Why is anybody still considering nuclear?

The renewable energy world is incredibly dynamic right now. Almost every day I read of new innovations (today it was inflatable solar arrays), plummeting costs (solar is dropping 3-5% a year), and increasing rollouts.

But still more nuclear power stations are being conceptualised, and even attracting some support.

Why is nuclear still attracting support?

Nuclear or coal?

If the debate is framed as nuclear versus coal, there seems to be little question. Global warming, and the massive environmental costs of coal power generation make nuclear the obvious answer.

But framing the question in that limited way is ignoring the real solution – renewable energy.

Advantages of renewable

Unlike nuclear, renewable energy will not run out in any conceivable timescale, is inherently cheaper and less damaging as it require minimal raw material, has insignificant risks, does not depend on massive government control and centralisation, does not require utmost secrecy for our security and hence opportunity for corruption, does not require government to underwrite the insurance, does not depend on a single point of failure, does not take an inordinately long time to bring online and cannot be used as a smokescreen for weapons development.

So why would anyone consider nuclear instead of renewable?

Firstly, as far as global warming goes, nuclear is a lot more harmful than renewable. Industry pundits may claim it’s emission-free, but that’s only when looking at the actual power generation. Uranium needs to be mined, remember, and transported to the plant, and waste transported away. Include that, and nuclear contributes much more to global warming than renewable, where the carbon emissions are lower.

Nuclear requires massive government subsidies and intervention

Secondly, the playing field is completely skewed by government subsidies. Nuclear power stations cannot be insured commercially – government has to take this responsibility. Nuclear power stations are not viable commercially in their own right, they require massive government subsidies. As the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, said in the Economist, 9 November 2006, If governments do not facilitate the investment, I don’t think nuclear will fly. That’s borne out around the world, and South Africa is no exception

So, when the figures are presented, externalising the research costs, (as well as the disposal of nuclear waste, which proponents sweep under the carpet as a problem for some future generation to deal with), nuclear looks cheaper.

But it’s not. The external costs are real. And if governments subsidised renewable energy to the same degree, nuclear would not be cheaper.

Being massive, capital-intensive projects, they’ve almost always run over budget, and over time. Look at South Africa’s pebble bed reactor – with investors in short supply, and estimates creeping up every year, it’s ended up with government wasting our money filling the black hole.

Nuclear is not renewable!

If the entire world switched to nuclear, there’d be about 9 years of uranium supplies left. Uranium prices would shoot up, and there’d be a scramble to implement new technologies to get hold of more, such as that proposed by the nuclear industry to reprocessing radioactive spent fuel. Currently that’s extremely expensive and risky.

Also, renewable energy costs are dropping rapidly all the time. Even with this skewed environment, renewable energy will still be cheaper than nuclear in a few years time.

At this point, nuclear proponents can trot out a whole host of false and misleading claims by renewable energy vendors, or those looking for venture capital, as support for their case. Of course, there are lying, or being generous, overly-optimistic, vendors and investors in the renewable energy field too, but, when the research is done is done objectively, it’s clear that in a short space of time, renewable will be by far the best option.

The sun goes down, and the wind stops blowing

The next argument is that renewable energy can’t actually generate enough energy. After all the sun goes down, the wind stops blowing.

Let’s look at wind first. The greater the area, the more likelihood of the wind blowing. So, of course, if there was one wind-generated power station, and the wind stopped blowing at that location, there would be no energy produced.

But that’s silly – if you’re going to be basing a grid on renewable energy, you wouldn’t build one, you’d build many. Build enough over a wide-enough area, and you’ll always have some energy being produced. In the UK, the average generation is 25% of capacity. A well-sourced wind power facility generates on average annually 35% of its capacity. For coal, this figure is 70%, and for nuclear, 90%.

Yes, there are days when that’s far lower. It’s true that adding a certain capacity of wind generation, over a limited area, does not mean that you can remove the equivalent capacity elsewhere, as this may be required for backup. The devil’s in the detail – some detailed research has been done in the UK, but nothing in South Africa. How much energy can be produced, even on the least windy days?

And what about those balmy sunny days, when energy use is at its highest, with the air conditioners going full blast?

Add solar to the mix. Solar and wind complement each other well, since when one is not performing, the other usually is.

Here’s where the ‘But the sun doesn’t shine at night’ argument is brought out, as if that self-evidently destroys the viability of solar power.

Of course it doesn’t shine at night. Nor the wind blow all the time. That’s why you store a portion of the energy generated during the day, or the windy periods, so that the excess energy can be used at night. There are numerous perfectly viable ways of storing energy, that’s another topic altogether.

While wind tends to support decentralised model, with power generation having to come from multiple locations, solar allows both. You could quite easily have small scale solar power stations built all over the place, or you could have massive facilities built in the desert that supply power to most of the country, or region.

I personally like the small-scale model. Countries like Germany pay people for the excess electricity they generate. In their case, they pay back 8 times more than the going rate. Even at the same rate, suddenly it becomes viable for individuals to put solar panels on their roof, and instead of paying for electricity every month, they get a cheque in the post, and pay off their capital investment in a few years.

Try putting a nuclear reactor in your back garden.

Where’s it happening?

So where are the viable examples of renewable energy power generation?

It may be a surprise to some, but Texas leads the way in the US for wind power generation. At the end of 2006, the US state generated 2768 MW of wind capacity. Right now, other planned installations in Texas include a 3000MW facility, which will be the world’s largest, and four further facilities totalling between 2000 and 4000MW.

For solar, the largest example is SEGS, in California, with a 354 MW capacity.

Germany is world leader in solar technology, and research has indicated that Europe can do away with all nuclear plants, and reduce carbon emissions by 70%, by 2050, using North African solar power. While governments such as South Africa waste their time and money with yesterday’s technologies, Germany will be a leader in the new. There’s a certain irony that a cloudy European country can be a solar powerhouse.

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  1. I was surprised to read that Texas, home of oil barons, produces so much wind power. According to wiki global total installed wind generated capacity is 79,341 MW and the top producers of wind power are Germany, Spain, the US, India & Denmark. The US total contribution is 12,634 MW so Texas contributes over 20% to the US or almost 3.5% of the total amount! Also interesting to note that Shell Oil is behind the planned 3000MW wind farm.

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