River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Nuclear debate continues

September 2009

Ron answers some opf John Preston's comments in his article last month

Dear Ray

In his 'Nuclear Soapbox' last month John Preston disagreed with me that the Government made a mistake in delaying the decision to go for nuclear power and he uses challengeable figures and opinions to justify his view point. Perhaps the Pump is not the place to conduct a debate on the issue, but I do feel that I should respond.

It is true, as John said, that plutonium has a very long half life and it is a dangerous substance that requires handling with great care, but it may not be such a bete noir that many think that it is. The chemical toxicity of plutonium is fairly low, no worse than caffeine. Its radiation toxicity is such that external contact is not very hazardous, providing it is not in a critical mass, the alpha radiation will not penetrate the skin, the Queen held some plutonium in a plastic bag when she visited Harwell some time ago. If it is ingested with food it generally does not remain within the system long enough to do much damage. It is more dangerous to inhale particles, however, since they are likely to remain in the lungs and cause long term damage especially to the skeleton and the liver. Although the US Department of Energy states that to inhale 5,000 particles of average 3 microns in size only increases the cancer risk by 1% above the US average. Plutonium is, of course, a fissionable material and, in the appropriate form is the stuff of atomic bombs, but it is also a fuel.

It is true to say that nuclear fission as an energy source, will only be available to us for a limited period. The known reserves of uranium are such that, if they became the primary source of energy in the world they will result in a life for nuclear power not far beyond the twenty years that John suggests. Uranium does occur widely in the earth's crust, it is as ubiquitous as zinc and tin but mostly in low concentrations. Interest in Uranium waned during the last two decades of the twentieth century and exploration practically ceased. There has been renewed interest now, so much so that the known reserves increased by 15% between 2005 and 2007. As the price increases there are likely to be more deposits located. The possibility of extracting uranium from sea water has also been raised. The plutonium produced in reactors will also boost the available fissionable material. Thorium, of which there is thought to be three times as much as uranium, can also be converted to a fissionable material. More advanced reactors are also likely to increase the energy production from the fuels. Whilst nuclear fission does not offer a long term solution to the energy crisis, in my view it will almost certainly be a major energy source for at least the next 100 years, but it will not be cheap.

John conjures up an image of poor people displaced from their homes and plunged into poverty by unscrupulous companies mining uranium in open cast mines. This may be true in some instances but the largest reserves are in Australia and Canada. Australia, Canada, and the USA together have the major part of known deposits of economically recoverable uranium and I cannot see many companies getting away with exploitation of the natives in those countries. Neither is it necessarily true that the mining will do permanent damage, there are plenty of examples in this country of former extraction sites that have been restored to areas of natural beauty.

I do not agree with John that it is the evil energy companies that are driving the debate towards nuclear power. The fact is that businesses and industry are understandably insisting that they need their machines and their computers. People are not likely to be willing to give up their freezers, refrigerators, TVs, washing machines, etc. Neither are they keen on the idea that they will only work when the wind blows. It is these pressures that make the Government see it as essential to maintain the electricity supply whilst doing what it can to reduce demand.

John is quite correct, of course, to say that oil and gas production is unlikely to be able to meet the demand in the future. This has been well known for some time, I presented a paper to a meeting of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on 'Energy and the Automobile' as long ago as 1975 when, on the basis of the information available at the time, I predicted that oil production would peak in 2005. More finds than expected combined with improved extraction techniques have delayed the arrival of the peak, but it cannot be far away now. The period of cheap energy is nearing its end, the president of the SAE summarised the situation by stating that "we are approaching the tunnel at the end of the light". With this in mind, and the concerns over carbon-dioxide emissions, alternative sources have to be sought. Renewables may have a significant role to play, but, so far we have not produced 2% of our total electricity from wind turbines. Reduced demand may help, and I agree that there is much that can be achieved there. But in the end we will need a substantial amount of power from stations providing a base load and coal (with carbon capture - which I do believe will be achieved) and/or nuclear are the only realistic options. At the moment, nuclear is the only technology that is proven and available. I do agree, incidentally, that it is totally inappropriate that we should allow private companies to cream off profits from nuclear power whilst leaving the tax-payer to bear the principal costs.

John's 'soapbox' was directed against the use of nuclear power but the debate is no longer whether or not to build more nuclear power stations, the decision has been made. I readily accept that it was not an easy decision, there were strong arguments against but it seems that it was seen as the only viable option. My criticism was that we should have made the decision some time ago when we had more in-house expertise. We are now more dependent upon foreign expertise and currently we are very vulnerable to foreign suppliers of fuel. The delayed decision also means that we will find it more difficult to achieve the targets for reduced CO2 emissions.

Ron Watts

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