I have always been an advocate of nuclear energy, both of the potential behind the fissioning of uranium atoms and the possibilities of replacing fossil fuel generation with a mixture of this and renewables. Despite the seemingly final drawing of the curtain on nuclear and the industry, the ‘multiple disasters’ and the almost complete shunning of it in much of the public’s eye, I’ve kept to my original path and not wavered from the idea.
My reasons for this continued attraction? It’s a combination of many things, including those two mentioned in the opening sentence, alongside factors such as what I perceive as a hugely over-exaggerated waste issue, poor economic and political structure leading to the demise of nuclear which could be rectified, and a simple but strong belief that it could be a big solution to the biggest of our problems, climate change and energy security.
It was with glee then that I came across the book ‘Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air’ by David Mackay, a gloriously down-to-earth scientific guide to the entire sustainability debate, written by the chief science advisor to DECC and a Cambridge professor. In it, he thinks of every conceivable part of the energy puzzle, such as renewable production and everyday consumption, decarbonising and electrifying, but with a view I’ve yet to see replicated prior to and since my find. Mackay takes the highest level approach he can to the subject, sparing all the bull**** you normally find in policy and debate, giving you the bare facts in kWh and daily use, comparing heat pumps to freight transport and more, all the while tallying up a chart detailing the chances of us (he focuses on the UK but covers much of the world in examples) powering our Western lives on renewables alone. The verdict…not so good, unless some radical but obvious solutions are observed and carried out.
Within this wonderful book, and forgive my plugging, but it really is good and free to download at that, one chapter really jumped out at me from the pages; this was the nuclear chapter.
Both fission and its lesser mentioned but God-like cousin fusion are covered, with the same no-crap analysis which is sorely missing from much of the science and public dialogue. Throughout the rest of this post, I would like to pick some of the most powerfully simple and shocking pieces of data which will hopefully make you think twice the next time you hear about nuclear in the media, a media which often skews the information to their own devious ends. Of course, when you see such words and numbers, all credit is to David Mackay and his book, in which he urges anybody to use his data to send a message, something I plan on doing here.
Waste is the first bad thing on the list of ‘Without Hot Air’, and is a commonly used weapon in the fight against nuclear energy. While it is true that radioactive waste from current gen plants sticks around for thousands of years, the exact details are often smeared. Nuclear waste is minuscule in relation to our dirtier fancy coal and oil, even gas, with roughly 30kg of carbon dioxide waste for every Brit with average consumption, and that’s not mentioning the other foul and radioactive stuff being thrown up by the mining, extracting and refining of this captured sunlight, which is estimated by various studies to include uranium (coal ash) and be more dangerous to localised areas than a nuclear plant. Now obviously, trying to compare CO2 waste with radioactive nuke waste is poor science, but the takeaway point here is that 1) nuclear waste is tiny in volume and often present in fossil fuel processes anyway, but this doesn’t instantly mean it is less damaging to health. Or is it?
Just 3% of standard uranium-burning fission is high-level waste, about 25ml a year of it from all UK reactors, and is the stuff which requires serious cooling and burial to keep us all safe. Over its reactive half-life of 1000 years, levels drop back down to similar rates to uranium ore and are no longer such a threat to society; a long time yes, but not ridiculously long. If the entire volume of high-level waste were buried somewhere out of the way in British soil, including all historic and projected waste into 2120, it would take up roughly 45 Olympic-sized swimming pools, not a particularly large space to find room for really, especially when you compare this to the hundreds of kgs of municipal waste and so-called ‘hazardous’ waste (87kg a year) pumped out per person in the UK. Lovely stuff.
This next graph is one of my favourite pieces of data collection and portrayal in the science of energy, and prompted me to right this piece in the first place. Above we see a graph from ‘Without Hot Air’ showing deaths per GW year in the UK, with a GWy being equal to constant output for a year from a 1GW power plant, with various energy sources for comparison. Blue crosses are from an EU project study, and red Os the Paul Scherrer Institute. Straightaway it is obvious that nuclear is nowhere near as high up on the graph as many would have us believe, and is in actual fact sitting well in first place for lowest deaths per GWy. Coal and oil are absolute killers in this context, with over 4 deaths per GWy for oil, meaning that an average consumption of 45GW from an all oil mix would lead to 180 deaths per year in the UK, contrasted with just 9 deaths per year by all-nuclear. Even wind, with its supposedly high murder rates comes in at 2nd, with hydro 3rd if the EU project data is used. Let’s take a closer look at this stuff.
To clear up the large disparity between the hydroelectricity figures quickly, this is due to variance in the locations used for each study, with one area seemingly one where deaths in dam construction/manufacturing/usage were higher. Average these two out, and hydro falls just behind natural gas in terms of deaths, but without all that extra carbon and heat to worry about.
Now some of you are no doubt screaming ‘Fukushima!’ or ‘Chernobyl’ at the screen as you read this, so why don’t we discuss this briefly. Historically, Britain has experienced 1 death within the nuclear industry, much much lower than any of the fossil fuels we still seem to be using today, but as I’m sure you can understand, a worldwide estimate is much harder to obtain. When 3-Mile Island went all meltdown on us, it’s predicted that no-one died directly, and maybe one person since, but that was really nothing, let us move onto something bigger. Chernobyl, upon explosion, killed 62 almost instantly from exposure, and another 15 locals later from thyroid cancer; here comes the tricky part. It is then further estimated that 4,000 Russians died of cancer, with 5,000 worldwide who were exposed to fallout, totalling just over 9,000 proposed deaths because of a nuclear accident.
What is extremely difficult to pin down here is the reason for these deaths. Cancer is a disease which occurs whether nuclear fallout is present or not, and roughly 25% of European cancer deaths are associated with passive natural radiation, such as from argon gas, naturally-occurring nuclear material in soils/oceans/rocks or power generation of any non-renewable type, and therefore to blame these deaths on Chernobyl alone is highly tenuous and potentially risky. This is the same case for the most recent ‘disaster’ Fukushima, which also exploded and belched fallout all over Japan. Until now, no-one has died directly or indirectly due to the accident, and radiation levels are well-below the maximum rate for habitation. Even though kms of land around the plant were evacuated, a tragic and emotional disaster for the Japanese citizens living there, the actual deaths and damages to health don’t even register in the data. This is still early days, but I would imagine even with the apparently terrible safety management of Fukushima both during and after, deaths in double figures will be very unlikely.
Just to appease those still not convinced, factoring in the 9,000 deaths from Chernobyl against the entire history of global nuclear production (remember, this number is high only because of Chernobyl; no other disasters add more than 15-20 to the total), we get a figure of 2.4 deaths per GWy, putting nuclear above peat and lignite ignition, but still below oil and coal, or just oil if the ‘red cross’ coal data is used.
This is the absolute key point of this entire post - even when including cancer deaths from these so-called ‘nuclear disasters’, historical deaths from the industry are still beaten by coal and oil, and by practically everything else when the Chernobyl data is removed, even wind. So why do we insist on shutting down nuclear and protesting against its severe risks to health and let coal, oil and gas continue doing their thing, when they are so much worse for our mortality? Absolutely beats the hell out of me for sure.
Anyway, moving on to less sombre themes; energy production from nuclear fission. Mackay calculates everything in kWh/d (per day) for ease of cross-board evaluation. For reference, the average UK per capita consumption (at the time of writing his book) was 125kWh/d. Current gen reactors, which feed off uranium, burn roughly 1% of it for energy and leave the rest as waste, could produce as much as 7-8kWh/d if all possible resources are used and the energy produced spread amongst the world population of 6bn then, now 7bn, meaning figures will be reduced slightly. If however, fast-breeder reactors are implemented, which not only use uranium for fuel but the waste produced by old reactors, burning them with well over 60x more efficiency, these rates could increase to almost 460kWh/d!
Whilst fast-breeders are more expensive and not too fashionable in the current energy landscape, the waste produced is barely radioactive and can be easily stowed away compared to uranium waste, something we’ve just discussed as one of the main reasons people hate nuclear. It is also worth telling you that these figures are for a time period of 1000 years use, an attempt at calculating a ‘sustainable’ level and include ocean-mined uranium, which is, as it stands, hugely costly and relatively untested in the field, but holds the key to a massive reservoir of nuclear fuel. If this source is removed, old-school fission produces just 0.6-0.7kWh/d whilst fast-breeders pump out 38kWh/d, still a sizeable chunk of daily consumption. In Britain, 55 1GW reactors would be required to fulfil most of our decarbonisation wants, which equates to roughly 2% of our coastline devoted to the plants - not too bad considering that would eliminate our need to import any form of fossil fuel and would allow us the energy security we so desperately need.
Finally, another form of nuclear energy worth noting, is that of fusion, a concept I have eagerly followed in apprehension of the final day a plant is turned on and almost-infinte clean energy is produced; it’s a daydream of course, but it is getting there.
There are two types of fusion covered in this book, the lithium-based deuterium-tritium reaction, the more preferred and currently under experimentation one, and the deuterium-deuterium reaction, which requires 3x hotter temperatures and doesn’t yield as much energy. DT fusion could provide as much as 115+kWh/d per person globally (6bn), almost enough to keep us all going at near-European standards of living, whereas DD fusion, if cracked, could provide a ridiculously huge 30,000kWh/d per person, and what’s even nicer is that fusion fuel is so basic and common, that these energy figures could be sustained for up to a MILLION YEARS. I hope you were sitting down.
Of course fusion is a long way off, at least 30-40 years, and on this scale almost impossible, but it’s worth noting these things to remind us how many other options there are out there.
On a side note, a friend told me an interesting view on fusion which I hadn’t ever thought of - if everyone in the world powered their stuff via fusion, a practically free, clean and limitless energy source, the gorging on technology globally would be just obscene. As everything we use involved with energy and power loses some of its juice in the form of heat, he proposed that in a world like this, the heat from appliances and wires alone would be enough to counter the very carbon-induced climate change we sought to eliminate. Cool huh? Well not cool as such, but intriguing. However, it seems Mackay thought of this too, calculating the extra power a planet of Westerners using 125kWh/d of power would equal; 0.1W/m2 apparently, just 1/40th of the estimated extra 4W/m2 we take as the limit to global warming due to GHGs. So maybe it isn’t such a likely scenario…then again, who knows how many kWh/d humans will be using in the future; it could be a lot more than 125kWh/d, of that I’m sure.
So in summary, no, nuclear is nowhere near as deadly, useless and failure-prone as we make out, and hopefully this post has helped you see that a bit more clearly. It may be bloody expensive at the moment, but that is a function of the manufacturing and construction side of things, not the fuel, and can be remedied by smarter policy and regulation and a fostering of confidence between contractors and suppliers, especially in respect to the fast-breeder reactors and next-gen plants, which boast better efficiencies, safer building techniques and less waste.
I’ve spent my time writing this post plucking the good bits from just one small chapter of this mighty book, and even I am only halfway through, so I have no doubt not done it proper justice. Therefore, I ask of you this; go and download this book, dip in and out of it, read the whole thing or just sneer at it, but I promise you it will make you think differently about all things energy, and might make us that bit smarter and more cautious in a world of renewable bashing.
‘Without Hot Air’ download link - http://www.withouthotair.com