“Some thoughts on nuclear energy and decarbonisation
“The word nuclear conjures deep horrors. I grew up in Lancaster in the 80s and 90s with the Heysham Nuclear Power Stations like two enormous bricks at the edge of the bay. Some of my friends’ parents worked there and it was their life-blood. Others, my own parents as CND activists included, counted it as something to be feared and all wrapped up with the Bomb.
For me as a child, the Chernobyl disaster was when I first gained an inkling of what the big “factories” on the coast were. Talk of radioactive sheep, whispers of leaks at Sellafield (and no I never went to the visitor’s centre) and childhood friends getting leukemia added further terror. I was even, age 9, in a play at the local theatre in which a shady government agent murdered a schoolteacher for daring to speak out against nuclear power. My view that nuclear power is a really bad and dangerous thing was utterly cemented.
Another early experience took me to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Powys. The possibilities of renewables and the realisation that there were cleaner ways to generate power suddenly became apparent – though it was much later when I realised that this was something that would need to happen at scale.”
“Every method of generating energy has drawbacks – there is no such thing as 100% clean, 100% safe or 100% reliable. Humans are fallible, and by extension any technology we create, is equally fallible. As a software engineer I’m very very aware of this.
Every method of generating energy has different strengths and weaknesses, but given that we are at the edge of the climate change abyss it’s pretty obvious that we absolutely must stop burning stuff. While significant progress has been made in reducing the carbon emissions from power generation in the UK over the past 30 years, through increased use of renewables and switching from coal to gas, we now really need to think about getting the gas out of the mix.
Wind turbines are noisy, a blot on the landscape (in the eyes of many) and when catastrophic failure does occur is insanely dangerous (albeit in a very localised area). You would not want to live directly underneath one. Hydro has environmental impacts on the places they are being sited and suitable sites are limited.
Energy storage solutions are either major engineering works in their own right (as per pumped storage) or if we are talking about battery-based solutions, very much not clean due to the cobalt and lithium involved in the production of batteries.
To mitigate the risks we need a mix. And we need a pipeline that helps us push for better solutions in the future. We need to be thinking both tactically as to what we can do right now to get out of this pickle, and strategically such that we don’t find ourselves in another one. Like hundreds of years strategically.”
“The big consumer we need to sort out is transport – a sector that has seen very little reduction in CO2 emissions for the past 30 years. If we intend to electrify all our rail and road transport, as we must, we will need to get the energy from somewhere.
Aviation likewise, if it is to be decarbonised, is likely to be done through power-to-liquid technologies or some future and as-yet-undiscovered battery technology. Either way, there’s yet more future demand for clean electricity.
Domestic heating likewise needs to go electric. Industrial energy use needs to go electric. The list goes on.
Sure, we need to look at demand reduction wherever possible (and modal shift in transport particularly) but even if you displace quite a bit of that demand we still will have a big energy gap to fill.”
“So the question now becomes, can an electricity supply based purely on renewables actually keep up with this hugely increased demand? Can we do it in as short a timeframe as possible? Can we do it without gobbling up vast swathes of landscape? What is our strategy here?
Let’s say we put photovoltaics on every domestic roof, as well as giving over big chunks of farmland to PV (while also rewilding, improving food security and animal welfare and generally improving the lot of agricultural workers).
Let’s say we find a few more places where we can do hydroelectric power (as I already mentioned, suitable sites, particularly in England are pretty limited).
Let’s say we build loads of off-shore wind and quite a bit of on-shore wind and some tidal lagoons. I think of the huge Walney Wind Farm which I now see in the distance beyond the humming concrete bricks of Heysham, which has a “nameplate capacity” of about 1GW but depending on which way the wind is literally blowing produces, on average, 43% of this figure.
Let’s say we use parked electric car batteries as an energy reservoir (while also significantly reducing the number of cars on the roads, getting the lithium from the sea and finding alternatives to cobalt, or more not-yet-invented battery tech).
Let’s say we build gravity-based energy storage into all our disused mineshafts.
There are a thousand other ideas out there and we must explore them all. BUT even if we do all this, is it going to be enough?
I think back to Heysham. The two nukes together do about 2.4GW, perhaps a bit less if some section is out of service. That’s a lot of power in not a lot of space.
The power stations remain strange, and terrifying. But I now see a certain beauty in them and suspect that we probably need them. Unless other magic happens, we are going to need more of them, done right, done well, done safely, and eventually decommissioned safely, and done in time to help us reverse climate change. How can we do that?
Someone please work out the numbers for me.”
Sam Easterby-Smith – GPEW member, Manchester