Category Archives: Energy

UK’s dream is now its nuclear nightmare

Nobody knows what to do with a vast uranium and plutonium stockpile built up in the UK by reprocessing spent fuel. It is now a nuclear nightmare.

LONDON, 14 December, 2018 − Thirty years ago it seemed like a dream: now it is a nuclear nightmare. A project presented to the world in the 1990s by the UK government as a £2.85 billion triumph of British engineering, capable of recycling thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel into reusable uranium and plutonium is shutting down – with its role still controversial.

Launched amid fears of future uranium shortages and plans to use the plutonium produced from the plant to feed a generation of fast breeder reactors, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, known as THORP, was thought to herald a rapid expansion of the industry.

In the event there were no uranium shortages, fast breeder reactors could not be made to work, and nuclear new build of all kinds stalled. Despite this THORP continued as if nothing had happened, recycling thousands of tons of uranium and producing 56 tons of plutonium that no one wants. The plutonium, once the world’s most valuable commodity, is now classed in Britain as “an asset of zero value.”

Over its lifetime the giant plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, north-west England, has taken spent fuel from eight countries as well as the UK and succeeded in producing a small mountain of plutonium and uranium of which only a tiny fraction has ever been re-used as intended. Instead most has been stockpiled and is now stored under armed guard with no use or purpose in sight.

White elephant

From the start, THORP was lampooned by cartoonists as a balloon in the shape of a great white elephant hovering over the English Lake District. The UK government maintained then − and still insists − that it was a major foreign currency earner, bringing £9 bn (US$11.4 bn today) to the UK over its lifetime.

There is though no publicly available profit and loss account for the plant. (Most of the prices and costs quoted here are those reported by the owners of THORP in their publicity at the time, but the total of foreign currency earnings and some of the 2018 figures below are new ones provided to the Climate News Network).

All that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which runs THORP on behalf of the government, will say is that the plant has employed 500 people and costs £70 million a year to run. Even after it has closed it will cost £35 million a year to maintain for 10 years while it is cleaned out. Final demolition is set for 2095 with a price tag of £4 billion, a lot more than THORP cost to build.

For its customers back then, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada, or rather for their governments, it solved a terrible problem − how to dispose of or store the ever-increasing amounts of spent fuel coming out of their nuclear reactors?

Problems exported

To avoid any anti-nuclear issues at home they were prepared to pay to send the fuel to Britain to be “recycled”. This conveniently postponed for decades the prospect of dealing with the problem of where to deposit the nuclear fuel as waste − well after the time any of the politicians involved would be held to account.

But even as THORP closes and the last load of fuel is dissolved in acid to extract the plutonium and uranium it contains, the problems the plant was designed to solve remain, and new ones have been created.

Every view about the success or failure of the plant is still contested, even its cost. When it opened in 1994 it was said to have cost £2.85 billion, but this week the NDA, its current owner, claims the cost was only £1.4 billion and that all of that was paid for by the foreign governments that wanted to use its services.

In the 1990s British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), the government-owned company that built THORP, claimed that the plant would work up to reprocessing 1,200 tons of spent fuel a year and make £500 mn profit in its first ten years of operation. In the first decade its target was to have reprocessed 7,000 tons, but it fell short by nearly 2,000 tons as a result of accidents and leaks which caused a series of shutdowns

“The plant should never have been built, has never worked as planned and has left a legacy stockpile of uranium and plutonium that no-one knows what to do with”

These failures, which grew worse over time, led to overseas customers losing faith in the running of the plant and to the cancellation of reprocessing contracts by Germany. Perhaps more importantly, no new contracts were signed.

The fundamental issue, however, was THORP’s failure to achieve its purpose. In order to justify its existence the plutonium and uranium should have been re-used for peaceful purposes. Plans for the new generation of fast breeder reactors that could have used the plutonium were abandoned, so in order to show they were using some of the product from the plant BNFL added another factory. This was to make new reactor fuel, made of mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium (MOX), using material recycled from THORP.

This project was also mired in controversy, but the government insisted on going ahead. It ended in abject failure because the plant failed to work. Instead of producing 120 tons of MOX fuel a year it made just 13.8 tons in nine years and was abandoned in 2011. A government report into the plant concluded in 2013 that this new factory added to THORP had lost taxpayers £2.2 bn.

Despite the reasons for THORP’s existence being comprehensively undermined, the plant continued. This was principally because it still had unfulfilled contracts from foreign customers to reprocess spent fuel, earning money producing plutonium and uranium that no one has a use for – except perhaps a terrorist.

Embarrassment

So at the end of its life there is a stockpile of uranium and plutonium at Sellafield that is an embarrassment to its owners. According to the contracts signed in the 1980s the reprocessed material has to be returned to the country of origin – along with the nuclear waste created in the process.

But naturally these countries do not want it back, some, like Germany, Italy and Spain, because they have abandoned nuclear power. To help them out the UK is holding on to it, but at a price.

For large but undisclosed sums of money, the ownership of this unwanted uranium and plutonium is gradually being transferred to the UK. Negotiations are still going on with Japan to transfer to UK ownership more than two tons of its reprocessed plutonium that would otherwise have to be returned with no end use.

This complex situation is further muddled by the fact that the UK already has another much older reprocessing plant, in operation since 1952. This still dissolves fuel from even older and long-closed British Magnox reactors. The first few of these power stations were built in the 1950s to make plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons, and then more were erected, mainly to generate electricity for the grid. The Magnox reprocessing plant at Sellafield is also due to close in the next two years.

Permanent armed guard

The result of all this reprocessing is a staggering store of 140 tons of plutonium, enough to power 30 never-to-be-built fast breeder reactors or to provide material to make thousands of nuclear missiles. The UK government has had frequent reviews but as yet has no policy on how to deal with the stockpile, which has to be constantly guarded by armed police to prevent terrorist attacks.

Perhaps even more incredible is the fact there are more than 100,000 tons of uranium in store across the UK, again with no end use in sight. This consists mainly of waste, depleted uranium left over from making fuel, and uranium from spent fuel left over after reprocessing.

An irony of the whole THORP saga, considering the current frosty relationship between the UK and President Vladimir Putin, is that one beneficiary of reprocessing was Russia. The Russians have a plant capable of re-enriching the uranium recovered from THORP and turning it back into fuel for nuclear reactors.

Taking advantage of this facility, which is not not available in the UK, one of THORP’s overseas customers, believed to be Germany, sent 1,000 tons of its recovered uranium from Britain to Russia over a period of five years to be turned back into fuel.

Rivalling Disneyland

So at least one customer managed to recycle some of THORP’s output. But what will happen to the remaining 9,000 tons of uranium produced by the plant from spent fuel and now stored remains a mystery.

Martin Forwood, from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, who opposed the building of the plant and has monitored its fortunes ever since, summed up: “The plant should never have been built in the first place, has never worked as planned and has left a legacy stockpile of uranium and plutonium that no-one knows what to do with.”

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is currently sponsoring an art exhibition to celebrate THORP’s achievements. Its website says: “Thorp’s contribution to the global nuclear industry is a source of great pride for the communities of West Cumbria.

“It was the second reprocessing plant built at Sellafield and, at the time, was one of the largest and most complex construction projects in Europe, rivalled only by the Channel Tunnel and Disneyland Paris.” − Climate News Network

Nobody knows what to do with a vast uranium and plutonium stockpile built up in the UK by reprocessing spent fuel. It is now a nuclear nightmare.

LONDON, 14 December, 2018 − Thirty years ago it seemed like a dream: now it is a nuclear nightmare. A project presented to the world in the 1990s by the UK government as a £2.85 billion triumph of British engineering, capable of recycling thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel into reusable uranium and plutonium is shutting down – with its role still controversial.

Launched amid fears of future uranium shortages and plans to use the plutonium produced from the plant to feed a generation of fast breeder reactors, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, known as THORP, was thought to herald a rapid expansion of the industry.

In the event there were no uranium shortages, fast breeder reactors could not be made to work, and nuclear new build of all kinds stalled. Despite this THORP continued as if nothing had happened, recycling thousands of tons of uranium and producing 56 tons of plutonium that no one wants. The plutonium, once the world’s most valuable commodity, is now classed in Britain as “an asset of zero value.”

Over its lifetime the giant plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, north-west England, has taken spent fuel from eight countries as well as the UK and succeeded in producing a small mountain of plutonium and uranium of which only a tiny fraction has ever been re-used as intended. Instead most has been stockpiled and is now stored under armed guard with no use or purpose in sight.

White elephant

From the start, THORP was lampooned by cartoonists as a balloon in the shape of a great white elephant hovering over the English Lake District. The UK government maintained then − and still insists − that it was a major foreign currency earner, bringing £9 bn (US$11.4 bn today) to the UK over its lifetime.

There is though no publicly available profit and loss account for the plant. (Most of the prices and costs quoted here are those reported by the owners of THORP in their publicity at the time, but the total of foreign currency earnings and some of the 2018 figures below are new ones provided to the Climate News Network).

All that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which runs THORP on behalf of the government, will say is that the plant has employed 500 people and costs £70 million a year to run. Even after it has closed it will cost £35 million a year to maintain for 10 years while it is cleaned out. Final demolition is set for 2095 with a price tag of £4 billion, a lot more than THORP cost to build.

For its customers back then, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada, or rather for their governments, it solved a terrible problem − how to dispose of or store the ever-increasing amounts of spent fuel coming out of their nuclear reactors?

Problems exported

To avoid any anti-nuclear issues at home they were prepared to pay to send the fuel to Britain to be “recycled”. This conveniently postponed for decades the prospect of dealing with the problem of where to deposit the nuclear fuel as waste − well after the time any of the politicians involved would be held to account.

But even as THORP closes and the last load of fuel is dissolved in acid to extract the plutonium and uranium it contains, the problems the plant was designed to solve remain, and new ones have been created.

Every view about the success or failure of the plant is still contested, even its cost. When it opened in 1994 it was said to have cost £2.85 billion, but this week the NDA, its current owner, claims the cost was only £1.4 billion and that all of that was paid for by the foreign governments that wanted to use its services.

In the 1990s British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), the government-owned company that built THORP, claimed that the plant would work up to reprocessing 1,200 tons of spent fuel a year and make £500 mn profit in its first ten years of operation. In the first decade its target was to have reprocessed 7,000 tons, but it fell short by nearly 2,000 tons as a result of accidents and leaks which caused a series of shutdowns

“The plant should never have been built, has never worked as planned and has left a legacy stockpile of uranium and plutonium that no-one knows what to do with”

These failures, which grew worse over time, led to overseas customers losing faith in the running of the plant and to the cancellation of reprocessing contracts by Germany. Perhaps more importantly, no new contracts were signed.

The fundamental issue, however, was THORP’s failure to achieve its purpose. In order to justify its existence the plutonium and uranium should have been re-used for peaceful purposes. Plans for the new generation of fast breeder reactors that could have used the plutonium were abandoned, so in order to show they were using some of the product from the plant BNFL added another factory. This was to make new reactor fuel, made of mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium (MOX), using material recycled from THORP.

This project was also mired in controversy, but the government insisted on going ahead. It ended in abject failure because the plant failed to work. Instead of producing 120 tons of MOX fuel a year it made just 13.8 tons in nine years and was abandoned in 2011. A government report into the plant concluded in 2013 that this new factory added to THORP had lost taxpayers £2.2 bn.

Despite the reasons for THORP’s existence being comprehensively undermined, the plant continued. This was principally because it still had unfulfilled contracts from foreign customers to reprocess spent fuel, earning money producing plutonium and uranium that no one has a use for – except perhaps a terrorist.

Embarrassment

So at the end of its life there is a stockpile of uranium and plutonium at Sellafield that is an embarrassment to its owners. According to the contracts signed in the 1980s the reprocessed material has to be returned to the country of origin – along with the nuclear waste created in the process.

But naturally these countries do not want it back, some, like Germany, Italy and Spain, because they have abandoned nuclear power. To help them out the UK is holding on to it, but at a price.

For large but undisclosed sums of money, the ownership of this unwanted uranium and plutonium is gradually being transferred to the UK. Negotiations are still going on with Japan to transfer to UK ownership more than two tons of its reprocessed plutonium that would otherwise have to be returned with no end use.

This complex situation is further muddled by the fact that the UK already has another much older reprocessing plant, in operation since 1952. This still dissolves fuel from even older and long-closed British Magnox reactors. The first few of these power stations were built in the 1950s to make plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons, and then more were erected, mainly to generate electricity for the grid. The Magnox reprocessing plant at Sellafield is also due to close in the next two years.

Permanent armed guard

The result of all this reprocessing is a staggering store of 140 tons of plutonium, enough to power 30 never-to-be-built fast breeder reactors or to provide material to make thousands of nuclear missiles. The UK government has had frequent reviews but as yet has no policy on how to deal with the stockpile, which has to be constantly guarded by armed police to prevent terrorist attacks.

Perhaps even more incredible is the fact there are more than 100,000 tons of uranium in store across the UK, again with no end use in sight. This consists mainly of waste, depleted uranium left over from making fuel, and uranium from spent fuel left over after reprocessing.

An irony of the whole THORP saga, considering the current frosty relationship between the UK and President Vladimir Putin, is that one beneficiary of reprocessing was Russia. The Russians have a plant capable of re-enriching the uranium recovered from THORP and turning it back into fuel for nuclear reactors.

Taking advantage of this facility, which is not not available in the UK, one of THORP’s overseas customers, believed to be Germany, sent 1,000 tons of its recovered uranium from Britain to Russia over a period of five years to be turned back into fuel.

Rivalling Disneyland

So at least one customer managed to recycle some of THORP’s output. But what will happen to the remaining 9,000 tons of uranium produced by the plant from spent fuel and now stored remains a mystery.

Martin Forwood, from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, who opposed the building of the plant and has monitored its fortunes ever since, summed up: “The plant should never have been built in the first place, has never worked as planned and has left a legacy stockpile of uranium and plutonium that no-one knows what to do with.”

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is currently sponsoring an art exhibition to celebrate THORP’s achievements. Its website says: “Thorp’s contribution to the global nuclear industry is a source of great pride for the communities of West Cumbria.

“It was the second reprocessing plant built at Sellafield and, at the time, was one of the largest and most complex construction projects in Europe, rivalled only by the Channel Tunnel and Disneyland Paris.” − Climate News Network

Renewable energy ousts diesel for islanders

Hydrogen power and renewable energy offer hope to islanders and others in remote communities who now have to rely on fossil fuels.

LONDON, 26 October, 2018 − Thanks to a project combining the strengths of renewable energy and hydrogen production, there are brighter prospects ahead for many islanders, mountain dwellers and others who live in isolated communities.

The people who live on the world’s 10,000 inhabited islands, and that currently burn diesel to generate electricity, will soon have the opportunity to substitute renewable power and home-made hydrogen to keep the lights on, say researchers involved in an Italian-led project supported by the European Union.

The project leader is the Polytechnic of Turin, a research university which admits 1,000 foreign students annually and is involved in programmes abroad in countries including China, Vietnam, Pakistan and several Latin American states. It is working with ten European partners in the effort to free these communities of the need to import and burn fossil fuels.

Four demonstration projects on remote islands and in mountain regions are being funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme to check that using a combination of renewables to generate electricity and produce hydrogen can make fossil fuels redundant.

“Most of the world’s islands spend a considerable percentage of their income on fossil fuel imports”

There are obvious economic benefits for the communities involved because the electricity produced by wind, sun and wave power will be free, so there will be no more need for constant imports of expensive diesel fuel.

With 750 million people living on islands, mostly isolated from electricity grids, this programme would represent a huge gain for those trying to curb the release of greenhouse gases. It is also likely to be enthusiastically embraced by communities threatened by sea level rise.

Most of the world’s islands have a population range of 1,000 to 100,000 people, and most spend a considerable percentage of their income on fossil fuel imports. In the Mediterranean alone there are 158 populated islands, ranging from 5 million in Sicily to several with a much sparser human presence.

There are for instance two Italian specks: Montecristo in the Tyrrhenian Sea (with two inhabitants) and Asinara, off Sardinia, listed in a 2001 census as home to one man and a herd of albino feral donkeys.

Tiny populations

Nearly half the islands in the Mediterranean are small, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. They have little chance of being connected to any national grid. Italy alone has 77 marine islands, 23 in lakes and one in a river.

The four demonstration sites the project has chosen are  Ambornetti and Ginostra in Italy, Agkistro in Greece, and Froan Island in Norway. At each site, sufficient renewable energy for their needs will be installed, along with hydrogen production and storage systems.

The idea is to provide “a viable, reliable, cost-effective, and decarbonized alternative to on-site electricity generation through diesel engines.”

Varied environments

The sites have been chosen because they have completely different climates – from hot and sunny southern Europe to cold and windy Scandinavia, and the specific climate of the Italian Alps. In each place solar, wind and in some cases wave renewable energy systems will be installed to take best advantage of the local climate.

Surpluses of electricity at off-peak times will be used to generate hydrogen with electrolysis. This will be stored and used when renewable supplies become intermittent or are not enough to meet demand.

Getting the balance right between the demand for and the output of the various renewable sources and hydrogen production will be managed digitally, and computer development for this is one of the key elements of the pilot projects. − Climate News Network

Hydrogen power and renewable energy offer hope to islanders and others in remote communities who now have to rely on fossil fuels.

LONDON, 26 October, 2018 − Thanks to a project combining the strengths of renewable energy and hydrogen production, there are brighter prospects ahead for many islanders, mountain dwellers and others who live in isolated communities.

The people who live on the world’s 10,000 inhabited islands, and that currently burn diesel to generate electricity, will soon have the opportunity to substitute renewable power and home-made hydrogen to keep the lights on, say researchers involved in an Italian-led project supported by the European Union.

The project leader is the Polytechnic of Turin, a research university which admits 1,000 foreign students annually and is involved in programmes abroad in countries including China, Vietnam, Pakistan and several Latin American states. It is working with ten European partners in the effort to free these communities of the need to import and burn fossil fuels.

Four demonstration projects on remote islands and in mountain regions are being funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme to check that using a combination of renewables to generate electricity and produce hydrogen can make fossil fuels redundant.

“Most of the world’s islands spend a considerable percentage of their income on fossil fuel imports”

There are obvious economic benefits for the communities involved because the electricity produced by wind, sun and wave power will be free, so there will be no more need for constant imports of expensive diesel fuel.

With 750 million people living on islands, mostly isolated from electricity grids, this programme would represent a huge gain for those trying to curb the release of greenhouse gases. It is also likely to be enthusiastically embraced by communities threatened by sea level rise.

Most of the world’s islands have a population range of 1,000 to 100,000 people, and most spend a considerable percentage of their income on fossil fuel imports. In the Mediterranean alone there are 158 populated islands, ranging from 5 million in Sicily to several with a much sparser human presence.

There are for instance two Italian specks: Montecristo in the Tyrrhenian Sea (with two inhabitants) and Asinara, off Sardinia, listed in a 2001 census as home to one man and a herd of albino feral donkeys.

Tiny populations

Nearly half the islands in the Mediterranean are small, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. They have little chance of being connected to any national grid. Italy alone has 77 marine islands, 23 in lakes and one in a river.

The four demonstration sites the project has chosen are  Ambornetti and Ginostra in Italy, Agkistro in Greece, and Froan Island in Norway. At each site, sufficient renewable energy for their needs will be installed, along with hydrogen production and storage systems.

The idea is to provide “a viable, reliable, cost-effective, and decarbonized alternative to on-site electricity generation through diesel engines.”

Varied environments

The sites have been chosen because they have completely different climates – from hot and sunny southern Europe to cold and windy Scandinavia, and the specific climate of the Italian Alps. In each place solar, wind and in some cases wave renewable energy systems will be installed to take best advantage of the local climate.

Surpluses of electricity at off-peak times will be used to generate hydrogen with electrolysis. This will be stored and used when renewable supplies become intermittent or are not enough to meet demand.

Getting the balance right between the demand for and the output of the various renewable sources and hydrogen production will be managed digitally, and computer development for this is one of the key elements of the pilot projects. − Climate News Network

Weakened hurricanes may be wind farm bonus

When high winds meet tall sails in the right place, something’s got to give. Offshore wind farms may lead to weakened hurricanes.

LONDON, 23 October, 2018 − US scientists have identified yet another wonder of that icon of renewable energy, the offshore wind farm: they may result in weakened hurricanes. Turbines in the right place could not just take the heat out of a hurricane, they could reduce the risk of catastrophic flooding as well.

The prediction is based entirely on computer simulation: the US so far has just one 30MW commercial wind farm in operation with just five turbines, off the coast of Rhode Island.

But the reasoning begins from the basic laws of physics, and the answer delivers yet another argument for investment in renewable sources of energy, if only because the ferocity and destructive power of US hurricanes is set to increase with ever-greater emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion, and consequent ever-greater global warming.

Cristina Archer, a scientist at the University of Delaware, has already studied the ideal placing of wind turbines to extract maximum energy from the world’s winds, and more recently confirmed, with other researchers, that any hurricane that blew over a big enough marine wind farm would shed energy and hit the land with less destructive power.

“If you have arrays of wind turbines in the areas where there are hurricanes, you will likely see a reduction in precipitation inland”

It is an axiom of physics that energy is always conserved: if a turbine’s sails generate electrical energy from wind, then some of the kinetic energy of the wind must be surrendered.

Professor Archer and her colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they took, among others, the case of Hurricane Harvey, which in 2017 deposited almost two thirds of a metre of rainwater on Houston, Texas, to cause devastating floods. They tested the behaviour of the simulated hurricane as it blew across a hypothetical barrier of from zero to 74,619 turbines.

When strong winds hit the turbines, they slow down. Wind scientists call this convergence. Winds slow, and are more likely to dump the water they hold, and then rise. Then the winds speed up again, a phenomenon known as divergence.

“Divergence is the opposite effect. It causes a downward motion, attracting air coming down, which is drier, and suppresses precipitation. I was wondering what would also happen when there is an offshore farm”, she said.

Multiple simulations

The researchers modelled a range of simulations with hypothetical wind farms staggered along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Hypothetical hurricanes caught up in a pattern of convergence would drop their rain before they hit the coast, and then begin divergence, which would mean that even less rain would be carried to landfall.

“By the time the air reaches the land, it’s been squeezed out of a lot of moisture,” Professor Archer said. “We got a 30% reduction of the precipitation with Harvey simulations. That means, potentially, if you have arrays of wind turbines in the areas where there are hurricanes, you will likely see a reduction in precipitation inland if the farm is there.”

This doesn’t mean that wind farms can always take the heat out of a hurricane: important factors include the hurricane’s precise track and the distance offshore of the turbines. There are no wind farms anywhere in the world with the tens of thousands of turbines modelled in the simulation: one of the world’s biggest, off Anholt Island, Denmark, has only 111 turbines.

“The more windfarms you have, the more impact they will have on a hurricane,” Professor Archer said. “By the time a hurricane actually makes a landfall, these arrays of turbines have been operating for days and days, extracting energy and moisture out of the storm. As a result, the storm will be weaker. Literally.” − Climate News Network

When high winds meet tall sails in the right place, something’s got to give. Offshore wind farms may lead to weakened hurricanes.

LONDON, 23 October, 2018 − US scientists have identified yet another wonder of that icon of renewable energy, the offshore wind farm: they may result in weakened hurricanes. Turbines in the right place could not just take the heat out of a hurricane, they could reduce the risk of catastrophic flooding as well.

The prediction is based entirely on computer simulation: the US so far has just one 30MW commercial wind farm in operation with just five turbines, off the coast of Rhode Island.

But the reasoning begins from the basic laws of physics, and the answer delivers yet another argument for investment in renewable sources of energy, if only because the ferocity and destructive power of US hurricanes is set to increase with ever-greater emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion, and consequent ever-greater global warming.

Cristina Archer, a scientist at the University of Delaware, has already studied the ideal placing of wind turbines to extract maximum energy from the world’s winds, and more recently confirmed, with other researchers, that any hurricane that blew over a big enough marine wind farm would shed energy and hit the land with less destructive power.

“If you have arrays of wind turbines in the areas where there are hurricanes, you will likely see a reduction in precipitation inland”

It is an axiom of physics that energy is always conserved: if a turbine’s sails generate electrical energy from wind, then some of the kinetic energy of the wind must be surrendered.

Professor Archer and her colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they took, among others, the case of Hurricane Harvey, which in 2017 deposited almost two thirds of a metre of rainwater on Houston, Texas, to cause devastating floods. They tested the behaviour of the simulated hurricane as it blew across a hypothetical barrier of from zero to 74,619 turbines.

When strong winds hit the turbines, they slow down. Wind scientists call this convergence. Winds slow, and are more likely to dump the water they hold, and then rise. Then the winds speed up again, a phenomenon known as divergence.

“Divergence is the opposite effect. It causes a downward motion, attracting air coming down, which is drier, and suppresses precipitation. I was wondering what would also happen when there is an offshore farm”, she said.

Multiple simulations

The researchers modelled a range of simulations with hypothetical wind farms staggered along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Hypothetical hurricanes caught up in a pattern of convergence would drop their rain before they hit the coast, and then begin divergence, which would mean that even less rain would be carried to landfall.

“By the time the air reaches the land, it’s been squeezed out of a lot of moisture,” Professor Archer said. “We got a 30% reduction of the precipitation with Harvey simulations. That means, potentially, if you have arrays of wind turbines in the areas where there are hurricanes, you will likely see a reduction in precipitation inland if the farm is there.”

This doesn’t mean that wind farms can always take the heat out of a hurricane: important factors include the hurricane’s precise track and the distance offshore of the turbines. There are no wind farms anywhere in the world with the tens of thousands of turbines modelled in the simulation: one of the world’s biggest, off Anholt Island, Denmark, has only 111 turbines.

“The more windfarms you have, the more impact they will have on a hurricane,” Professor Archer said. “By the time a hurricane actually makes a landfall, these arrays of turbines have been operating for days and days, extracting energy and moisture out of the storm. As a result, the storm will be weaker. Literally.” − Climate News Network

UK nuclear industry has a sinking feeling

Officially the UK nuclear industry is going ahead with building a new generation of power stations. But it can’t find anyone to pay for them.

LONDON, 4 October, 2018 – The future of the UK nuclear industry looks increasingly bleak, despite the Conservative government’s continued insistence that it wants to build up to 10 new nuclear power stations.

One of the flagship schemes, the £15 billion ($19.5bn) Moorside development in Cumbria in north-west England, made 70 of its 100 staff redundant in September because the current owners, Toshiba, are unable to finance it and cannot find a buyer.

Tom Samson, the managing director of NuGen, the company set up to construct the power station, said he was fighting “tooth and nail” to save it but that there was “a real danger” the whole idea would be abandoned.

With renewable electricity becoming much cheaper than new nuclear power in the UK, the proposed stations have the added disadvantage that they are remote from population centres and would need expensive new grid connections.

There seem to be two main reasons for the government’s continued enthusiasm for nuclear power – the need to keep the nation’s nuclear weapons properly maintained, and political considerations about providing new jobs in remote areas where there are already nuclear installations that are being run down or decommissioned.

Need for jobs

Martin Forwood, from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, said: “I have never thought that Moorside would go ahead. It was always about sustaining jobs at Sellafield where the nuclear reprocessing works are all being closed down. The place is the wrong end of the country from where the electricity is needed.”

Moorside was to be taken over by the Korean Electric Power Corp. (Kepco), “the preferred bidder”, and the company is still in talks with Toshiba, but has lost support from the South Korean government and is unlikely to proceed.

A similar affliction of lack of financial backers is affecting plans by another Japanese giant, Hitachi, to build an equally ambitious project at Wylfa on the isle of Anglesey in Wales. This is also a remote site with an existing but redundant nuclear station and, coincidentally, a marginal constituency where voters badly need new jobs.

Again, finding a company, or even a country, with deep enough pockets to help build this power station is proving difficult, even though the UK government has offered to underwrite part of the cost.

The only project that is going ahead so far is at Hinkley Point in Somerset in the west of England, where the French nuclear company EDF is set to build two of its new generation reactors.

Double problem

More than 3,000 people are already working on the site, but its future still remains in doubt. This is because of the difficulties both of building what appears to be a troublesome design, and of the French state-owned company’s own debts.

In France EDF has 58 ageing reactors in its fleet, most of which need upgrading to meet safety requirements, with others more than 40 years old due for closure. The costs of the upgrades plus the decommissioning will create an even bigger debt problem, making investment in new reactors virtually impossible.

This financial hurdle may yet halt construction of Hinkley Point’s twin reactors, effectively killing off nuclear new build in Britain. Officially, however, the Chinese are still hoping to build a reactor at Bradwell, east of London, and EDF two more reactors at Sizewell in Suffolk, further east on the coast of England.

Already there are doubts about these, and in any case they are years away from construction starting. Other proposed projects have disappeared from sight entirely.

At the heart of the problem is the immense amount of capital needed to finance the building of reactors, which typically double in cost during lengthy construction periods, with completion delays, in the case of the French design, stretching to ten years or more.

“The industrial capabilities and associated costs of military nuclear programmes are unsupportable without civil nuclear power”

Faced with the fact that even the largest companies with plenty of money are reluctant to invest in nuclear power, many countries have abandoned their nuclear power programmes. The exceptions are countries that have nuclear weapons, or perhaps aspire to have them in the future.

After 40 years of denials Western governments have openly admitted in the last two years that their ability to build and maintain their nuclear submarines and weapons depends on having a healthy civil reactor programme at the same time.

The military need highly skilled personnel to keep their submarines running and to constantly update their nuclear weapons, because the material they are made of is volatile and constantly needs renewing. Without a pool of “civilian” nuclear workers to draw on, the military programme would be in danger of crumbling.

Phil Johnstone, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, UK, who has researched the link between civil and nuclear power, said: “A factor in why the UK persists so intensely with an uneconomic and much-delayed new nuclear programme and rejects cheaper renewable alternatives, seems to be to maintain and cross-subsidise the already costly nuclear submarine industrial base.

“After a decade of the rhetorical separation of civil and military nuclear programmes by industry and governments, recent high-level statements in the USA, the UK, and France highlight that the industrial capabilities and associated costs of military nuclear programmes are unsupportable without civil nuclear power.”

Concern for democracy

Andy Stirling, professor of science and technology at the Science Policy Research Unit at the same university, added: “Given the remarkable lack of almost any discussion that a key driver for civil nuclear is supporting the costs of the defence nuclear programme – either in official UK energy policy or formal scrutiny by official bodies – this raises significant concerns about the state of UK democracy more broadly.”

Despite these setbacks the nuclear industry is still pushing the idea that new stations are needed if the world, and particularly the UK, are to meet their climate targets. The New Nuclear Watch Institute (NNWI), a British think tank funded by the nuclear industry, has produced a report saying that only with new nuclear stations could the UK hope to meet its greenhouse gas targets.

Tim Yeo, chairman of NNWI, said: “We often hear that new nuclear build is expensive. It turns out that, in fact, if all hidden costs are factored in, abandoning nuclear comes at an even higher price.

“Abandoning nuclear power leads unavoidably to a very big increase in carbon emissions which will prevent Britain from meeting its legally binding climate change commitments.

“If the UK is to successfully meet the challenges faced by its power sector, the world’s only source of low-carbon baseload power generation – nuclear – must feature strongly in its ambitions.” – Climate News Network

Officially the UK nuclear industry is going ahead with building a new generation of power stations. But it can’t find anyone to pay for them.

LONDON, 4 October, 2018 – The future of the UK nuclear industry looks increasingly bleak, despite the Conservative government’s continued insistence that it wants to build up to 10 new nuclear power stations.

One of the flagship schemes, the £15 billion ($19.5bn) Moorside development in Cumbria in north-west England, made 70 of its 100 staff redundant in September because the current owners, Toshiba, are unable to finance it and cannot find a buyer.

Tom Samson, the managing director of NuGen, the company set up to construct the power station, said he was fighting “tooth and nail” to save it but that there was “a real danger” the whole idea would be abandoned.

With renewable electricity becoming much cheaper than new nuclear power in the UK, the proposed stations have the added disadvantage that they are remote from population centres and would need expensive new grid connections.

There seem to be two main reasons for the government’s continued enthusiasm for nuclear power – the need to keep the nation’s nuclear weapons properly maintained, and political considerations about providing new jobs in remote areas where there are already nuclear installations that are being run down or decommissioned.

Need for jobs

Martin Forwood, from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, said: “I have never thought that Moorside would go ahead. It was always about sustaining jobs at Sellafield where the nuclear reprocessing works are all being closed down. The place is the wrong end of the country from where the electricity is needed.”

Moorside was to be taken over by the Korean Electric Power Corp. (Kepco), “the preferred bidder”, and the company is still in talks with Toshiba, but has lost support from the South Korean government and is unlikely to proceed.

A similar affliction of lack of financial backers is affecting plans by another Japanese giant, Hitachi, to build an equally ambitious project at Wylfa on the isle of Anglesey in Wales. This is also a remote site with an existing but redundant nuclear station and, coincidentally, a marginal constituency where voters badly need new jobs.

Again, finding a company, or even a country, with deep enough pockets to help build this power station is proving difficult, even though the UK government has offered to underwrite part of the cost.

The only project that is going ahead so far is at Hinkley Point in Somerset in the west of England, where the French nuclear company EDF is set to build two of its new generation reactors.

Double problem

More than 3,000 people are already working on the site, but its future still remains in doubt. This is because of the difficulties both of building what appears to be a troublesome design, and of the French state-owned company’s own debts.

In France EDF has 58 ageing reactors in its fleet, most of which need upgrading to meet safety requirements, with others more than 40 years old due for closure. The costs of the upgrades plus the decommissioning will create an even bigger debt problem, making investment in new reactors virtually impossible.

This financial hurdle may yet halt construction of Hinkley Point’s twin reactors, effectively killing off nuclear new build in Britain. Officially, however, the Chinese are still hoping to build a reactor at Bradwell, east of London, and EDF two more reactors at Sizewell in Suffolk, further east on the coast of England.

Already there are doubts about these, and in any case they are years away from construction starting. Other proposed projects have disappeared from sight entirely.

At the heart of the problem is the immense amount of capital needed to finance the building of reactors, which typically double in cost during lengthy construction periods, with completion delays, in the case of the French design, stretching to ten years or more.

“The industrial capabilities and associated costs of military nuclear programmes are unsupportable without civil nuclear power”

Faced with the fact that even the largest companies with plenty of money are reluctant to invest in nuclear power, many countries have abandoned their nuclear power programmes. The exceptions are countries that have nuclear weapons, or perhaps aspire to have them in the future.

After 40 years of denials Western governments have openly admitted in the last two years that their ability to build and maintain their nuclear submarines and weapons depends on having a healthy civil reactor programme at the same time.

The military need highly skilled personnel to keep their submarines running and to constantly update their nuclear weapons, because the material they are made of is volatile and constantly needs renewing. Without a pool of “civilian” nuclear workers to draw on, the military programme would be in danger of crumbling.

Phil Johnstone, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, UK, who has researched the link between civil and nuclear power, said: “A factor in why the UK persists so intensely with an uneconomic and much-delayed new nuclear programme and rejects cheaper renewable alternatives, seems to be to maintain and cross-subsidise the already costly nuclear submarine industrial base.

“After a decade of the rhetorical separation of civil and military nuclear programmes by industry and governments, recent high-level statements in the USA, the UK, and France highlight that the industrial capabilities and associated costs of military nuclear programmes are unsupportable without civil nuclear power.”

Concern for democracy

Andy Stirling, professor of science and technology at the Science Policy Research Unit at the same university, added: “Given the remarkable lack of almost any discussion that a key driver for civil nuclear is supporting the costs of the defence nuclear programme – either in official UK energy policy or formal scrutiny by official bodies – this raises significant concerns about the state of UK democracy more broadly.”

Despite these setbacks the nuclear industry is still pushing the idea that new stations are needed if the world, and particularly the UK, are to meet their climate targets. The New Nuclear Watch Institute (NNWI), a British think tank funded by the nuclear industry, has produced a report saying that only with new nuclear stations could the UK hope to meet its greenhouse gas targets.

Tim Yeo, chairman of NNWI, said: “We often hear that new nuclear build is expensive. It turns out that, in fact, if all hidden costs are factored in, abandoning nuclear comes at an even higher price.

“Abandoning nuclear power leads unavoidably to a very big increase in carbon emissions which will prevent Britain from meeting its legally binding climate change commitments.

“If the UK is to successfully meet the challenges faced by its power sector, the world’s only source of low-carbon baseload power generation – nuclear – must feature strongly in its ambitions.” – Climate News Network

Sun-powered golden sandwich boosts energy

In two decades solar cells have spread worldwide. Now a sun-powered golden sandwich promises to make them at least 10 times more efficient.

LONDON, 20 September, 2018 – Japanese scientists have developed a sun-powered golden sandwich: an experimental solar panel that they claim could be up to 11 times more effective than most equipment on the market so far.

The new photovoltaic cell could harvest 85% of the energy of visible sunlight as it slams into a rooftop solar array. Right now, most such panels are rated at 15% efficient; some new versions claim to be able to exploit 20% of the light.

Researchers at Hokkaido University report in the journal Nature Nanotechnology that their new source depends on a golden touch: they placed a film of semiconductor material just 30 nanometres, or 30 millionths of a millimetre thick, between two layers of gold film and gold nanoparticles a mere 100 nanometres thick.

And, they say, their golden sandwich delivered electrical current in a more nourishing form than any such device so far.

“Using very small amounts of material, this photo-electrode enables an efficient conversion of sunlight into renewable energy”

The two layers of film trapped the incident lightwaves in a cavity in a way that allowed their photo-electrode to absorb 85% of the visible light, dislodge electrons and set up a flowing current powerful enough, the researchers say, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and thus another source of renewable energy.

Right now, most of the world’s photovoltaic cells are silicon-based: that is, they are fashioned from one of the planet’s most available elements. But these cells arrive with their own limitation, because only light of certain wavelengths can dislodge electrons and trigger an electrical flow.

Even so, they are seen as one of the best ways to limit global warming, by reducing human economic thrall to fossil fuels. Teams of scientists across the world have repeatedly argued that renewables can deliver all, or almost all, of the power the world needs.

For the moment, the new device from Japan is likely to remain a costly laboratory curiosity: gold remains one of the world’s most precious metals, and the photo-electrode semiconductor enclosed by the golden sandwich is fashioned from titanium oxide.

Tackling brainteasers

It is, however, yet another instance of the ingenuity and imagination at work in the world’s universities and laboratories, as scientists confront the challenge of delivering power in ways that do not spill billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to warm the planet to what could be catastrophic temperatures.

They have demonstrated new ways to trap energy, power jet engines, and even recover energy from simple actions. Some of these innovations could soon slip into commercial use: some will remain laboratory curiosities.

In a world in which Asian nations – and in particular China – have invested heavily in the solar revolution, the research in Hokkaido is an indicator of how much more improvement is possible.

Say the researchers: “Using very small amounts of material, this photoelectrode enables an efficient conversion of sunlight into renewable energy, further contributing to the realisation of a sustainable society.” – Climate News Network

In two decades solar cells have spread worldwide. Now a sun-powered golden sandwich promises to make them at least 10 times more efficient.

LONDON, 20 September, 2018 – Japanese scientists have developed a sun-powered golden sandwich: an experimental solar panel that they claim could be up to 11 times more effective than most equipment on the market so far.

The new photovoltaic cell could harvest 85% of the energy of visible sunlight as it slams into a rooftop solar array. Right now, most such panels are rated at 15% efficient; some new versions claim to be able to exploit 20% of the light.

Researchers at Hokkaido University report in the journal Nature Nanotechnology that their new source depends on a golden touch: they placed a film of semiconductor material just 30 nanometres, or 30 millionths of a millimetre thick, between two layers of gold film and gold nanoparticles a mere 100 nanometres thick.

And, they say, their golden sandwich delivered electrical current in a more nourishing form than any such device so far.

“Using very small amounts of material, this photo-electrode enables an efficient conversion of sunlight into renewable energy”

The two layers of film trapped the incident lightwaves in a cavity in a way that allowed their photo-electrode to absorb 85% of the visible light, dislodge electrons and set up a flowing current powerful enough, the researchers say, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and thus another source of renewable energy.

Right now, most of the world’s photovoltaic cells are silicon-based: that is, they are fashioned from one of the planet’s most available elements. But these cells arrive with their own limitation, because only light of certain wavelengths can dislodge electrons and trigger an electrical flow.

Even so, they are seen as one of the best ways to limit global warming, by reducing human economic thrall to fossil fuels. Teams of scientists across the world have repeatedly argued that renewables can deliver all, or almost all, of the power the world needs.

For the moment, the new device from Japan is likely to remain a costly laboratory curiosity: gold remains one of the world’s most precious metals, and the photo-electrode semiconductor enclosed by the golden sandwich is fashioned from titanium oxide.

Tackling brainteasers

It is, however, yet another instance of the ingenuity and imagination at work in the world’s universities and laboratories, as scientists confront the challenge of delivering power in ways that do not spill billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to warm the planet to what could be catastrophic temperatures.

They have demonstrated new ways to trap energy, power jet engines, and even recover energy from simple actions. Some of these innovations could soon slip into commercial use: some will remain laboratory curiosities.

In a world in which Asian nations – and in particular China – have invested heavily in the solar revolution, the research in Hokkaido is an indicator of how much more improvement is possible.

Say the researchers: “Using very small amounts of material, this photoelectrode enables an efficient conversion of sunlight into renewable energy, further contributing to the realisation of a sustainable society.” – Climate News Network

Wind and solar power can green the desert

Cover enough ground with wind turbines and solar panels, and you change the local climate, green the desert and could even boost the Sahara’s rainfall.

LONDON, 19 September, 2018 – Wind and solar energy could deliver more than just renewable, low-carbon electricity: they could green the desert, increasing the Sahara’s rainfall and helping it to bloom.

A sufficiently large network of wind turbines and solar panels arrayed across the dusty wastes of North Africa could change the local climate in ways that could double rainfall, stimulate vegetation growth and set up a feedback loop that could go on increasing moisture in the world’s greatest desert region.

The array of wind turbines and solar panels so far remains hypothetical: to green the Sahara even a little, it would have to extend over 9 million square kilometres – an area bigger than Brazil.

The combined power output from this entirely imaginary infrastructure however would be enormous, at more than 80 terawatts of electrical power. Global consumption in 2017 was only 18 terawatts.

“Large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change on continental scales”

The study is an exercise in climate modelling: were investors to exploit the Sahara desert and the Sahel, what would all that hardware do to the land on which it stood?

Researchers have already established that wind turbines actually do change the prevailing winds: they convert high winds to a mix of electrical energy and lower wind speeds.

Similarly, light-absorbing photovoltaic cells on the ground would change the reflectivity of the surface on which they stood, and there is a demonstrable link between what climate scientists call albedo, and local climate.

Researchers chose to model the impact of renewable energy infrastructure on the Sahara because it is relatively empty, sunlit and windy. They matched the results with experiment.

Benefits for Sahel

They report in the journal Science that they found that wind farms mix warmer air from above, to raise minimum temperatures and create a feedback loop that drives greater evaporation, precipitation and plant growth.

Over the Sahara proper, rainfall increased by 150%, but since the desert is very dry the increase is relatively small. In the Sahel region to the south, a dry landscape of scrub, savannah and woodland, stretching from the Atlantic to the Nile, the simulated wind farms stepped up rainfall by 1.12 millimetres a day.

This is more than double the average observed in a control experiment, and what could amount to an extra 500mm a year could have “major ecological, environmental and societal impacts,” the scientists say.

“Previous modelling studies have shown that large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change on continental scales,” said Yan Li, an environmental scientist at the University of Illinois, one of the chief authors.

Big rain boost

Solar arrays had very little effect on wind speed, but these too triggered a change in local conditions. The solar panels – and the wind turbines – together created a darker, more broken surface, a change that once again favoured around 50% more rainfall, and more vegetation growth, which in turn could promote even more rain.

Two centuries of exploitation of fossil fuels has driven economic growth everywhere, but at a cost in ever greater ratios of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet is warming, and increasing extremes of heat, drought and storm threaten to change climates with catastrophic consequences, drying up water supplies, advancing the desert regions and creating millions of climate refugees.

So the case for renewable energy is easily made, and five years ago researchers began looking to the North African countries as potential providers of renewable power. And the latest study makes the point that such investment could actually be beneficial in unexpected ways.

“The increase in rainfall and vegetation, combined with clean electricity as a result of solar and wind energy, could help agriculture, economic development and social well-being in the Sahara, Sahel, Middle East and other nearby regions,” said Safa Mottesharrei of the University of Maryland, another of the authors. – Climate News Network

Cover enough ground with wind turbines and solar panels, and you change the local climate, green the desert and could even boost the Sahara’s rainfall.

LONDON, 19 September, 2018 – Wind and solar energy could deliver more than just renewable, low-carbon electricity: they could green the desert, increasing the Sahara’s rainfall and helping it to bloom.

A sufficiently large network of wind turbines and solar panels arrayed across the dusty wastes of North Africa could change the local climate in ways that could double rainfall, stimulate vegetation growth and set up a feedback loop that could go on increasing moisture in the world’s greatest desert region.

The array of wind turbines and solar panels so far remains hypothetical: to green the Sahara even a little, it would have to extend over 9 million square kilometres – an area bigger than Brazil.

The combined power output from this entirely imaginary infrastructure however would be enormous, at more than 80 terawatts of electrical power. Global consumption in 2017 was only 18 terawatts.

“Large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change on continental scales”

The study is an exercise in climate modelling: were investors to exploit the Sahara desert and the Sahel, what would all that hardware do to the land on which it stood?

Researchers have already established that wind turbines actually do change the prevailing winds: they convert high winds to a mix of electrical energy and lower wind speeds.

Similarly, light-absorbing photovoltaic cells on the ground would change the reflectivity of the surface on which they stood, and there is a demonstrable link between what climate scientists call albedo, and local climate.

Researchers chose to model the impact of renewable energy infrastructure on the Sahara because it is relatively empty, sunlit and windy. They matched the results with experiment.

Benefits for Sahel

They report in the journal Science that they found that wind farms mix warmer air from above, to raise minimum temperatures and create a feedback loop that drives greater evaporation, precipitation and plant growth.

Over the Sahara proper, rainfall increased by 150%, but since the desert is very dry the increase is relatively small. In the Sahel region to the south, a dry landscape of scrub, savannah and woodland, stretching from the Atlantic to the Nile, the simulated wind farms stepped up rainfall by 1.12 millimetres a day.

This is more than double the average observed in a control experiment, and what could amount to an extra 500mm a year could have “major ecological, environmental and societal impacts,” the scientists say.

“Previous modelling studies have shown that large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change on continental scales,” said Yan Li, an environmental scientist at the University of Illinois, one of the chief authors.

Big rain boost

Solar arrays had very little effect on wind speed, but these too triggered a change in local conditions. The solar panels – and the wind turbines – together created a darker, more broken surface, a change that once again favoured around 50% more rainfall, and more vegetation growth, which in turn could promote even more rain.

Two centuries of exploitation of fossil fuels has driven economic growth everywhere, but at a cost in ever greater ratios of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet is warming, and increasing extremes of heat, drought and storm threaten to change climates with catastrophic consequences, drying up water supplies, advancing the desert regions and creating millions of climate refugees.

So the case for renewable energy is easily made, and five years ago researchers began looking to the North African countries as potential providers of renewable power. And the latest study makes the point that such investment could actually be beneficial in unexpected ways.

“The increase in rainfall and vegetation, combined with clean electricity as a result of solar and wind energy, could help agriculture, economic development and social well-being in the Sahara, Sahel, Middle East and other nearby regions,” said Safa Mottesharrei of the University of Maryland, another of the authors. – Climate News Network

Contradictions beset China’s climate path

BOOK REVIEW

Triumph or catastrophe? Where will China’s climate path lead us all? So far there are both hopeful moves and warning signs, a new book says.

LONDON, 18 September, 2018 – Increasingly seen as a world leader towards a low- or no-carbon economy, China’s climate path is winning it many plaudits, particularly since Donald Trump – who has described global warming as a hoax – announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

China’s cheerleaders point to the often breathtaking progress the country has made on several climate change-related fronts, most notably in the growth of renewable energy.

Barbara Finamore, an Asia specialist at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, who has spent several years in China, says in her book that only 100 MW of solar power was installed across the country 10 years ago.

Now China is well on the way to achieving its target of 213 GW of solar power by 2020 – five times more than the present total amount of solar power installed in the US.

It’s the same story with wind power; in the five years from 2007 to 2011 China installed more wind capacity than either the US or Germany achieved in more than 30 years of wind power development. By the end of 2016 China had built nearly 105,000 wind turbines, more than one out of every three turbines in the world.

Worldwide winners

“Every hour, China now erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field”, says Finamore.

She points out that these developments are not only benefitting China by lessening air pollution across many parts of the country – they are also having a positive impact in much of the rest of the world.

China’s massive investments in solar and wind manufacturing facilities mean renewable energy costs worldwide have been driven down. In many countries solar power is competing with more conventional energy sources.

China’s wholesale development of electrically powered vehicles is spurring the growth of the industry worldwide; in 2017 China was home to nearly half the world’s total of electric passenger vehicles and more than 90% of the global electric bus fleet.

Battery prices are falling; foreign manufacturers – keen to boost sales in the world’s fastest-growing vehicle market – are racing to develop new electrically powered models.

“Every hour, China now erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field”

“This push to scale up renewable energy has catapulted China to the forefront of a global clean energy revolution, with benefits that extend to every other country, as well as to the climate”, says Finamore.

But several factors cloud this rosy picture; as Finamore points out, China is still the world’s biggest emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases, mainly because of the burning of vast amounts of coal, by far the most polluting of fossil fuels.

Despite talk by the leadership in Beijing of building what’s called an “ecological civilisation,” economic growth is still the overriding objective and the main factor which legitimises the Communist Party’s hold on power.

When growth flagged in recent years, China’s planners introduced a wide-ranging economic stimulus package, particularly connected with infrastructure. As a result, emissions in 2017 and the first half of 2018 went up, not down.

Policy bottleneck

Foreign observers of China often point to the country’s strictly controlled top-down political system, which is capable of quickly implementing climate change policies and other measures. But Finamore says government directives designed to combat climate change are often frustrated by local officials and assorted political rivalries.

Then there is the question of China’s role overseas. When it comes to climate change, Finamore sees this as generally positive. But what of the way China is using its new-found financial might to hoover up the world’s resources, causing widespread environmental damage along the way?

Chinese mining companies are polluting rivers in South America and chopping down rainforest in southeast Asia and West Africa. China’s state banks are funding coal-fired power stations around the world.

Yes, China has made significant progress on climate change and is eagerly embracing its new-found role as a global leader on the issue. But we should not be starry-eyed; a great deal more needs to be done. – Climate News Network

Will China Save the Planet?, by Barbara Finamore

BOOK REVIEW

Triumph or catastrophe? Where will China’s climate path lead us all? So far there are both hopeful moves and warning signs, a new book says.

LONDON, 18 September, 2018 – Increasingly seen as a world leader towards a low- or no-carbon economy, China’s climate path is winning it many plaudits, particularly since Donald Trump – who has described global warming as a hoax – announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

China’s cheerleaders point to the often breathtaking progress the country has made on several climate change-related fronts, most notably in the growth of renewable energy.

Barbara Finamore, an Asia specialist at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, who has spent several years in China, says in her book that only 100 MW of solar power was installed across the country 10 years ago.

Now China is well on the way to achieving its target of 213 GW of solar power by 2020 – five times more than the present total amount of solar power installed in the US.

It’s the same story with wind power; in the five years from 2007 to 2011 China installed more wind capacity than either the US or Germany achieved in more than 30 years of wind power development. By the end of 2016 China had built nearly 105,000 wind turbines, more than one out of every three turbines in the world.

Worldwide winners

“Every hour, China now erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field”, says Finamore.

She points out that these developments are not only benefitting China by lessening air pollution across many parts of the country – they are also having a positive impact in much of the rest of the world.

China’s massive investments in solar and wind manufacturing facilities mean renewable energy costs worldwide have been driven down. In many countries solar power is competing with more conventional energy sources.

China’s wholesale development of electrically powered vehicles is spurring the growth of the industry worldwide; in 2017 China was home to nearly half the world’s total of electric passenger vehicles and more than 90% of the global electric bus fleet.

Battery prices are falling; foreign manufacturers – keen to boost sales in the world’s fastest-growing vehicle market – are racing to develop new electrically powered models.

“Every hour, China now erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field”

“This push to scale up renewable energy has catapulted China to the forefront of a global clean energy revolution, with benefits that extend to every other country, as well as to the climate”, says Finamore.

But several factors cloud this rosy picture; as Finamore points out, China is still the world’s biggest emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases, mainly because of the burning of vast amounts of coal, by far the most polluting of fossil fuels.

Despite talk by the leadership in Beijing of building what’s called an “ecological civilisation,” economic growth is still the overriding objective and the main factor which legitimises the Communist Party’s hold on power.

When growth flagged in recent years, China’s planners introduced a wide-ranging economic stimulus package, particularly connected with infrastructure. As a result, emissions in 2017 and the first half of 2018 went up, not down.

Policy bottleneck

Foreign observers of China often point to the country’s strictly controlled top-down political system, which is capable of quickly implementing climate change policies and other measures. But Finamore says government directives designed to combat climate change are often frustrated by local officials and assorted political rivalries.

Then there is the question of China’s role overseas. When it comes to climate change, Finamore sees this as generally positive. But what of the way China is using its new-found financial might to hoover up the world’s resources, causing widespread environmental damage along the way?

Chinese mining companies are polluting rivers in South America and chopping down rainforest in southeast Asia and West Africa. China’s state banks are funding coal-fired power stations around the world.

Yes, China has made significant progress on climate change and is eagerly embracing its new-found role as a global leader on the issue. But we should not be starry-eyed; a great deal more needs to be done. – Climate News Network

Will China Save the Planet?, by Barbara Finamore

Clean energy can provide 100% of electricity

All the electricity the world needs can come from clean energy, reliably and throughout the year, British researchers say, at any time of day or night.

LONDON, 12 September, 2018 – Imagine a world with so much renewable, clean energy that it could provide all the electricity society needed, reliably and without any interruption, round the clock. If UK researchers are correct, you shouldn’t need to imagine it. It could soon be a reality.

A report by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) says clean energy could now meet all our electricity needs, using only existing technology, at all times of the day, and all year round. The report draws on “scenarios” designed to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, developed at the global, regional, national and sub-national scales.

Scenarios, in the sense used in the report, are emissions reduction models describing possible futures in which society has managed to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases.

The report’s insistence that renewables can power the world is a challenge to earlier studies which have suggested that the obstacles to a fossil fuel-free economy remain for the moment insurmountable.

The researchers assessed and mapped more than 130 of these scenarios, including 18 in-depth case studies. They draw on cutting-edge modelling work for a net zero world, with deep decarbonisation, and for up to 100% renewable energy. Their geographical range extends from East Africa to the US west coast, and from southern Asia to northern Europe.

“Tackling climate change and creating a fairer future for everyone is no longer a technological challenge, it’s a challenge of will, of ambition, and of vision”

“This summer the climate crisis became horrifically real for people experiencing record weather extremes from the United States to Japan and Bangladesh. We have produced the largest survey yet of scenarios for switching to climate-friendly energy, and the good news is that they show it is within our power to make the changes needed to meet carbon reduction targets and halt the worst of global climatic upheaval,” said Paul Allen, project coordinator of Zero Carbon Britain, CAT’s flagship research project.

Since a previous assessment in 2015 the number of scenarios has grown by 30% and their scope has spread to include more developing countries. They incorporate raised ambitions for decarbonising electricity supplies by up to 100%, and doing so between 2030 and 2050.

The results also show the ability of renewable power to provide reliable electricity supplies both around the clock and all year round. This is significant because of the insistence of many industries which continue to use fossil fuels that they have to do so to guard against “intermittency” – the inability of some forms of renewable energy to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of power. Another research project concluded that the sheer scale of the change needed to achieve zero emissions was likely to be too much for human societies to achieve in time.

But the CAT team remain upbeat. “These scenarios are increasingly based on hourly modelling, including for developing countries, which means we can show that green energy supplies can meet demand 24 hours a day and across the seasons,” Allen said. “Through demonstrating the potential of intelligent, mixed supply systems we can show that renewables deliver whatever the weather.”

Cheap renewables

The mapping in the report shows the range of new scenarios which are now emerging, including for many of the world’s largest emitters. It comes at a time when it is increasingly clear that, with all associated costs included, renewable energy is becoming the cheapest option for most parts of the world.

Many of the scenarios show that making the switch to 100% renewables is increasingly cheaper than taking a business-as-usual approach.

But the report does disclose a number of key challenges. While the global and regional scenarios show great potential, it says, too many countries have still not yet prepared scenarios that align their short-term actions and long-term plans with the levels of ambition required by the Paris Agreement. Of the world’s countries – almost 200 in total – the study found only 32 had developed scenarios for deep decarbonisation, 100% renewable energy or net zero emissions.

To deliver on Paris, scenarios must go beyond electricity, the CAT team says. The world needs to get to zero in all sectors. For that, multi-sector modelling is needed to offer fully integrated net-zero carbon scenarios which include emissions from transport, buildings, industry and agriculture.

Remaining emissions

And even with a 100% renewable energy system, plus reduced agricultural emissions, and more efficient industrial processes, there will still be significant amounts of unavoidable residual greenhouse gas emissions which need to be balanced by genuinely sustainable net-negative processes.

Land-use is important but is overlooked in meeting the climate challenge, the report says. Society can revitalise natural systems, for example by restoring forests, peatlands and soils. These can absorb and sequester unavoidable residual greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, to achieve an overall balance, while also regenerating and protecting natural systems.

To take the Paris climate targets seriously, the researchers say, all countries must be supported to prepare full net-zero scenarios which link energy, transport, buildings, diets, land-use and sustainable, natural carbon sinks.

Paul Allen says: “From researching this report, we know that tackling climate change and creating a fairer future for everyone is no longer a technological challenge, it’s a challenge of will, of ambition, and of vision.” – Climate News Network

All the electricity the world needs can come from clean energy, reliably and throughout the year, British researchers say, at any time of day or night.

LONDON, 12 September, 2018 – Imagine a world with so much renewable, clean energy that it could provide all the electricity society needed, reliably and without any interruption, round the clock. If UK researchers are correct, you shouldn’t need to imagine it. It could soon be a reality.

A report by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) says clean energy could now meet all our electricity needs, using only existing technology, at all times of the day, and all year round. The report draws on “scenarios” designed to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, developed at the global, regional, national and sub-national scales.

Scenarios, in the sense used in the report, are emissions reduction models describing possible futures in which society has managed to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases.

The report’s insistence that renewables can power the world is a challenge to earlier studies which have suggested that the obstacles to a fossil fuel-free economy remain for the moment insurmountable.

The researchers assessed and mapped more than 130 of these scenarios, including 18 in-depth case studies. They draw on cutting-edge modelling work for a net zero world, with deep decarbonisation, and for up to 100% renewable energy. Their geographical range extends from East Africa to the US west coast, and from southern Asia to northern Europe.

“Tackling climate change and creating a fairer future for everyone is no longer a technological challenge, it’s a challenge of will, of ambition, and of vision”

“This summer the climate crisis became horrifically real for people experiencing record weather extremes from the United States to Japan and Bangladesh. We have produced the largest survey yet of scenarios for switching to climate-friendly energy, and the good news is that they show it is within our power to make the changes needed to meet carbon reduction targets and halt the worst of global climatic upheaval,” said Paul Allen, project coordinator of Zero Carbon Britain, CAT’s flagship research project.

Since a previous assessment in 2015 the number of scenarios has grown by 30% and their scope has spread to include more developing countries. They incorporate raised ambitions for decarbonising electricity supplies by up to 100%, and doing so between 2030 and 2050.

The results also show the ability of renewable power to provide reliable electricity supplies both around the clock and all year round. This is significant because of the insistence of many industries which continue to use fossil fuels that they have to do so to guard against “intermittency” – the inability of some forms of renewable energy to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of power. Another research project concluded that the sheer scale of the change needed to achieve zero emissions was likely to be too much for human societies to achieve in time.

But the CAT team remain upbeat. “These scenarios are increasingly based on hourly modelling, including for developing countries, which means we can show that green energy supplies can meet demand 24 hours a day and across the seasons,” Allen said. “Through demonstrating the potential of intelligent, mixed supply systems we can show that renewables deliver whatever the weather.”

Cheap renewables

The mapping in the report shows the range of new scenarios which are now emerging, including for many of the world’s largest emitters. It comes at a time when it is increasingly clear that, with all associated costs included, renewable energy is becoming the cheapest option for most parts of the world.

Many of the scenarios show that making the switch to 100% renewables is increasingly cheaper than taking a business-as-usual approach.

But the report does disclose a number of key challenges. While the global and regional scenarios show great potential, it says, too many countries have still not yet prepared scenarios that align their short-term actions and long-term plans with the levels of ambition required by the Paris Agreement. Of the world’s countries – almost 200 in total – the study found only 32 had developed scenarios for deep decarbonisation, 100% renewable energy or net zero emissions.

To deliver on Paris, scenarios must go beyond electricity, the CAT team says. The world needs to get to zero in all sectors. For that, multi-sector modelling is needed to offer fully integrated net-zero carbon scenarios which include emissions from transport, buildings, industry and agriculture.

Remaining emissions

And even with a 100% renewable energy system, plus reduced agricultural emissions, and more efficient industrial processes, there will still be significant amounts of unavoidable residual greenhouse gas emissions which need to be balanced by genuinely sustainable net-negative processes.

Land-use is important but is overlooked in meeting the climate challenge, the report says. Society can revitalise natural systems, for example by restoring forests, peatlands and soils. These can absorb and sequester unavoidable residual greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, to achieve an overall balance, while also regenerating and protecting natural systems.

To take the Paris climate targets seriously, the researchers say, all countries must be supported to prepare full net-zero scenarios which link energy, transport, buildings, diets, land-use and sustainable, natural carbon sinks.

Paul Allen says: “From researching this report, we know that tackling climate change and creating a fairer future for everyone is no longer a technological challenge, it’s a challenge of will, of ambition, and of vision.” – Climate News Network

Forests cut warming better than technology

Biofuels are no easy answer to climate change. Nor is storing captured carbon dioxide. The world’s great forests cut warming better than engineered solutions can.

LONDON, 11 September, 2018 – Simple solutions are often the best, and British and European climate scientists have identified one: forests cut warming better than the technological solutions now being widely canvassed.

They have established some simple ground rules for limiting global warming to the international target of an average rise of no more than 1.5°C by 2100.

Rule one: do not try to generate electric power with biofuels made from harvested crops, trees or grasses, and do not spend even more money trying to capture the carbon dioxide emissions, liquefy them and bury them deep underground. To do so successfully would require at least 380 million and maybe up to 700 million hectares of farmland.

This is about half of the space already needed to grow food for more than 7 billion humans.

Rule two: do preserve and regenerate the world’s forests. They already capture the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and preserve it as root and branch. Yet more intact forest would be even more effective.

“We need to both drastically reduce emissions and employ a mix of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There is no single get-out-of-jail-free card.”

In effect, the scientists have told the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the 195 governments that agreed in Paris in 2015 on a target to contain climate change to “well below 2°C” that one favoured strategy – biomass energy matched with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS in shorthand – would be in many cases a waste of time and, even more importantly, space.

“The vast majority of IPCC scenarios for how we can limit global warming to less than 2°C include BECCS,” said Anna Harper, a mathematician at the University of Exeter in the UK. “But the land required to grow biomass in these scenarios would be twice the size of India.”

She and colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they used a computer simulation of the world’s vegetation and soil and tested it with a series of scenarios that might keep global average temperatures to either 2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, global average temperatures have already risen about 1°C.

The computer models delivered an answer: to switch to crop biomass and carbon capture on a global scale would actually lead to an increase of carbon in the atmosphere, to ramp up global warming even further, and precipitate what could be, for many, catastrophic climate change.

The researchers don’t dismiss the biofuel technology entirely: in some cases it might be an effective solution. But, overall, it would be better simply to protect and restore the world’s forests.

Forests at risk

That forests are vital components of climate stability is already accepted: the Paris Agreement recognised the need, and repeated research has confirmed the logic.

But global studies have also confirmed that the world’s intact forests are threatened with accelerating destruction both through human degradation and through climate extremes of heat, drought and flood.

Biofuels – generated from fields of sugar cane, maize, trees or grasses such as miscanthus – are already big agribusiness, but both environmental campaigners and climate scientists are concerned about their effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and about their potential impact on food prices.

Carbon capture and storage is a technology that has yet to prove itself.

“To meet the climate change targets from the Paris Agreement, we need to both drastically reduce emissions and employ a mix of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Dr Harper. “There is no single get-out-of-jail-free card.” – Climate News Network

Biofuels are no easy answer to climate change. Nor is storing captured carbon dioxide. The world’s great forests cut warming better than engineered solutions can.

LONDON, 11 September, 2018 – Simple solutions are often the best, and British and European climate scientists have identified one: forests cut warming better than the technological solutions now being widely canvassed.

They have established some simple ground rules for limiting global warming to the international target of an average rise of no more than 1.5°C by 2100.

Rule one: do not try to generate electric power with biofuels made from harvested crops, trees or grasses, and do not spend even more money trying to capture the carbon dioxide emissions, liquefy them and bury them deep underground. To do so successfully would require at least 380 million and maybe up to 700 million hectares of farmland.

This is about half of the space already needed to grow food for more than 7 billion humans.

Rule two: do preserve and regenerate the world’s forests. They already capture the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and preserve it as root and branch. Yet more intact forest would be even more effective.

“We need to both drastically reduce emissions and employ a mix of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There is no single get-out-of-jail-free card.”

In effect, the scientists have told the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the 195 governments that agreed in Paris in 2015 on a target to contain climate change to “well below 2°C” that one favoured strategy – biomass energy matched with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS in shorthand – would be in many cases a waste of time and, even more importantly, space.

“The vast majority of IPCC scenarios for how we can limit global warming to less than 2°C include BECCS,” said Anna Harper, a mathematician at the University of Exeter in the UK. “But the land required to grow biomass in these scenarios would be twice the size of India.”

She and colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they used a computer simulation of the world’s vegetation and soil and tested it with a series of scenarios that might keep global average temperatures to either 2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, global average temperatures have already risen about 1°C.

The computer models delivered an answer: to switch to crop biomass and carbon capture on a global scale would actually lead to an increase of carbon in the atmosphere, to ramp up global warming even further, and precipitate what could be, for many, catastrophic climate change.

The researchers don’t dismiss the biofuel technology entirely: in some cases it might be an effective solution. But, overall, it would be better simply to protect and restore the world’s forests.

Forests at risk

That forests are vital components of climate stability is already accepted: the Paris Agreement recognised the need, and repeated research has confirmed the logic.

But global studies have also confirmed that the world’s intact forests are threatened with accelerating destruction both through human degradation and through climate extremes of heat, drought and flood.

Biofuels – generated from fields of sugar cane, maize, trees or grasses such as miscanthus – are already big agribusiness, but both environmental campaigners and climate scientists are concerned about their effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and about their potential impact on food prices.

Carbon capture and storage is a technology that has yet to prove itself.

“To meet the climate change targets from the Paris Agreement, we need to both drastically reduce emissions and employ a mix of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Dr Harper. “There is no single get-out-of-jail-free card.” – Climate News Network

Small modular reactors have little appeal

The last hope of the nuclear industry for competing with renewables is small modular reactors, but despite political support their future looks bleak.

LONDON, 27 July, 2018 – On both sides of the Atlantic billions of dollars are being poured into developing small modular reactors. But it seems increasingly unlikely that they will ever be commercially viable.

The idea is to build dozens of the reactors (SMRs) in factories in kit form, to be assembled on site, thereby reducing their costs, a bit like the mass production of cars. The problem is finding a market big enough to justify the building of a factory to build nuclear power station kits.

For the last 60 years the trend has been to build ever-larger nuclear reactors, hoping that they would pump out so much power that their output would be cheaper per unit than power from smaller stations. However, the cost of large stations has escalated so much that without massive government subsidies they will never be built, because they are not commercially viable.

To get costs down, small factory-built reactors seemed the answer. It is not new technology, and efforts to introduce it are nothing new either, with UK hopes high just a few years ago. Small reactors have been built for decades for nuclear submarine propulsion and for ships like icebreakers, but for civilian use they have to produce electricity more cheaply than their renewable competitors, wind and solar power.

“For entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy”

One of the problems for nuclear weapons states is that they need a workforce of highly skilled engineers and scientists, both to maintain their submarine fleets and constantly to update the nuclear warheads, which degrade over time. So maintaining a civil nuclear industry means there is always a large pool of people with the required training.

Although in the past the UK and US governments have both claimed there is no link between civil and military nuclear industries, it is clear that a skills shortage is now a problem.

It seems that both the industry and the two governments have believed SMRs would be able to solve the shortage and also provide electricity at competitive rates, benefitting from the mass production of components in controlled environments and assembling reactors much like flat-pack furniture.

This is now the official blueprint for success – even though there are no prototypes yet to prove the technology works reliably. But even before that happens, there are serious doubts about whether there is a market for these reactors.

Among the most advanced countries on SMR development are the US, the UK  and Canada. Russia has already built SMRs and deployed one of them as a floating power station in the Arctic. But whether this is an economic way of producing power for Russia is not known.

Finding investors

A number of companies in the UK and North America are developing SMRs, and prototypes are expected to be up and running as early as 2025. However, the next big step is getting investment in a factory to build them, which will mean getting enough advance orders to justify the cost.

A group of pro-nuclear US scientists, who believe that nuclear technology is vital to fight climate change, have concluded that there is not a large enough market to make SMRS work.

Their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that large reactors will be phased out on economic grounds, and that the market for SMRs is too small to be viable. On a market for the possible export of the hundreds of SMRs needed to reach viability, they say none large enough exists.

They conclude: “It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy, over the next few decades.”

Doubts listed

In the UK, where the government in June poured £200 million ($263.8) into SMR development, a parliamentary briefing paper issued in July lists a whole raft of reasons why the technology may not find a market.

The paper’s authors doubt that a mass-produced reactor could be suitable for every site chosen; there might, for instance, be local conditions requiring extra safety features.

They also doubt that there is enough of a market for SMRs in the UK to justify building a factory to produce them, because of public opposition to nuclear power and the reactors’ proximity to population centres. And although the industry and the government believe an export market exists, the report suggests this is optimistic, partly because so many countries have already rejected nuclear power.

The paper says those countries still keen on buying the technology often have no experience of the nuclear industry. It suggests too that there may be international alarm about nuclear proliferation in some markets. – Climate News Network

The last hope of the nuclear industry for competing with renewables is small modular reactors, but despite political support their future looks bleak.

LONDON, 27 July, 2018 – On both sides of the Atlantic billions of dollars are being poured into developing small modular reactors. But it seems increasingly unlikely that they will ever be commercially viable.

The idea is to build dozens of the reactors (SMRs) in factories in kit form, to be assembled on site, thereby reducing their costs, a bit like the mass production of cars. The problem is finding a market big enough to justify the building of a factory to build nuclear power station kits.

For the last 60 years the trend has been to build ever-larger nuclear reactors, hoping that they would pump out so much power that their output would be cheaper per unit than power from smaller stations. However, the cost of large stations has escalated so much that without massive government subsidies they will never be built, because they are not commercially viable.

To get costs down, small factory-built reactors seemed the answer. It is not new technology, and efforts to introduce it are nothing new either, with UK hopes high just a few years ago. Small reactors have been built for decades for nuclear submarine propulsion and for ships like icebreakers, but for civilian use they have to produce electricity more cheaply than their renewable competitors, wind and solar power.

“For entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy”

One of the problems for nuclear weapons states is that they need a workforce of highly skilled engineers and scientists, both to maintain their submarine fleets and constantly to update the nuclear warheads, which degrade over time. So maintaining a civil nuclear industry means there is always a large pool of people with the required training.

Although in the past the UK and US governments have both claimed there is no link between civil and military nuclear industries, it is clear that a skills shortage is now a problem.

It seems that both the industry and the two governments have believed SMRs would be able to solve the shortage and also provide electricity at competitive rates, benefitting from the mass production of components in controlled environments and assembling reactors much like flat-pack furniture.

This is now the official blueprint for success – even though there are no prototypes yet to prove the technology works reliably. But even before that happens, there are serious doubts about whether there is a market for these reactors.

Among the most advanced countries on SMR development are the US, the UK  and Canada. Russia has already built SMRs and deployed one of them as a floating power station in the Arctic. But whether this is an economic way of producing power for Russia is not known.

Finding investors

A number of companies in the UK and North America are developing SMRs, and prototypes are expected to be up and running as early as 2025. However, the next big step is getting investment in a factory to build them, which will mean getting enough advance orders to justify the cost.

A group of pro-nuclear US scientists, who believe that nuclear technology is vital to fight climate change, have concluded that there is not a large enough market to make SMRS work.

Their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that large reactors will be phased out on economic grounds, and that the market for SMRs is too small to be viable. On a market for the possible export of the hundreds of SMRs needed to reach viability, they say none large enough exists.

They conclude: “It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy, over the next few decades.”

Doubts listed

In the UK, where the government in June poured £200 million ($263.8) into SMR development, a parliamentary briefing paper issued in July lists a whole raft of reasons why the technology may not find a market.

The paper’s authors doubt that a mass-produced reactor could be suitable for every site chosen; there might, for instance, be local conditions requiring extra safety features.

They also doubt that there is enough of a market for SMRs in the UK to justify building a factory to produce them, because of public opposition to nuclear power and the reactors’ proximity to population centres. And although the industry and the government believe an export market exists, the report suggests this is optimistic, partly because so many countries have already rejected nuclear power.

The paper says those countries still keen on buying the technology often have no experience of the nuclear industry. It suggests too that there may be international alarm about nuclear proliferation in some markets. – Climate News Network