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Development, Sustainability and Environment

Tilting at Windmills
by Caspar J M Hewett

Proceedings of the Energy Futures discussion held as part of The Great Debate:
Development, Sustainability and Environment
conference, 15th October 2005

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The chair Dave O'Toole of The Great Debate opened the session with a brief introduction to the topic – the future of energy production and introduced the three speakers: Ian Burdon, Chair of the North East Renewable Energy Group, Sir Bernard Ingham, secretary to Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE) and Professor Keith Barnham, representing Scientists for Global Responsibility

Ian Burdon is a Vice-President and Senior Professional Associate of PB Power in Newcastle upon Tyne. He heads up the Sustainable Energy Developments Group and has been associated with projects in renewable energy and energy from waste for many years. He has recently been appointed by Government Office–North East to chair the Renewables Executive, and is a member of the Energy Policy Partnership set up by DTI to oversee attainment of Energy White Paper targets in North East England. He is currently responsible for the development of a strategy for implementing the “Energy Works Eastgate” project which will see renewable energy act as a catalyst for the regeneration of the former Lafarge cement works site in Weardale in the North Pennines. He is an external lecturer on project-based management at the University of Durham Business School and a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers where he is Vice-Chairman of the Power Conversion and Applications Professional Network. He is also an active Member of the Energy, Environment and Sustainability Group of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and is a member also of their Renewable Power Committee. He chairs the Power Generation Working Group of the Environmental Services Association and is a member of their Renewable Energy Committee.

Sir Bernard Ingham Sir Bernard Ingham was a journalist for 18 years on his local weekly, the Hebden Bridge Times, then Yorkshire Evening Post, Yorkshire Post and The Guardian before becoming a temporary Civil Servant in 1967. He intended to return to Fleet Street after two years but it took 24 years. In between times he was press secretary in first the Department of Employment (to Barbara Castle, Robert Carr and Maurice Macmillan) and then in the Department of Energy (to Lord Carrington, Eric Varley and Tony Benn). For the last two years of his time in D/Energy he was first head of the energy conservation policy division which included renewables. He was asked to be Mrs Thatcher's Chief Press Secretary in No 10 in 1979 without having known or met her and remained in that position until she resigned and he retired in 1990. Since then he has been a columnist, broadcaster, author and consultant and is currently Secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy, a pressure group of individuals.

Keith Barnham Keith Barnham is a professor of physics at Imperial College London. He started his research career in what used to be called "High Energy Nuclear Physics" at CERN and at Berkeley, California. In 1989 he switched to the study of "Photovoltaics" partly as a result of a study he made on plutonium production in U.K. civil nuclear reactors with colleagues in SANA. SANA were Scientists Against Nuclear Arms the predecessor of Scientists for Global Reponsibility (SGR) who he was representing in the current debate.

Ian Burdon first outlined the problem as he sees it: Climate change is an urgent issue that demands clear and decisive action. He described it as one of the most complex, multi-layered and inter-disciplinary intellectual puzzles that face the inhabitants of our planet today. It mingles geology, oceanography, biology, atmospheric chemistry, technology, design and innovation, economics, geography, politics, sociology, philosophy and ethics – and manifests itself as the interaction between four key concepts: globalisation, uncertainty, governance and sustainability. He argued that understanding how and why the issue of climate change has emerged so rapidly onto the international political agenda, and what implications this may have for sustainable development for the rest of this century, requires clear and logical thinking through the issues. At the heart of the matter are the contributions that gases, emitted to the atmosphere as a result of human activity (principally carbon dioxide and methane that cause the "greenhouse effect") have upon climate change. He asked the audience to consider the following facts: Research shows that proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere was steadily increasing for the last 40 years; The 20th century was the warmest century globally in the last 10,000 years; the 1990s was the warmest decade on record with 1998 being the warmest year; The 10 warmest years in global meteorological history occurred in the last 15 years; The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the planet will warm-up by 1.4 – 5.8 degs over the next 100 years. Such a rise is without precedent over the last 10,000 years.

Ian Burdon then said that it may come as a surprise to the audience, and a blow to his colleagues on the Regional Renewables Group that he chairs, that he is a staunch and passionate supporter of nuclear power. Much of his working life has been geared towards promoting the use of the energy that nuclear reactions create. Despite the inherent concerns with financial risk and safety, he sees no other way to solve the world’s growing energy demands. He stated how wonderful nuclear power is referring to the ‘endless sound of waves as they lap the harbour walls and crash along the coastline’, the ‘scowl of wind as it sweeps our national parks’ and ‘the never-ending force of water falling from the reservoir at Kielder’ – describing all of these as a fantastic use of nuclear energy.

He went on to explain what he meant: All sources of energy are based on the natural and interconnected flows of energy in our Universe that were borne 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second (10-43 seconds) after the Big Bang over 14 billion years ago. At that instant in time, four fundamental forces of nature were created that would govern the interaction of every single particle of matter in the Universe. These forces, weak, strong, electromagnetic and gravitational, are each of different strength and act over different scales. They govern the creation and interaction of the elementary particles known as neutrinos, the attractive force that holds protons and neutrons together to form atomic nuclei and drive chemical reactions, bind individual objects to one another, help us levitate in our seats and hold our moon in orbit around the Earth as we circle the Sun. At some point nearly 4.5 billion years ago stardust collected under a combination of these forces in the region of our solar system where nine planets, a couple of asteroids and the Sun were formed. The Sun contains more than 99.8% of the total mass of the Solar System (Jupiter contains most of the rest). The Sun’s nuclear reaction being the source of all life on Earth. At its core, the Sun’s immense gravity contracts all of its mass inwards and creates an intense pressure high enough to force atoms of hydrogen to come together in nuclear fusion reactions that create helium and energy. One million years later, via a process of convection, energy from the core of the Sun eventually reaches its surface and 8 minutes afterwards hits the surface of the Earth. The solar energy received as radiation from the Sun’s nuclear fusion process far exceeds any amount that mankind – not for the lack of trying – could use. By heating the planet, the Sun generates wind. Wind creates waves. The Sun also powers the evapo-transpiration cycle, which allows water to generate power in hydro schemes – currently the largest source of renewable electricity in use today. Photosynthesis in plants, which is essentially a chemical storage of solar energy, creates a wide range of so-called biomass products ranging from wood fuel to rapeseed, which can be used for heat, electricity and liquid fuels. Interactions with the moon produces tidal flows, which can be intercepted and used also to produce electricity.

In this grand transformation of energy from one form to another - where energy is neither created nor destroyed - it will be the choice of mankind to carefully select the most convenient and sensible point at which to capture the process of transformation from one form to another. For Burdon it was the location of this ‘sensible point’ that was at the heart of the debate. So, what is that sensible point and where does nuclear fission fit in?

He invited the audience to suppose that there is no alternative to nuclear power stations and time is short, that there was no opposition to the building of nuclear power plant. If issues of waste, pollution, their proximity to homes and safety posed no concern we would, no doubt, build nuclear power stations across the land and there would be no need for this debate. However this is clearly not the case. We must face these issues and respond to them. We must look at the chain of energy transformations that all stem from the nuclear fusion process in the Sun and end in the crashing waves and gale-force winds and decide where the most sensible, convenient, point at which to tap into this vast energy source lies. ‘Sensible’ for society means having specific and acceptable attributes such as capacity, cost, safety, reliability and effect upon the environment.

Ian Burdon believes that this point is physically located as far away from the incipient nuclear reaction as possible. The nuclear power plants that exist at Torness and Hartlepool, and those of the future that were under debate, locate their electro-mechanical equipment – the bits that convert the steam raised by heat from the energy expounded from the nuclear fission process - at a point extremely close to the nuclear reaction. Conventional coal and gas-fired plants operate on the same principle. Their turbines and generators are of near-exact design, type and size – manufactured by the same companies - and physically located as close to the source of heat emitted as a by-product of this energy conversion process. In the process of nuclear fission, heavy atoms such as Uranium split under extreme impact with a neutron – whilst fusion, we have seen, binds atoms together releasing enormous amounts of energy compared to fission. To appreciate the magnitude of the energy released in fusion and fission reactions, consider that the burning of 1 kg of Deuterium and Tritium in fusion reactions releases the same energy as burning ~10 million kg of coal, and the fission of 1 kg of Uranium releases the equivalent of burning 12,000 barrels of oil. It is this fusing of atoms in the Sun that kick-starts the process that we see, hear and feel on Earth as meteorological, oceanographic and atmospheric energy. Burdon contends that this is far further down the chain in this never-ending series of energy transformations, far from the point of nuclear binding, that the society should sensibly concentrate on harnessing the energy released. He argued that we should not judge the relative merits of these nuclear processes on energy yield alone, but mankind’s empirical measures: capacity, cost, safety, reliability and effect upon the environment.

Looking at what these resources are Ian Burdon pointed out that over vast areas of the developing world, the incident solar energy is 2000-2700 kWh per square metre of ground occupied per year. Solar-thermal power stations could convert more than 20% of this to electricity and photovoltaics now on the market could convert about 15% of it. This is more than two orders of magnitude higher than the energy produced by common crops and wood from an equivalent area of land. All of the world's future energy demands could, in theory, be met by solar devices occupying about 1% of the land now used for crops and pasture; or the same area of land currently inundated by hydro-electric schemes, the electricity yield per unit area of solar technologies being 50-100 times that of an average hydro scheme. In addition to this, Britain has an abundance of other renewable energy sources that could be tapped into on a large scale such as tidal and wind power.

Turning to the issue of greenhouse gases Ian Burdon asked whether, even with a major nuclear building programme, it would make much difference in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions. The IAEA’s most recent review of the sector looked at two different scenarios. In the first, in which no new nuclear stations beyond those already planned get built they found: “Nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation decreases after 2010 to 12% in 2030, compared to 16% in 2002” meaning that its relative contribution to fighting global warming falls also. Even a report produced in 2004 by the IAEA to mark the 50th anniversary of nuclear power conceded that it could not stop climate change.

In conclusion Ian Burdon highilghted the government’s commitment to ‘evidence-based policy’ which he felt should rule out a nuclear comeback. He argued that the limited criteria of cost and security are enough to direct the UK down the path of renewable energy. He pointed out that the total amount of incoming solar energy absorbed by the Earth and its atmosphere in one year is equivalent to 15-20 times the amount of energy stored in all of the world’s reserves of recoverable hydrocarbons. This means that if just 0.005% of this solar energy could be captured, using fuel crops, specially designed buildings, wind and water turbines, solar collectors, wave energy convertors and the like, it would supply more useful energy over the year than is currently obtained by burning fossil fuels. With existing and proven technologies, renewable energy offers safe, reliable, clean, local and increasingly cost-effective, alternatives for all our energy needs. Combined with the rational use of energy, renewable energy can provide everything fossil fuels currently offer for heating and cooling, electricity, transport fuels and chemicals where biofuels can provide a wide range of products currently based on oil and gas.

Bernard Ingham began his introduction by addressing two questions: What is the future of power generation and why does it divide us? His answer to the first question is that the future will inevitably be a mix of sources with a substantial nuclear element. He berated those against nuclear power for their misrepresentation and ignorance and for exhibiting what he described as ‘red flag syndrome.’ He argued for a need to bring some sanity to the issue, saying that what matters is the kind of economy you have – we need power, for without it there would be no jobs and we would be looking forward to a cold, dark, fearful future. Prosperity and a good clean environment go together. Sir Bernard then argued that the method of securing the future of energy production is staring us in the face – it may be uncomfortable for many, but nuclear power will be an essential ingredient. He drew attention to the remarkable safety record of the industry, not resulting in a single death in decades while 30-40 people are killed in coal mines every year. So what is stopping us? For Bernard it is only irrational fear. He asked the audience to consider Chernobyl which, despite wildly exaggerated claims, has only resulted in 57 deaths according to a recent UN report. What is more the incident at Chernobyl was not a nuclear accident but was rather the result of irresponsibility in its operation. The famous incident at Three Mile Island which is so often cited as a good example of the risk associated with nuclear reactors was confined because the safety system worked. Nuclear power stations are not even a significant source of radiation in the environment. The radiation one receives in the course of a number of standard medical treatments is far more significant than the radiation in the vicinity of nuclear power stations and yet nobody objects to the use of radioactive tracers or X rays.

Sir Bernard went on to deal with a whole range of objections one after another: On nuclear proliferation he had no doubt that international control is required, but made the point that we cannot uninvent nuclear energy; He conceded that terrorism should be taken seriously, but made the case that nuclear weapons are not the best option for terrorists; On waste he stated that it only takes 500 years for the radioactive material to decay to a level where its emissions are comparable to background radiation levels and argued for covering waste in artificial hills on which could be built facilities such as ski slopes; On the question of a supposed shortage of Uranium he claimed that it is not real – if we need it we will mine it; On the common objection that nuclear energy is expensive he stated that it only costs 2-3p per kWhr, while wind power costs some two to three times that much.

Moving on to alternatives Sir Bernard asked what will we replace coal with if we want to get rid of it? Wind turbines take up a huge amount of space and fail to generate sufficient energy to fulfil our needs. Similarly, if we wanted to move over to bio-oil we would need to farm an area the size of Scotland to grow sufficient crops. We need 60,000 MW to keep the country going thus reality is staring us in the face according to Sir Bernard – it is time to get real. There is no point putting our hope in fusion – that possibility is said to be 30 years away, but has been 30 years away for more than 30 years and will probably remain 30 years away. We need energy and a combination of sources which includes nuclear as a significant component is the only reasonable solution.

The last speaker, Keith Barnham, gave a very different style of presentation backed by power point. He specifically took up the argument against nuclear power, entitling his talk ‘Nuclear – why not?’ His first objection to nuclear energy was the terrorist threat, making the point that UK reactors and waste facilities are potential terrorist targets and quoting a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology Report from July 2004 which stated that “No reactors have been designed specifically to withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft.” Showing a photograph of the damage that can be done by a light aircraft that had hit a building after a ‘copy cat’ incident following 9/11 he added that at best the protection of nuclear facilities in the UK was designed to withstand the impact of a light aircraft. He also quoted a figure from a 2002 report to the Commons Defence Committee that a release from Sellafield of less than 1% of the Plutonium in a smoke plume could require evacuation of an area extending to Newcastle.

Moving on to the problem of waste Professor Barnham drew attention to the deadly properties of Plutonium: Death within months can result from inhalation of a mere 0.000003 kg; The quantity required to devastate a city with a bomb is approximately 5kg; Reprocessing of UK civil nuclear waste has generated about 60,000 kg; and the time for Pu-239 in UK civil stockpile to decay to the radiation level of an atom bomb is about 300,000 years. As the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution stated in 1976 “There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future”

Professor Barnham’s next point was that, despite claims to the contrary, nuclear is not a carbon-free technology. Electricity is needed to mine ore, refine ore, enrich Uranium, build reactors and dispose of waste. If the ore is poor quality, more electricity is needed to extract the Uranium than the reactor will produce and ultimately the reactor could produce more carbon dioxide than the equivalent gas-fired power station. Referring to the schematic representation of the energy production and energy costs of nuclear power as a function of time shown in the graph (taken from Storm van Leeuwen and Smith, 2005); he pointed out the carbon dioxide emissions produced over the whole life cycle of a nuclear power plant from construction to decommissioning.

This brought Professor Barnham onto nuclear economics, arguing that nuclear power cost estimates have always been unrealistically optimistic since the days of “electricity too cheap to meter.” This is largely because it is generally accepted the government will have to fund the insurance, security, decommissioning and waste storage costs. Even so, optimistic estimates require multi-reactor build which venture capital is unlikely to fund. Not only that, but the waste clean-up bill is increasing by £2 billion a year, rising from £48B in 2002 to £56B in 2005. This is over 3 times the per W capital cost of the new build.

So, in contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum TINA (There Is No Alternative), Barnham wished to introduce the audience to TAMA (There are Many Alternatives). He argued that the UK has many alternatives including onshore/offshore wind, wave, tidal, photovoltaics (PV) and increased efficiency (CHP). At present nuclear power represents about 23% of UK energy capacity which must be replaced by 2023. Denmark produces about 18% of its energy from wind and plans to increase this to over 25%. Germany generates approximately 8% of its energy from renewables and plans to increase this to 25% by 2023. A combination of wind, solar and CHP could supply about 50% of the UK’s energy by 2051. The UK is currently one of lowest users of photovoltaics in the EU but a 40% increase per year would allow us to generate 23% of the power we need by 2023.

Smart windowsFinally, Professor Barnham introduced his own work: smart windows, which he described as the intelligent way to meet electricity demand. He pointed out that 63% of the electricity in the UK is used in buildings, while the sunlight on buildings accounts for about 7 times the electricity consumption in the buildings themselves. The demand is similar throughout the year but it peaks daily at about twice the base load. Smart windows are energy concentrators with a number of useful properties – they act as blinds against the direct sun, they reduce air-conditioning load, they generate electricity when it is needed, diffuse sunlight illuminates the interior of the building, and all this while only adding about 20% to the cost of the glass façade. Using this technology 25% of South facing walls could replace all of the current nuclear contribution. Winding up by pointing out that one UK semiconductor facility could produce cells equivalent to 5 nuclear reactors in the 10 years it will take to produce the first new nuclear reactor.

The chair then gave each member of the panel the opportunity to respond to the other speakers’ points.

Ian Burdon began with a quote from George Bernard Shaw from his 1908 pamphlet entitled The Commonsense of Municipal Trading:

    "If we could harness to our industries the stupendous daily rush of millions of tons of tidal water through the Pentland Firth, not only need no Englishman ever go underground again for fuel, but the advantage would not be shared directly by other nations who have no such tides at their disposal"
illustrating that Shaw foresaw the current discussion, proposing harnessing tidal energy. Burdon pointed out that, while it is true that we depend on electricity for economic activity, there is at present chaos in terms of the way we waste energy. We are not grasping the nettle!

Sir Bernard Ingham asked the rhetorical question; if there is another way to fulfil our energy needs, why aren’t we doing it? Clearly it is because the alternatives prove too costly. If we want privation then fine, but he did not believe this is really what people want. He went on to express how exasperating he finds scientists – science today is politicized to the nth degree, which Sir Bernard thinks is disgraceful. He felt that what had been presented by the other speakers was propaganda, not science, and that it is very difficult to have the discussion that is needed when scientists are so partisan.

Keith Barnham first pointed out that the link between civil and military nuclear programme were intimately linked from the start: In the 1960s Civil Magnox reactors were specifically designed to produce plutonium for weapons. He drew attention to a number of official claims which were not borne out by the figures. During the 1980s thousands of tonnes of depleted Uranium were removed from the safeguarded civil programme for munitions and armour used in both Gulf wars. In 1983 the Thatcher government claimed that “No plutonium produced in any of the CEGB’s nuclear power stations has ever been used for military purposes…” and in 1986 stated that “No plutonium produced in civil reactors, in this country has been transferred to defence use…..during the period of this administration.” In 1985 there was some (0.36 ± 0.11) te3 civil weapons grade plutonium in the UK while the government was claiming that there was none in the civil stockpile. Most disturbing of all, in 2000 the Ministry of Defence admitted that they had a poor record of how much plutonium was actually in the country; “figures show that the weapon cycle stockpile is in fact some 0.3 te larger than the amount of plutonium the records indicate as available.” Second he responded to Sir Bernard’s comments on scientists by pointing out that science is about predicting things and seeing if those predictions agree with reality. He agreed that fusion was a mirage that we would continue to wait for for the foreseeable future.

The chair then threw the discussion open to the audience, giving each of the speakers an opportunity to respond to each set of questions and points from the floor. Pauline Hadaway of Belfast Exposed challenged Keith Barnham’s opening comments on the risks of terrorist attack asking if the remote possibility that someone might fly an aircraft into a building was any basis for making policy. She also asked if there was not a design solution to deal with most eventualities. Keith Barnham however still felt that we should consider these possibilities. Ian Burdon, in contrast, argued that we cannot look at the bleakest scenario for everything – if we did we would do nothing -we need to keep a sense of proportion. Keith Barnham thought it necessary to find some balance between fear of unlikely outcomes and probabilities.

Brian Mark picked up on Bernard Ingham’s point about not trusting scientists. He asked if most of us would not prefer to trust scientists than politicians, which received a warm response from the audience. He went on to say we need a proper debate about energy generation considering all the factors. If this is to happen then all of the information should be made available – one of the problems with the whole issue, especially with regard to nuclear power is an obsession with secrecy that makes it very difficult to have a properly informed public debate. Sir Bernard explained that the reason he doesn’t trust scientists anymore is because science has become so politicized. He defended politicians, pointing out that actually they are faced with the difficult task of having to decide what to do based on conflicting views What the politicians need is more information and the more objective that information is the more likely they are to get their decisions right. Ian Burdon concurred that it is next to impossible to get a straight answer on the energy issue, which is problematic. In contrast to the other speakers he felt that fusion is worthwhile to pursue – only if certain paths of investigation are pursued is progress is science made, and it is impossible to know outcome of any such path unless it is followed.

Tony Gilland of the Institute of Ideas echoed Sir Bernard’s points about politicized science and said that he was also frustrated with the obsession with worst case scenarios. He argued that many of the discussions today seem to be about trading fear – weighing for example the risk of contributing to global warming with the risks from terrorism. It is impossible to make sensible decisions while in this mode, viewing everything as if it is a potential Hollywood disaster movie. Gilland argued that politicians have a lot to answer for in creating and perpetuating this prism of fear through which these discussions are viewed. Sir Bernard felt that the media is also to blame – if there is one sure way to get a story it is by finding an angle that frightens us to death! The green movement also hasn’t helped in this according to Sir Bernard – they also seem hell bent on frightening us to death. Colin Haylock made a positive point about science, reminding everyone that in the eighteenth century Thomas Malthus claimed that population growth would outstrip food supply and that the earth would fail to sustain humanity. However he was proved wrong as food production was transformed through changes in agricultural practice. This provides a clear example of how science sets us challenges and then goes on to solve them.

John Gowing of Newcastle University was glad that this debate was taking place, especially as it is one that has been ignored by politicians in recent years. He felt that a serious debate about the energy issue is needed. However, he argued that we need to look at the total cost of any form of energy generation, that is the lifecycle cost, if we are to find sustainable solutions. He asked if Bernard Ingham’s 3p per KWhr is the lifecycle cost and further questioned why the production of nuclear waste is more sustainable than emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Sir Bernard quoted a recent RAE study which concluded that nuclear is the only energy source where the price reflects the lifecycle costs. Keith Barnham did not accept this, saying that establishing the lifecycle cost of something that stays around for thousands of years is not possible. He argued that we really need to cut demand. Kevin Yuill of Sunderland University wanted to know what was the basis of the cost discussion – as a user he was interested in a cheap and plentiful supply of electricity. Ian Burdon, in contrast argued that energy is far too cheap and that this encourages profligacy. He made the point that it is possible to produce 20% of the energy requirement for the North East from renewables and that they should thus play an important role in energy production alongside gas, solid fuels and nuclear power.

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