Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why George Monbiot is wrong on nuclear power

Much as I admire George Monbiot's work in general, his recent pontifications in support of nuclear power seem to me to completely miss the point.

I would not argue with him when he quotes recent New Scientist articles and others about the impact of coal mining and burning on human health. In terms of deaths per kilowatt-hour, he is right: nuclear power might be safer than coal.

But he frames the argument as if there was merely a choice between coal and nuclear power.

Many of my posts in the last two weeks since the Fukushima disaster are an attempt to provide information not only on the awful consequences of nuclear power but also on the many alternatives that exist. They form part of a plea to research and develop energy efficiency and renewable technologies seriously and to for the investment that would have been spent on dangerous nuclear power instead on safer alternatives.

These alternatives are firstly cheaper in the long run, since the fuel - such as wind, sun, waste, the earth's heat and tidal currents - is free or almost free and unlimited, and secondly they form the basis of technologies that will evolve over centuries rather than, as the case with nuclear power, only decades because the fuel will, sooner or later, run out.

I have found widespread ignorance, even in policy making circles, outlining these new technologies and the potential for eco-design to save an incredible amount of energy.

Now, environmental consultant and author Paul Mobbs has released a detailed analysis of George Monbiot's claims regarding nuclear power.

Published as part of his 'ecolonomics' newsletter series, it takes, point by point, Monbiot's claims regarding the environment movements position on nuclear power, radiation and health, and the significance (above over kinds of human activity) of coal burning on carbon emissions.

Rather than limiting the debate over the merits of nuclear versus coal, the report seeks to look at the issues George Monbiot has raised in the context of human ecology general - our total impact on the environment rather than a single facet of it - and finds that there is a more fundamental truth that the debate is ignoring; even with nuclear power human society would still be unsustainable.

To summarise the main points:

• The media's treatment of George Monbiot's comments typifies a problem with both the reduction of the ecological debate to the views of a few iconic figures. This result in the presentation to the public of an unchallenging and technically poor analysis of the trends that will increasing define the limits of our lives over the Twenty-First Century. (page 2/3)

• The claims made by George Monbiot, along with other figures who have recently professed a pro-nuclear position such as Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas, are distorting the analysis of the proposals for new nuclear build because. As noted above, the message they give is partial and not well analysed, and does not accord to recent academic and public policy research. (page 2)

• If we look at the significance of the carbon emissions from coal burning globally, they are no more significant than the emissions from the use of oil. It's not possible to single out coal as being qualitatively worse than other industrial activities -- for example it is arguable, at the global level, that the impacts of agriculture have a much greater impact upon the general environment and climate change than coal burning. (pages 4-6) In many ways coal has become a convenient scapegoat to deflect criticism from the affluent Western consumer lifestyle in general. (page 18)

• The statement that radiation emissions from coal-fired power stations are "100 times" (two orders of magnitude) greater than an equivalent nuclear power plant is _wholly incorrect_. Although based upon a Scientific American article, the analysis presented is a complete misquoting of the original 1977 research paper produced by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which put the emissions from coal and two different nuclear technologies as within one order of magnitude (10 times) of each other. The 1977 study also indicates that radiation doses to certain organs (e.g. bones) was lower for some nuclear emissions whilst the dose to other organs, (e.g. the thyroid) from nuclear power was always greater than coal. Subsequent UK-based studies of the radiation dose from coal power and the use of coal ash in building materials found no such hazard to exist. (pages 7/9)

• Claims that the Fukushima Daiichi accident is not "like Chernobyl" are only correct in terms of the causative mechanisms -- the radiological impact, based upon sampling reports by the IAEA in their daily updates, indicates that contamination is approaching the levels typically found around Chernobyl's 30km exclusion zone. (page 8)

• The claims that environmentalists' "exaggerate" the impacts of radiation are unfounded, and do not represent the current state of the scientific debate over radiation and health. There are many scientific grounds to criticise current dose models, which is why recent scientific studies have produced impacts for Chernobyl's death toll far higher than the "accepted" government and IAEA statistics. For example, a recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences put the excess deaths from Chernobyl at 985,000 -- in contrast to the IAEA's figure of 4,000. In fact the head of the ICRP's scientific secretariat resigned in 2009 because existing dose models could not predict or explain the health effects of radiation exposures to human populations. (page 9/10)

• Any new nuclear build in Britain, if less than 9GW to 10GW of electrical capacity (or at least 7 new 1.6GW plant) will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions because of the retirement of existing nuclear plant -- and in fact, even replacing all existing coal and nuclear plants (34GW of capacity) with 22 new nuclear plants would only reduce the UK's total carbon emissions by 12%. Contrast this reduction with, for example, the recent 12% reduction in emissions that has taken place over the economic recession, and we can see that there are other options available to reduce carbon emissions -- and many of these are much cheaper. (pages 12/13)

• In any case, nuclear is no more a secure form of energy than any other fuel since uranium production is also experiencing capacity problems that are the result of declining resource quality. Nuclear fuel production is likely to experience supply problems as new nuclear plants ramp-up demand, and globally uranium production may peak as early as 2030. (pages 11/12)

• If we look at the available data on the carbon emissions from fossil fuels since 1992, when the UN Convention on Climate Change was signed at the Rio "Earth Summit", emissions have, over the intervening 20 years, increased by 50% when compared to the emissions of carbon over the previous 240 years of industrialisation. This demonstrates the complete political failure to address carbon emissions, primarily because we can't cut emissions without significantly changing the operation of the economic process, and that entails the end of "growth economics". (page 5)

• Most significantly, the issue of resource and energy depletion throws the operation of our present economic system into question -- the system can't grow if resource shortage create physical and inflationary pressures on the economy. In fact even if we were to cease carbon emissions tomorrow, the effect of other problems within the human ecological system -- such as food, water and mineral resource shortages -- will create a severe crisis over the next few decades. This is a fact attested to not just by environmentalists, but also by academic, public policy and intelligence agency research over recent years. (pages 13-16)

• Finally, and most significantly, the media and mainstream environmentalism's consumer-oriented infatuation with carbon is skewing the analysis of issues of human ecology and their public debate. We must develop a more broad-based critique of the political-economic process in order to understand and deal with these problems. The "deep green" members of the environment movement have always held such a viewpoint, but this has been marginalised, not only within George Monbiot's recent article, but also by the move of the large campaigning groups towards limited and often ineffectual "sustainable consumption" measures over the last two decades -- often promoted in return for sponsorship or political access rather than because on an objective analysis they are proven to "solve" the problems of human ecology. (pages 16-18)

To quote Paul Mobbs' views on George Monbiot's pro-nuclear argument --

"I can't help feeling that George has been "assimilated" by the misinformation of the nuclear-industrial lobby; add to that Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and others of their ilk. Faced with the dilemma between representing a hard, unpopular truth; or... trying to make some perhaps positive but ultimately futile steps (in terms of the ecological trends and where they are heading) towards accomplishing some change -- they have decided not to stand for an interpretation of the data that makes the best sense because it represents such a challenge to existing political orthodoxy."

And he continued, relating the way the tobacco industry and their public relations advisor's have manipulated the scientific debate in the past --

" we've seen this week, George's article has created rather a clamour; and that, if nothing else, is really what I believe the nuclear lobby wish to do. It's not so much that George's efforts make any different to the bulk of the population; but amongst the environment lobby, the people who are likely to make trouble in the next few years as EDF and others apply to build new nuclear plants, it creates doubt and division -- and that, more than anything, is what vested interests seek to create today."

In conclusion, on the general philosophy of environmentalism, and the innate contradictions between the consumer-oriented message of Monbiot (and others) and the need for a fundamental change in society's relationship to the world it inhabits, he stated --

"As individual environmentalists we are called upon to witness the world as we experience it, and to share that insight with others; there should be no expectation that we represent "the facts" -- such evidence, freely available, should stand for itself without any nuancing of its content. Of course, taking such a view can be challenging for many people; unpredictable change is so much harder to think about than than a reassuringly predictable and reliable stasis. Environmental philosophy challenges us to understand and solve this dichotomy. The question we have to resolve is a value judgement over which is the best option for us to adopt: Is it better to serve under an order that is delusional (in the face of the evidence, perhaps suicidally so), and by taking no action risking that if it collapses your lifestyle will be seriously compromised; or, by accepting the need for change, risking the seeming chaos of trying to adapt your lifestyle to escape that outcome?"

Speaking on the release of his report, Paul stated --

"I think that my greatest concern is that in the rush to fulminate at George's comments we may be missing the most important dimension of this debate -- the environment. The concentration on either the nuclear or carbon issue in isolation detracts from a more meaningful and balanced debate about the impacts of the human system in general. The fact is, even if we stopped all coal burning tomorrow by magicking hundreds of nuclear plants into existence, the eventual outcome for the human species over the course of this century would change very little. The crisis of human ecology is much greater than either the nuclear or carbon issue; and I believe that the fixation upon carbon emissions is leading us to ignore equally pressing trends that will also create just as much misery and servitude for humanity over the course of this century."

Smart meters are coming early and could save £7.3 billion

53 million smart meters are to be installed in 30 million homes and smaller businesses across Great Britain, and are estimated to have a net benefit to the nation of £7.3 billion over the next twenty years.

The revolutionary rollout is set for completion a year earlier than previously expected, in 2019.

This is the most revolutionary change in the way we use energy since the invention of the National Grid. Globally, it has been compared to the creation of the internet. The timetable is tight, but at least the financing of the operation is not dependent upon government funding.

The government's overall strategy and timetable for smart meters were outlined yesterday in a consultation document.

The programme, to be overseen by Ofgem and to be implemented by energy suppliers, will cost over £11 billion but is expected to save over £7 billion more.

Smart meters have been trialled for several years in this country, and will be a crucial part of delivering energy security and a low carbon future, by encouraging energy efficiency and awareness.

They will also lay the groundwork for the "smart grid" which is hoped to help lower peak demand, thereby reducing the number of required power stations.

“Smart meters are a key part of giving us all more control over how we use energy at home and at work, helping us to cut out waste and save money," said Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne, on his way to visit a technology expo at the SmartLIFE training centre in Cambridge, which includes companies specialising in smart meter technology.

“In combination with our plans to reform the electricity market and introduce the Green Deal for home and businesses, the rollout of smart meters will help us keep the lights on while reducing emissions and getting the best possible deal for the consumer,he added.

Smart meters are poised to deliver the following benefits:
  • giving consumers real-time information on their energy consumption - eliminating estimated bills - to help them curb excess energy use, save money and reduce emissions. By 2020, the average consumer (with both electricity and gas) is expected to save around £23 per year on their energy bill as a result
  • giving suppliers access to accurate data for billing, allowing them to improve their customer service and reduce costs, for example by reducing call centre traffic, ending visits by meter readers, and better debt management
  • giving energy networks better information an assist the move towards smart grids.
The rollout of smart meters will occur in two phases. In the first stage, beginning now, the Government will work with industry, consumer groups and other stakeholders to lay the groundwork, including finalisation of standards, encouraging consumer engagement and piloting.

A Functional Requirements Catalogue, published alongside the consultation document, sets out the minimum requirements that the smart metering system must provide.

The Government will also establish the Data and Communications Company, under a competitive process, which will provide data and communications services for the nationwide system.

The second phase, the mass rollout, will begin in the second quarter of 2014 and be completed in 2019.

There will be a new code of practice for energy suppliers governing smart metering installations. To counter some consumer perceptions of "Big Brother" monitoring their energy use and concerns about security, consumers will have a choice over how their data is used except where it is required for regulated duties.

Worldwide, the cost of smart meter rollout has been put at £3.6 billion. A study by Datamonitor published last October, found the cost of meters in the UK would be around £57 each compared to France, where they will be around £28-£30. However, this is speculation since the exact specifications of each system have not been properly defined.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Who says we can't power ourselves with 100% renewable energy?

Not these people for sure - download their reports, which illustrate many possible options - here:
  1. 100% renewables by 2050 in Europe - WWF, Ecofys and OMA
  2. 100% renewables by 2050 in Europe - PriceWaterhouseCooper, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, International Institute for Applied System Analysis and the European Climate Forum
  3. 100% Renewable Energy for European - European Renewable Energy Council, EREC
  4. 80% carbon reductions in Europe - European Climate Foundation
  5. Roadmap to a low carbon economy - European Commission
  6. Zero Carbon Britain - Centre for Alternative Technology
  7. Zero Carbon Denmark - Danish Commission on Climate Change Policy
  8. Towards 100% renewable electricity in Germany - Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU)
  9. A look at some cutting-edge low carbon tech - Boston Consulting Group
  10. Zero Carbon Australia - Energy Research Institute of the University of Melbourne and Beyond Zero Emissions
Come and discuss these options at a one day global expert summit in June that will debate, discuss and examine the development of 100% renewable electricity roadmaps for key global regions and nations in a 2030-2050 timeframe.

Worldwide demos against nuclear and for renewables

"I think we'll skip the nuclear." - Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Anti-nuclear protests: 100,000 people marched in Berlin, and hundreds of thousands in other cities on March 26, to say no to nuclear power.

100,000 people marched in Berlin, and hundreds of thousands in other cities on March 26, to say no to nuclear power.

Quick link to a Greenpeace blog post roundup.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Implementing EU efficiency directive could close 98 Fukushima reactors

Energy efficiency is really a great big elephant in the room amongst talk about keeping the lights on and where the power should come from.

As if it's somehow equivalent to asking people to go on a diet and eat only fruit and veg.

But it's not.

If just one existing EU energy efficiency directive were to be implemented fully, to make everyday machines and gadgets more efficient, we could have the same amount of comfort, save loads of money on bills and close the equivalent of 98 Fukushima sized plants, according to a new report.

Sound too good to be true? Read on...

The legislation in question is the EU's 2009 Eco-design Directive. This covers the energy efficiency of 41 product groups.

11 of these have already been dealt with, leading to savings of around 340 TW hours of end-use energy a year, the European Environmental Citizens' Organisation for Standardisation (ECOS) has calculated.

It has also worked out that if the remaining 30 product groups were to be made to conform to the new standards, the total electricity saved would be 539 Tera watt-hours (TWh) per year, equivalent to 98 times the 5.5 TWh produced by the average 780 MW nuclear reactor such as those used in Fukushima, or 49 of the more powerful European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs).

"This is how many new nuclear plants we would not need to build, thanks to the energy savings these measures could achieve," said Edouard Toulouse, the ECOS officer who compiled the statistics.

Monica Frassoni, president of the EU Alliance to Save Energy (EUASE), a body of energy efficiency advocates from business, politics and campaigning, described the figures as "staggering" and blamed poor implementation and monitoring of the directive for the failure to make the savings so far.

"There is a political barrier," she said, "and it is exactly the same one that we find when the Commission and member states don't want to fix binding targets for energy efficiency".

A Commission spokesperson said that the Eco-design Directive was "a policy success story" but admitted that "there is still a lot of work to do in order to fully use [its] potential. The Commission is aware of this and therefore the implementation of this directive remains one of its top priorities in the energy efficiency field."

ECOS says that the delays in implementing the energy efficiency savings is costing European consumers and business up to €120 million a day in extra fuel bills. Its 'coolproducts' campaign is calling for more ambitious minimum requirements for energy efficiency.

Why not sign up to this campaign? - just click on the link.

I don't fully believe the figures, since other research shows that if gadgets become more efficient we just use more gadgets, cutting the amount of predicted savings.

But if these measures were implemented, and the European energy efficiency targets were made compulsory, then I do believe Europe could turn its back on nuclear power.

Nuclear mining and waste problems - unsolved

entrance to a nuclear plant
Last night's BBC Radio 4 programme Costing the Earth provides an excellent glimpse of these awful twin challenges facing the nuclear industry.

It visits a mine in Kazakhstan, where most of our uranium comes from - since the environmental regulations are almost non-existent, and rich countries make the mining of the fuel too expensive. Do we really want our power to be dependent on such unethical horrors?

Tom Heap, the presenter, then goes to the USA's Grand Canyon where he meets Navajo Indians who tell him that mining companies took the uranium they needed from the mine but didn't clear up the radioactive waste left behind, with the result that the local residents' drinking water is radioactive.

Closer to home, he visits Cumbria and finds that - as with everywhere in the world - after 50 years of nuclear power the problem of disposing of its radioactive waste is still not solved.

He shows that despite Government claims that nuclear power will get no new tax subsidies, this is likely to be impossible in the three areas of dealing with waste, loan guarantees for construction of new power stations and for liability if anything goes wrong.

Jamie Reid, pro-nuclear Labour MP for Sellafield - where the Thorp reprocessing plant takes nuclear waste from Japan and is the largest earner of yen in the UK economy - says that subsidies are bound to be required for nuclear to work.

The conclusion? Nuclear power should go back in the genie's bottle. It's too dangerous and expensive to be allowed to solve the problem of climate change. We're going to have to look for other solutions.

Listen here:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Osborne's pale green budget offers crumbs to the green sector

Chancellor George Osborne's first budget was billed as a “budget for growth", but the green shoots of recovery could have been stimulated to rise much faster. It offers crumbs to the green sector while doing nothing to tax pollution or wean the UK off oil.

Budget 2011 contains limited measures for funding investment in green technology, and for meeting the skills and enterprise gap perceived in not just the green sector but other sectors necessary to help Britain compete in a global economy.

These general measures include 21 new enterprise zones, new export credits, a technology and innovation centre, nine new university centres, doubling the number of university technical colleges to 24, an increase in work experience schemes and apprenticeships, as well as £100m of investment in new science facilities, income tax relief on enterprise investment schemes rising from 20% to 30%, and an increase in small companies' research and development tax credit to 200% in April and 225% in 2012.

On to the specific environmental measures.

Planning reform

In planning, there will be a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’ to planning applications, although what this means in practice is yet to be defined.

Planning decisions will be localised about the use of previously developed land, removing nationally imposed targets while retaining existing controls on greenbelt land.

Surplus military land will be auctioned off for housing. This means that 20,000 new low carbon homes should be built by 2015, the budget says.

Mr Osborne announced a 12 month limit on considering planning applications, including appeals, as part otherwise yet-to-be-specified measures to “streamline the planning applications and related consents regimes removing bureaucracy from the system and speeding it up”. It's unsure what this means for local accountability.

Green Investment Bank

The Green Investment Bank is to operate from 2012-13. The UK devoted just £12.6bn towards green investment in 2009-10 according to an independent report from the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), released yesterday.

This is half the minimum of £20bn that must be invested in each of the next ten years, according to the Treasury, and is less than 1% of UK GDP - or less than what Britain spends on furniture each year.

This is why it is welcome that the Chancellor George Osborne announced £3 billion rather than the £1 billion previously announced to set up the Bank, with £2 billion to be funded from the sale of assets, which includes £775 million net proceeds already received from the sale of High Speed I.

Mr Osborne said that the Bank would “support low-carbon investment where the returns are too long-term or too risky for the market”.

However, he resisted calls that the bank be allowed to borrow and lend with immediate effect, saying instead that it will have to wait until 2016 to do so.

Andrew Raingold, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, was amongst critics of this, saying: "We welcome the additional finance for the Green Investment Bank but it must have the power to borrow from day one. This would put the bank at the heart of Chancellor's plan for growth and not wait until the UK is overtaken in key green industries by competitors."

Mr Osborne did argue that the £3 billion will allow a further £15bn to be raised privately for investment in green infrastructure by 2014-15.

Carbon price floor

Besides the GIB, the Government is to introduce a carbon price floor for electricity generation from 1 April 2013.

This will start at around £16 per tonne of carbon dioxide and follow a linear path to £30 per tonne in 2020 to drive investment in the low-carbon power sector. The Treasury says that the carbon price support rates for 2013-14 will be equivalent to £4.94 per tonne of carbon dioxide.

It means that signatories to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will make up the difference between the actual price of carbon permits under the ETS and the agreed floor price. It expects to raise £740 million in the first year, rising to £1.07bn in the second year and £1.4 billion in the third year.

Friends of the Earth complained that the floor price is too low to make much difference (it is currently only £1.30 less than that) and will provide a "windfall for existing nuclear power".

Meanwhile, income from the Climate Change Levy is projected to increase from £0.7 billion now to £2 billion in 2015-16.

Other environmental taxes

Reform to the Climate Change Agreements, which rewards businesses for energy efficiency, will cost the Treasury £140 million in 2013-16. These tax discounts will stay at 80% not reduce to 65% in 2013 as previously proposed, and the scheme will continue till 2023.

Adjustments to company car tax rates from 2013-14 are expected to bring in to the Treasury over the following three years an additional £390 million. A slight change to the Climate Change Levy exemptions in Northern Ireland will bring in an additional £15 million in the same period.

Negatively for the environment, the Aggregates Levy, which is intended to cut landfill from construction, is having its rate increase postponed this year, at a total cost to the Treasury of £90 million, but it will continue until 2021.

Similarly, the proposed increase in air passenger duty is to be deferred and this will cost the Treasury £145 million. However, wealthy owners of private jets will have to pay fuel duty for the first time.

The fuel duty escalator is also being cancelled, as long as oil prices remain high, and fuel duty is to be cut by 1p. Friends of the Earth wondered what this means for David Cameron's recent promise to "wean the UK off oil". Interestingly, the Treasury is predicting that oil prices will come down from today's highs of £69.3 per barrel to £66.2 in 2015-16.

As previously announced, there will be an increase in the standard rate of landfill tax by £8 per tonne to £56 per tonne on April 1 2011 and to £64 per tonne on 1 April 2012 but the lower rate of landfill tax will be frozen at £2.50 per tonne in 2012-13. The value of the Landfill Communities Fund will rise in line with inflation in 2011-12 to £78.1 million.

The proportion of the landfill tax liability paid by landfill operators into it will remain the same. Future decisions on the value of the fund will take into account the success of environmental bodies in reducing the level of unspent funds that they hold.

Despite previous promises to tax pollution more, there were no new initiatives here.

Carbon capture and storage

As predicted yesterday, carbon capture and storage is to get £1bn but there will be no special levy to support this technology, and any additional support will be funded from general spending.

Although Osbourne says that the government remains committed to providing public funding for four Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) demonstration plants, there are concerns over whether the necessary development of this technology, seen as being crucial to reducing carbon emissions from existing and new fossil fuel plants, will go ahead on schedule.

Water shortages

To address the issue of water shortages, The Government is to consult shortly on making reforms to the existing WaterSure scheme, the approach to company social tariffs and options for additional government spending to provide further support for water affordability.

The Budget 2011 documents are available on the Treasury website.

Can we leap the skills hurdles for the low carbon economy?

In order to create the low carbon, environmentally sound economy that is touted a way of getting the country out of the recession, tens of thousands of jobs are going to be needed in the environmental sectors of the economy.

But a skills gap in these sectors is well documented, with one in three firms being hampered by a shortage of skilled staff, from those needed to install new technology to scientists and engineers, according to a report by the Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance.

The Environmental Audit Committee recommended two years ago that the Skills Funding Agency support training in this area and called for a leader to help "deliver green skills across all sectors".

This is slowly happening, with a number of academies opening specialising in part of this huge and varied area.

In a report issued earlier this month, Greening the Economy, the Aldersgate Group called on the government to "build on [this] national skills strategy to ensure that its support for skills and training matches the focus and ambition of its strategies for promoting investment in green innovation and infrastructure" and compared the situation here unfavourably with France’s mobilisation plan for green jobs.

In terms of manufacturing, the UK is unlikely to be cost competitive with emerging economies in many sectors and so must ensure that instead it builds on its vast experience and skills for higher value-added manufacturing activities and services.

It can cost such tradespeople upwards of £6000 to get suitable qualifications. If they want to go on to be a registered installer they have to register under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme which can cost many thousand pounds more.

Not surprisingly, many wonder if it's worth the hassle and cost in terms of the increase in income they can expect to receive.

In other words, is there a cost barrier to entering the low carbon economy?

Well, in one sector of this economy there is good news. A survey carried out by The ENDS Report in collaboration with the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) and the Society for the Environment (SocEnv) has revealed that gaining professional qualifications can lead to a direct increase in your salary.

The online survey, published in the March edition of the ENDS Report, of over 2,200 environmental practitioners revealed that half are Chartered Environmentalists (CEnv). Among those working in the water sector, half are CIWEM qualified.

Similarly, of those describing their main professional activity as 'engineering’, over 50% are Chartered Engineer (CEng) qualified.

SocEnv says that "as well as raising their status, gaining professional qualifications has also led to monetary reward for around 20% of a direct result of gaining additional professional qualifications".

Among those able to recall a percentage rise, almost half had enjoyed one of 10% or more. The median increase was 6% and half of rises were in the 5-10% range. One in seven enjoyed an increase of 20% or more, after gaining additional professional qualifications.

And despite many organisations facing tighter budgets, the level of employer support for professional development remains generally high.

Two-thirds of respondents said their organisation offered financial assistance for professional development and most have taken advantage of it; almost three in five said they had undertaken formal training in the past year.

Acting Chief Executive of SocEnv, Kerry Geldart, said “this particular finding from the ENDS survey reflects the importance employers and individuals place on professional registration, particularly in times of austerity, giving individuals a competitive edge in the market place.”

Rosemary Butler, Director or Membership & Professional Development at CIWEM agrees. "This is an extremely valuable piece of research," she said, "and bears out our findings that more and more applicants for CIWEM membership also seek the CEnv qualification to add real and tangible value to their career progression."

The Energy Saving Trust (in its 'Economics and Impact Model: Data and Assumptions', 2010) cite a multiplier of at least 1.93 for every £1 invested by local authorities in industries related to renewable energy, in terms of the benefit to the local economy. They say that farsighted councils can support local electricians and plumbers to access training courses that will qualify them to install renewable generators.

Hopefully, further research will bear out this success story in other sectors of the green economy. It means that, if true, there will not only be benefits for society as a whole, but individuals partaking in the green sector and those around them will benefit financially as well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The shocking truths about nuclear waste

It's not just that nuclear power is scary. It's very expensive and we don't know what to do with the waste. This post substantiates this claim.

The cost of dealing with existing nuclear waste

I was completely shocked when I discovered that over 60% of the Department for Energy and Climate Change budget is spent on decommissioning existing nuclear sites.

It's almost unbelievable. They don't tell you in their budget of course. I had to dig it out, and here are the links.

The decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations is currently managed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Its 2010-11 budget is £2.8bn, of which £1.69 billion comes from the taxpayer via DECC. DECC's overall budget in this year is £2.9bn.

This leaves just £1.2 billion for DECC to do everything else. Just think about that for a moment. It's a cost that can't be cut because it would be too dangerous to do so. Therefore the only thing that could be done when DECC had to cut its budget in the Spending Review was to cut everything else.

The last estimate for the cost of dealing with the waste and decommissioning of the U.K.'s 19 reactors, by the National Audit Office in January 2008 was £73 billion over the next hundred years. This was 18% above initial estimates, and the costs of even near-term actions are still rising when they should have stabilised.

This factors out to a cost of £1000 for each and every household in the UK for 100 years. What could we do with that money? Payoff our mortgages? Save that public library or hospital?

And what happens after the hundred years is up?

The cost of dealing with the radioactive waste from new nuclear power stations

The government has argued that new nuclear build should not be subsidised by the taxpayer and that companies should come up with a plan to manage the waste they create. They are currently allocating £1 billion per reactor.

But if I divide 19 into the 73 billion figure above I get nearly £4bn, not £1bn.

Now we all know that costs always rise never fall. We know from experience this particularly applies to the nuclear industry (see Paul Brown and Greenpeace's excellent voodoo economics report). Who is going to pick up the bill when these private companies say they can't afford to deal with the waste?

Let's take an analogy: successive Tory and Labour governments told us that PFI schemes were quick way to get infrastructure built at low cost to the taxpayer. We are now finding out that in fact it is the taxpayer that is being required to pick up much higher bills than they would have done in the first place for a longer period of time from many PFI schemes.

In some contracts, council tax payers will be paying for things that have already ceased to be a service.

And there is the problem of finding out what legal entity is liable for these future costs. Many PFI schemes have been sold on so many times in just a few years it has in some cases become hard to find who is now responsible. And what happens when companies go into receivership?

Yet nuclear waste will be around for hundreds of years. How much more difficult will it be? Who exactly will the contracts be with? You can imagine very easily what is most likely to happen... Taxpayers will pick up the bill.

But we are talking as if there is a solution to nuclear waste already, and there isn't.

What should we do with existing nuclear waste?

CoRWM, the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, said in 2006 nuclear waste should be kept forever in a specially built safe storage facility deep underground.

But while the government pointed to this as the solution to waste from any new plants, CoRWM said it only meant this solution to apply to waste from Britain's old military nuclear programme dating back to the 1950s, so called legacy waste (see below for the link).

The government has asked for communities to volunteer to have nuclear waste stored in its location in return for a sweetener and bribes. So far, only one has come forward, the already nuclear-industry dependent area around Copeland, Cumbria, for which the government has been made to set up a “community fund” in return for allowing the continued operation and expansion of a low-level waste repository, where lightly contaminated material such as clothing is stored.

Experiments and discussions are still ongoing to determine whether and how high-level nuclear waste could be stored underground. The Office of Government Commerce has this year reviewed the Government management of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) geological disposal programme, but the report has not yet been published.

The truth is we don't yet know what to do with existing nuclear waste.

Should we trust the government and industry on dealing with nuclear waste?

The Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board (NLFAB), which is stuffed with industry insiders, has one page on the DECC website, where its membership, remit and minutes of its meetings are published. It has discussed having a separate web presence and meeting NGOs but the current status of this work is not clear, since its minutes are only publish every six months and are extremely opaque giving almost no information.

This lack of information extends to the main DECC nuclear waste website and the MRWS website, most of which hasn't been updated since 2009.

This kind of secrecy does not inspire any confidence at all.

Do the experts believe we should have nuclear newbuild?

CoRWM does not believe that there should be any new nuclear build, because we don't know what to do with the existing waste. It can't actually come out and say so publicly, because that will be overstepping its remit.

But if you read between the lines of this document you can see its members struggling with themselves over how to phrase their intention in a politically acceptable manner.

Page 2 says "CoRWM’s intention to provide advice on the maintenance of public confidence in the management of new build wastes could be construed as support for new build. Such an interpretation would not be correct".

Its position statement on existing nuclear waste disposal - that it can be buried underground provided that a suitable site is found - "might be seized upon as providing a green light for new build. That is far from the case."

I think these experts, who have spent 10 years looking into the problem, are making their position quite clear. There should be no new nuclear power stations because we don't know what to do with the waste.

The Health and Safety Executive is currently evaluating proposals for new nuclear power stations submitted by energy companies. No doubt these will be sent back to the drawing board following the Fukushima incident.

The timetable for nuclear newbuild

The government was hoping that new nuclear build could start around 2014. The average length of time to construct a new nuclear power station is eight years. This means they won't be up and running until at least 2022.

Yet new wind farms take three years to build. Most renewable energy takes far less than 8 years.

Why are we wasting money and time on nuclear power when the money could be going into renewable energy, which is a lot safer and leaves no lasting toxic legacy?

There are many arguing that renewable energy is not up to the job. It's intermittent and unpredictable. But these criticisms only apply to wind power and photovoltaics.

There are many other technologies which I am describing in other blog posts, which, while not necessarily being market ready, certainly are just as market ready as carbon capture and storage, which is unproven at a commercial scale, and which the government is certainly relying upon to maintain business as usual while tackling climate change.

If the amount of investment that will be invested in new nuclear build was invested instead in taking these technologies forward, there is no doubt in my mind that Britain could be a world leader in, to pick just a few examples:

All renewable energy is solar power. It has been around for much longer than nuclear power. In 1878, the first solar parabolic dish was used to make ice. But even now this solar thermal market ready technology is largely unknown yet it has huge potential.

The 21st-century should be the solar age. Why waste money on nuclear?

Pale green budget tomorrow will cancel CCS levy and forbid Green Investment Bank from borrowing

George Osborne's first budget tomorrow will say that the Green Investment Bank will not be allowed to raise its own finance for some time.

And the levy on electricity bills which had been proposed to raise finance for carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants is to be dropped.

The levy was touted in last autumn's Spending Review as a means of raising billions of pounds for flagship CCS projects. In the review, Osborne said £1 billion was set aside for at least one CCS pilot, with a further three projects to be financed either by the levy or by public money.

But the levy is no longer on the cards following lobbying from industry. This argued that effectively there will already be four carbon taxes, which is complicated enough, and the levy would be a fifth - just too much. The four taxes are:

  • the Climate Change Levy (CCL) - since 2001, taxing fossil fuel energy supply to those businesses without a climate change agreement (CCA) with DECC (which gives 80% - reducing to 65% from next month - reduction on this tax)

  • the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme - beginning in 2012, which will raise £1 billion a year by 2014-15 from businesses who consumed over 6,000 MWh in 2008

  • the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (affecting generators and the metals, mineral, and pulp and paper industries) - now, most permits are given away free, but the proportion will reduce significantly in 2013

  • the new carbon price support mechanism (CPSM), designed to tax fossil fuels used in electricity generation (by removing CCL exemptions from 2013) to make generators' investment in CCS, renewable and nuclear generation more favourable.

The carbon price support mechanism, currently the subject of a consultation, is also to be further described in tomorrow's budget.

City accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers was amongst those arguing against the CCS levy. Its partner Mark Schofield has written: “The introduction of a floor price would be a significant change for many companies with high emissions, particularly if the Government decides to set this higher than the EU ETS traded permit price. It is likely that the Government will set a lower price initially, rising over time, but they can’t be too generous.

“One of the main criticisms from the industry is that the carbon floor price will add another layer of policy complexity to an already overcrowded energy supply chain policy mix. It may be difficult for potential investors in low carbon generation to distil from these overlapping policy measures a reliable carbon price signal to guide investment decisions, and for users of energy to understand the overall policy objective.”

This raises questions over how or whether the three further CCS projects will be built. Scottish and Southern Energy, Powerfuel Power Limited, Alstom UK and Ayrshire Power are amongst the companies competing to build them.

The prospect of being able to capture carbon from fossil fuel burning power stations has become key to many policies about tackling climate change while keeping business as usual. This is despite the fact that there is no large-scale commercial demonstration that the technology works anywhere in the world.

The EU will be part subsidising the projects. CCS supporters are hoping that the floor price for carbon will be set high enough to raise sufficient funding for CCS. But then so will renewable energy generators and nuclear newbuild supporters.

The Treasury itself says (in the CPSM consultation document) that around £110 billion in new generation and grid connections alone is required by 2020. The same amount again will be required for further upgrades.

The Green Investment Bank

Where will this investment come from? Great hopes have been pinned on the Green Investment Bank.

Osborne is expected to pledge tomorrow that £3 billion will be given to kickstart the Bank. He will say that he believes this will be enough to raise £18 billion of investment into green projects by 2014-15, with the rest coming from the private sector.

This is still a fraction of what is required, which has raised criticism of the Treasury for blocking Energy Secretary Chris Huhne's demand that the new Bank be able to borrow money itself.

Osborne will say tomorrow that the Bank will be able to issue bonds once the nation's debt is falling as a poor portion of grass domestic product–anticipated after April 2015. But for many this will not be soon enough.

Huhne has been locking horns with the Treasury, demanding that it be created as a fully fledged bank. The Treasury's line has been that allowing small investors to take part in the bank's investments would be too complicated, and any borrowing liabilities would be on the government balance sheet, thereby making the deficit appear worse.

“This throws into doubt Britain’s chances of building a low carbon economy and means we will now lose jobs and industries to places like China, Germany and Silicon Valley in California,” said John Sauven, Greenpeace executive director.

The bank is expected to be funded by sales of assets, such as the government one third share in Urenco, the company which enriches uranium for nuclear power stations.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Anaerobic digestion - renewable heat, electricity, waste disposal and fertiliser production!

When people think of renewable energy they think mostly of wind power and photovoltaics. Any discussion of renewable electricity policy tends to refer to these and criticise them, and by implication all renewable energy, because they are unpredictable and variable and need backup.

There is an astonishing ignorance even at high government level over the potential of other kinds of renewable power generation. So I want to redress this balance with occasional posts looking at different technologies. Recent posts have referred to marine current turbines, for example.

This post is about the unsexily named anaerobic digestion. Mostly it's about small, farm-scale versions, and I hope to get around to talking about larger scale ones soon.

However, it's worth mentioning right up front that larger plants are able to produce gas for the mains and for vehicles running on gas.

A chief worry if we don't rely on nuclear power, is where will all the power come from to decarbonise transport? Well, here's one answer.

A new income stream - and more - for farmers

Clive Pugh at Bank Farm, Mellington with his anaerobic digester

A survey last December found that 80% of farmers in the UK wanted to have solar photovoltaics on their roofs within the next three years - and yet the fact is, that in terms of the carbon saving and other benefits anaerobic digestion (AD) provides better value for money than solar PV.

For example, farmer Clive Pugh (above) at Bank Farm, Mellington, near Churchstoke, Wales, put in his first AD plant 20 years ago. He now has a state-of-the-art, three chamber unit that provides all of the farm's own energy needs, and that for two homes and the farm dairy, as well as generating an income of up to £10,000 a month from supplying the National Grid - without the new FiTs subsidy, because he was an 'early adopter' and so the scheme is excluded from it.

“We initially went for an anaerobic set-up because we needed a new slurry store and it was something we had been looking into for some years,” says Mr Pugh.

“It revolves around using the slurry from our 140-cow dairy herd. In order to keep the gas production fairly constant throughout the year, we also use poultry manure, silage effluent, waste silage, discarded milk and whatever other green waste we can get hold of.”

While 10 cows are needed to produce 1kw of energy, in fertiliser value terms 1,000 gallons of separated liquid will provide around 30 units of nitrogen, 40 units of potash and 12 units of phosphate.

“The quality of our grass is certainly most noticeable these days, and our need for phosphate and potash is now nil. We also only need top-up units of nitrogen depending on the type of crops being grown,” says Mr Pugh.

How does it work?

In a typical plant, vats ferment farm slurry and crop waste (and can also process food waste) in the absence of oxygen to produce gas which can be used to generate heat and power.

The facility would normally be owned and operated by the farmer/farm business, but might sometimes be part of a co-operative venture. They often would not be approved to accept animal by-products at this scale.

The biogas produced in AD is a mixture of methane (65%) and carbon dioxide (35%) which can be used to generate heat through a boiler, or heat and power through a combined heat and power (CHP) system. In addition, following further processing, biogas is also a suitable fuel source for vehicles.

Hot water may be used on site, for example to heat polytunnels or greenhouses for market gardening. Some farms use AD to power a generator for the digester and pasteurisation. Other benefits include:

• it avoids landfilling of organic wastes;
• the biogas can be burnt as a fuel;
• there is a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, offsetting carbon dioxide emissions;
• it is a predictable and reliable source of electricity and energy, unlike wind power and PV;
• the digestate products return nutrients to the land, reducing dependence on inorganic fertilisers;
• there are economic benefits from reduced fuel and fertiliser use, as well as the subsidy;
• farms can become more self-sufficient, with socio-economic opportunities, e.g., gate fees can be charged for waste taken in and electricity, biogas, fertiliser and soil conditioner can be sold;
• odour is reduced by around 80% compared to farm slurry;
• methane (a greenhouse gas) emissions are reduced;
• a range of organic waste materials can be processed - the highest gas yields come from the co-digestion of fatty (food processing wastes), liquid wastes (animal slurries) and green wastes;
• the amount of farm slurry sprayed onto farmland - and of run-off and pollution of waterways - is reduced;
• harmful bacteria and viruses are destroyed, reducing the spread of harmful disease causing pathogens.

The energy generating potential is determined by the size of the digester and waste feedstock composition.

A typical farm installation might be up to 0.5MW. A small farm using farm waste can produce enough heat to warm the digester and meet domestic heating requirements. If electricity is generated through CHP of 10kWe capacity, enough electrical energy could be generated to supply up to 13 homes.

A brand new installation can cost anything from £150,000 for a fairly basic liquid-only unit to more than £375,000 for an all-embracing 120 kw producing version.

Better payback than PV

This high initial cost is why the technology needs support at this stage. Without support, simple economic payback is approximately 20 years.

Factoring in savings made in waste disposal, according to the Carbon Trust, mean that payback times for installations tend to be under 5 years.

Compare this to solar PV in much of the UK, which is 40 to 60 years without subsidy.

Larger plants

A range of AD scales exists, from single on-farm digesters through to large centralised anaerobic digesters (CAD) collecting waste from a larger surrounding area.

These CADs will usually accept animal by-product wastes for digestion. The gas produced at this scale can also be used for other purposes, for example to power vehicles or be injected into the National Grid.

AD at this scale is economically viable and requires little support. Most plants operate as co-digestion plants with slurries, in additional to wastes from the food, brewing and other industries.

This recent post contains other examples.

This website is a useful source of further information, although slightly out of date.

In Germany there are more than 3,000 on-farm anaerobic digesters - in the UK perhaps around 50.

Anaerobic digestion wins in Feed-in Tariff review

The government is recommending increased support for farm-scale anaerobic digestion (AD) at the expense of “solar farms" over 50kW, in an effort to maximise the benefit of limited resources.

This is a good thing as the technology has numerous advantages over PV - including reliability - which I'm outlining in a subsequent post this morning.

The new consultation follows the launch in February of the fast-track review into how the Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) work for solar photovoltaic (PV) over 50 kW. This followed evidence of 169 MW of large scale solar capacity in the planning system - equivalent to funding solar modules on the roofs of around 50,000 homes if tariffs are left unchanged.

The government feels that leaving this unchanged would soak up most of the subsidy that would otherwise go to smaller schemes or other technologies. Such a development was not envisaged at the start of the programme.

The consultation also recommends increasing support for farm-scale AD, as it has received disappointing uptake so far. The heat component of AD is also supported through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). This means that where the biogas is burnt to produce heat and power AD is eligible both for the RHI and FITs.

It could be argued that it doesn't matter where the PV modules are as long as they are generating electricity. But the government's concern is that PV be available to ordinary people and not big business.

Greg Barker, Climate Change Minister said: “I want to make sure that we... allow even more homes to benefit from feed in tariffs... and put a stop to the threat of larger-scale solar soaking up the cash. The FITs scheme was never designed to be a profit generator for big business and financiers."

Installations larger than 50 kW will receive support as follows:

• 19p/kWh for 50kW to 150kW
• 15p/kWh for 150kW to 250kW
• 8.5p/kWh for 250kW to 5MW and stand-alone installations.

These compare with the tariffs that would otherwise apply from 1 April of:

• 32.9p/kWh for 10kw to 100kw
• 30.7/kWh for 100kw to 5MW and stand-alone installations.

These reductions are comparable to those in schemes in Germany, France and Spain, where tariffs for PV have been reduced sharply over the past year.

The new increased tariffs for AD, designed to make them more attractive, are:

• 14p/kWh for installations up to 250kW
• 13p/kWh for installations from 250kW to 500kW.

These compare with the tariffs that would otherwise apply from 1 April of 12.1p/kWh for AD up to 500kW. The tariff level set for biomethane injection into the gas grid under the RHI and also for small scale - below 200 kilowatt thermal (kWth) – combustion of the biogas produced by AD is 6.5 pence per kilowatt-hour of heat generated.

The idea is specifically to increase the energy obtained from waste through anaerobic digestion, not to promote energy crops, particularly where these might be grown instead of food crops. DECC is in discussions with Defra and others about ways to ensure this does not happen.

Subject to the outcome of the consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, the revised tariffs would be introduced from 1st August 2011.

Over 27,000 installations have been registered for the FIT scheme to date.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Scotland sets sail for a sea-powered future

Marine current turbine
The world's largest marine current turbine 'farm' is to be installed off the West Coast of Scotland, the Scottish government has announced.

The news comes on the same day that a survey of Scottish business leaders by the Carbon Trust shows they unanimously (94%) believe that green growth is an opportunity for their businesses.

ScottishPower Renewables' £40 million 10MW tidal array development will harness the power of the Sound of Islay and generate enough electricity for over 5,000 homes - over double those on Islay. Amongst other things, the electricity produced will power eight whisky distilleries!

Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth John Swinney, who determined the application, said, "With around a quarter of Europe's potential tidal energy resource and a tenth of the wave capacity, Scotland's seas have unrivalled potential to generate green energy, create new, low carbon jobs, and bring billions of pounds of investment to Scotland.

"This development - the largest tidal array in the world - does just that and will be a milestone in the global development of tidal energy."

He said that ScottishPower Renewables will work with the Islay Energy Trust to maximise social and economic opportunities, for instance using local marine contractors during installation or creating new local jobs in the onshore construction phase.

Marine consultation

The Scottish government is also conducting a consultation on its National Marine Plan is a major component of the Marine (Scotland) Act.

The document contains a Marine Atlas for Scotland which shows locations of different opportunities around the Scottish coast support the Plan.

Publishing the consultation draft Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead said: "The significance of the Marine Plan is immense. It will cover reserved as well as devolved issues and contain targets for the next five, 10 and 40 years in key areas such as renewable energy, fishing, aquaculture, conservation, recreation and tourism, ports and harbours and shipping."

Marine current turbines

Marine current turbines yield predictable supplies of renewable electricity, unlike solar or wind power. They depend on marine currents which are particularly strong in certain areas around the UK coast.

Unlike tidal barrages or lagoons, they are also modular - you can install one, two, or 100 at a time - and therefore cheaper to install than a barrage, and are less environmentally damaging to wildlife.

UK tidal energy company, Marine Current Turbines, has already installed one 1.2MW SeaGen in Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough in April 2008. In 2013 it hopes to install a second Scottish tidal farm in Kyle Rhea, a strait of water between the Isle of Skye and the mainland.

Scottish businesses prepare for low carbon economy

The Carbon Trust survey revealed that 77% of Scottish business leaders expect a bigger percentage of jobs to be in the green economy in 5 years’ time, with it helping to grow the UK’s export market.

There is general agreement that new technology is going to drive green growth (75%) and about a third (36%) of businesses are already investing in the research and development of green products and services.

But of those surveyed, the highest proportion - 22% - believe that Germany is the best prepared nation to benefit from green growth, with the UK coming second with 19% citing the UK.

The curse of uranium mining

Uranium mine in Niger
“The people here don’t know about radioactivity, but there are still many people who do not drink the water in Arlit...They say they are sick when they drink it,” says Almoustapha Alhacen, who lives in a town built for nuclear mine workers in northern Niger, a parched desert area.
global supply lines for uranium

This is a glimpse of life at the other end of the uranium fuel supply route (right: where uranium originates and goes) for a plant like Fukushima.

Can nuclear-power ever be sustainable? Not unless it cleans up its act. It is just as criminally irresponsible in sourcing its raw materials as the fossil fuel industry. Read on...

Hell on earth

In a harsh environment in sub-Saharan Niger, French nuclear company AREVA has created a hell on earth amongst its indigenous population.

Here you would find great clouds of dust, caused by detonations and drilling in the mines, which cloud the air at the end of the day. Mountains of radioactive industrial waste and sludge sit in huge piles, exposed to the open air.

And the shifting of millions of tonnes of earth and rock have contaminated the groundwater source, which is quickly disappearing due to industrial overuse.

AREVA's majority shareholder is the French government. In 2009 Niger produced nearly 7% of the world’s uranium and is one of the four largest suppliers of uranium to the European Union. Northern Niger holds the world’s third-largest uranium deposit.

Foreign investors from China, Australia, South Africa, America, and Canada have flocked to the landlocked Saharan state recently. At least 139 research and exploitation permits have been sold in less than a year without any transparency or prior public discourse, says a local NGO.

Evidence has emerged that the permits corruptly enriched Mr. Tandja, the ousted president, and devastated the Touareg population.

Abject poverty

A landlocked-Saharan place in West Africa, Niger is a country where 60 percent of people are facing severe food shortages; it has the lowest human development index on the planet, despite the fact that Areva makes huge profits from its mining operations.

Arid desert, scarce arable land and intense poverty are hugely problematic - unemployment, minimal education, illiteracy, poor infrastructure and political instability are rife.

Mountains of tailings left from the uranium mine
AREVA established its mining efforts in northern Niger 40 years ago, creating what should have been an economic rescue for a depressed nation.

Yet, AREVA’s operations have been largely destructive, claims Greenpeace, whose experts visited the area at the beginning of last year together with experts from French independent laboratory CRIIRAD.

In 40 years of operation, a total of 270 billion litres of underground prehistoric water have been used, contaminating the water and draining the aquifer, which will take millions of years to be replaced. There have been consequent droughts and the death of farmers' cattle. No compensation has been provided.

Health and environmental findings

In collaboration with the French independent laboratory CRIIRAD and the Nigerien NGO network ROTAB Greenpeace have found the following:

• The concentration of uranium and other radioactive materials in a soil sample collected near the underground mine was found to be about 100 times higher than normal levels in the region, and higher than the international exemption limits.

• On the streets of Akokan, radiation dose rate levels were found to be up to almost 500 times higher than normal background levels. A person spending less than one hour a day at that location would be exposed to more than the maximum allowable annual dose.

• Although AREVA claims no contaminated material gets out of the mines anymore, Greenpeace found several pieces of radioactive scrap metal on the local market in Arlit, with radiation dose rate reaching up to 50 times more than the normal background levels. Locals use these materials to build their homes.

• In four of the five water samples that Greenpeace collected in the Arlit region, the uranium concentration was above the WHO recommended limit for drinking water. Historical data indicate a gradual increase in uranium concentration over the last 20 years, which can point at the influence of the mining operation.

• A radon measurement performed at the police station in Akokan showed a radon concentration in the air three to seven times higher than normal levels in the area.

• Fine (dust) fractions showed an increased radioactivity concentration reaching two or three times higher than the coarse fraction. Increased levels of uranium and decay products in small particles that easily spread as dust would point at increased risks of inhalation or ingestion.

• Death rates due to respiratory infection in the town of Arlit (16.19%) are twice that of the national average (8.54%).

AREVA, with its attempt to create a nuclear renaissance, brings to these communities the threat of losing the most basic elements necessary for life - poisoning their air, water and earth.
“We worked with our bare hands! ...The mining company never informed us about the risks... we relied on what God decided.” - Salifou Adinfo, a former driller for AREVA, Arlit, Niger, November 2009.
Women wash their clothes at a tap so generously provided by Areva
“We are already radiated. We are no more useful. We can only watch.” SOMAIR laundry worker Gigo Zaki, seen here at a tap so generously provided by AREVA.

“AREVA is coming to our country and making money, but we are the ones suffering and this must be addressed,” - Fatima Daoui.

Corruption and profits while locals are in poverty

Government spokesman Mahaman Laouali Dandah says there is ample evidence that corruption is an important part of doing business in Niger Production at COMINAK, located a few kilometres from the town of Akokan, commenced in 1978.

Unlike SOMAIR, COMINAK is an underground mine.

With a depth of 250 metres and over 250 kilometres of galleries, COMINAK is the largest underground mine in the world.

On average, the mines produce over 3,000 tonnes of uranium and net €200 million in sales each year.

A third mine, Imouraren, is planned to start production in 2013 and is projected to be the largest uranium mine in Africa and the second largest in the world, with an annual production capacity of 5,000 tonnes of uranium.

AREVA’s revenues for 2008 (most recently published) were €13.1 billion, with a profit of €589 million.

SOMAIR generated €161.7 million of that revenue by producing 1,743 metric tonnes of uranium.

COMINAK earned sales of €100.6 million for its supply of 1,289 metric tonnes of uranium concentrate.

Nuclear power sustainable? Don't make me laugh.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

11 reasons to oppose nuclear power

I'm going to attempt to summarise the reasons why we should abandon nuclear power. I'll give a summary and then try and go into more depth.

1. The sourcing of uranium leaves a terrible legacy and can never be sustainable or carbon neutral. This is the elephant in the room that no one ever discusses.
2. Nuclear power stations can never be totally safe. Even though designers cater for every foreseeable event, it is the unforeseeable ones which have created the disasters of the last 50 years in Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island and many other smaller ones
3. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years. It already costs in the UK £3 billion or £1000 per person per year to look after the existing legacy. How can it be safe, responsible or cost-effective to bequeath this to a distant and unknown future population?
4. It is not carbon neutral, or low carbon, but emits in its life-cycle about 30% of the carbon of gas generation, not including mining and looking after the radioactive tailings that results
5. It is highly centralised and so more vulnerable than a decentralised system
6. The nuclear industry has a reputation for secrecy and dissembling of the truth. This includes information about safety and costs which invariably rise. We need a power supply from sources we can trust.
7. We can satisfy our power needs from a mixture of existing and almost market ready renewable technologies, implementing the smart grid, low- and zero-carbon building design and refurbishment, better planning, more efficient transportation and other energy and resource efficiency.
8. New reactor designs are commercially unproven and improperly costed.
9. Uranium supplies will run out within 70 years - sooner as more plants are built. Why not invest instead in developing the renewable technologies whose fuel we will be able to use for much longer into the future?
10. Many power stations are on the coast. They will not be safe in 50 or 100 or more years' time when the sea level has risen as the Antarctic ice cap and glaciers melt.
11. Renewable energy (the source of it, i.e. the fuel) is free, and there is plenty of solar power - which fuels the wind, the waves, the tides and biomass growth - to supply the energy needs of the planet many times over. This means operating costs are in general lower as there is no fuel requirement. If only resources and subsidies currently channeled into nuclear and fossil fuels were channeled into renewable energy technologies, we could easily meet our needs this way.

Below, find some notes supporting some of the above statements. I will hopefully add to these in future posts.


None of the four Generation III designs submitted to the UK regulators for pre-licensing assessment have been proven commercially; they are design concepts without working prototypes to test their safety.

Nuclear waste

Are we expected to believe our energy companies will be around in any time over a few decades hence, for thousands of years, to pay for the full cost of management of the new radioactive waste produced?

How many companies are here now that were here 500 years ago let alone tens of thousands? None.

Existing nuclear waste is currently managed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Its 2010-11 budget is £2.8bn, of which £1.69 billion comes from the taxpayer via DECC. DECC's overall budget in this year is £2.9bn. This means that the cost of managing existing radioactive waste is a staggering 58% of the Department's total expenditure.

The cost of looking after the waste for each new power station is estimated to be about £1 billion.

Uranium mining

The World Nuclear Authority admits that in "emerging uranium producing countries" there is frequently no adequate environmental health and safety legislation, let alone monitoring.

It is considerately proposing a Charter of Ethics containing Principles of Uranium Stewardship for its members to follow. But this is a self-policing voluntary arrangement. Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Safety Guide to the Management of Radioactive Waste from the Mining and Milling of Ores are not legally binding on operators.

To produce enough uranium fuel - about 25 tonnes - to keep your average (1300 MW) reactor going for a year entails the extraction of half a million tonnes of waste rock and over 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings. These are toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

The conversion plant will generate a further 144 tonnes of solid waste and 1343 cubic metres of liquid waste. To supply the number of power stations worldwide expected to be online in 2020 would mean generating 50 million tonnes of toxic radioactive residue every single year.

Uranium mining has often been a disaster for indigenous peoples. this includes as just one example the people in Niger around Areva's mines. The area has suffered conflict for ownership due to the huge profits involved, and the water table has dried up leaving cattle dead and farmers destitute. Radioactive contaminated goods have been found in street markets in villages.

British Energy is responsible for purchasing uranium in the UK.


Insurance: Nuclear plant operators have limited liability in the case of an accident. Any cost over £700m is covered by the taxpayer. Are taxpayers prepared to take on board the full insurance liabilities, which in the case of Chernobyl have already run to several tens of billions?

The cost of the new generation plant being constructed in Finland, which was alleged to be cost-effective and show what could be done by the new generation designs, has soared during the construction phase.

The same is true of its sister plant in Flamanville in France, now under construction.

Nuclear is not low carbon

Nuclear power produces roughly one quarter to one third of the carbon dioxide as the delivery of the same quantity of electricity from natural gas.

This is according to the Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) by The University of Sydney, which concludes that the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of nuclear power varies within the range 130-160 g/kWh.

A second estimate (below) by Storm van Leeuwen and Smith (SLS) is higher because it reflects best practice, especially for waste treatment and disposal, and because the reality of errors and problems in the nuclear cycle typically raises the energy cost well beyond the planned level. ISA’s estimate includes all GHG emissions from the nuclear cycle.

Construction: 12-35 CO2 g/kWh
Front end: 36 CO2 g/kWh
Back end: 17 CO2 g/kWh
Dismantling: 23-46 CO2 g/kWh
Total: 88-134 CO2 g/kWh

To compare: GHG emissions from gas-fired electricity generation are about 450 g/kWh.

By contrast, the U.K. Government’s 2007 Nuclear Power Consultation accepts industry estimates that, across its whole life-cycle, nuclear power emits 7 - 22 g/kWh.

Additionally, no one can convince me that the mining and the care of the huge piles of tailings at uranium mines is carbon-free. It takes a lot of – almost certainly fossil-fuelled - energy to move that amount of rock and process the ore. But the carbon cost is often not in the country where the fuel is consumed - certainly in the case of the UK. So that's why it's called ‘carbon free’.

The threat of rising sea levels

The Met Office has said that rising sea-levels, increased wave height and increased storm surge height must all be considered in the planning of the UK's future nuclear stations.

Their report was commissioned by British Energy. It concludes future power plants will need to be further inland and may need added protection.

At Sizewell in Suffolk, for example, site of Britain's most modern reactor, the prediction is for the most severe storm surges to be 1.7 metres higher in 2080 than at present. But that's only if the Greenland ice sheet doesn't melt. If it does, much of it will be underwater.

At Dungeness in Kent, the storm surge increase could be up to 0.9 metres. Already this plant, which is sited on land only two metres above sea-level, is protected by a massive wall of shingle which needs constant maintenance in the winter. Waves erode so much of it that it needs to be topped up constantly with 600 tons of shingle every day.

Renewable alternatives

Britain doesn’t need to build major new power stations to keep the lights on and maintain security, according to, for example, this report by independent consultants Pöyry.

Space and water heating counts for 83% of domestic energy use and about the same for office use. Together, offices and homes account for around 35% of UK energy use. Ie, 28% of total UK energy use.

Providing 40% of this by passive solar, solar water heating, heat pumps, domestic CHP, and woodchip/pellet boilers, would account for a significant proportion of the amount of power requirement as that required to compensate for the loss of old nuclear power stations.

It would have almost as great an impact in a shorter time scale and far cheaper but with little environmental impact than building new nuclear power stations, as well as creating more, sustainable jobs.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How we can do without the nuclear renaissance

 nuclear explosion at Fukushima
Japan, the only country to have experienced not one but two atomic weapon blasts which devastated two major cities, has now suffered what is probably going to become the third worst civil nuclear disaster in the world.

Many voices are lining up to say that this is the nail in the coffin for nuclear power. There have been anti-nuclear demonstrations in Germany and Greenpeace is calling for the phasing out of all existing power stations. They say nuclear power is simply too dangerous.

Those on the pro-nuclear side have in the last few days been consistently underestimating the way that events have actually unfolded. My inbox has been filled with nuclear pundits offering their prognoses which have been proved invariably wrong.

Nevertheless even some environmentalists such as Mark Lynas are arguing that we still need nuclear power and that it's worth the risk because the alternative - runaway climate change - is unavoidable without it.

Nuclear or renewable future?

Japan imports 90% of its oil and has used nuclear power to help fuel its economic success with a measure of energy independence. Up to now, the Japanese public have largely trusted the authorities.

The terrible consequences of the tsunami, the attendant economic collapse, the lack of services, electricity and food, and the terrifying prospect of an invisible enemy in the air or in the food around them has shattered this trust.

Hideki Ban, a Japanese antinuclear movement activist and leader of the Citizen's Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), commenting on the disaster, said at the weekend in an interview with an Italian newspaper "By an accident of this magnitude it is very likely (and is also our hope) that the close dependence of Japan on atomic energy will come to an end."

Yet would Japan be able to power all of its needs with renewable energy? And if it can, how long will it take to build the generation capacity? It would not do so with solar photovoltaic and wind power alone. However, it is an island and there is no shortage of marine energy or geothermal energy, whose effect could be magnified by the use of combined heat and power and heat pumps, or of food and crop waste for anaerobic digestion.

All new buildings to replace those lost could be constructed to become zero energy using the Passivhaus standard. If Japan can achieve energy security using renewables, then certainly so can the rest of the world.

And if it can't, then presumably the rest of the world cannot successfully tackle climate change either.

Mark Lynas argues that if we abandon nuclear power then in the immediate term coal will take up the slack. Without any proven (at scale) carbon capture and storage, this could well accelerate global warming.

The renewable vision

But it doesn't have to be like this. Large-scale deployment of anaerobic digestion, solar thermal power plants, marine energy and wind power linked by high-voltage supergrids can power economic revival.
 Locations of 6 solar farms that could power the entire world
The map right shows where it has been calculated that six large solar thermal plants situated in the hottest spots on the planet could power the whole world with such supergrids.

Desetec map of Europe and North Africa
The European Desertec project is one such example of a project that could revolutionise North Africa and Europe and the Middle East.

The far east could have just such a super grid.

Is it feasible? Is it affordable?

What really brought nuclear power to a halt after the Three Mile Island disaster in America was the refusal of insurance companies to foot the bill for new construction given the potential damage to them were there to be another accident.

The same reaction is extremely likely again, in many countries of the world.

All renewable energy technologies carry far less inherent risk but more up front costs. If they are more expensive in capital terms, they are less expensive in terms of their running costs, security requirements and insurance requirements.

What the fulfillment of this dream requires is the political will and about the same amount of capital as it will take to build nuclear power stations and maintain their security and insure them against disaster in the future.

The health risk

Nuclear power is inherently dangerous. The whole supply chain including mining in countries like Niger promotes environmental desolation and conflict.

Mark Lynas argues that there have only been 50 deaths as a result of the Chernobyl disaster and this is an acceptable price.

But that is not the whole picture. There has been a great increase in thyroid cancers as a result of the ingestion of caesium-137, which can remain in the environment and food chain for 30 years.
From Life magazine:a victim of the Chernobyl nuclear accident
Several of my friends around where I live have for many years received visitors from the Chernobyl area - children badly affected by radiation with terrible deformities. They come for holidays. It is awful to see them.

According to the World Health Organisation, an expert group from the US National Academy of Sciences has concluded that "there may be up to 4,000 additional cancer deaths among the three highest exposed groups over their lifetime". These groups contain 630,000 people.

Those who argue that all of this is an acceptable price to pay to tackle climate change have not seen the suffering themselves close to hand. If it was happening to them or their family, friends and neighbours they would not be so gung ho about it.

It's time to say no to the nuclear lobby. We don't trust you any more.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fukushima accident triggers reappraisal of nuclear power

The unprecedented Fukushima nuclear power accident is the worst since Chernobyl and is causing a significant reappraisal of plans to develop nuclear power everywhere in the world.

The latest news is that a third reactor has lost its cooling system. A second explosion has injured 11 people, one of them seriously.

The authorities have so far categorised it as a level 4 event on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale - an accident with local consequences, where there is a minor release of radioactive material, unlikely to result in implementation of planned countermeasures other than local food controls.

Radiation levels and secrecy

However, independent journalists from the Japan Visual Journalist Association (JVJA) and Ryuichi Hirokawa, editor-in-chief of DAYS JAPAN (magazine), went on Sunday to Futaba Town where the Fukushima Daiichi reactors are located to undertake independent monitoring.

Hirokawa said measurements taken near the high school at Futaba were higher than when he had taken measurements approximately 200 meters from unit 4 at Chernobyl shortly after that explosion.

He added, "At the front of the Futaba Town Hall, all our three radiation monitors went off scale and became inoperable (we could not take measurements). At the entrance of the hospital, stretchers were turned over, many things were scattered, a feeling that evacuation had been undertaken in a very rushed way."

Yet, a statement today by the International Atomic Energy Agency said "Radiation dose rate measurements observed at four locations around the plant's perimeter over a 16-hour period on 13 March were all normal."

These discrepancies in reports do not inspire confidence. Secrecy is a major issue in public confidence about nuclear power. In 2002 a scandal about widespread falsification of safety documentation lead to the shutting down of all of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s 17 nuclear reactors.

It will probably be some time before we find out exactly what has transpired, and there may be more explosions. However, the fact that there is now a 12 mile exclusion zone around the site gives some idea of its seriousness.

Security against earthquakes

Masashi Goto, the designer of the containment vessel at the Fukushima plant, a former employee of Toshiba, held a press conference on 13 March with the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in which he catalogued how the industry in Japan had been warned about the vulnerability of its reactors to earthquakes and ignored the warnings.

He said that the intensity of the quake in 2008 which cracked the reactor cooling towers at the Kurihara Nuclear Power Plant, spilling wastewater and damaging the reactor core, exceeded the design capability of the vessel to withstand it by almost three times, and that the only reason why a major disaster did not happen on that occasion was pure coincidence.

Reuters reports that even faithful workers have had their trust shaken. "The company has been saying such a thing would not happen and the plant was fine even after 40 years in operation...It only raised my distrust of TEPCO." said Mikiko Amano, a 55-year-old woman who had been recently evacuated from her home close to the quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

Four plants have been shut down since the first Fukushima explosion, closing 20% of Japan’s nuclear capacity. 34% Japan's history comes from nuclear power. Even Tokyo Electric Power has called it "a considerably serious situation."

Doubts over the reactor type

The Fukushima plant is a General Electric Mark I reactor. There are 23 of this type in the U.S. It is a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) of which there are 192 in the world, some still under construction.

The design has been criticised by nuclear experts and even Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff for decades as being susceptible to explosion and containment failure.

As early as 1972, Dr. Stephen Hanuaer, an Atomic Energy Commission safety official, recommended that the pressure suppression system be discontinued and any further designs not be accepted for construction permits.

Shortly thereafter, three General Electric nuclear engineers publicly resigned their positions citing dangerous shortcomings in the GE design.

An NRC analysis of the potential failure of the Mark I under accident conditions concluded in a 1985 report that Mark I failure within the first few hours following core melt would appear rather likely.

In 1986, Harold Denton, then the NRC's top safety official, told an industry trade group that the "Mark I containment, especially being smaller with lower design pressure, in spite of the suppression pool, if you look at the WASH 1400 safety study, you'll find something like a 90% probability of that containment failing."

A statement issued by the Japanese Citizens' Nuclear Information Center expressed concern for the people living in the vicinity of Japan's nuclear power plants and called for a phasing out nuclear energy.

"Last December the Japanese government began a review of its nuclear energy policy," said Philip White its international liaison officer. "The review was commenced in the spirit of essentially confirming the existing policy. That approach is no longer viable. The direction of the policy review must be completely reversed."

The industry is countering that at least a major explosion of the containment vessel itself has been avoided. This is not 3 mile Island or Chernobyl, they say.

However, the accident is without precedent, and so were these others. The industry can only prepare within its economic constraints for probable accidents, and it is the improbable ones which are the most catastrophic.

Countries around the world are now commencing an evaluation of nuclear safety - India being one of the first to announce this move.