Why isn't this government influenced by science? - the nuclear power debate

The government is failing to underpin its energy policy with scientific research, writes Richard H Phillips, who heralds nuclear as 'the greenest of technologies'

Since President Barack Obama has appointed a Nobel Laureate in physics as his new "Energy Man" to guarantee scientific integrity in policy making, why isn't Britain following his lead? With green technologies being held up as Britain's success strategy for the future, why isn't the government getting independent, scientific verification on the viability of wind energy and carbon capture and the storage technologies? When industry is pulling out, can these untested, potentially expensive technologies really solve our energy crisis without massive subsidies?

In today's non-scientific world, politicians commonly comment about the "zero-carbon, free energy" that is wind. Yet turbines have a carbon footprint about twice that of nuclear, seldom are more than 28% efficient, so produce energy that costs twice that of nuclear power. Is this free?

CCS: a pipe dream industry won't touch?
Alongside other low-carbon solutions such as nuclear, politicians penning the Conservative's latest green paper and the government's Low Carbon Industrial Strategy seem to advocate carbon capture and storage (CCS) trials and wind turbine technology.

With CCS, there are major problems to overcome - not least is a probable trebling of current electricity prices. After extracting the carbon dioxide from fossil fuelled power stations, there is the issue of storage. Based on the UK's annual coal consumption of 55M tonnes, one day's production of CO2 from all coal-fired power stations would occupy a tank one thousand metres long, 24 metres-wide (a three-lane motorway) and ten metres high (a three-storey house). So, imagine the volume decades of production would take up.

Then, there's the question of pressure. As CO2 must be stored as a liquid, it would have a high, 800psi pressure (30 times as much as car tyres) - making containment very difficult.

Wind turbines: not up to the task
Wind technology is enormously inefficient. At one point the 23,200MW wind turbine capacity in Germany was producing just 1MW - barely enough to run 500 2KW fan heaters. The harvesting of such a very dilute energy source means that for the same annual output an area of land more than one thousand times greater than that of conventional power stations has to be allocated to wind turbines. Already this is absorbing huge subsidies making turbines a copper-bottomed investment.

The National Grid: 98.5% efficient
As wind turbines are "embedded" in the grid network, their variable contribution has to be accepted and balanced against demand. Experienced professional electrical engineers fear that national capacity above about 8-12% by turbines will be difficult to control and may well result in large-scale outages.

What is more, additional wind energy would need a massive increase in the size of the grid, meaning more pylons and more wires in the countryside and greater fossil fuel back-up to balance the grid for when the wind dropped.

This means politicians' ambitions for 30% or even 75% being mentioned in the House are unrealistic - resulting in certain grid failure and blackouts.

Despite its efficiency, both parties are highly critical of the current National Grid. Compared with water, which leaks a lot, the grid delivers 98.5% of the energy fed into it. In a bid to cut electricity costs and improve efficiency, the grid replaced local generation in 1926. By linking super-efficient power plants and developing nationwide transmission, at a stroke redundant standby capacity was abolished, economy of scale introduced and cheap electricity made available for the populace.

The Tories' call for a move towards local generation flies in the face of science and indeed economics as it is vastly more cost-effective to produce energy cheaply, transport it efficiently and then drop from 400,000 volts to 240 volts for household supply at local substations. The 5% losses David Cameron complains of are hardly surprising since the local system is at a lower voltage, hence a higher amperage and greater heating losses - little more than Ohms law.

Nuclear: the greenest of technologies
Nuclear technology is advancing. The fast reactor promises a 50- to 60-fold increase in energy derived from natural uranium. The pebble-bed reactor, operating at temperatures up to 900oC, enables electricity generation without the raising of steam and is fail-safe. Temperatures can rise to 1,600oC without danger.

Also, it can easily be adapted to make an excellent rector as small as 400MW. Perhaps more importantly, chemical processes have been developed which may use nuclear heat to make hydrogen very efficiently, and hydrogen is the only possible alternative to carbon fuel.

Oh for a little more attention to science and perhaps a little less hubris.

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