Category Archives: Energy

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Ambitious Danish island ends fossil fuel use

A small Danish island ends fossil fuel use by combining ambitious aims with ensuring that local people have a say in cleaner replacements.

LONDON, 11 February, 2019 Tackling climate change is urgent. It’s too urgent to be feasible, say some critics. But as one Danish island ends fossil fuel use, its story shows it  may be time to think again.

In five years, by 2023, the UK Met Office says, global warming could temporarily rise by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the target agreed by 195 governments in 2015. So the world needs to switch fast from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The island of Samsø, off Denmark’s east coast, has wasted no time. Between 1998 and 2007 it abandoned its total dependence on imported fossil fuels and now relies entirely on renewables, mainly wind and biomass. It’s been singled out as the world’s first 100% renewable island by the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA), which says Samsø can teach the world some vital lessons about changing fast and radically.

In 1997 Samsø, with 4,000 inhabitants, entered a Danish government competition to develop a model renewable energy community, aiming to prove that the country’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 21% was achievable.

Samsø’s winning proposal was based on strong community engagement and a cooperative ownership strategy. It showed how to make renewables a social, economic and energy success.

“Policy-making is too often limited to what is do-able in the short-term; establishing an ambitious mission can help reframe a problem, making the impossible possible”

With wind power now projected to be Europe’s biggest energy source by 2027, the RTA says, one essential element in making it work successfully is how it is managed − and Samsø is a trailblazer.

What the islanders did was straightforward enough. By the year 2000 they had installed 11 wind turbines, covering their electricity needs. A further 10 offshore turbines were erected in 2002, generating enough energy to offset emissions from their cars, buses, tractors and the ferry to the mainland. Three-quarters of their heating and hot water now comes from biomass boilers fuelled with locally grown straw.

Samsø’s transition, the Alliance says, proved that a wholesale shift to renewable energy was possible with existing technology and limited government assistance.

Nowadays, residents are producing so much more clean energy than they need (and exporting what they don’t use) that, in effect, they have an average annual CO2 footprint of minus 12 tonnes per person, helping their fellow citizens to lower their emissions too (the average Dane emits 6.2 tonnes of CO2 a year, the average Briton 10 tonnes).

Active buy-in

Samsø, the argument runs, proves the effectiveness of setting ambitious targets – and meeting them. The Alliance says Samsø’s transition is impressive because it was achieved with the active buy-in (both figuratively and financially) of the local community.

Winning hearts and minds was crucial. People often oppose on-shore wind turbines as a visual intrusion, a blot on the landscape. So the transition organisers, Samsø Energy Academy, worked out how to include the islanders as the turbines’ owners.

They had a simple principle: if you could see a turbine from your window, you could sign on as a co-investor, meaning that anyone living with the technology had a stake in it and stood to.benefit

With so many islanders having a direct stake in the turbines there is now near unanimity that the renewable transition has been good for Samsø. Of the 11 onshore turbines, nine are owned privately by local farmers and two by local cooperatives. Five of the offshore turbines are owned by the municipality, three privately and two cooperatively by small shareholders.

Sceptical island

Before the transition began Samsø had relied mainly on oil, with its electricity generated in coal-fired power plants on the mainland. The potential for renewables had not been explored, and there was deep scepticism towards them. A lack of opportunities for education and work had led many young people to leave the island.

The islanders embraced the transition, but not because of climate change. Instead, most looked to its potential to provide jobs, strengthen the local economy and secure greater energy independence.

Key to Samsø’s success, the Alliance believes, was the insistence on transparency, consultation, and starting from what people wanted. From the start there was full disclosure of information, with the master plan published in the island’s library and information shared through the local newspaper and discussed in detail at regular community meetings.

Samsø’s long tradition of agricultural cooperatives also helped to ensure strong local engagement. There was ample time for discussion and decision-making, which helped to build confidence and a strong sense of collective ownership of decisions.

Listening to doubters

Sometimes the organisers’ focus on flexibility and committment to meeting local expectations came at a price. One site planned for an onshore turbine, for example, aroused concerns from birdwatchers, church members and holiday home owners.

So the plans were changed, even though this meant choosing another site where turbine installation was more difficult and less energy could be generated.

The Alliance says: “This meant that the community felt genuine ownership over the siting of the wind turbines, which helped to dispel any negative feelings around them.”

It draws another lesson from Samsø, too. The transition to 100% renewables was achieved, the RTA believes, because the Danish government had an ambitious mission, which everyone wanted to realise:

It says: “Policy-making is too often limited to what is do-able in the short-term; establishing an ambitious mission can help reframe a problem, making the impossible possible.” − Climate News Network

 

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

A small Danish island ends fossil fuel use by combining ambitious aims with ensuring that local people have a say in cleaner replacements.

LONDON, 11 February, 2019 Tackling climate change is urgent. It’s too urgent to be feasible, say some critics. But as one Danish island ends fossil fuel use, its story shows it  may be time to think again.

In five years, by 2023, the UK Met Office says, global warming could temporarily rise by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the target agreed by 195 governments in 2015. So the world needs to switch fast from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The island of Samsø, off Denmark’s east coast, has wasted no time. Between 1998 and 2007 it abandoned its total dependence on imported fossil fuels and now relies entirely on renewables, mainly wind and biomass. It’s been singled out as the world’s first 100% renewable island by the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA), which says Samsø can teach the world some vital lessons about changing fast and radically.

In 1997 Samsø, with 4,000 inhabitants, entered a Danish government competition to develop a model renewable energy community, aiming to prove that the country’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 21% was achievable.

Samsø’s winning proposal was based on strong community engagement and a cooperative ownership strategy. It showed how to make renewables a social, economic and energy success.

“Policy-making is too often limited to what is do-able in the short-term; establishing an ambitious mission can help reframe a problem, making the impossible possible”

With wind power now projected to be Europe’s biggest energy source by 2027, the RTA says, one essential element in making it work successfully is how it is managed − and Samsø is a trailblazer.

What the islanders did was straightforward enough. By the year 2000 they had installed 11 wind turbines, covering their electricity needs. A further 10 offshore turbines were erected in 2002, generating enough energy to offset emissions from their cars, buses, tractors and the ferry to the mainland. Three-quarters of their heating and hot water now comes from biomass boilers fuelled with locally grown straw.

Samsø’s transition, the Alliance says, proved that a wholesale shift to renewable energy was possible with existing technology and limited government assistance.

Nowadays, residents are producing so much more clean energy than they need (and exporting what they don’t use) that, in effect, they have an average annual CO2 footprint of minus 12 tonnes per person, helping their fellow citizens to lower their emissions too (the average Dane emits 6.2 tonnes of CO2 a year, the average Briton 10 tonnes).

Active buy-in

Samsø, the argument runs, proves the effectiveness of setting ambitious targets – and meeting them. The Alliance says Samsø’s transition is impressive because it was achieved with the active buy-in (both figuratively and financially) of the local community.

Winning hearts and minds was crucial. People often oppose on-shore wind turbines as a visual intrusion, a blot on the landscape. So the transition organisers, Samsø Energy Academy, worked out how to include the islanders as the turbines’ owners.

They had a simple principle: if you could see a turbine from your window, you could sign on as a co-investor, meaning that anyone living with the technology had a stake in it and stood to.benefit

With so many islanders having a direct stake in the turbines there is now near unanimity that the renewable transition has been good for Samsø. Of the 11 onshore turbines, nine are owned privately by local farmers and two by local cooperatives. Five of the offshore turbines are owned by the municipality, three privately and two cooperatively by small shareholders.

Sceptical island

Before the transition began Samsø had relied mainly on oil, with its electricity generated in coal-fired power plants on the mainland. The potential for renewables had not been explored, and there was deep scepticism towards them. A lack of opportunities for education and work had led many young people to leave the island.

The islanders embraced the transition, but not because of climate change. Instead, most looked to its potential to provide jobs, strengthen the local economy and secure greater energy independence.

Key to Samsø’s success, the Alliance believes, was the insistence on transparency, consultation, and starting from what people wanted. From the start there was full disclosure of information, with the master plan published in the island’s library and information shared through the local newspaper and discussed in detail at regular community meetings.

Samsø’s long tradition of agricultural cooperatives also helped to ensure strong local engagement. There was ample time for discussion and decision-making, which helped to build confidence and a strong sense of collective ownership of decisions.

Listening to doubters

Sometimes the organisers’ focus on flexibility and committment to meeting local expectations came at a price. One site planned for an onshore turbine, for example, aroused concerns from birdwatchers, church members and holiday home owners.

So the plans were changed, even though this meant choosing another site where turbine installation was more difficult and less energy could be generated.

The Alliance says: “This meant that the community felt genuine ownership over the siting of the wind turbines, which helped to dispel any negative feelings around them.”

It draws another lesson from Samsø, too. The transition to 100% renewables was achieved, the RTA believes, because the Danish government had an ambitious mission, which everyone wanted to realise:

It says: “Policy-making is too often limited to what is do-able in the short-term; establishing an ambitious mission can help reframe a problem, making the impossible possible.” − Climate News Network

 

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

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Energy from greenhouse gases is possible

Laboratories can make energy from greenhouse gases, power smartphones with their own radiation, and cut shipping costs naturally. And each could become reality.

LONDON, 8 February, 2019 – Researchers have found ways to realise a modern version of the medieval alchemists’ dream  not turning base metals into gold, but conjuring energy from greenhouse gases, exploiting abundant pollutants to help to power the world.

Korean scientists have developed a sophisticated fuel cell that consumes carbon dioxide and produces electricity and hydrogen – potentially another fuel – at the same time.

Researchers based in the US and Spain have devised a nanoscale fabric that converts electromagnetic waves into electrical current.

The dream is that a smartphone coated with the fabric could, without benefit of a battery, charge itself from the ambient wi-fi radiation that it exploits for texts, calls and data.

German scientists have taken a leaf from nature’s book and applied it – so far in theory – to bulk cargo shipping. Salvinia molesta, a floating fern native to Brazil, isolates itself from water with a thin sheath of air. If the large carriers could adopt the Salvinia trick and incorporate a similar layer of air in the anti-fouling coating on the hull, this would reduce drag sufficiently to save 20% of fuel costs.

To the Urals

And in yet another demonstration of the ingenuity and innovative ambition on show in the world’s laboratories, another German team has looked at the large-scale climate economics of artificial photosynthesis – a system of semiconductors and oxides – that could draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deliver stable chemical compounds.

To take 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year would demand a forest that covered all Europe as far as the Urals. But to do the same job, a commercial forest of “artificial leaves” would require a land area about the size of the German federal state of Brandenburg.

All these ideas are ready for further development. None is so far anywhere near the commercial market.

But all are evidence that chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists have taken up the great climate challenge: how to power modern society without fuelling even faster global warming and climate change that could, ultimately, bring global economic growth to a devastating halt.

And, as many researchers see it, that means not just by-passing the fossil fuels that drive climate change, but actively exploiting the ever-higher ratios of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere, or soon to emerge from power station chimneys

“The best thing now would be to drastically reduce emissions immediately – that would be safer and much cheaper”

Scientists at UNIST, Korea’s National Institute of Science and Technology, report in the journal iScience that in collaboration with engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US they have already developed a hybrid sodium-carbon dioxide system of electrolytes that converts dissolved carbon dioxide to sodium bicarbonate and hydrogen, with a flow of electric current.

Efficiency is high – with 50% of the carbon dioxide exploited – and could be higher. And their test apparatus so far has run in stable fashion for 1000 hours. The system uses a new approach to materials to exploit something in the air everywhere.

And that too is exactly what researchers in the US have done: they report in the journal Nature that they have fashioned a flexible sheet of ultra-thin material that serves as what they call a “rectenna”: a radio-frequency antenna that harvests radiation, including wi-fi signals, as alternating current waveforms, and feeds them to a nanoscale semiconductor that converts it to direct current.

So far, the rectenna devices have produced 40 microwatts of power: enough to fire up a light-emitting diode, or power a silicon chip.

“We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future – by harvesting wi-fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated in large areas – to bring intelligence to every object around us,” said Tomás Palacios, an electrical engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the authors.

Magic carpet

The waterweed Salvinia molesta exploits bubbles to keep itself afloat but out of the water: it literally rides in the water on a little magic carpet of air. The hydrophobic plant is regarded as an invasive pest, but the way it harnesses air to keep itself afloat and on top of things provides a lesson not just for evolutionary biologists but for engineers.

Researchers from the University of Bonn have been looking at the problem of the global shipping fleet: cargo freighters burn 250 million tonnes of fuel a year and emit a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, much of it because of the sheer drag of moving a hull through the waves. So anything that reduces drag saves fuel (which accounts for half of all transport costs).

The German scientists report in the Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society that their experiments with hull coatings based on the lessons of Salvinia could in the medium term cut fuel costs by up to 20% and on a global scale reduce emissions by 130 million tonnes a year. If the same coating discouraged barnacles as well, the saving could reach 300 million tonnes – 1% of global CO2 output.

To keep global warming to the promised level of no more than 1.5°C, an ambition signed up to by 195 nations in Paris in 2015, global fossil fuel emissions will have to reach zero by 2050.

Right now, nations are adding 42 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. So there is pressure to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it.

Huge economy

German scientists report in the journal Earth System Dynamics that they did the sums and calculated that to take 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere using the machinery supplied by 3 billion years of evolution would require new forest plantations that stretched over 10 million kilometres. This is about the size of continental Europe.

But supposing artificial leaf systems developed in laboratories could be further developed on a massive scale? These leaves would draw down carbon dioxide and deliver it for permanent storage or for chemical conversion to plastic or building material.

If so, then efficient synthetic photosynthesis installations could do the same job from an area of only 30,000 square kilometres.

“These kinds of modules could be placed in non-agricultural regions – in deserts, for example. In contrast to plants, they require hardly any water to operate,” said Matthias May of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, one of the authors. It would of course come at a formidable cost – about €650 bn
or US$740 bn a year.

“The best thing now,” Dr May said, “would be to drastically reduce emissions immediately – that would be safer and much cheaper.” – Climate News Network

Laboratories can make energy from greenhouse gases, power smartphones with their own radiation, and cut shipping costs naturally. And each could become reality.

LONDON, 8 February, 2019 – Researchers have found ways to realise a modern version of the medieval alchemists’ dream  not turning base metals into gold, but conjuring energy from greenhouse gases, exploiting abundant pollutants to help to power the world.

Korean scientists have developed a sophisticated fuel cell that consumes carbon dioxide and produces electricity and hydrogen – potentially another fuel – at the same time.

Researchers based in the US and Spain have devised a nanoscale fabric that converts electromagnetic waves into electrical current.

The dream is that a smartphone coated with the fabric could, without benefit of a battery, charge itself from the ambient wi-fi radiation that it exploits for texts, calls and data.

German scientists have taken a leaf from nature’s book and applied it – so far in theory – to bulk cargo shipping. Salvinia molesta, a floating fern native to Brazil, isolates itself from water with a thin sheath of air. If the large carriers could adopt the Salvinia trick and incorporate a similar layer of air in the anti-fouling coating on the hull, this would reduce drag sufficiently to save 20% of fuel costs.

To the Urals

And in yet another demonstration of the ingenuity and innovative ambition on show in the world’s laboratories, another German team has looked at the large-scale climate economics of artificial photosynthesis – a system of semiconductors and oxides – that could draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deliver stable chemical compounds.

To take 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year would demand a forest that covered all Europe as far as the Urals. But to do the same job, a commercial forest of “artificial leaves” would require a land area about the size of the German federal state of Brandenburg.

All these ideas are ready for further development. None is so far anywhere near the commercial market.

But all are evidence that chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists have taken up the great climate challenge: how to power modern society without fuelling even faster global warming and climate change that could, ultimately, bring global economic growth to a devastating halt.

And, as many researchers see it, that means not just by-passing the fossil fuels that drive climate change, but actively exploiting the ever-higher ratios of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere, or soon to emerge from power station chimneys

“The best thing now would be to drastically reduce emissions immediately – that would be safer and much cheaper”

Scientists at UNIST, Korea’s National Institute of Science and Technology, report in the journal iScience that in collaboration with engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US they have already developed a hybrid sodium-carbon dioxide system of electrolytes that converts dissolved carbon dioxide to sodium bicarbonate and hydrogen, with a flow of electric current.

Efficiency is high – with 50% of the carbon dioxide exploited – and could be higher. And their test apparatus so far has run in stable fashion for 1000 hours. The system uses a new approach to materials to exploit something in the air everywhere.

And that too is exactly what researchers in the US have done: they report in the journal Nature that they have fashioned a flexible sheet of ultra-thin material that serves as what they call a “rectenna”: a radio-frequency antenna that harvests radiation, including wi-fi signals, as alternating current waveforms, and feeds them to a nanoscale semiconductor that converts it to direct current.

So far, the rectenna devices have produced 40 microwatts of power: enough to fire up a light-emitting diode, or power a silicon chip.

“We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future – by harvesting wi-fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated in large areas – to bring intelligence to every object around us,” said Tomás Palacios, an electrical engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the authors.

Magic carpet

The waterweed Salvinia molesta exploits bubbles to keep itself afloat but out of the water: it literally rides in the water on a little magic carpet of air. The hydrophobic plant is regarded as an invasive pest, but the way it harnesses air to keep itself afloat and on top of things provides a lesson not just for evolutionary biologists but for engineers.

Researchers from the University of Bonn have been looking at the problem of the global shipping fleet: cargo freighters burn 250 million tonnes of fuel a year and emit a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, much of it because of the sheer drag of moving a hull through the waves. So anything that reduces drag saves fuel (which accounts for half of all transport costs).

The German scientists report in the Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society that their experiments with hull coatings based on the lessons of Salvinia could in the medium term cut fuel costs by up to 20% and on a global scale reduce emissions by 130 million tonnes a year. If the same coating discouraged barnacles as well, the saving could reach 300 million tonnes – 1% of global CO2 output.

To keep global warming to the promised level of no more than 1.5°C, an ambition signed up to by 195 nations in Paris in 2015, global fossil fuel emissions will have to reach zero by 2050.

Right now, nations are adding 42 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. So there is pressure to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it.

Huge economy

German scientists report in the journal Earth System Dynamics that they did the sums and calculated that to take 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere using the machinery supplied by 3 billion years of evolution would require new forest plantations that stretched over 10 million kilometres. This is about the size of continental Europe.

But supposing artificial leaf systems developed in laboratories could be further developed on a massive scale? These leaves would draw down carbon dioxide and deliver it for permanent storage or for chemical conversion to plastic or building material.

If so, then efficient synthetic photosynthesis installations could do the same job from an area of only 30,000 square kilometres.

“These kinds of modules could be placed in non-agricultural regions – in deserts, for example. In contrast to plants, they require hardly any water to operate,” said Matthias May of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, one of the authors. It would of course come at a formidable cost – about €650 bn
or US$740 bn a year.

“The best thing now,” Dr May said, “would be to drastically reduce emissions immediately – that would be safer and much cheaper.” – Climate News Network

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Growing nuclear waste legacy defies disposal

Supporters say more nuclear power will combat climate change, but the industry is still failing to tackle its nuclear waste legacy.

LONDON, 7 February, 2019 − The nuclear industry, and governments across the world, have yet to find a solution to the nuclear waste legacy, the highly dangerous radioactive remains that are piling up in unsafe stores in many countries.

A report commissioned by Greenpeace France says there is now a serious threat of a major accident or terrorist attack in several of the countries most heavily reliant on nuclear power, including the US, France and the UK.

The report fears for what may be to come: “When the stability of nations is measured in years and perhaps decades into the future, what will be the viability of states over the thousands-of-year timeframes required to manage nuclear waste?”

Hundreds of ageing nuclear power stations now have dry stores or deep ponds full of old used fuel, known as spent fuel, from decades of refuelling reactors.

The old fuel has to be cooled for 30 years or more to prevent it spontaneously catching fire and sending a deadly plume of radioactivity hundreds of miles downwind.

Some idea of the dangerous radiation involved is the fact that standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute, the Greenpeace report says.

Official guesswork

The estimates of costs for dealing with the waste in the future are compiled by government experts but vary widely from country to country, and all figures are just official guesswork. All are measured in billions of dollars.

To give an example of actual annual costs for one waste site in the UK, Sellafield in north-west England, the budget just for keeping it safe is £3 bn (US$3.9 bn) a year.

It is estimated that disposing of the waste at Sellafield would cost £80 bn, but that is at best an informed guess since no way of disposing of it has been found.

The report details the waste from the whole nuclear cycle. This begins with the billions of tons of mildly radioactive uranium mine tailings that are left untended in spoil heaps in more than a dozen countries.

Then there are the stores of thousands of tons of depleted uranium left over after producing nuclear fuel and weapons. Last, there is the highly radioactive fuel removed from the reactors, some of it reprocessed to obtain plutonium, leaving behind extremely dangerous liquid waste.

Although the environmental damage from uranium mining is massive, the major danger comes from fires or explosions in spent fuel stores, which need constant cooling to prevent “catastrophic releases” of radioactivity into urban areas.

“Standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute”

There are now an estimated quarter of a million tons of spent fuel stored at dozens of power stations in 14 nuclear countries.

The report concentrates on Belgium, Finland, France, Japan, Sweden, the UK and the US. What happens in Russia and China is not open to public scrutiny.

All countries have severe problems, but those with the most reactors that have also gone in for reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons face the worst.

The report says of France, which has 58 reactors, a number of which are soon to be retired: “There is currently no credible solution for long-term disposal of nuclear waste in France; the urgent matter is reducing risks from existing waste, including spent fuel.”

In the 60 years since the nuclear industry began producing highly dangerous waste, some of it has been dumped in the sea or vented into the atmosphere, but most has been stored, waiting for someone to come up with the technology to neutralise it or a safe way of disposing of it.

Sea dumping outlawed

Since the option of dumping it in the sea was closed off in the 1980s because of alarm about the increase in cancers this would cause, governments have concentrated on the idea of building deep depositories in stable rock or clay formations to allow the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

The problem with this solution is that high-level waste stays dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, so future generations may be put in danger.

Only two countries, Finland and Sweden, which both have stable rock formations, are building repositories, but in both cases there are still doubts and controversy over whether these schemes will be robust enough to contain the radioactivity indefinitely.

In democratic countries, in every case where a depository has been or is proposed, there is a public backlash from nearby communities. This is true in all the countries studied, many of which have been forced to abandon plans to bury the waste

As a result of this resistance from the public the report says that the US “lacks a coherent policy” and the American Department of Energy suggests that “extended storage for 300 years” is the current plan. − Climate News Network

Supporters say more nuclear power will combat climate change, but the industry is still failing to tackle its nuclear waste legacy.

LONDON, 7 February, 2019 − The nuclear industry, and governments across the world, have yet to find a solution to the nuclear waste legacy, the highly dangerous radioactive remains that are piling up in unsafe stores in many countries.

A report commissioned by Greenpeace France says there is now a serious threat of a major accident or terrorist attack in several of the countries most heavily reliant on nuclear power, including the US, France and the UK.

The report fears for what may be to come: “When the stability of nations is measured in years and perhaps decades into the future, what will be the viability of states over the thousands-of-year timeframes required to manage nuclear waste?”

Hundreds of ageing nuclear power stations now have dry stores or deep ponds full of old used fuel, known as spent fuel, from decades of refuelling reactors.

The old fuel has to be cooled for 30 years or more to prevent it spontaneously catching fire and sending a deadly plume of radioactivity hundreds of miles downwind.

Some idea of the dangerous radiation involved is the fact that standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute, the Greenpeace report says.

Official guesswork

The estimates of costs for dealing with the waste in the future are compiled by government experts but vary widely from country to country, and all figures are just official guesswork. All are measured in billions of dollars.

To give an example of actual annual costs for one waste site in the UK, Sellafield in north-west England, the budget just for keeping it safe is £3 bn (US$3.9 bn) a year.

It is estimated that disposing of the waste at Sellafield would cost £80 bn, but that is at best an informed guess since no way of disposing of it has been found.

The report details the waste from the whole nuclear cycle. This begins with the billions of tons of mildly radioactive uranium mine tailings that are left untended in spoil heaps in more than a dozen countries.

Then there are the stores of thousands of tons of depleted uranium left over after producing nuclear fuel and weapons. Last, there is the highly radioactive fuel removed from the reactors, some of it reprocessed to obtain plutonium, leaving behind extremely dangerous liquid waste.

Although the environmental damage from uranium mining is massive, the major danger comes from fires or explosions in spent fuel stores, which need constant cooling to prevent “catastrophic releases” of radioactivity into urban areas.

“Standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute”

There are now an estimated quarter of a million tons of spent fuel stored at dozens of power stations in 14 nuclear countries.

The report concentrates on Belgium, Finland, France, Japan, Sweden, the UK and the US. What happens in Russia and China is not open to public scrutiny.

All countries have severe problems, but those with the most reactors that have also gone in for reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons face the worst.

The report says of France, which has 58 reactors, a number of which are soon to be retired: “There is currently no credible solution for long-term disposal of nuclear waste in France; the urgent matter is reducing risks from existing waste, including spent fuel.”

In the 60 years since the nuclear industry began producing highly dangerous waste, some of it has been dumped in the sea or vented into the atmosphere, but most has been stored, waiting for someone to come up with the technology to neutralise it or a safe way of disposing of it.

Sea dumping outlawed

Since the option of dumping it in the sea was closed off in the 1980s because of alarm about the increase in cancers this would cause, governments have concentrated on the idea of building deep depositories in stable rock or clay formations to allow the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

The problem with this solution is that high-level waste stays dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, so future generations may be put in danger.

Only two countries, Finland and Sweden, which both have stable rock formations, are building repositories, but in both cases there are still doubts and controversy over whether these schemes will be robust enough to contain the radioactivity indefinitely.

In democratic countries, in every case where a depository has been or is proposed, there is a public backlash from nearby communities. This is true in all the countries studied, many of which have been forced to abandon plans to bury the waste

As a result of this resistance from the public the report says that the US “lacks a coherent policy” and the American Department of Energy suggests that “extended storage for 300 years” is the current plan. − Climate News Network

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Pyrenees pipeline veto is setback for gas

The global gas industry’s prospects will suffer from the Pyrenees pipeline veto imposed by regulators, say opponents of fossil fuels.

LONDON, 30 January, 2019 − The Pyrenees pipeline veto announced by regulators in France and Spain, rejecting plans to complete a €3 billion (£2.6 bn) gas link between both countries, is being hailed as a major victory by climate change protestors.

The pipeline, which would have doubled the capacity for transporting natural gas through the mountains on the Franco-Spanish border, was supported by the European Union as a way to reduce its reliance on Russian gas, but the project now appears doomed.

Campaigners in both countries said it was a defeat for the fossil fuel industry and a major step in preventing the EU from continuing to rely on gas instead of renewables.

“MidCat”, as the proposed Midi-Catalunya pipeline was known, would have allowed the flow of gas in both directions across the Pyrenees. Significantly, it would have allowed liquefied gas from terminals in Spain to be pumped north to France to replace an estimated 10% of the gas coming south from Russia.

Energy corporations Enagás and Teréga have been promoting its construction since 2005, and in 2013 the European Commission added the project to its list of favoured “Projects of Common Interest”.

“The gas industry should realise that the party is over and that we can’t keep sinking taxpayer billions into more fossil fuels”

The companies presented the pipeline as a necessary piece of infrastructure to improve Europe’s energy security and to fight against climate change, but protestors said the money should instead have been invested in renewables.

Although it was only one of 90 projects designed to improve the transport of gas in the EU, it was one of the largest. Gas companies have lobbied hard everywhere in Europe to get the Commission and politicians to see gas as an interim step between coal and renewables, but campaigners say the climate cannot afford to burn gas either.

Clemence Dubois, a campaigner at 350.org, said: “All across Europe, we are building a future free of fossil fuels. Together we are making it harder and harder for dirty energy companies to build their pipelines and impose a destructive and outdated model of business.

“We have won an important victory because we have prevented the construction of a major piece of infrastructure that is totally incompatible with a liveable climate.”

Last week the French Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) and the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition  (CNMC) issued a joint statement rejecting the scheme, not on climate grounds but because they said it was too costly and they could not see a sufficient need for it.

Red card

Antoine Simon, fossil free campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “This dramatic red card to the MidCat gas pipeline marks a major victory in the fight to stop a new climate-wrecking fossil gas project. Activists, NGOs and local communities have been fighting this useless project for years, knowing it’s bad for taxpayers, consumers, local people, and the climate – and today they’ve been proved right.

“This is a major setback for the gas industry, and calls into question the hundred other gas projects that the EU has prioritised for support, all of which are similarly unviable. Gas is a dangerous fossil fuel which is killing the climate.

“The gas industry should realise that the party is over and that we can’t keep sinking taxpayer billions into more fossil fuels.”

Although there has been fierce opposition from environment groups in the region, the pipeline’s future was in doubt from the moment the Spanish Conservative government lost power in June last year and socialists took over the environment ministry.

When last November Spain pledged to switch to 100% renewable electricity by 2050 and to become carbon-neutral soon afterwards, it was clear that the new pipeline was unlikely to find favour. − Climate News Network

The global gas industry’s prospects will suffer from the Pyrenees pipeline veto imposed by regulators, say opponents of fossil fuels.

LONDON, 30 January, 2019 − The Pyrenees pipeline veto announced by regulators in France and Spain, rejecting plans to complete a €3 billion (£2.6 bn) gas link between both countries, is being hailed as a major victory by climate change protestors.

The pipeline, which would have doubled the capacity for transporting natural gas through the mountains on the Franco-Spanish border, was supported by the European Union as a way to reduce its reliance on Russian gas, but the project now appears doomed.

Campaigners in both countries said it was a defeat for the fossil fuel industry and a major step in preventing the EU from continuing to rely on gas instead of renewables.

“MidCat”, as the proposed Midi-Catalunya pipeline was known, would have allowed the flow of gas in both directions across the Pyrenees. Significantly, it would have allowed liquefied gas from terminals in Spain to be pumped north to France to replace an estimated 10% of the gas coming south from Russia.

Energy corporations Enagás and Teréga have been promoting its construction since 2005, and in 2013 the European Commission added the project to its list of favoured “Projects of Common Interest”.

“The gas industry should realise that the party is over and that we can’t keep sinking taxpayer billions into more fossil fuels”

The companies presented the pipeline as a necessary piece of infrastructure to improve Europe’s energy security and to fight against climate change, but protestors said the money should instead have been invested in renewables.

Although it was only one of 90 projects designed to improve the transport of gas in the EU, it was one of the largest. Gas companies have lobbied hard everywhere in Europe to get the Commission and politicians to see gas as an interim step between coal and renewables, but campaigners say the climate cannot afford to burn gas either.

Clemence Dubois, a campaigner at 350.org, said: “All across Europe, we are building a future free of fossil fuels. Together we are making it harder and harder for dirty energy companies to build their pipelines and impose a destructive and outdated model of business.

“We have won an important victory because we have prevented the construction of a major piece of infrastructure that is totally incompatible with a liveable climate.”

Last week the French Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) and the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition  (CNMC) issued a joint statement rejecting the scheme, not on climate grounds but because they said it was too costly and they could not see a sufficient need for it.

Red card

Antoine Simon, fossil free campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “This dramatic red card to the MidCat gas pipeline marks a major victory in the fight to stop a new climate-wrecking fossil gas project. Activists, NGOs and local communities have been fighting this useless project for years, knowing it’s bad for taxpayers, consumers, local people, and the climate – and today they’ve been proved right.

“This is a major setback for the gas industry, and calls into question the hundred other gas projects that the EU has prioritised for support, all of which are similarly unviable. Gas is a dangerous fossil fuel which is killing the climate.

“The gas industry should realise that the party is over and that we can’t keep sinking taxpayer billions into more fossil fuels.”

Although there has been fierce opposition from environment groups in the region, the pipeline’s future was in doubt from the moment the Spanish Conservative government lost power in June last year and socialists took over the environment ministry.

When last November Spain pledged to switch to 100% renewable electricity by 2050 and to become carbon-neutral soon afterwards, it was clear that the new pipeline was unlikely to find favour. − Climate News Network

*

Junk fossil fuel plants and stay below 1.5°C

The world could yet contain global warming to 1.5°C – but only if governments act now to junk fossil fuel plants and ditch all those smoking power stations.

LONDON, 24 January, 2019 British scientists have worked out how to make sure of a better-than-even chance that 195 nations can fulfill a promise made in Paris in 2015 to stop global warming at 1.5°C by the end of the century: junk fossil fuel plants.

The answer is simple: phase out fossil fuel hardware as soon as it reaches the end of its effective life. Scrap the old petrol-powered car and buy electric. Shut down the coal-burning power generator and get electricity from the wind or the sunlight. Find some renewable fuel for jet planes. Deliver transoceanic cargoes with a marine fuel that isn’t derived from oil or coal.

There is a catch. Those 195 nations should have already started doing all these things by the end of 2018. To delay a start until 2030 could mean failure, even if – little more than a decade from now – the world then accelerated its escape from fossil fuel addiction.

“Although the challenges laid out by the Paris Agreement are daunting, we indicate 1.5°C remains possible and is attainable with ambitious and immediate emission reduction across all sectors”, the researchers say in the journal Nature Communications.

Long working life

Their study is based on the match of climate models and a range of possible scenarios and is focused on energy generation, transport and industry: these account for 85% of the carbon dioxide emissions that have begun to warm the planet and change the climate, and for which researchers have the most reliable lifetime data.

“All fossil fuel infrastructure, such as coal power plants, carries a climate change commitment. A new coal plant will emit carbon dioxide for roughly 40 years across its lifecycle which in turn affects global warming,” said Christopher Smith, of the University of Leeds, who worked with colleagues from Britain, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Canada to model a huge range of possibilities to identify a timetable strategy with a probability of success of 64%.

“Investments into carbon-intensive infrastructure and their development and maintenance lock us in to the associated carbon emissions and make the transition to lower-carbon alternatives more difficult.

“Our research found that the current amount of fossil fuel infrastructure in the global economy does not yet commit us to exceeding the 1.5°C temperature rise limit put forward by the Paris Agreement.

“Climate change policy does need some good news, and [the] message is that we are not (quite) doomed yet”

“We may have missed starting the phase-out by the end of 2018, but we are still within the margin of achieving the scenario the model put forward.”

The implication is that no new oil wells should be drilled, or mines opened; no more coal-burning or oil-burning power plant commissioned. Infrastructure in use now will be retired when it reaches the end of its life, perhaps 40 years from now.

The scientists don’t discuss how feasible – in political, economic and development terms – such a step will be. Their point is that, to keep the Paris promise, the world must start now.

And their assumption does not incorporate any of the much-feared and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future, as ice caps melt and permafrost thaws to release vast quantities of carbon trapped in once-frozen Arctic soils, and make global warming accelerate.

Series of warnings

The study is not the first to warn that the time available for ending fossil fuel dependence and switching to renewable energy resources is limited. Almost as soon as the world made its historic agreement in Paris many scientists warned that on the basis of pledges made at the time the target would be difficult or impossible to achieve.

The planet has already warmed by 1°C since the Industrial Revolution began to release ever greater levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One study forecast that a world already at least 1.5°C warmer than it had been for most of human history could arrive by 2026.

Other scientists have welcomed the Leeds research. “Climate change policy does need some good news, and their message is that we are not (quite) doomed yet,” said Phillip Williamson of the University of East Anglia.

“If from now on the greenhouse gas-emitting power plants, factories, cars, ships and planes are replaced by non-polluting alternatives as they reach the end of their lifetimes, then the threshold of 1.5°C warming might not be crossed. Yet that is a very big ‘if’.” – Climate News Network

The world could yet contain global warming to 1.5°C – but only if governments act now to junk fossil fuel plants and ditch all those smoking power stations.

LONDON, 24 January, 2019 British scientists have worked out how to make sure of a better-than-even chance that 195 nations can fulfill a promise made in Paris in 2015 to stop global warming at 1.5°C by the end of the century: junk fossil fuel plants.

The answer is simple: phase out fossil fuel hardware as soon as it reaches the end of its effective life. Scrap the old petrol-powered car and buy electric. Shut down the coal-burning power generator and get electricity from the wind or the sunlight. Find some renewable fuel for jet planes. Deliver transoceanic cargoes with a marine fuel that isn’t derived from oil or coal.

There is a catch. Those 195 nations should have already started doing all these things by the end of 2018. To delay a start until 2030 could mean failure, even if – little more than a decade from now – the world then accelerated its escape from fossil fuel addiction.

“Although the challenges laid out by the Paris Agreement are daunting, we indicate 1.5°C remains possible and is attainable with ambitious and immediate emission reduction across all sectors”, the researchers say in the journal Nature Communications.

Long working life

Their study is based on the match of climate models and a range of possible scenarios and is focused on energy generation, transport and industry: these account for 85% of the carbon dioxide emissions that have begun to warm the planet and change the climate, and for which researchers have the most reliable lifetime data.

“All fossil fuel infrastructure, such as coal power plants, carries a climate change commitment. A new coal plant will emit carbon dioxide for roughly 40 years across its lifecycle which in turn affects global warming,” said Christopher Smith, of the University of Leeds, who worked with colleagues from Britain, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Canada to model a huge range of possibilities to identify a timetable strategy with a probability of success of 64%.

“Investments into carbon-intensive infrastructure and their development and maintenance lock us in to the associated carbon emissions and make the transition to lower-carbon alternatives more difficult.

“Our research found that the current amount of fossil fuel infrastructure in the global economy does not yet commit us to exceeding the 1.5°C temperature rise limit put forward by the Paris Agreement.

“Climate change policy does need some good news, and [the] message is that we are not (quite) doomed yet”

“We may have missed starting the phase-out by the end of 2018, but we are still within the margin of achieving the scenario the model put forward.”

The implication is that no new oil wells should be drilled, or mines opened; no more coal-burning or oil-burning power plant commissioned. Infrastructure in use now will be retired when it reaches the end of its life, perhaps 40 years from now.

The scientists don’t discuss how feasible – in political, economic and development terms – such a step will be. Their point is that, to keep the Paris promise, the world must start now.

And their assumption does not incorporate any of the much-feared and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future, as ice caps melt and permafrost thaws to release vast quantities of carbon trapped in once-frozen Arctic soils, and make global warming accelerate.

Series of warnings

The study is not the first to warn that the time available for ending fossil fuel dependence and switching to renewable energy resources is limited. Almost as soon as the world made its historic agreement in Paris many scientists warned that on the basis of pledges made at the time the target would be difficult or impossible to achieve.

The planet has already warmed by 1°C since the Industrial Revolution began to release ever greater levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One study forecast that a world already at least 1.5°C warmer than it had been for most of human history could arrive by 2026.

Other scientists have welcomed the Leeds research. “Climate change policy does need some good news, and their message is that we are not (quite) doomed yet,” said Phillip Williamson of the University of East Anglia.

“If from now on the greenhouse gas-emitting power plants, factories, cars, ships and planes are replaced by non-polluting alternatives as they reach the end of their lifetimes, then the threshold of 1.5°C warming might not be crossed. Yet that is a very big ‘if’.” – Climate News Network

*

Nuclear sunset overtakes fading dreams

As atomic energy gets ever more difficult to afford and renewables become steadily cheaper, a nuclear sunset awaits plans for new plants.

LONDON, 21 January, 2019 − Once hailed as a key part of the energy future of the United Kingdom and several other countries, the high-tech atomic industry is now heading in the opposite direction, towards nuclear sunset.

It took another body blow last week when plans to build four new reactors on two sites in the UK were abandoned as too costly by the Japanese company Hitachi. This was even though it had already sunk £2.14 billion (300 bn yen) in the scheme.

Following the decision in November by another Japanese giant, Toshiba, to abandon an equally ambitious scheme to build three reactors at Moorside in the north-west of England, the future of the industry in the UK looks bleak.

The latest withdrawal means the end of the Japanese dream of keeping its nuclear industry alive by exporting its technology overseas. With the domestic market killed by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, overseas sales were to have been its salvation.

UK policy needed

It also leaves the British plan to lead an international nuclear renaissance by building ten new nuclear stations in the UK in tatters, with the government facing an urgent need for a new energy policy.

Across the world the nuclear industry is faring badly, with costs continuing to rise while the main competitors, renewables, both wind and solar, fall in price. The cost of new nuclear is now roughly three times that of both wind and solar, and even existing nuclear stations are struggling to compete.

Plans by another Japanese giant, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to build four reactors at Sinop on the Black Sea coast of Turkey in partnership with the French were also abandoned in December because of ever-escalating costs.

These reverses mean that the main players left in the business of building large reactors are state-owned – EDF in France, Kepco in South Korea, Rosatom in Russia, and a number of Chinese companies. No private company is now apparently large enough to bear the costs and risk of building nuclear power stations.

Sole survivor

In the UK only one of the original 10 planned nuclear stations is currently under construction. This is the twin reactor plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset in the West of England being built by EDF, a construction project twice as big as the Channel Tunnel, and at a cost of £20 bn (US$25.7 bn).

Already, almost before the first concrete was poured, and with 3,000 people working on the project, it is two years behind schedule and its completion date has been put back to 2027.

The problem for EDF and Kepco is that both France and South Korea have gone cool on nuclear power, both governments realising that renewables are a cheaper and better option to reduce carbon emissions.

“The cost of new nuclear is now roughly three times that of both wind and solar, and even existing nuclear stations are struggling to compete”

To keep expanding, both companies need to export their technology, which means finding other governments prepared to subsidise them, a tall order when the price is so high.

EDF’s current export markets are China and the UK. In England, in addition to Hinkley Point, EDF plans another two reactors on the east coast. How the heavily-indebted company will finance this is still to be negotiated with the UK government. China has bought two French reactors, but there are no signs of new orders.

Kepco is building four reactors in the United Arab Emirates,  a contract obtained in 2009 and worth $20 bn, but it has obtained no orders since.

That leaves Russia and China as the main players. Since nuclear exports for both countries are more a means of exerting political influence than making any financial gain, the cost is of secondary importance and both countries are prepared to offer soft loans to anyone who wants one of their nuclear power stations.

Growth points

On this basis Russia is currently building two reactors in Bangladesh and has a number of agreements with other countries to export stations. Last year construction started on a Russian reactor in Turkey.

China has been the main engine for growth in the nuclear industry, partly to feed the country’s ever-growing need for more electricity. In 2018 only two countries started new reactors – eight were in China and two in Russia.

Significantly, while China has accounted for 35 of the 59 units started up in the world in the last decade and has another dozen reactors under construction, the country has not opened any new construction site for a reactor since December 2016.

By contrast, in both 2017 and 2018 the Chinese have dramatically increased installation of both solar and wind farms, obviously a much quicker route to reducing the country’s damaging air pollution.

Maintenance problems

While there are 417 nuclear reactors still operating across the world and still a significant contributor to electricity production in some countries, many of them are now well past their original design life and increasingly difficult to maintain to modern safety standards.

There is little sign of political will outside China and Russia to replace them with new ones.

Even in the UK, with a government that has encouraged nuclear power, there is increasing resistance from consumers to new nuclear plants, as they will be asked to pay dearly through their utility bills for the privilege.

Despite the fact that the UK nuclear lobby is strong, its influence may wane when consumers realise that the country has ample opportunities to deploy off-shore and on-shore wind turbines, solar and tidal power at much lower cost. − Climate News Network

As atomic energy gets ever more difficult to afford and renewables become steadily cheaper, a nuclear sunset awaits plans for new plants.

LONDON, 21 January, 2019 − Once hailed as a key part of the energy future of the United Kingdom and several other countries, the high-tech atomic industry is now heading in the opposite direction, towards nuclear sunset.

It took another body blow last week when plans to build four new reactors on two sites in the UK were abandoned as too costly by the Japanese company Hitachi. This was even though it had already sunk £2.14 billion (300 bn yen) in the scheme.

Following the decision in November by another Japanese giant, Toshiba, to abandon an equally ambitious scheme to build three reactors at Moorside in the north-west of England, the future of the industry in the UK looks bleak.

The latest withdrawal means the end of the Japanese dream of keeping its nuclear industry alive by exporting its technology overseas. With the domestic market killed by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, overseas sales were to have been its salvation.

UK policy needed

It also leaves the British plan to lead an international nuclear renaissance by building ten new nuclear stations in the UK in tatters, with the government facing an urgent need for a new energy policy.

Across the world the nuclear industry is faring badly, with costs continuing to rise while the main competitors, renewables, both wind and solar, fall in price. The cost of new nuclear is now roughly three times that of both wind and solar, and even existing nuclear stations are struggling to compete.

Plans by another Japanese giant, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to build four reactors at Sinop on the Black Sea coast of Turkey in partnership with the French were also abandoned in December because of ever-escalating costs.

These reverses mean that the main players left in the business of building large reactors are state-owned – EDF in France, Kepco in South Korea, Rosatom in Russia, and a number of Chinese companies. No private company is now apparently large enough to bear the costs and risk of building nuclear power stations.

Sole survivor

In the UK only one of the original 10 planned nuclear stations is currently under construction. This is the twin reactor plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset in the West of England being built by EDF, a construction project twice as big as the Channel Tunnel, and at a cost of £20 bn (US$25.7 bn).

Already, almost before the first concrete was poured, and with 3,000 people working on the project, it is two years behind schedule and its completion date has been put back to 2027.

The problem for EDF and Kepco is that both France and South Korea have gone cool on nuclear power, both governments realising that renewables are a cheaper and better option to reduce carbon emissions.

“The cost of new nuclear is now roughly three times that of both wind and solar, and even existing nuclear stations are struggling to compete”

To keep expanding, both companies need to export their technology, which means finding other governments prepared to subsidise them, a tall order when the price is so high.

EDF’s current export markets are China and the UK. In England, in addition to Hinkley Point, EDF plans another two reactors on the east coast. How the heavily-indebted company will finance this is still to be negotiated with the UK government. China has bought two French reactors, but there are no signs of new orders.

Kepco is building four reactors in the United Arab Emirates,  a contract obtained in 2009 and worth $20 bn, but it has obtained no orders since.

That leaves Russia and China as the main players. Since nuclear exports for both countries are more a means of exerting political influence than making any financial gain, the cost is of secondary importance and both countries are prepared to offer soft loans to anyone who wants one of their nuclear power stations.

Growth points

On this basis Russia is currently building two reactors in Bangladesh and has a number of agreements with other countries to export stations. Last year construction started on a Russian reactor in Turkey.

China has been the main engine for growth in the nuclear industry, partly to feed the country’s ever-growing need for more electricity. In 2018 only two countries started new reactors – eight were in China and two in Russia.

Significantly, while China has accounted for 35 of the 59 units started up in the world in the last decade and has another dozen reactors under construction, the country has not opened any new construction site for a reactor since December 2016.

By contrast, in both 2017 and 2018 the Chinese have dramatically increased installation of both solar and wind farms, obviously a much quicker route to reducing the country’s damaging air pollution.

Maintenance problems

While there are 417 nuclear reactors still operating across the world and still a significant contributor to electricity production in some countries, many of them are now well past their original design life and increasingly difficult to maintain to modern safety standards.

There is little sign of political will outside China and Russia to replace them with new ones.

Even in the UK, with a government that has encouraged nuclear power, there is increasing resistance from consumers to new nuclear plants, as they will be asked to pay dearly through their utility bills for the privilege.

Despite the fact that the UK nuclear lobby is strong, its influence may wane when consumers realise that the country has ample opportunities to deploy off-shore and on-shore wind turbines, solar and tidal power at much lower cost. − Climate News Network

*

Battery boom aids climate change battle

The fastest-expanding industrial sector on the planet is now electricity storage − a battery boom which heralds an end to the need for fossil fuels.

LONDON, 18 January, 2019 − Billions of dollars are being invested worldwide in the developing battery boom, involving research into storage techniques to use the growing surpluses of cheap renewable energy now becoming available.

Recent developments in batteries are set to sweep aside the old arguments about renewables being intermittent, dismissing any need to continue building nuclear power plants and burning fossil fuels to act as a back-up when the wind does not blow, or the sun does not shine.

Batteries as large as the average family house and controlled by digital technology are being positioned across electricity networks. They are being charged when electricity is in surplus and therefore cheap, and the power they store is resold to the grid at a higher price during peak periods.

According to Bloomberg, around US$600 billion will be invested in large-scale batteries over the next 20 years to provide back-up to the grid and power for the expected boom in electric cars.

The cost of batteries is also expected to fall by 50% in the next decade, following the same pattern as the drop in cost of solar panels.

“The generally-held belief that there was no way to store electricity has been disproved. The battery boom means it is now just a question of finding the easiest and most economic way of doing it”

It is already financially viable for individual businesses to install batteries to buy electricity when it is cheap, so as to use it during peak periods. Two recent examples are the English premier league club Arsenal FC and a hotel in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital.

For Arsenal it makes sense to have a giant battery under its London stadium to store cheap power for use when its floodlights are needed during matches which are usually played when electricity prices are at their peak.

In Edinburgh, where there is often a surplus of wind power at night, the batteries provide cheap power for the 200-bedroom Premier Inn hotel in the morning and evening rush. In both cases the capital cost of the batteries is soon repaid in lower power costs.

Currently most large batteries are made of lithium, a relatively scarce and expensive mineral. Large investments are being made to find a way of making lithium batteries cheaper and more efficient, and the search is on for less expensive materials that can also be used to store electricity in battery form.

In Belgium, ironically on the site of a former coalmine, five large experimental batteries have been installed near Brussels to test the best technologies.

New possibilities

One of the latest advances is to use another rare metal, vanadium. Vanadium flow batteries are large static batteries that last for decades and can be charged and discharged completely thousands of times. They are not portable, but last for years without deterioration and are increasingly being deployed by national grids to boost supply during peak demand. A Canadian company, CellCube, has just sold a large battery plant to France.

This has been hailed as one of the most promising technologies in energy storage, but there are many other possibilities under development including high-energy magnesium batteries and lithium-air batteries, which are an advance on the current lithium-ion versions used in electric cars and for grid storage.

There are also new types of chemical batteries under trial as large-scale static installations which allow the grid to pump out more power at peak times.

The key battle for all these technologies is beating rivals on price. This means not just other battery types, but other options under development for storing energy. Surplus energy from renewables is also being used to produce hydrogen, while the surplus from solar power is often stored as heat.

In the first few years of this century the generally-held belief that there was no way to store electricity has been disproved. The battery boom means it is now just a question of finding the easiest and most economic way of doing it, and in doing so making a giant step towards a carbon-free future. − Climate News Network

The fastest-expanding industrial sector on the planet is now electricity storage − a battery boom which heralds an end to the need for fossil fuels.

LONDON, 18 January, 2019 − Billions of dollars are being invested worldwide in the developing battery boom, involving research into storage techniques to use the growing surpluses of cheap renewable energy now becoming available.

Recent developments in batteries are set to sweep aside the old arguments about renewables being intermittent, dismissing any need to continue building nuclear power plants and burning fossil fuels to act as a back-up when the wind does not blow, or the sun does not shine.

Batteries as large as the average family house and controlled by digital technology are being positioned across electricity networks. They are being charged when electricity is in surplus and therefore cheap, and the power they store is resold to the grid at a higher price during peak periods.

According to Bloomberg, around US$600 billion will be invested in large-scale batteries over the next 20 years to provide back-up to the grid and power for the expected boom in electric cars.

The cost of batteries is also expected to fall by 50% in the next decade, following the same pattern as the drop in cost of solar panels.

“The generally-held belief that there was no way to store electricity has been disproved. The battery boom means it is now just a question of finding the easiest and most economic way of doing it”

It is already financially viable for individual businesses to install batteries to buy electricity when it is cheap, so as to use it during peak periods. Two recent examples are the English premier league club Arsenal FC and a hotel in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital.

For Arsenal it makes sense to have a giant battery under its London stadium to store cheap power for use when its floodlights are needed during matches which are usually played when electricity prices are at their peak.

In Edinburgh, where there is often a surplus of wind power at night, the batteries provide cheap power for the 200-bedroom Premier Inn hotel in the morning and evening rush. In both cases the capital cost of the batteries is soon repaid in lower power costs.

Currently most large batteries are made of lithium, a relatively scarce and expensive mineral. Large investments are being made to find a way of making lithium batteries cheaper and more efficient, and the search is on for less expensive materials that can also be used to store electricity in battery form.

In Belgium, ironically on the site of a former coalmine, five large experimental batteries have been installed near Brussels to test the best technologies.

New possibilities

One of the latest advances is to use another rare metal, vanadium. Vanadium flow batteries are large static batteries that last for decades and can be charged and discharged completely thousands of times. They are not portable, but last for years without deterioration and are increasingly being deployed by national grids to boost supply during peak demand. A Canadian company, CellCube, has just sold a large battery plant to France.

This has been hailed as one of the most promising technologies in energy storage, but there are many other possibilities under development including high-energy magnesium batteries and lithium-air batteries, which are an advance on the current lithium-ion versions used in electric cars and for grid storage.

There are also new types of chemical batteries under trial as large-scale static installations which allow the grid to pump out more power at peak times.

The key battle for all these technologies is beating rivals on price. This means not just other battery types, but other options under development for storing energy. Surplus energy from renewables is also being used to produce hydrogen, while the surplus from solar power is often stored as heat.

In the first few years of this century the generally-held belief that there was no way to store electricity has been disproved. The battery boom means it is now just a question of finding the easiest and most economic way of doing it, and in doing so making a giant step towards a carbon-free future. − Climate News Network

*

Swedes top climate change resisters’ league

Some governments take global warming seriously, while others defy the science and virtually ignore it. The climate change resisters’ league names names.

LONDON, 8 January, 2019 – There are countries that are in earnest about the way humans are overheating the planet, the climate change resisters; and there are others that give what is one of the most fundamental problems facing the world only scant attention.

Annually over the past 14 years a group of 350 energy and climate experts from around the globe has drawn up a table reflecting the performance of more than 70 countries in tackling climate change.

Together this group of nations is responsible for more than 90% of total climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

In the just published index looking at developments in 2018, Sweden, Morocco and Lithuania are the top performers in combatting global warming. At the other end of the scale are Iran, the US and – worst performer by a significant margin – Saudi Arabia.

The analysis – called the Climate Change Performance Index, or CCPI – is published by German Watch and the New Climate Institute, both based in Germany, plus the Climate Action Network, which has its headquarters in Lebanon.

“No country has yet done enough in terms of consistent performance across all the indicators required to limit global warming to well below 2°C”

The CCPI compares the various countries’ performances across three categories – GHG emissions, renewable energy, and energy use. The index also evaluates the progress made by nations in implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Morocco comes in for particular praise in the index. “With the connection of the world’s largest solar plant and multiple new wind farms to the grid, the country is well on track for achieving its target of 42% installed renewable energy capacity by 2020 and 52% by 2030.”

India has risen up the performance league and is praised for its moves into renewable energy, though concerns are expressed about the country’s plans to build new coal-fired power plants. Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel.

The UK and the EU as a whole score reasonably highly in the index, but the CCPI compilers issue several caveats and leave the top three places in the league table blank.

Poor Saudi record

“This is because no country has yet done enough in terms of consistent performance across all the indicators required to limit global warming to well below 2°C, as agreed in the Paris Agreement,” they say.

Russia, Canada, Australia and South Korea all score badly in the CCPI, with the US just one place off the bottom spot.

“The refusal of President Trump to acknowledge climate change being human-caused, and his dismantling of regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions, result in the US being rated very low for its national and international climate policy performance.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has over the years repeatedly come bottom of the CCPI.

“The country continues to be a very low performer in all index categories and on every indicator on emissions, energy use and renewable energy.”

Mid-East’s heightened risk

The Saudis are also strongly criticised for their obstructionist tactics at climate negotiations.

At a recent international meeting on climate change held in Katowice in Poland, Saudi Arabia – together with the US, Russia and Kuwait – was accused of holding up proceedings and of refusing to acknowledge the vital importance of taking action on global warming.

The Middle East, and North Africa and the Gulf region in particular, are considered by scientists to be among the areas which are likely to feel the most serious impacts of climate change in the near future.

Already the region is being hit by ever-rising temperatures; climate researchers say that before too long it’s likely that people working outside in the intense summer heat in population centres such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha – including those repairing air conditioning and water systems, or overseeing emergency services – could be putting their lives at risk. – Climate News Network

Some governments take global warming seriously, while others defy the science and virtually ignore it. The climate change resisters’ league names names.

LONDON, 8 January, 2019 – There are countries that are in earnest about the way humans are overheating the planet, the climate change resisters; and there are others that give what is one of the most fundamental problems facing the world only scant attention.

Annually over the past 14 years a group of 350 energy and climate experts from around the globe has drawn up a table reflecting the performance of more than 70 countries in tackling climate change.

Together this group of nations is responsible for more than 90% of total climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

In the just published index looking at developments in 2018, Sweden, Morocco and Lithuania are the top performers in combatting global warming. At the other end of the scale are Iran, the US and – worst performer by a significant margin – Saudi Arabia.

The analysis – called the Climate Change Performance Index, or CCPI – is published by German Watch and the New Climate Institute, both based in Germany, plus the Climate Action Network, which has its headquarters in Lebanon.

“No country has yet done enough in terms of consistent performance across all the indicators required to limit global warming to well below 2°C”

The CCPI compares the various countries’ performances across three categories – GHG emissions, renewable energy, and energy use. The index also evaluates the progress made by nations in implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Morocco comes in for particular praise in the index. “With the connection of the world’s largest solar plant and multiple new wind farms to the grid, the country is well on track for achieving its target of 42% installed renewable energy capacity by 2020 and 52% by 2030.”

India has risen up the performance league and is praised for its moves into renewable energy, though concerns are expressed about the country’s plans to build new coal-fired power plants. Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel.

The UK and the EU as a whole score reasonably highly in the index, but the CCPI compilers issue several caveats and leave the top three places in the league table blank.

Poor Saudi record

“This is because no country has yet done enough in terms of consistent performance across all the indicators required to limit global warming to well below 2°C, as agreed in the Paris Agreement,” they say.

Russia, Canada, Australia and South Korea all score badly in the CCPI, with the US just one place off the bottom spot.

“The refusal of President Trump to acknowledge climate change being human-caused, and his dismantling of regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions, result in the US being rated very low for its national and international climate policy performance.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has over the years repeatedly come bottom of the CCPI.

“The country continues to be a very low performer in all index categories and on every indicator on emissions, energy use and renewable energy.”

Mid-East’s heightened risk

The Saudis are also strongly criticised for their obstructionist tactics at climate negotiations.

At a recent international meeting on climate change held in Katowice in Poland, Saudi Arabia – together with the US, Russia and Kuwait – was accused of holding up proceedings and of refusing to acknowledge the vital importance of taking action on global warming.

The Middle East, and North Africa and the Gulf region in particular, are considered by scientists to be among the areas which are likely to feel the most serious impacts of climate change in the near future.

Already the region is being hit by ever-rising temperatures; climate researchers say that before too long it’s likely that people working outside in the intense summer heat in population centres such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha – including those repairing air conditioning and water systems, or overseeing emergency services – could be putting their lives at risk. – Climate News Network

*

China’s cities face sobering cooling costs

As the Earth warms humans will reach for the air conditioning, meaning more electricity demand and higher household bills in China’s cities.

LONDON, 2 January, 2019 – China’s cities now have a better idea of what global warming is going to cost. New research warns that for every rise of one degree Celsius in global average temperatures, average electricity demand will rise by 9%.

And that’s the average demand. For the same shift in the thermometer reading, peak electricity demand in the Yangtze Valley delta could go up by 36%.

And the global average rise of 1°C so far during the last century is just a start. By 2099, mean surface temperatures on planet Earth could be somewhere between 2°C and 5° hotter. That means that average household electricity use – assuming today’s consumption patterns don’t change – could rise by between 18% and 55%. And peak demand could rise by at least 72%.

“Household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040”

Governments, energy utilities and taxpayers must plan for an uncertain future. The latest study in the needs of the fast-developing economy of China, now one of the world’s great powers, and the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, would be necessary even if there were no climate change: that is because even without the factor of climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels almost everywhere in the world, household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040.

And climate change brings severe additional problems. Chinese scientists already know that climate change within the country is a consequence of human-induced global warming. They know that average warming worldwide means more intense and more frequent extremes of heat and drought. And they have just learned that by the century’s end, levels of heat and humidity could become potentially lethal,  particularly so in the north China plains.

Most responsive

So researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai and Duke University in North Carolina report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they built up a picture of how householders respond to weather shifts by examining data from 800,000 residential customers in the Pudong district of Shanghai between 2014 and 2016, and then tested their findings against various projections of global climate change in this century.

Residential power demand makes up only about a quarter of the total for the Shanghai metropolis, but the scientists focused on individual householders because these were most responsive to fluctuations in temperature.

To nobody’s great surprise, home usage of electricity went up during the days of extreme cold, early in February, and the days of extreme heat, usually around the end of July and early August.

Clear link

They found that for every daily degree of temperature rise above 25°C, electricity use shot up by 14.5%. Compared with demand during the household comfort zone of around 20°C, on those days when temperatures reached 32°C, daily electricity consumption rose by 174%.

The implication is that more investment in air conditioning is going to drive even more global warming: other research teams have already identified the potential costs of heat waves and repeatedly warned that demand for air conditioning will warm the world even further. In the US, there are already signs that power grids may not be able to keep up with demand in long spells of extreme heat.

Shanghai is a bustling commercial powerhouse of a city: other parts of China have yet to catch up. The study found that higher-income households reached for the thermostat in cold weather. But in hot weather – and the Yangtze delta region, which is home to one fifth of the nation’s urban population and produced one fourth of China’s economic output, can get very hot – all income groups turned on the air conditioning.

“If we consider that more provinces would become ‘Shanghai’ as incomes rise, our results may ultimately be more broadly applicable,” said Yatang Li, a PhD student at Duke University, who led the research. – Climate News Network

As the Earth warms humans will reach for the air conditioning, meaning more electricity demand and higher household bills in China’s cities.

LONDON, 2 January, 2019 – China’s cities now have a better idea of what global warming is going to cost. New research warns that for every rise of one degree Celsius in global average temperatures, average electricity demand will rise by 9%.

And that’s the average demand. For the same shift in the thermometer reading, peak electricity demand in the Yangtze Valley delta could go up by 36%.

And the global average rise of 1°C so far during the last century is just a start. By 2099, mean surface temperatures on planet Earth could be somewhere between 2°C and 5° hotter. That means that average household electricity use – assuming today’s consumption patterns don’t change – could rise by between 18% and 55%. And peak demand could rise by at least 72%.

“Household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040”

Governments, energy utilities and taxpayers must plan for an uncertain future. The latest study in the needs of the fast-developing economy of China, now one of the world’s great powers, and the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, would be necessary even if there were no climate change: that is because even without the factor of climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels almost everywhere in the world, household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040.

And climate change brings severe additional problems. Chinese scientists already know that climate change within the country is a consequence of human-induced global warming. They know that average warming worldwide means more intense and more frequent extremes of heat and drought. And they have just learned that by the century’s end, levels of heat and humidity could become potentially lethal,  particularly so in the north China plains.

Most responsive

So researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai and Duke University in North Carolina report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they built up a picture of how householders respond to weather shifts by examining data from 800,000 residential customers in the Pudong district of Shanghai between 2014 and 2016, and then tested their findings against various projections of global climate change in this century.

Residential power demand makes up only about a quarter of the total for the Shanghai metropolis, but the scientists focused on individual householders because these were most responsive to fluctuations in temperature.

To nobody’s great surprise, home usage of electricity went up during the days of extreme cold, early in February, and the days of extreme heat, usually around the end of July and early August.

Clear link

They found that for every daily degree of temperature rise above 25°C, electricity use shot up by 14.5%. Compared with demand during the household comfort zone of around 20°C, on those days when temperatures reached 32°C, daily electricity consumption rose by 174%.

The implication is that more investment in air conditioning is going to drive even more global warming: other research teams have already identified the potential costs of heat waves and repeatedly warned that demand for air conditioning will warm the world even further. In the US, there are already signs that power grids may not be able to keep up with demand in long spells of extreme heat.

Shanghai is a bustling commercial powerhouse of a city: other parts of China have yet to catch up. The study found that higher-income households reached for the thermostat in cold weather. But in hot weather – and the Yangtze delta region, which is home to one fifth of the nation’s urban population and produced one fourth of China’s economic output, can get very hot – all income groups turned on the air conditioning.

“If we consider that more provinces would become ‘Shanghai’ as incomes rise, our results may ultimately be more broadly applicable,” said Yatang Li, a PhD student at Duke University, who led the research. – Climate News Network

*

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