Nuclear power – energy released from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions – is a safer, more environmentally friendly source of electricity. Simply put, nuclear power is \”clean\”. No pollutants or greenhouse gasses, no impact on respiratory health, no connection with other adverse human health effects. So why are we still relying on coal and oil instead of nuclear?
There\’s no point in over egging the pudding.
The US doesn\’t use oil to generate electricity. Well, not in any meaningful amount.
Some 1% of US oil consumption is used to generate electricity. And given that oil provides a little over one third of total consumption, around 0.3/0.4% of total energy usage is oil to provide electricity.
The situation isn\’t much different in the UK. Oil is occasionally used as that very last part of peak, peak, demand, as it\’s quick to cycle up and then there\’s the people who use it to feed generators in remote areas.
That\’s about it really.
You’re forgetting nuclear cars!
Well, electric cars anyway. At some point they will become popular – who wants to bet whether it will take longer than the average time to get a nuclear power plant through planning and construction?
Say “gas” instead of “oil” and the sentence is fine, though, so the point is more or less fine, even if the way of stating it demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how electricity is actually generated.
Here in Ireland we still use oil to generate a significant amount of our electricity. Indeed, I believe we are more reliant upon oil for power generation than any other EU nation.
In a sense this isn’t such a bad thing given our abundance of ocean and wind potential (though our failure to invest heavily in these sectors during the boom times is criminal).
Unlike yourself, however, I don’t believe nuclear power is a sensible option. Not only are there serious questions about the longterm security of uranium supply, but I have serous doubts about our ability — in a world of peaking fossil energy supply — to pull off the kind of massive industrial project that a significant increase in nuclear power plants would entail.
Much better would be a planned reduction in total energy consumption in tandem with investment in decentralised renewable energy systems. Refusing to accept certain limitations is a surefire way of entering rapid decline.
Why is a massive industrial project that a significant increase in nuclear power plants would entail any harder than a planned reduction in total energy consumption in tandem with investment in decentralised renewable energy systems?
Tim adds: Because reducing energy consumption is harder than generating more energy?
Electric cars are some way from being practical (though if electricity was as cheap as nuclear can be it would make it easier). However electricity is a major competitor with oil fir trains.
Jim you make it obvious why Ireland has a lower ratio of electricity produced to GNP than any deveolped country & pretty nearly than any country which isn’t a failed state. Britain is 4th last. This is Ireland’s looming catastrophe (ours too).
Could you explain why you think there is a bigger problem with security of supply of uranium, which could at a pinch be extracted from seawater forever, compared to oil?
Before I respond to the questions, it’s worth stating up front that my position on energy resources is based upon the assumption that, globally, we are entering a period of decreasing net energy availability. If you disagree with that assessment then you’ll probably disagree with my responses to the above questions. However, having spent over a decade researching this issue, let me at least assure you that there is a great deal of evidence to support my viewpoint. This doesn’t mean I’m necessarily right, of course, and I don’t wish to drag this thread off-topic by turning it into an argument about the merits of my basic assumptions. But unless you’re aware of that initial assumption, what follows won’t make much sense.
On the question of the security of uranium supply, the world’s largest exporter — Australia — claims to have about 40 years of reserves at current consumption rates. Obviously if we significantly increase the number of reactors, we reduce that time span accordingly. The extraction of uranium from seawater is problematic for three reasons.
Firstly, it is untried technology (on a commercial scale) and has never been successfully performed outside a laboratory. Taking technology from lab to industry levels is rarely a smooth road and usually time-consuming. It is obviously theoretically possible, but — as an (ex-)engineer (now an academic) — I would suggest that we may be a decade or more away from even the first successful industrial trials. One should always try to stipulate that any proposed solution to an engineering problem be based upon existing technology. I certainly don’t deny the possibility (even the inevitability) of technological advance, but don’t see the merit of including as-yet non-existent tech in a serious discussion of policy. Fast breeder reactors also fall at this hurdle with none of the proposals for future reactors being based upon this technology.
Secondly, even assuming we could ramp up uranium extraction from seawater to an industrial scale in a relatively short period of time, there is a significant question about the ERoI of the process. That is, the Energy Return on Investment. There is disagreement on the issue and frankly nobody can provide a definitive answer because it has not yet been done on an industrial level, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the amount of energy required to extract uranium from seawater is as much, or even more, than the energy that can then be produced from the end product. Even if the process has a positive ERoI, it won’t be a large number (unlike, say crude oil, which has an ERoI of anywhere between 30 and 120 depending upon the well and other factors).
So the proposal to implement this “solution” to a decline in hydrocarbon availability is essentially a proposal to massively increase energy demand (perhaps by several times current levels).
And all of this in a climate of decreasing energy availability because of the third problem — the length of time required to plan, build and commission nuclear power stations. I would suggest that only an extreme optimist would believe that we’ll have a new generation of nuclear power stations producing power much before 2025. Which, based on my assessment of future oil supplies, will be too late to prevent a major economic collapse. And again, I think it’s wildly optimistic to envision a world in the grip of an oil-supply crisis diverting large quantities of energy away from food supply into huge infrastructure projects like nuclear power expansion. At best this is a recipe for starving much of the developing world in order to power the gadgets industrialised nations. At worst it’s a road to global conflict.
I view nuclear power as a non-starter because it assumes that industrial expansion is possible in a world of decreasing net energy. Given that energy is defined as ‘the ability to do work’ (indeed the SI unit for work — the joule — is identical to the SI unit for energy) it seems infinitely wiser to plan a solution that requires less work, rather than one that demands vastly more of it.
Regarding Neil’s comment about “Ireland’s looming catastrophe”, oddly enough, I don’t actually view Ireland’s dependence upon oil for power generation to be such a bad thing. Scratch that — I don’t think it has to be viewed that way (though it may well turn out to be). Because the depletion of natural gas is likely to begin several years after oil, Ireland will be forced to invest in alternative electricity production while the lights are still on elsewhere. If we handle it right, our oil dependence could result in Ireland getting a 5 year head start on many other places. If we spend this period investing in renewable power and energy conservation / demand reduction, we might be approaching some level of sustainability before global trade begins to contract significantly. Also, the size of our population in proportion to the amount of arable land available to us, puts us in a decent position in comparison to other nations.
I fundamentally disagree with Tim’s suggestion that “reducing energy consumption is harder than generating more energy”. It was certainly true in the past, but in a world that has passed the peak of oil production and conspicuously failed to implement any form of mitigation strategy (with the notable exception of Scandinavia), it is inevitable that energy consumption will drop. We won’t actually have a choice in the matter. The only question is how we shift our priorities to deal with this new state of affairs. If we deny it, or fight it, or “leave it to the market”, I believe we will face the catastrophe that an energy crisis is generally considered to entail. A combination of ecological and social collapse.
On the other hand, if we attempt a planned power-down of the economy, adopt an entirely new cultural ethos and abandon our obsession with profit and material growth, we may minimise the total damage and suffering; emerging from the other side of the crisis into a healthier and more balanced world.
The odds are stacked against us certainly, but I believe we can shorten those odds by adopting this ‘power-down’ approach.