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Our energy policy.

THE recent Government decisions concerning the gas, coal and nuclear industries show once again the lack of a coherent long-term energy policy. Policies seem to be dictated by short-term economic considerations with little or no thought for the future.

The first of these decisions is what is called the 'dash for gas'. Several new gas-fired stations are being built, but it is far from obvious that they will compete economically now, and according to the energy expert Professor Fells the price of gas is likely to double in the next ten years as the North Sea reserves are depleted. Dr. Winterton of Bradford University has estimated that the new gas policy will add |pound~1 billion to our energy bill and force the closure of 17 coal-fired power stations.

This is possibly part of the reason why it has also been decided to close a large number of our remaining coal mines in spite of widespread public support for the miners. Another reason is that it may be cheaper to import coal than to mine it ourselves. As the gas runs out we shall need more coal, but will be unable to provide it for ourselves. Is it not then likely that our overseas suppliers, seeing that we have to buy their coal, will gradually raise their price, to our acute discomfort?

In the modern world, it is very desirable whenever possible to avoid dependence on overseas supplies of vital materials. That is why the French, for example, lacking both oil and coal, decided to invest heavily in nuclear energy, so that now 75 per cent of their electricity comes from nuclear power stations. In a few years the result of our present policies will force us to buy overseas coal, when we are still sitting on huge deposits of our own. Once a coal mine is abandoned, it soon becomes unworkable; it cannot be effectively mothballed. We may regret those closures.

Although it provides about 20 per cent of our electricity (50 per cent in Scotland) nuclear power is widely regarded as a dead duck. The decision not to include the nuclear power stations in the privatisation programme seemed to be the last straw. Is this really the end of the road that began with such high hopes in the fifties, when Britain led the world in the peaceful application of atomic energy? As the gas runs out and imported coal becomes more and more expensive, nuclear power will look increasingly attractive.

In Britain we are very fortunate in our energy supplies. We have huge coal deposits and large, though rapidly diminishing, oilfields in the North Sea. In some areas hydroelectric power makes a substantial contribution. Taken together, they can supply all our energy needs. In the sense that we can survive without it, we do not really need nuclear power. If we build nuclear power stations, it should only be because they are demonstrably better, safer, cheaper and less harmful to the environment than the alternative sources.

If we are to have a sensible energy policy, all the available energy sources must be carefully evaluated according to these criteria, expressing the results in numbers wherever possible. This alone makes it possible to reduce to reach decisions that command general respect. When this is done, we find that oil is definitely too costly, and in any case it is a precious commodity that has far too many uses in the petrochemical industries for it to be squandered by burning. Hydropower is limited by the availability of suitable rivers so there is little scope for further development. That leaves coal and nuclear as the only possible large-scale future sources of power. This is the choice we have to make, however much the other sources are developed.

The renewable sources like wind and solar can be useful in some circumstances such as providing power in rather remote areas where not much is needed and an intermittent supply is acceptable. Unfortunately they cannot supply the power needs of large cities and industries. Tidal power is practicable in only a few places like the Severn estuary, and inevitably has severe environmental effects.

Most other countries are not so fortunate. The case of France has already been mentioned, and many other countries have heavily invested in nuclear power: in Belgium 60 per cent; South Korea 50 per cent; Hungary 50 per cent; Sweden 45 per cent; Switzerland 42 per cent, and Spain 38 per cent of the electricity comes from nuclear power stations. By far the largest user of nuclear power is the United States, though it only amounts to 19 per cent of the total in that country.

These figures show that nuclear power is able to supply the large amounts of energy required by modern industrial societies. This development would not have taken place if nuclear power were not at least similar in cost and safety and environmental effects compared with the alternative sources. Indeed extensive studies show that in most countries the cost of coal power is between one and two times that of nuclear power. If harmful emissions from coal power stations were reduced, coal power would be still more expensive. As far as safety is concerned, nuclear is better than coal by a factor of about ten, measured by the number of deaths and injuries associated with the production of the same amount of electricity.

As for the effects on the environment, which are increasingly the focus of public attention, nuclear power stations emit very small amounts of harmful substances, whereas coal power stations emit huge amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides and smaller amounts of a whole range of poisonous substances, as well as producing millions of tons of ash. At 1.7 tonnes of carbon per head in 1987, the French contribution to the global warming is smaller than our contribution of 2.18 tonnes per head in the same year; this difference is due to the French reliance on nuclear power. In these respects, nuclear power is definitely preferable to coal.

Why then is the British nuclear power programme in such a bad way, whereas those in other countries, though not without their difficulties, seem to be much more successful? There are many possible reasons for this, but probably the most important is the very poor public image of nuclear power. Partly this is due to the initial association with atomic bombs; people still fear that nuclear power stations might explode like an atomic bomb. This is inherently impossible, but the disaster of Chernobyl showed that it is possible in that type of reactor for the nuclear reaction to speed up uncontrollably and set fire to the reactor material, with devastating consequences. If indeed this could happen to any nuclear power station, then obviously they are totally unacceptable.

The reactors at Chernobyl were built to an inherently unstable and hence unsafe design, probably because they were also required to produce plutonium for weapons. No reactor of this type would be acceptable in Western countries. On the evening of the disaster, it was operated in flagrant disregard of the safety rules: the control rods were pulled out and the safety devices switched off. Thus to argue against nuclear power from the example of Chernobyl is like arguing against air travel because on one occasion an unsafe type of airplane was flown into a mountain by a stupid pilot. An important contributory cause of the disaster was the political system that urged rapid construction and made it almost impossible for individuals to protest that unsafe methods and designs were being used.

Nuclear reactors come in many different types and their safety continually improves with experience. Great attention is now paid to operator training and to the design of the controls so as to eliminate the types of operator errors that led to Chernobyl and the lesser but still very worrying Three Mile Island accident in America.

Then there is the problem of nuclear waste. While, as already mentioned, nuclear power stations emit very little harmful substances, they do produce highly radioactive wastes in the form of fission fragments when the fuel rods are reprocessed. People are naturally very sensitive to the possible dangers of radioactive material escaping from reprocessing plants, as the arguments about Sellafield show. Can such materials be responsible for the increased incidence of leukaemia around Sellafield?

Extremely small amounts of radioactive material can be detected and it is found that the emissions from Sellafield add only a very small amount to the natural radiation that we receive all the time. This background radiation varies from place to place over the country and is much greater in areas like Cornwall where there are granite rocks. Since large increases in leukaemia are not found there it is difficult to see how the much smaller amounts from Sellafield could cause harm. Furthermore, if they were responsible, then it would not explain other leukaemia clusters in parts of the country far away from nuclear installations. It has been plausibly suggested that the cases found around Sellafield are due to a viral infection due to the movement of population that occurs when such plants are built, and this is supported by data from similar population movements not connected with nuclear work.

The techniques for dealing with nuclear wastes are now well understood: they are first allowed to remain in special containers for some years until most of the radioactivity has decayed, and then they are fused into an insoluble glassy substance, encased in steel cylinders and buried deep underground where they cannot cause any harm. After some time the level of radioactivity becomes comparable with that in natural granite. A much more serious worry is the huge amounts of chemical waste that are produced by many industrial processes and are either poured into rivers or into the sea, or heaped up in piles of rusting drums.

It is notable that the hazards of nuclear energy are much more widely publicised than the hazards of other types of energy generation. Coal mining is dirty and dangerous, and coal power stations emit huge amounts of poisonous chemicals. Oil rigs catch fire and tankers spill their oil as we saw in the Shetlands. Hydropower means huge dams that ruin valleys and sometimes burst, and so on. Careful analyses of the deaths and injuries associated with the different methods of energy generation show that they are roughly in the ratios: coal 20, oil 10, hydroelectric 4 and nuclear 2.

It is curious that many writers on energy problems show great confidence in scientists when they say that more research will make wind and solar power, for example, much more efficient, despite the scientists' explanation that beyond a certain point this goes against the laws of nature. And yet when it comes to nuclear waste this is described as the great unsolved problem, despite the efforts of scientists to explain how it can be dealt with.

In some quarters nuclear power is seen as the symbol of all the evils of our technological society, and of course journalists find that nuclear scare stories are more readable than scientific assessments. With all this, it is not surprising that the public now has an almost pathological fear of nuclear power.

The main contribution that the scientist can make to these discussions is by providing the scientific data on which decisions must be based. This does not dictate the decisions, but shows the areas within which responsible decisions can be taken. This is the area consistent with the scientific facts as we know them. Outside this is an area of increasing unreality and real danger. Without the scientist, the discussions range indiscriminately over all areas, often driven by irrelevant political considerations, without people realising the implications of what they are saying.

In this country the development of nuclear power, we can see with hindsight, has not been well managed. Too many different designs have been built, whereas the French chose one design and stuck to it and thus reaped the economies of mass production. There is much discussion of the cost of nuclear power; an objective figure is provided by the cost of importing nuclear electricity from France, 2.159 p/kwh, compared with 3.29 p/kwh from coal. But given the public fear of nuclear power, it was inevitable that the privatised power companies would not be willing to accept it. And so the nuclear power programme is being severely curtailed.

The latest decision concerning nuclear power is to pull out of the European programme of fast reactor development. Natural uranium contains mostly uranium 238 and less than one per cent of uranium 235. The present fission reactors burn only the one per cent, whereas fast reactors can burn the remaining 99 per cent as well. It has been estimated that the spent uranium now stored around our reactors has an energy equivalent similar to that of all the North Sea oil. Unfortunately, however, fast reactors are more expensive to build than the present reactors, and so there is a programme of fast reactor development to improve the design. Eventually, as the richer uranium ores become exhausted, the price of uranium will rise, and then the point will be reached when fast reactors have the cost advantage. This may not be for thirty or fifty years, and so is of no interest to our government. When the fast reactors do become economic, we can always buy the technology from the Germans or the Japanese, who take a longer view of energy supplies.

Great damage is being done due to the lack of a coherent energy policy. Eventually, when the gas supplies are exhausted, when the price of imported coal rises, when the effects of pollution become more and more evident, and when our industrial competitors outstrip us with the help of cheaper nuclear power, we will regret the decisions that we are taking now. It is possible to ignore the realities of life for a while, but the slower the awakening the greater the eventual cost. Our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences of our folly.

|Dr. P. E. Hodgson is Head of the Nuclear Physics Theoretical Group, Nuclear Physics Laboratory, University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow of Corpus Christi College.~
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Author:Hodgson, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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