visit.
Areva aims to dominate the design and construction of at least eight new power stations which are to be fast-tracked in England over the next decade.
According to Gordon Brown, they are essential to reduce Britain's dependency on fossil fuels, but environmentalists have already raised safety fears, saying the Areva reactor design is 'untried and untested'.
Ben Ayliffe, head of nuclear campaigns at Greenpeace, said: "Such unpredictable and nasty side effects are the risks you take with nuclear.
"We believe the leak in France resulted from human error.
"Liquid uranium was accidentally poured onto the ground. We're not talking about dishwater here. This is a dangerous radioactive material.
"The risk of accidents like this in the UK should be enough to make reasonable people baulk at the thought of having more nuclear power stations here."
Although ranked as only a level-one incident on a scale from zero to seven, Mr Borloo said he wanted government nuclear safety inspectors to look into the environmental conditions at all sites, in particular the state of the surrounding ground water.
"I'm told that everything is under control, but I want to be sure," Mr Borloo told Le Parisien newspaper.
French environmental group Sortir du nucléaire welcomed the move, but said that tests should be carried out by an independent body not linked to the industry or the French state – its main shareholder.
France has the world's second largest network of nuclear reactors after the United States and they generate more than 80 per cent of its electricity.
While the spill at Tricastin did not affect the reactor, Mr Borloo stressed that "there is no room for negligence" in nuclear energy.
France's IRSN nuclear safety institute said it had located four areas with abnormally high levels of uranium in the ground water and that this could not have been caused by the Tricastin leak alone.
This has led to suggestions that military nuclear waste buried nearby in an underground storage site from 1964 to 1976 may be to blame.
In 1998, a study by French nuclear body Cogema estimated that up to 900kg of uranium had leaked into underground water supplies from the site, and that another 1,700 kilogrammes were still buried there.
However, IRSN said the pollution "incident" had "nothing to do with this mound of waste" – located roughly a mile further south.
It has been declared all vegetables and crops irrigated just after the leak fit for consumption, but residents around Bollène, where the power station is located, said they feared for their health.
"We've been drinking water from this water table for 20 years," said Sylvie Eymard, who cultivates herbs and vegetables on a farm within sight of Tricastin's cooling towers. Most of her plants have died due to the water restrictions.
"We've done chemical tests before, but never thought of a radiological risk.
"I can't help thinking about the possible consequences of this pollution on my children", she told Le Parisien.
The municipality is supplying tanks of drinking water and local stores have sold out on mineral water, while some residents have stocked up on iodine pills – usually taken as protection against airborne radioactive particles.
"The local population is worried and no longer believes official figures", said André-Yves Becq, the deputy mayor. He said Socatri inspectors "suspiciously" told one family that dangerously high levels of contamination in its water supply were due to a "dirty measurement instrument".
France is fiercely proud of its nuclear prowess thanks to mainly state-owned energy giants Areva, Electricité de France and newly merged GDF Suez. The country has already embarked on the construction of a new generation of higher-yield EPR reactors.
In April, Mr Sarkozy hailed French nuclear technology as "one of the safest in the world' while on a trip to Tunisia – the latest in his nuclear sales tour of mainly Muslim states including Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, but also China.
"Without energy, you will not know growth. Without growth, you will not have development. You will have poverty, under-development and unemployment, and thus terrorism. Everything is linked", he claimed.
Story from Telegraph News:
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 3:01 PM
"Low-Level" Radioactive Waste is one of the most misleading terms ever created. In the U.S., it is all nuclear waste that is not legally high-level waste, some transuranic waste, or mill tailings.
High-Level Radioactive Waste is: the irradiated fuel from the cores of nuclear reactors, the liquid and sludge wastes that are left over after irradiated fuel has been reprocessed (a procedure used to extract uranium and plutonium), the solid that would result from efforts to solidify that liquid and sludge from reprocessing.
Transuranic Waste is material contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium, neptunium, americium and curium. These elements: have extremely long hazardous lives--hundreds of thousands to millions of years and emit alpha radiation a type of radiation that is especially dangerous if inhaled or swallowed. Some transuranic waste is allowed in the "low-level" radioactive waste category. In 1983, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) adopted regulations on land disposal of radioactive waste (lOCFR61), it increased the allowable concentration of transuranics in "low-level" radioactive waste.
Uranium Mill tailings, resulting from mining and milling uranium for weapons and commercial reactors, are not usually included in the "low-level" waste category, but may be handled with it in some states. The large volumes of these wastes, which will emit radiation for centuries, pose serious health problems.
WHAT IS "LOW-LEVEL" RADIOACTIVE WASTE?
"Low-Level" Radioactive Waste includes:
Irradiated Components and Piping: reactor hardware and pipes that are in continual contact with highly radioactive water for the 20 to 30 years the reactor operates. The metal becomes "activated" or radioactive itself from bombardment by neutrons that are released when energy is produced. Also called Irradiated Primary System Components.
Control Rods: from the core of nuclear power plants--rods that regulate and stop the nuclear reactions in the reactor core.
Poison Curtains: which absorb neutrons from the water in the reactor core and irradiated fuel (high level waste) pool.
Resins, Sludges, Filters and Evaporator Bottoms: from cleansing the water that circulates around the irradiated fuel in the reactor vessel and in the fuel pool, which holds the irradiated fuel when it is removed from the core.
Entire Nuclear Power Plants if and when they are dismantled. This includes, for example, from a typical 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor building floor: over 13,000 tons of contaminated concrete and over 1,400 tons of contaminated reinforcing steel bar.
The highly radioactive and long-lived reactor wastes are included in the "low-level" waste category along with the much less concentrated and generally much shorter-lived wastes from medical treatment and diagnosis and some types of scientific research.
RADIOACTIVE CONCENTRATION vs VOLUME
The nuclear industry and government commonly describe "low-level" waste in terms of volume although there can be a tremendous concentration of radioactivity in a small package and a small concentration in a big package. The amount of radioactivity, measured in CURIES, indicates how much radioactive energy is being emitted by the waste. (1 Curie = 37,000,000,000 or 37 Billion disintegrations or radioactive emissions per second from a radioactive material.)
The medical waste from diagnosis and treatment shipped in one year from most states usually gives off a fraction of one curie of radiation. In contrast, each nuclear reactor generates hundreds and thousands of curies in "low-level" waste every year.
Nuclear reactor waste is concentrated: Solidified liquid emits about 2 curies per cubic meter; Filter/Demineralizer sludges emit about 10 curies per cubic meter; Cartridge filters emit about 20 curies per cubic meter; Demineralizer resins emit about 160 curies per cubic meter. Primary Components average 1000 to 5000 curies per cubic meter.
All of this material is legally considered low-level.
HALF-LIFE and HAZARDOUS LIFE
Radioactive elements decay by emitting energy in the form of radioactive particles and rays. As radiation is given off, other elements (some radioactive and some stable) are formed.
The Half-Life is the time it takes for HALF of the radioactive element to decay (give off half of its radioactivity). Different radioactive elements have different half-lives.
The Hazardous Life of a radioactive element is about 10 or 20 Half-Lives. (It is best to measure the amount of radiation after 10 or 20 half-lives before releasing waste from active controls.)
Reactor waste remains hazardous for a very long time. Most medical waste from treatment and diagnosis is hazardous for a very short time. Research and industrial waste can contain small amounts of some long-lived radioactive materials.
Among the radioactive elements commonly found in nuclear reactor "low-level" waste are: Tritium, with a half-life of 12 years and a hazardous life of 120-240 years; Iodine-131, half-life of 8 days, hazardous life of 80-160 days; Strontium-90, half life of 28 years, hazardous life of 280-560 years; Nickel-59, half life of 76,000 years, hazardous life of 760,000-1,520,000 years, and Iodine-129, half-life of sixteen million years, hazardous life of160-320 million years.
By contrast, common medical waste elements include Technetium-99m, with a half-life of 6 hours and a hazardous life of 2.5-5 days; Galium-67, half-life of 78 hours and hazardous life of 1-2 months; and Iodine-131, with its half-life of 8 days and hazardous life of 80-160 days.
The vast majority of medical waste is hazardous for less than 8 months. Yet, it is in the same category as reactor waste that will be hazardous for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.
Clearly, the definition of "low-level radioactive waste" must be changed. It would make sense to redefine the more concentrated and/or longer-lived waste as high-level. Active recontainerization and operational control must be provided for the entire hazardous life of the waste, yet the NRC requires only 100 years of passive institutional control. Thus, waste hazardous longer than 100 years could be forgotten. Retrievability is essential.
PLANNED LEAKAGE AND "ACCEPTABLE" RISK
Waste containers and forms will not last as long as some waste remains hazardous. Therefore, waste should be placed in a manner which will facilitate recontainerization and make continued isolation from the environment possible in the future. If the waste is "disposed of" as the NRC currently requires, it will not be isolated from the environment. "Planned leakage will occur at (what NRC considers) an "acceptable" leak rate leading to "acceptable" public radiation exposures and health risks. The allowable leak rates and exposure levels are determined by federal agencies, not those experiencing the risk.
To avoid leakage, above-ground, engineered storage at or near the source of generation could allow responsible routine monitoring and repair.
States have the right and responsibility to protect their citizens' health. In 1980, Congress gave states the responsibility for "low-level" radioactive waste. How and whether states choose to take on that responsibility will be reflected indefinitely into the future.
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 2:03 PM
Jeremy Leggett 22/06/2008
The Government wilfully suppressed renewables to make space for nuclear to be reborn, argues Jeremy Leggett
The Government released its first energy white paper almost five years ago, when oil was barely $30 a barrel. The result of a thorough consultation with more than 60 energy companies, it called for deep carbon emissions cuts by 2050, to be achieved primarily by a massive programme of renewable and efficient energy mobilisation. Nuclear energy barely survived the consultation. During the Strategic Energy Review that preceded the white paper, I saw executives from nuclear companies literally laughed out of contention during debates about the economics of future energy supply. But senior officials at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) fought a rearguard action. Nuclear was granted a place on the back burner, to be reviewed after five years.
The DTI set up a Renewables Advisory Board to advise ministers on how to execute the white-paper plan in November 2002. I was invited to join it, and at the time I was encouraged. Twelve renewable industry executives joined senior officials from all relevant ministries on the board. There was a sense that we were there to make things happen fast: to help unlock doors. But by September 2003, the industry members of the board were troubled by slow progress and issued a statement of concern. In particular, we were worried that the short tenure of the Renewables Obligation was putting off investment in wind. Faced with this rebellion by its industry advisors, the Government extended the Renewables Obligation. But other doors were proving very difficult to open, notably an early recommendation by industry that government go out and fight a strong hearts-and-minds communication campaign to persuade the public that we needed a strong mix of fast-growing renewables markets, and why.
A fellow member of the board warned me that DTI officials were deliberately going slowly, and would continue to do so, aiming to keep their hopes for nuclear alive. Renewables, he feared, would be teed up to fail. I didn’t believe it at the time. But recently I heard two of Tony Blair’s senior colleagues confirm the DTI has long suppressed renewables to make space for nuclear. The slow-motion treatment of renewables that I have witnessed in the UK during the past five years, while renewables markets abroad have grown explosively, now makes a sickening kind of sense.
In 2004, oil hit $50 for the first time. New fears about energy security meant more than $30 billion of new investment flowed into renewables globally. Very little came to the UK. Much of it went to Germany, where the Germans have created more than 200,000 new jobs since 2000 in industries now exporting globally. UK plc meanwhile has been starved of opportunities both to create new jobs and compete in new global export markets.
Along the way, the nuclearphiles have jumped the gun on their five-year review. Tony Blair called for a second energy white paper, and by July 2006 the draft already backed a new generation of British nuclear power plants. At that time, nuclear inspectors were reporting unexplained cracks in six reactor cores in the existing generation. British Energy, it seemed, did not know the extent of the damage in the reactors, could not monitor their deterioration and didn’t fully understand why the cracking had occurred. The DTI authors of the energy white paper, and their champion in Number 10, were undeterred.
Greenpeace challenged the legality of the second white paper process and in February 2007 the High Court ruled that the Government’s review had indeed been unlawful. Another consultation began. Another year had been lost.
In March, Europe agreed a union-wide target of 20 per cent renewables in the energy mix. Twenty-seven leaders signed up, Blair among them. As a result of this and other market-building initiatives, global investment in renewables companies accelerated still faster in 2007. Share prices in renewables companies soared far ahead of normal stocks, while growing numbers of experts warned oil and gas were depleting faster than expected. But in the UK it was business as usual. In August, the Guardian revealed ministers were being briefed by DTI officials (now the Department of Business and Regulatory Reform) that the UK couldn’t come close to a 20 per cent target. In a development beyond even the script of Yes Minister, options for wriggling out of the 20 per cent commitment included counting nuclear energy as renewable energy.
No doubt shamed by all this, Gordon Brown held the line, and is currently insisting the UK plays ball with the EU’s 20 per cent target. But how will he deliver it, when his government has some of the least effective market-enablement programmes for renewable energy in the industrialised world? How, surrounded by civil servants intent on seeing a re-nuclearised Britain almost at any cost?
One of those most instrumental in engineering the nuclear renaissance was Blair’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. People present in the crucial cabinet meeting where the 2003 energy white paper was finalised have described to me how King and other DTI officials stopped ministers shelving nuclear completely. In a Guardian interview on 12 January, King speaks with evident pride about how John Prescott became furious to the point almost of violence.
King went further in the interview and in his forthcoming books, labelling greens Luddites harming the fight against global warming. Many ‘want to get away from all the technological gizmos and developments of the 20th century,’ he professes.
Many greens I know are keen to drop 20th-century technologies, but only in that we are rather keen to progress to the technologies of the 21st century. The technologies of the present century look set to be very different from the technologies of the last, if you consider where energy investors prefer to put their money. The vast majority of venture capital investment in energy, and some of the most successful investments on stock exchanges in 2007, went to renewable and efficient technologies, and these offer at least a fighting chance of solving our energy problems.
Nuclear is one of those 20th-century technologies society has tried and found wanting. We can’t build it fast enough to make a difference either to our clear-and-present climate change problem, or our fast-emerging energy security problem. Even if we could, we haven’t found a way to deal with its hideous wastes after half a century of effort. We can’t afford it without endless blank-cheque subsidies, as opposed to the short-term, fixed-amount subsidies – or their policy equivalents – that renewables need in order to accelerate into mass markets. We haven’t found a way to stop the people that run the industry from releasing a stream of lies, falsified documents, accident- and near-miss cover-ups, and consistent, huge and almost universal cost underestimates. If we plough ahead with nuclear power regardless, we face the fact that the separation between civil and weapons programmes is wafer-thin, and so effectively issue a licence to the rest of the world to proliferate nuclear weapons. Retired nuclear bomb designers have a tendency to profess that if and when civil nuclear programmes are resurrected on any scale, it is only a matter of time before the terrorists make it into our cities with suitcase bombs. Finally, if we build a new generation of nuclear reactors, by the Government’s own admission they would need to be on existing sites: on the coast. The same government warns us, via its lead role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are at risk of melting, which would lift global sea level many metres. Whither Dungeness then, a site where 600 tonnes of shingle already has to be dumped daily to keep the sea at bay? Some 20th-century technologies we do need to get away from. Nuclear power is one.
The book King has written to vent his rage against the greens, we are told, ends with a map of the world on which is superimposed six tiny squares. If all the light falling on those squares could be harvested, King explains, all the world’s energy needs could be met. Indeed. This remarkable fact is the product of a nuclear reactor. That reactor is more than 90 million miles from our planet, and it is called the Sun. The power it could in principle generate within those tiny squares is called solar power. David King was until recently a lead player in a government that has acted for years as though it wants to slowly strangle any prospect of solar power in Britain.
Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury and SolarAid, and author of The Carbon War and Half Gone. This article is an extended version of some of his writing on nuclear power and renewables in the Guardian
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 1:56 PM