The only reliable source of green energy is nuclear
Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Oxford, UK
Civilisation is at a turning point, and in that the demonstrators about climate change are right. The foundation of the Industrial Revolution that brought two centuries of improving living standards is cracked, and our affair with fossil fuels should be at an end. But to keep the public on board as we switch to a more environmental fuel policy we should start an open discussion on energy.
For over a century the public at large has become accustomed to a solution being found every time a need is encountered. This has created the illusion of a seemingly predictable social trajectory called "progress". When natural fertiliser ran short, artificial fertiliser became available; when whale oil for lamps ran out, mineral oil and gas were used instead; recent advances in transport, electronics, hygiene and antibiotics brought improvements to life with little downside. But now with the onset of climate change rather careful decisions have to be made to stabilise the future of society and nature.
So, what should replace fossil fuels? What are the scientific and technical possibilities for energy? Natural science tells us, for instance, that energy cannot be created – for years inventors made futile attempts to build a perpetual motion machine. Another law of natural science says that any store of energy left on its own tends to dissipate - for instance, water tries to flow downhill, not uphill. No ingenious technology, enforced regulation, generous funding can overcome these laws of nature.
The same uncompromising message was given just a thousand years ago by King Canute to his nobles when he demonstrated that even he with all his authority could not stop the tide advancing on the sea shore. In fact, the science of energy is now well understood and no new primary source has been found for 120 years. It would be foolish to suppose that a new one might pop up now just because we need it. It would be better to help more people to understand the sources we already have.
Most familiar are the sources of energy powered directly or indirectly by the daily and seasonal sunshine, including hydro, wind, wave, bio and solar power itself. The energy of these is weak – to harvest enough energy for our needs a power plant has to be vast, seriously impacting the environment in the process and making it a sitting duck for damage by extreme weather. Worse, the energy delivered is generally unpredictable. Before the Industrial Revolution these renewables were the only sources of energy and their irregularity curtailed life, such that the population was small, life short and conditions wretched. Modern technology cannot make these renewables regular, although it can increase the size of the plant magnifying the scars they inflict on nature. The current enthusiasm for renewables in the name of the environment is contradictory – in no way are they "green".
Two centuries ago the shortcomings of renewables appeared to be solved with the advent of fossil fuels and the Industrial Revolution. Energy with a thousand times the density became available 24/7, and for 200 years the machinations of politics and economics were focussed on the question of who had access to such fuel and who did not.
But now everybody is aware of the effect of the carbon dioxide in the environment. Evidently fossil fuels are not sustainable. Although this build-up was gradual, few acknowledged the early signs of the developing existential threat.
Without fossil fuels the huge advances of civilisation – health, life expectancy, population, humane and democratic values - are at risk. Faced by the threat of climate change the instinctive reaction is to revert to earlier sources. The renewables may seem familiar and natural, but they cannot deliver today’s needs. The only other primary source of energy is nuclear. This solution would require many nuclear power stations: some of proven design like EPR at Hinkley Point C; more of new and compact designs, such as those offered by Moltex, NuScale, Rolls Royce, ThorCon and others.
Faced with an existential threat, the speed with which nuclear stations can be built depends on resources and public acceptance, rather than money and regulatory hurdles. The limiting resource is the know-how and experience of the work force – and public education too.
An example of effective public education is the instruction and confidence given to school children in Japan about earthquakes and tsunamis. Everyone there knows what to do as soon as an earthquake strikes. Consequently, when the exceptional earthquake occurred in March 2011, 96% of those in the inundated region managed to reach safety in time before the tsunami arrived. Although over 18,000 died, society understood and the wound began to heal.
The opposite happened after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. There was a total absence of training and education, not only of the public, but of the authorities too. The same was true worldwide. Nobody was hurt by the radiation, but the panic caused serious social damage to society, locally and internationally. The substitution of fossil fuels for nuclear power increased emissions. Huge sums of money were spent unnecessarily in the name of safety and also to compensate for the effect of the radiation that was harmless and for the evacuation that was unnecessary.
In fact this was a spectacular demonstration that nuclear energy is safe. Even at Chernobyl, the worst possible nuclear accident, the death toll was less than one percent of that at Bhopal in 1984 and 1/5000 of the number at the Banqiao Dam collapse in 1975.
Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has chosen to hype and fictionalise nuclear accidents as a source of fear and excitement – as they also do with murder mysteries and did with cowboys and Indians years ago. The reason for their choice dates back to the drama of the Cold War when everyone learnt to be frightened of nuclear.
The culture of nuclear phobia shields powerful fossil fuel interests, who now see partnering renewable as their best chance in the future. However, in Germany this policy has been a disaster. After an investment of 160 billion euros in renewables carbon emissions have not reduced.
Yet this phobia is short sighted. Everybody welcomes the use of nuclear technology for personal health in a clinic. In the same way we would now do well to welcome it to provide carbon-free energy too. Nuclear energy is available everyday around the clock. Its fuel is widely distributed. It is what the world needs right now. Its rollout is limited only by education: experience and know-how for the industrial manpower; science-related confidence and reassurance for the public.
Our children should insist that the right solution is put in place and understood. Instead of demonstrating the Extinction Rebellion students should spend their Fridays learning about nuclear energy within wider studies of natural science. And we should learn too.
Nature and Nuclear Power,
the hills and valleys will be thankful and every creature rejoice!
Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Oxford, UK
A canary, alive and singing in the coal mine, gave miners confidence that the air was safe to breathe. But today our problem is not carbon monoxide in a mine but carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. The Industrial Revolution was built on fossil fuel, its high energy density and reliability. Now, faced with climate change, we should give it up! But what should we use instead? And where is the guidance, as unequivocal as that of the canary, that should give everybody confidence in its safety?
It is a curious reaction to suppose that our problems can be solved by going back to pre-industrial-revolution sources like wood, wind and water. These were weak and unreliable then, and remain so. To harvest enough energy today their plants have to be built on a huge scale and the environmental damage they do is plain for all to see. How can vast flooded rivers, hillsides and meadows plastered with solar panels and the destruction of virgin forest be described as “green”? But the unreliability of “renewables” is an even greater failure and one that will not be bridged by an advance in energy storage on the scale needed. Secondary energy sources such as hydrogen or batteries are not “pre-charged” and have to be filled from a primary energy source.
The only other available pre-filled source known to physical science is nuclear. Fission using uranium or thorium has an energy density a million times that of coal, so little fuel is needed and little waste generated. As a result power plants can be made compact and robust with a negligible impact on the environment.
The only snag has been that nuclear frightens people, delaying construction and deterring investors. But does the evidence justify their concern? In the light of the official radiation safety regulations many tens of thousands were expected to die from the Chernobyl accident. The surrounding area was expected to be uninhabitable for a very long time and was left deserted except for wild animals roaming at will in the radioactive environment. Like a canary left in a gas-filled mine many were expected to die. But over the years many reports have told that the area has become a wildlife park in all but name. Pictures taken by BBC, National Geographic and others show animals thriving unmolested by humans.
So what went wrong? Do the animals know something that we don't? “But they know nothing!” Dr Watson might say, to which Sherlock Holmes might reply “Quite so. But may be something that we think we know is not in fact the case.”
That radioactivity and its radiation are relatively harmless was confirmed by the human casualty figures from radiation at Chernobyl. Instead of thousands the list comprises 28 early firefighters and 15 fatal cases of child thyroid cancer. The story was repeated at Fukushima. Of course the tsunami was very exciting – that kind of news sells – and I watched in fascinated horror like everybody else. But the nuclear accident was quite different. Although it was labelled a disaster in the highest category, nobody at all was affected by the radiation. Just as at Chernobyl the serious damage was social and economic. In particular, alarmed authorities in Japan, Germany, USA and around the world turned off nuclear power stations and burnt fossil fuels instead. This disaster continues at the expense of the environment.
The popular worry about nuclear technology is simply mistaken. It is about a thousand times safer than regulations suggest. Many benefit from the use of quite high doses of radiation in clinical medicine as pioneered by Marie Curie to diagnose and cure cancer. The draconian regulations were introduced to appease popular concerns about radiation, inflamed by the nuclear arms race at the time of the cold war. How that happened is another story. Today it is important that young people learn the truth about nuclear science and what it can do to benefit the economy and the environment.
The only realistic mitigation of climate change is the deployment of nuclear power on a grand scale. Running steadily it can provide waste heat and, at times of reduced demand, make hydrogen for chemicals, transport and domestic gas. We cannot do it? Of course we can! We should build modular power stations on a production-line basis, as US shipyards built Liberty ships in WWII. Many designs for such modular power stations are already in competition to come to market. Those investors who choose nuclear will be running the new industrial revolution. Better still, the curse of the renewables will be lifted from the fish in the rivers, the birds in the air and the grass in the meadows.