Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

 
Atomic Madeleines

I've mentioned in the past that, as a child of the Chernobyl cloud, arguments over the safety and desirability of nuclear power have a very Proustian feel to them for me. And with the British government's decision to commission an unprecedented and wildly uneconomic program of nuclear power stations, I haul "Nukes and Nukemen" from my archives …

Just a couple more points:

1. One of the points made in the review is that North Sea Oil is running out. Which is true, but on the other hand, I don't actually recall us striking North Sea Uranium. The raw material for nuclear fuel is under the ground in a lot of places which are in general, a little bit more politically unstable than the places where oil is found. If this power station building program goes ahead, I can be pretty confident that some time around 2015, we will discover that the government of South Africa is completely unacceptable and violates the norms of civilised society in a dreadful way and some such.

2. Nuclear power stations were whizzy modern things when the nukemen started up their dog and pony show, but they aren't any more. They're basically 1950s technology. Although there is an awful lot of difficult science which goes into making a nuclear reactor, once the reactor is up and running, the rest of the station is the same "jolly big kettle blowing steam into a windmill" that has been the basis of industrial power since James Watt.[1] Nearly all the efficiency improvements in the nuclear industry over the last fifty years consist of either a) improvements in the efficiency of turbines, etc, which are not specific to nuclear, or b) more efficient ways of solving safety and reliability problems particular to the nuclear industry. It is very hard to see where big cost-efficiency improvements come from in nuclear[2].

3. On the other hand, a hell of a lot of money is being put into renewables research and development at the moment. If the choice between nuclear and renewables is even close at present, it is going to massively favour renewables by the time the nuclear power plants come on stream. We appear to be locking ourselves into an obsolete path.

(edit) 4. The nuke lobbyist I saw on Newsnight last night had pulled out yet another of those half-truths that have had the nuclear industry wondering for fifty years why nobody trusts them. Apparently the trouble with wind-power is that "you can't just turn it on and off you know, it's not flexible and it can't be made to respond to demand". Which is true so far as it goes, but this is also true of every other method of generating electricity except gas. The need for storage is particularly pronounced for nuke stations - some significant proportion of the electricity produced by the nuclear plants in North Wales was used in pumping water from Llyn Padarn to Marchlyn Mawr, 500 metres vertically upward through tunnels dug into Elidir Fawr, so it could fall back down through the Dinorwig pump storage scheme.

Nuclear power is just basically the answer to a question that nobody asked. It is zero-carbon in operation, but that's about the only good thing you can say about it, and it rather points out how bad a criterion for judging anything CO2/kW is rather than anything else. This is one case in which the free market's verdict is correct.

[1] Actually Heronas of Alexandria, of course, and yes I do know that Watt actually invented the reciprocating piston engine and thus doesn't have much to do with turbines, but somehow the sentence looked nicer that way.

[2] Vitrification of nuclear waste on an industrial scale would make the disposal problem a lot cheaper, but since you have to basically assume this problem out of existence in order to get any nuke scheme through a laugh test anyway, I don't want to double-count this.

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