Tag Archives: Electricity generation

Ireland looks forward to a greener future

Often called the Emerald Isle, Ireland prides itself on its green image – but the reality has been rather different.

DUBLIN, 6 July, 2020 – A predominantly rural country with a relatively small population and little heavy industry, Ireland is, per capita, one of the European Union’s biggest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Now there are signs of change: after an inconclusive general election and months of political negotiations, a new coalition government has been formed in which, for the first time, Ireland’s Green Party has a significant role.

As part of a deal it has done with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – the two parties that have dominated Ireland’s politics for much of the last century – the Green Party wants a halt to any further exploration for fossil fuels in the country’s offshore waters.

It’s also calling for a stop to all imports of shale gas from the US. A new climate action law will set legally binding targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – Ireland aims to reduce net emissions by more than 50% by 2030.

“We do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”

Achieving that goal is a gargantuan task. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and an economic slowdown, Ireland’s carbon emissions are set to fall by nearly 10% this year according to a report by the country’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The report warns that due mainly to low international energy prices, the use of fossil fuels is likely to surge after Covid.

“Though the economic impacts of the Covid crisis are severe, due to among others the decreased energy prices, we do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”, says the ESRI’s Kelly de Bruin, a co-author of the study.

“Ireland would still need to put in considerable effort to reach its EU emission goals.

Methane abundance

“The results of the study underline the importance of having a well-designed government response policy package, which considers the unique economic and environmental challenges presented by the Covid crisis.”

Emissions have to be tackled mainly in two sectors – transport and agriculture – which together account for more than 50% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

With increased use of electric vehicles, higher diesel taxes and more efficient goods distribution systems, emissions in the transport sector are relatively easy to sort out. But agriculture – one of the mainstays of Ireland’s economy – is a much more difficult proposition.

Ireland has a population of five million – and a cattle herd of nearly seven million. The flatulence of cattle produces considerable amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

Determined Greens

Farming organisations have traditionally wielded considerable political power. In the past politicians have been accused of indulging in plenty of rhetoric but taking little positive action to address the perils of climate change.

Ireland’s Green Party, which has four ministers in the new 16-member coalition cabinet, says it will not hesitate to bring down the government if environmental promises are not kept.

Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader and Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, says the big challenge is to restore Ireland’s biodiversity and stop what he calls the madness of climate change.

“That’s our job in government. That’s what we’ve been voted in to do”, says Ryan. – Climate News Network

Often called the Emerald Isle, Ireland prides itself on its green image – but the reality has been rather different.

DUBLIN, 6 July, 2020 – A predominantly rural country with a relatively small population and little heavy industry, Ireland is, per capita, one of the European Union’s biggest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Now there are signs of change: after an inconclusive general election and months of political negotiations, a new coalition government has been formed in which, for the first time, Ireland’s Green Party has a significant role.

As part of a deal it has done with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – the two parties that have dominated Ireland’s politics for much of the last century – the Green Party wants a halt to any further exploration for fossil fuels in the country’s offshore waters.

It’s also calling for a stop to all imports of shale gas from the US. A new climate action law will set legally binding targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – Ireland aims to reduce net emissions by more than 50% by 2030.

“We do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”

Achieving that goal is a gargantuan task. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and an economic slowdown, Ireland’s carbon emissions are set to fall by nearly 10% this year according to a report by the country’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The report warns that due mainly to low international energy prices, the use of fossil fuels is likely to surge after Covid.

“Though the economic impacts of the Covid crisis are severe, due to among others the decreased energy prices, we do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”, says the ESRI’s Kelly de Bruin, a co-author of the study.

“Ireland would still need to put in considerable effort to reach its EU emission goals.

Methane abundance

“The results of the study underline the importance of having a well-designed government response policy package, which considers the unique economic and environmental challenges presented by the Covid crisis.”

Emissions have to be tackled mainly in two sectors – transport and agriculture – which together account for more than 50% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

With increased use of electric vehicles, higher diesel taxes and more efficient goods distribution systems, emissions in the transport sector are relatively easy to sort out. But agriculture – one of the mainstays of Ireland’s economy – is a much more difficult proposition.

Ireland has a population of five million – and a cattle herd of nearly seven million. The flatulence of cattle produces considerable amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

Determined Greens

Farming organisations have traditionally wielded considerable political power. In the past politicians have been accused of indulging in plenty of rhetoric but taking little positive action to address the perils of climate change.

Ireland’s Green Party, which has four ministers in the new 16-member coalition cabinet, says it will not hesitate to bring down the government if environmental promises are not kept.

Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader and Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, says the big challenge is to restore Ireland’s biodiversity and stop what he calls the madness of climate change.

“That’s our job in government. That’s what we’ve been voted in to do”, says Ryan. – Climate News Network

Nuclear power uses market fix to stifle wind energy

UK wind energy is forced to shut down to let more expensive nuclear stations go on operating at full power.

LONDON, 18 June, 2020 − The United Kingdom’s nuclear industry is hindering the use of wind energy and pushing up the prices it charges consumers, because its reactors cannot be turned down when electricity production exceeds demand, campaigners say.

A report by a new British group, 100% Renewable UK, says the inflexible nature of nuclear, which means that it normally has to run at full capacity, is no longer suitable for a 21st century electricity supply.

Backed by a large group of local authorities and academic experts, the group says in the report that nuclear power stations, and the notion that they are essential for what is called baseload power, should be consigned to history.

Baseload power, it argues, is no longer needed, and the stations are in fact hindering the development of the flexible grids required in the modern world.

The report particularly studies the wind power compensation payments which the nuclear operators in Scotland had to pay to windfarms in 2017 and 2019.

“This report shows that the goal of 100% renewable energy generation can be realised much earlier than ever thought possible”

The large amounts spent in this way, called “constraint payments”, are triggered when windfarms are asked by the National Grid to shut down production, to stop the electricity network from being overloaded. When supply exceeds demand it threatens the stability of the Grid, which then gives the nuclear stations priority, allowing them to keep running at full power.

Wind farms received compensation for the electricity they would have produced but didn’t: £100 million in 2017 and £130m in 2019.

The report, using data produced by energy consultants Cornwall Insight,  showed that in 2017 94% of the wind power that was “constrained” could have been used had nuclear not been operating, or had it been turned off instead. In 2019 the figure was 77%.

The £230m payment to wind farms for lost production was used by the anti-wind and pro-nuclear lobby to claim that it was excess wind power that was costing consumers money. However, the report argues that it was the inability of the inflexible nuclear plants to turn down their power that should be singled out, saying it would be just as reasonable to blame them for the need for compensation.

What is needed, it says, is a build-up of storage capacity for excess renewable power: large-scale batteries, the use of batteries in electric cars connected to the grid, pump storage and green hydrogen, for example, and the abandonment of nuclear power altogether because it does not suit modern needs.

Wrong culprit

Dr David Toke, from the University of Aberdeen, author of the report, said: “It is wrong for wind power to be blamed by the media for these compensation payments. Inflexible operation of nuclear power plants is switching off wind turbines.

“Essentially, cheaper electricity production from wind farms is being turned off in order to protect production from nuclear power plants, whose output is much more expensive to manage.”

The report also says that the UK government’s support for more nuclear stations will only make things worse, giving priority to much more expensive and inflexible electricity production from new stations, like Hinkley Point C in the West of England, at the expense of much cheaper wind and solar power.

Councillor David Blackburn, chairman of the organisation Nuclear Free Local Authorities, who backs the campaign for 100% renewable energy by 2050, said: “The report confirms to us that the outdated baseload energy model (of nuclear power) is hindering the growth of renewable energy. It is time for a wholesale reform to a decentralised energy model that responds better to public and business needs whilst tackling the climate crisis. “

“This report shows that, with a change of policy direction, the goal of 100% renewable energy generation can be realised much earlier than ever thought possible.” − Climate News Network

UK wind energy is forced to shut down to let more expensive nuclear stations go on operating at full power.

LONDON, 18 June, 2020 − The United Kingdom’s nuclear industry is hindering the use of wind energy and pushing up the prices it charges consumers, because its reactors cannot be turned down when electricity production exceeds demand, campaigners say.

A report by a new British group, 100% Renewable UK, says the inflexible nature of nuclear, which means that it normally has to run at full capacity, is no longer suitable for a 21st century electricity supply.

Backed by a large group of local authorities and academic experts, the group says in the report that nuclear power stations, and the notion that they are essential for what is called baseload power, should be consigned to history.

Baseload power, it argues, is no longer needed, and the stations are in fact hindering the development of the flexible grids required in the modern world.

The report particularly studies the wind power compensation payments which the nuclear operators in Scotland had to pay to windfarms in 2017 and 2019.

“This report shows that the goal of 100% renewable energy generation can be realised much earlier than ever thought possible”

The large amounts spent in this way, called “constraint payments”, are triggered when windfarms are asked by the National Grid to shut down production, to stop the electricity network from being overloaded. When supply exceeds demand it threatens the stability of the Grid, which then gives the nuclear stations priority, allowing them to keep running at full power.

Wind farms received compensation for the electricity they would have produced but didn’t: £100 million in 2017 and £130m in 2019.

The report, using data produced by energy consultants Cornwall Insight,  showed that in 2017 94% of the wind power that was “constrained” could have been used had nuclear not been operating, or had it been turned off instead. In 2019 the figure was 77%.

The £230m payment to wind farms for lost production was used by the anti-wind and pro-nuclear lobby to claim that it was excess wind power that was costing consumers money. However, the report argues that it was the inability of the inflexible nuclear plants to turn down their power that should be singled out, saying it would be just as reasonable to blame them for the need for compensation.

What is needed, it says, is a build-up of storage capacity for excess renewable power: large-scale batteries, the use of batteries in electric cars connected to the grid, pump storage and green hydrogen, for example, and the abandonment of nuclear power altogether because it does not suit modern needs.

Wrong culprit

Dr David Toke, from the University of Aberdeen, author of the report, said: “It is wrong for wind power to be blamed by the media for these compensation payments. Inflexible operation of nuclear power plants is switching off wind turbines.

“Essentially, cheaper electricity production from wind farms is being turned off in order to protect production from nuclear power plants, whose output is much more expensive to manage.”

The report also says that the UK government’s support for more nuclear stations will only make things worse, giving priority to much more expensive and inflexible electricity production from new stations, like Hinkley Point C in the West of England, at the expense of much cheaper wind and solar power.

Councillor David Blackburn, chairman of the organisation Nuclear Free Local Authorities, who backs the campaign for 100% renewable energy by 2050, said: “The report confirms to us that the outdated baseload energy model (of nuclear power) is hindering the growth of renewable energy. It is time for a wholesale reform to a decentralised energy model that responds better to public and business needs whilst tackling the climate crisis. “

“This report shows that, with a change of policy direction, the goal of 100% renewable energy generation can be realised much earlier than ever thought possible.” − Climate News Network

Unanswered questions dog UK’s new nuclear plans

A French company has designs on the United Kingdom: new nuclear plans for more reactors, with British consumers footing the bill.

LONDON, 11 June, 2020 – The French company EDF, a company in a hurry, wants permission to start building two more reactors in the United Kingdom, and it hopes to save money – by arranging for British taxpayers to pay the capital costs of its new nuclear plans.

EDF is already building two reactors at Hinkley Point in the West of England, and it is hoping to transfer workers from that site to Suffolk, on the east coast, believing that will help it to save up to 20% of the construction cost of the two planned reactors, because everyone employed there will know already what to do.

The catch is that EDF has no money itself to finance the construction and wants the UK government to impose a new tax on British electricity consumers so that they will pay the cost through their electricity bills.

The UK has yet to decide whether to go ahead with this tax, euphemistically called a Regulated Asset Base. If adopted, what the scheme means is that the UK consumer will pay EDF’s bills rather than the company having to borrow the money from banks, which are increasingly unlikely to lend money to such expensive schemes because they take so long to build and promise little return.

Anxieties abound

Meanwhile EDF, which has a Chinese nuclear company as its junior partner, promises to create 25,000 jobs, including 1,000 apprenticeships during construction, and says 900 full-time jobs will be available when Sizewell C, as the station will be called, is complete.

If all goes to plan the company hopes to start work in 18 months and says the two reactors will take 10 years to build. It expects them to provide 7% of the UK’s electricity, enough for six million homes.

There are many objectors. Some say much of the coastline will be badly affected, including internationally important nature reserves. Others fear the site is highly vulnerable to sea level rise and therefore a danger to the public.

Local people also fear that the construction site, with its attendant lorry and commuter traffic, will disrupt their lives for a decade, destroying the important tourist trade.

Cheaper options

Other more strategic objections, which might weigh heavier with the government, are that nuclear power is very expensive and much cheaper and less controversial alternatives exist, particularly on-shore and off-shore wind and solar power, and biogas.

More importantly, a drive for energy efficiency, badly neglected in the UK at present, would render the whole project unnecessary.

The problem EDF has is its track record on construction and repairs. The type of reactor it plans to build, the European Pressurised Water Reactor, said by the company to be the most powerful in the world, is proving extremely difficult to build, and till now none has yet been completed outside China.

Construction is running more than 10 years late in both Finland and France, and costs continue to escalate.

“It is hard to understand why, when the scale of the problems became clear, EDF did not cut its losses and close the reactors”

EDF’s debts are now huge, so big that the French state is working out how to restructure the company by splitting it into a renewables arm (which is profitable) and a nuclear branch.

There are serious doubts about the reliability of EDF’s claims and timetables for fixing existing power stations and opening new ones. The company currently owns all of the UK’s operating nuclear reactors, most of which are near the end of their lives, and there are serious doubts about whether they are economic and in some cases even safe.

Two reactors at Hunterston in Scotland have serious cracking in the graphite blocks that are part of the control mechanism. The company has spent two years trying to justify continuing to operate the reactors to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Similarly, at the other end of the UK, at Dungeness in south-east England, the station is also closed for extensive repairs, an outage that was going to take weeks has now stretched to two years – and the start-up date has just been put back again.

Looking on the bright side

One of the features of all of EDF’s activities is the extraordinary optimism the company seems to have, particularly about when reactors will be finished or ready to restart after repairs. With the Hunterston reactors restart dates have been announced nine times, only to be postponed each time.

This track record led the Climate News Network to ask EDF some searching questions, including why they continued to offer optimistic start-up dates that were repeatedly postponed. We also asked why the company kept the Hunterston and Dungeness stations open at all, since repairing them was costly and they were already near the end of their operating lives.

We asked EDF: “At what point do you cut your losses and close the stations permanently?” After five days of pleading for more time to answer, it sent us already published press releases extolling the virtues of the plan to build Sizewell, and several comments.

On Dungeness B it said: “For the past two years we have undertaken a major investment programme at Dungeness to secure the station’s longer-term future. Since the start of the year we have made great progress in  tackling some of the complex problems our works identified.

Extensive repairs

“However we still have further engineering works to complete, and a detailed safety case to finalise, before we ask for restart approval from our regulator. Our present position for estimated return to service is 11 September for Reactor 22 and 21 September for Reactor 21.”

On Hunterston B, EDF said: “We are continuing to work constructively with the regulator to ensure the work at Hunterston B is done thoroughly and helps inform future decisions. The safety case for Hunterston B, Reactor 3, has been submitted to the ONR for its independent assessment.

“Since the first reactor was taken offline we have carried out the most extensive graphite inspection programme ever undertaken, the results of which have been fed into this case”, referring us to the information the company provides on graphite blocks.

The ONR could not answer for EDF on its estimated reactor re-opening dates, but on Hunterston it said it was looking at the safety case, would not be hurried and would not give permission to restart until it was satisfied it was safe to do so.

Unexpected snags

Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, commented on the constantly postponed start-up dates for the ageing reactors:

“It is clear, given that shutdowns expected to take two months are now expected to take two years or more, that EDF has found huge unanticipated problems”, he said.

“It is hard to understand why, when the scale of the problems became clear, EDF did not cut its losses and close the reactors, but continues to pour money into plants to get a couple more years of operation out of plants highly likely to be loss-makers.

“It is depressing that ONR, which has a duty to keep the public informed on such important issues, chooses to hide behind bland statements such as that it will take as long as it takes, and that it will not comment on EDF’s decisions.” – Climate News Network

A French company has designs on the United Kingdom: new nuclear plans for more reactors, with British consumers footing the bill.

LONDON, 11 June, 2020 – The French company EDF, a company in a hurry, wants permission to start building two more reactors in the United Kingdom, and it hopes to save money – by arranging for British taxpayers to pay the capital costs of its new nuclear plans.

EDF is already building two reactors at Hinkley Point in the West of England, and it is hoping to transfer workers from that site to Suffolk, on the east coast, believing that will help it to save up to 20% of the construction cost of the two planned reactors, because everyone employed there will know already what to do.

The catch is that EDF has no money itself to finance the construction and wants the UK government to impose a new tax on British electricity consumers so that they will pay the cost through their electricity bills.

The UK has yet to decide whether to go ahead with this tax, euphemistically called a Regulated Asset Base. If adopted, what the scheme means is that the UK consumer will pay EDF’s bills rather than the company having to borrow the money from banks, which are increasingly unlikely to lend money to such expensive schemes because they take so long to build and promise little return.

Anxieties abound

Meanwhile EDF, which has a Chinese nuclear company as its junior partner, promises to create 25,000 jobs, including 1,000 apprenticeships during construction, and says 900 full-time jobs will be available when Sizewell C, as the station will be called, is complete.

If all goes to plan the company hopes to start work in 18 months and says the two reactors will take 10 years to build. It expects them to provide 7% of the UK’s electricity, enough for six million homes.

There are many objectors. Some say much of the coastline will be badly affected, including internationally important nature reserves. Others fear the site is highly vulnerable to sea level rise and therefore a danger to the public.

Local people also fear that the construction site, with its attendant lorry and commuter traffic, will disrupt their lives for a decade, destroying the important tourist trade.

Cheaper options

Other more strategic objections, which might weigh heavier with the government, are that nuclear power is very expensive and much cheaper and less controversial alternatives exist, particularly on-shore and off-shore wind and solar power, and biogas.

More importantly, a drive for energy efficiency, badly neglected in the UK at present, would render the whole project unnecessary.

The problem EDF has is its track record on construction and repairs. The type of reactor it plans to build, the European Pressurised Water Reactor, said by the company to be the most powerful in the world, is proving extremely difficult to build, and till now none has yet been completed outside China.

Construction is running more than 10 years late in both Finland and France, and costs continue to escalate.

“It is hard to understand why, when the scale of the problems became clear, EDF did not cut its losses and close the reactors”

EDF’s debts are now huge, so big that the French state is working out how to restructure the company by splitting it into a renewables arm (which is profitable) and a nuclear branch.

There are serious doubts about the reliability of EDF’s claims and timetables for fixing existing power stations and opening new ones. The company currently owns all of the UK’s operating nuclear reactors, most of which are near the end of their lives, and there are serious doubts about whether they are economic and in some cases even safe.

Two reactors at Hunterston in Scotland have serious cracking in the graphite blocks that are part of the control mechanism. The company has spent two years trying to justify continuing to operate the reactors to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Similarly, at the other end of the UK, at Dungeness in south-east England, the station is also closed for extensive repairs, an outage that was going to take weeks has now stretched to two years – and the start-up date has just been put back again.

Looking on the bright side

One of the features of all of EDF’s activities is the extraordinary optimism the company seems to have, particularly about when reactors will be finished or ready to restart after repairs. With the Hunterston reactors restart dates have been announced nine times, only to be postponed each time.

This track record led the Climate News Network to ask EDF some searching questions, including why they continued to offer optimistic start-up dates that were repeatedly postponed. We also asked why the company kept the Hunterston and Dungeness stations open at all, since repairing them was costly and they were already near the end of their operating lives.

We asked EDF: “At what point do you cut your losses and close the stations permanently?” After five days of pleading for more time to answer, it sent us already published press releases extolling the virtues of the plan to build Sizewell, and several comments.

On Dungeness B it said: “For the past two years we have undertaken a major investment programme at Dungeness to secure the station’s longer-term future. Since the start of the year we have made great progress in  tackling some of the complex problems our works identified.

Extensive repairs

“However we still have further engineering works to complete, and a detailed safety case to finalise, before we ask for restart approval from our regulator. Our present position for estimated return to service is 11 September for Reactor 22 and 21 September for Reactor 21.”

On Hunterston B, EDF said: “We are continuing to work constructively with the regulator to ensure the work at Hunterston B is done thoroughly and helps inform future decisions. The safety case for Hunterston B, Reactor 3, has been submitted to the ONR for its independent assessment.

“Since the first reactor was taken offline we have carried out the most extensive graphite inspection programme ever undertaken, the results of which have been fed into this case”, referring us to the information the company provides on graphite blocks.

The ONR could not answer for EDF on its estimated reactor re-opening dates, but on Hunterston it said it was looking at the safety case, would not be hurried and would not give permission to restart until it was satisfied it was safe to do so.

Unexpected snags

Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, commented on the constantly postponed start-up dates for the ageing reactors:

“It is clear, given that shutdowns expected to take two months are now expected to take two years or more, that EDF has found huge unanticipated problems”, he said.

“It is hard to understand why, when the scale of the problems became clear, EDF did not cut its losses and close the reactors, but continues to pour money into plants to get a couple more years of operation out of plants highly likely to be loss-makers.

“It is depressing that ONR, which has a duty to keep the public informed on such important issues, chooses to hide behind bland statements such as that it will take as long as it takes, and that it will not comment on EDF’s decisions.” – Climate News Network

How dangerous is low-level radiation to children?

A rethink on the risks of low-level radiation would imperil the nuclear industry’s future − perhaps why there’s never been one.

LONDON, 22 May, 2020 − The threat that low-level radiation poses to human life, particularly to unborn children, and its link with childhood leukaemia, demands an urgent scientific reassessment.

This is the conclusion of a carefully-detailed report produced for the charity Children With Cancer UK by the Low-Level Radiation Campaign.

It is compiled from evidence contained in dozens of scientific reports from numerous countries over many decades, which show that tiny doses of radiation, some of it inhaled, can have devastating effects on the human body, particularly by causing cancer and birth defects.

The original reports were completed for a range of academic institutions, governments and medical organisations, and their results were compared by the newest report’s authors, Richard Bramhall and Pete Wilkinson.  They believe they have provided overwhelming evidence for a basic rethink on so-called “safe” radiation doses.

They write: “The fundamental conclusion of this report is that when the evidence is rationally assessed it appears that the health impacts, especially in the more radio-sensitive young, have been consistently and routinely underestimated.”

Ceaseless controversy

The pair concede this is not the first time such a call has been made, but it has never been acted upon. Now they say it must be.

What constitutes safety for nuclear workers and for civilians living near nuclear power stations, or affected by fall-out from accidents like the ones at Sellafield in Cumbria in north-west England in 1957, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, has always been highly controversial.

Bramhall and Wilkinson detail how the debate began in earnest in the 1980s, when a cluster of childhood leukaemia cases, ten times higher than would be expected, was identified around Sellafield.

Government inquiries followed but reached no settled conclusion, and low-level radiation safety has been a scientific battleground ever since.

The official agencies appointed by governments are still using dose estimates based on calculations made in 1943, when Western governments were trying to develop an atomic bomb.

“The discrepancy between the number of congenital malformations in babies expected after Chernobyl and the number actually observed was between 15,000 and 50,000”

The new report highlights that this was when very little was known about how tiny doses of ingested radiation could affect the body − and when DNA was yet to be discovered.

Despite the fact that international standards are based on these scientifically ancient, out-of-date assumptions, they have not been revised. If they were, the results could be catastrophic for the nuclear industry and for the manufacturers of nuclear weapons.

The report makes clear that if the worst estimates of the damage that low-level radiation causes to children proved anywhere close to correct, then no-one would want to live anywhere near a nuclear power station.

Most would be appalled if they knew even small numbers of children living within 50 kilometres of a station would contract leukaemia from being so close.

It acknowledges that the stakes are high. If the authors’ findings are accepted, then it will be the end of public tolerance of nuclear power.

Revolution needed

Despite this long-lived institutional pushback from governments and the industry, the report says what is needed is a scientific revolution in the way that low-level radiation is considered. It compares the situation with the treatment of asbestos.

It was in the 1890s that the first evidence of disease related to asbestos exposure was laid before the UK Parliament. But it was not until 1972, when the causal link between the always fatal lung cancer, mesothelioma, and human fatality rates was established beyond reasonable doubt, that the use of asbestos was banned.

This delay is why on average 2,700 people still die annually in the UK: they were at some point exposed to and inhalers of asbestos.

Another example, which the report does not quote but is perhaps as relevant today, is air pollution. It has taken decades for the scientific community to realise that in many cities it is the tiniest particles of air pollution, invisible to the naked eye, that are taken deepest into the lungs and that cause the most damage, killing thousands of people a year.

So far governments across the world have not yet outlawed the vehicles and industrial processes that are wiping out their own citizens in vast numbers.

Anxiety not irrational

The report cites many studies, with perhaps the most telling those that compare the actual numbers of cancers and malformations in babies which occurred in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident with the numbers to have been expected if the currently accepted and out-of-date risk calculations had been used.

Despite the difficulties of getting information from reluctant governments close to Chernobyl, the report says: “The discrepancy between the number of congenital malformations in babies expected after Chernobyl and the number actually observed was between 15,000 and 50,000.”

The authors say their object “is to dispel the repeated assertion that public anxiety about the health impact of radioactivity in the environment is irrational.”

Both Wilkinson and Bramhall have considerable experience of dealing with governments, both inside official bodies as members, and as external lobbyists.

They detail how they believe the concerns of both ordinary people and scientists have been swept aside in order to preserve the status quo. Clearly, in sponsoring the report, Children with Cancer UK agrees. − Climate News Network

A rethink on the risks of low-level radiation would imperil the nuclear industry’s future − perhaps why there’s never been one.

LONDON, 22 May, 2020 − The threat that low-level radiation poses to human life, particularly to unborn children, and its link with childhood leukaemia, demands an urgent scientific reassessment.

This is the conclusion of a carefully-detailed report produced for the charity Children With Cancer UK by the Low-Level Radiation Campaign.

It is compiled from evidence contained in dozens of scientific reports from numerous countries over many decades, which show that tiny doses of radiation, some of it inhaled, can have devastating effects on the human body, particularly by causing cancer and birth defects.

The original reports were completed for a range of academic institutions, governments and medical organisations, and their results were compared by the newest report’s authors, Richard Bramhall and Pete Wilkinson.  They believe they have provided overwhelming evidence for a basic rethink on so-called “safe” radiation doses.

They write: “The fundamental conclusion of this report is that when the evidence is rationally assessed it appears that the health impacts, especially in the more radio-sensitive young, have been consistently and routinely underestimated.”

Ceaseless controversy

The pair concede this is not the first time such a call has been made, but it has never been acted upon. Now they say it must be.

What constitutes safety for nuclear workers and for civilians living near nuclear power stations, or affected by fall-out from accidents like the ones at Sellafield in Cumbria in north-west England in 1957, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, has always been highly controversial.

Bramhall and Wilkinson detail how the debate began in earnest in the 1980s, when a cluster of childhood leukaemia cases, ten times higher than would be expected, was identified around Sellafield.

Government inquiries followed but reached no settled conclusion, and low-level radiation safety has been a scientific battleground ever since.

The official agencies appointed by governments are still using dose estimates based on calculations made in 1943, when Western governments were trying to develop an atomic bomb.

“The discrepancy between the number of congenital malformations in babies expected after Chernobyl and the number actually observed was between 15,000 and 50,000”

The new report highlights that this was when very little was known about how tiny doses of ingested radiation could affect the body − and when DNA was yet to be discovered.

Despite the fact that international standards are based on these scientifically ancient, out-of-date assumptions, they have not been revised. If they were, the results could be catastrophic for the nuclear industry and for the manufacturers of nuclear weapons.

The report makes clear that if the worst estimates of the damage that low-level radiation causes to children proved anywhere close to correct, then no-one would want to live anywhere near a nuclear power station.

Most would be appalled if they knew even small numbers of children living within 50 kilometres of a station would contract leukaemia from being so close.

It acknowledges that the stakes are high. If the authors’ findings are accepted, then it will be the end of public tolerance of nuclear power.

Revolution needed

Despite this long-lived institutional pushback from governments and the industry, the report says what is needed is a scientific revolution in the way that low-level radiation is considered. It compares the situation with the treatment of asbestos.

It was in the 1890s that the first evidence of disease related to asbestos exposure was laid before the UK Parliament. But it was not until 1972, when the causal link between the always fatal lung cancer, mesothelioma, and human fatality rates was established beyond reasonable doubt, that the use of asbestos was banned.

This delay is why on average 2,700 people still die annually in the UK: they were at some point exposed to and inhalers of asbestos.

Another example, which the report does not quote but is perhaps as relevant today, is air pollution. It has taken decades for the scientific community to realise that in many cities it is the tiniest particles of air pollution, invisible to the naked eye, that are taken deepest into the lungs and that cause the most damage, killing thousands of people a year.

So far governments across the world have not yet outlawed the vehicles and industrial processes that are wiping out their own citizens in vast numbers.

Anxiety not irrational

The report cites many studies, with perhaps the most telling those that compare the actual numbers of cancers and malformations in babies which occurred in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident with the numbers to have been expected if the currently accepted and out-of-date risk calculations had been used.

Despite the difficulties of getting information from reluctant governments close to Chernobyl, the report says: “The discrepancy between the number of congenital malformations in babies expected after Chernobyl and the number actually observed was between 15,000 and 50,000.”

The authors say their object “is to dispel the repeated assertion that public anxiety about the health impact of radioactivity in the environment is irrational.”

Both Wilkinson and Bramhall have considerable experience of dealing with governments, both inside official bodies as members, and as external lobbyists.

They detail how they believe the concerns of both ordinary people and scientists have been swept aside in order to preserve the status quo. Clearly, in sponsoring the report, Children with Cancer UK agrees. − Climate News Network

Fossil fuels: Heading down, but not yet out

Renewable energy is making rapid inroads into the market, but fossil fuels still wield enormous global influence.

LONDON, 20 May, 2020 – At a casual glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that fossil fuels are here to stay for a long time yet, although not everything on the horizon is rosy.

The world, admittedly, is awash with surplus oil. The use of coal is in sharp decline. The price of gas – in recent years the fuel of choice for an increasing number of power plants around the globe – is falling.

The fossil fuel industry – the main driver behind the growing climate crisis – is undoubtedly going through one of its worst times in decades.

The Covid 19 pandemic has resulted in a severe downturn in the global economy and a sharp drop in demand for energy.

But the fossil fuel industry’s problems, many of them of its own making, were evident well before Covid swept the globe.

At the centre of the sector’s difficulties is over-production, particularly of oil.

Shale tips the scales

In 2010 world crude oil production was running at about 86 million barrels per day (MBPD). This year production is forecast to top 100 MBPD.

Though oil consumption has grown as the global economy has expanded over recent years, production has exceeded demand as utilities and industries, particularly in Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, have become ever more efficient in the way they produce energy.

The big change in the oil market over the past decade has been the rise in US production, brought about by the boom in the shale oil and gas industry.

In 2010 the US was producing just over 5 MBPD. Earlier this year, production was running at more than 13 MBPD. Once a net importer of crude, the US is now the world’s biggest producer – ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The days when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) could more or less determine the global oil price by tweaking production levels have long gone: neither the US nor Russia is an OPEC member.

The big producers have argued amongst themselves and have not been able to agree on output levels. Oil prices have fluctuated wildly: in recent weeks they reached an historic low.

“Renewable energy is a cost-effective source of new power that insulates power markets and consumers from volatility”

In the US many shale oil operators who borrowed heavily to fund their operations are threatened with going bust as the price of oil falls well below production costs.

In Saudi Arabia and Russia the dramatic fall in oil revenues is threatening economic crisis – and potential political trouble as well.

Adding further to the problems of the oil and other fossil fuel producers – but at the same time contributing to the well being of the planet – has been the rise of the renewable energy industry.

In 2010 the share of renewables in the global energy mix was 8.6%. Data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) indicate that renewables now account for more than 30% of the world’s power supply.

Massive solar and wind operations are being built around the world. Solar heating systems have been installed in millions of homes.

Concerns over a warming world and new regulations governing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases have in part driven the rise of renewables; dramatic falls in the price of technologies such as wind and solar have also had a big impact.

Holding on to power

The cost of producing electricity from solar power has dropped by about 80% over the past decade. The cost of wind power and other renewables has also dropped.

“Renewable energy is a cost-effective source of new power that insulates power markets and consumers from volatility”, says IRENA.

The fossil fuel sector is still able to wield immense financial and political clout and those prophesying its demise are likely to be disappointed, in the short term at least.

In the US it looks as though coal, oil and gas companies will qualify for multi-billion dollar payments under revised federal government Covid-19 bailout measures.

The Saudis and the Russians will do everything in their power to protect their fossil fuel industries on which their economies – and power structures – depend.

But big changes are under way. Maybe, just maybe, fossil fuels are in terminal decline. – Climate News Network

Renewable energy is making rapid inroads into the market, but fossil fuels still wield enormous global influence.

LONDON, 20 May, 2020 – At a casual glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that fossil fuels are here to stay for a long time yet, although not everything on the horizon is rosy.

The world, admittedly, is awash with surplus oil. The use of coal is in sharp decline. The price of gas – in recent years the fuel of choice for an increasing number of power plants around the globe – is falling.

The fossil fuel industry – the main driver behind the growing climate crisis – is undoubtedly going through one of its worst times in decades.

The Covid 19 pandemic has resulted in a severe downturn in the global economy and a sharp drop in demand for energy.

But the fossil fuel industry’s problems, many of them of its own making, were evident well before Covid swept the globe.

At the centre of the sector’s difficulties is over-production, particularly of oil.

Shale tips the scales

In 2010 world crude oil production was running at about 86 million barrels per day (MBPD). This year production is forecast to top 100 MBPD.

Though oil consumption has grown as the global economy has expanded over recent years, production has exceeded demand as utilities and industries, particularly in Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, have become ever more efficient in the way they produce energy.

The big change in the oil market over the past decade has been the rise in US production, brought about by the boom in the shale oil and gas industry.

In 2010 the US was producing just over 5 MBPD. Earlier this year, production was running at more than 13 MBPD. Once a net importer of crude, the US is now the world’s biggest producer – ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The days when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) could more or less determine the global oil price by tweaking production levels have long gone: neither the US nor Russia is an OPEC member.

The big producers have argued amongst themselves and have not been able to agree on output levels. Oil prices have fluctuated wildly: in recent weeks they reached an historic low.

“Renewable energy is a cost-effective source of new power that insulates power markets and consumers from volatility”

In the US many shale oil operators who borrowed heavily to fund their operations are threatened with going bust as the price of oil falls well below production costs.

In Saudi Arabia and Russia the dramatic fall in oil revenues is threatening economic crisis – and potential political trouble as well.

Adding further to the problems of the oil and other fossil fuel producers – but at the same time contributing to the well being of the planet – has been the rise of the renewable energy industry.

In 2010 the share of renewables in the global energy mix was 8.6%. Data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) indicate that renewables now account for more than 30% of the world’s power supply.

Massive solar and wind operations are being built around the world. Solar heating systems have been installed in millions of homes.

Concerns over a warming world and new regulations governing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases have in part driven the rise of renewables; dramatic falls in the price of technologies such as wind and solar have also had a big impact.

Holding on to power

The cost of producing electricity from solar power has dropped by about 80% over the past decade. The cost of wind power and other renewables has also dropped.

“Renewable energy is a cost-effective source of new power that insulates power markets and consumers from volatility”, says IRENA.

The fossil fuel sector is still able to wield immense financial and political clout and those prophesying its demise are likely to be disappointed, in the short term at least.

In the US it looks as though coal, oil and gas companies will qualify for multi-billion dollar payments under revised federal government Covid-19 bailout measures.

The Saudis and the Russians will do everything in their power to protect their fossil fuel industries on which their economies – and power structures – depend.

But big changes are under way. Maybe, just maybe, fossil fuels are in terminal decline. – Climate News Network

Hot rocks can help to cool the warming Earth

Energy from hot rocks below the Earth’s crust will help to replace fossil fuels and speed Europe’s path to carbon neutrality.

LONDON, 8 May, 2020 − The Romans were the first people to exploit Europe’s geothermal energy, using underground springs warmed by hot rocks for large-scale public bathing pools and as central heating for their houses.

Two thousand years later, the European Union is using modern technology to renew its efforts to exploit the same resource to make electricity and provide district heating as part of its plan to replace fossil fuels and become carbon-neutral by 2050.

With wind and solar power and biogas already well-developed, expanding rapidly and already competing with fossil fuels, the EU has decided that geothermal energy should also now be exploited as a fourth major renewable resource.

The European Commission’s Green Deal aims to exploit what officials admit has been the neglect of a potentially large renewable energy industry, which they think should be harnessed to reduce carbon emissions. As a result, the Commission is spending €172 million (£151m) on 12 different developments, described in what it calls a Results Pack.

“The cost of harnessing geothermal energy has tumbled in recent years, making it far more competitive with coal and gas. Shallow boreholes using heat pumps have cut the cost of harnessing it by 20-30%”

Some countries in Europe with active volcanoes, notably Italy and Iceland, have been exploiting hot rocks for decades to heat water, produce steam and drive turbines to make electricity. More recently engineers in Iceland, exploring further and drilling down to 4,650 metres (15,250 feet), have reached rocks at 600°C, potentially providing vast quantities of renewable energy.

The EU believes that, with hot rocks found everywhere below the Earth’s crust, it is only a question of boring deep enough. It says the technologies being developed in Europe to exploit this heat can be used anywhere in the world, and have great potential for the international efforts to wean countries off fossil fuels.

Its Results Pack says heating and cooling accounts for about half of all the continent’s energy consumption. Currently about 75% of that is provided by fossil fuels. However, drilling deep enough would mean all Europe’s buildings could be heated and cooled using subterranean energy.

Like wind and solar, the cost of harnessing geothermal energy has tumbled in recent years, making it far more competitive with coal and gas. Shallow boreholes using heat pumps have cut the cost of harnessing it by 20-30%.

Rare metal bonus

One of the most interesting of the 12 examples in the Pack is a way of extracting heat for energy while at the same time obtaining rare and expensive metals from far below the Earth’s crust. This is being developed at the University of Miskolc in Hungary.

Cold water is pumped 4-5 kilometres into a borehole at high pressure. It passes through natural fissures in the hot rock and comes to the surface through another drill hole as hot vapour. This gas is used to produce electricity and for heating.

The rocks with their many cracks form a natural underground heat exchanger, but the scheme offers an added bonus. As the cold water is pumped through the cracks it gradually dissolves the rock, making the cracks larger and the system more efficient, and over time increasing the output of both electricity and heat.

But also important, as a potential resource, is the fact that the return borehole brings up precious metals in the vapour. Using patented gaseous diffusion techniques, the vapour can yield the metals with a near-100% recovery rate. The metals’ market value dramatically improves the return on investment, the paper says. − Climate News Network

Energy from hot rocks below the Earth’s crust will help to replace fossil fuels and speed Europe’s path to carbon neutrality.

LONDON, 8 May, 2020 − The Romans were the first people to exploit Europe’s geothermal energy, using underground springs warmed by hot rocks for large-scale public bathing pools and as central heating for their houses.

Two thousand years later, the European Union is using modern technology to renew its efforts to exploit the same resource to make electricity and provide district heating as part of its plan to replace fossil fuels and become carbon-neutral by 2050.

With wind and solar power and biogas already well-developed, expanding rapidly and already competing with fossil fuels, the EU has decided that geothermal energy should also now be exploited as a fourth major renewable resource.

The European Commission’s Green Deal aims to exploit what officials admit has been the neglect of a potentially large renewable energy industry, which they think should be harnessed to reduce carbon emissions. As a result, the Commission is spending €172 million (£151m) on 12 different developments, described in what it calls a Results Pack.

“The cost of harnessing geothermal energy has tumbled in recent years, making it far more competitive with coal and gas. Shallow boreholes using heat pumps have cut the cost of harnessing it by 20-30%”

Some countries in Europe with active volcanoes, notably Italy and Iceland, have been exploiting hot rocks for decades to heat water, produce steam and drive turbines to make electricity. More recently engineers in Iceland, exploring further and drilling down to 4,650 metres (15,250 feet), have reached rocks at 600°C, potentially providing vast quantities of renewable energy.

The EU believes that, with hot rocks found everywhere below the Earth’s crust, it is only a question of boring deep enough. It says the technologies being developed in Europe to exploit this heat can be used anywhere in the world, and have great potential for the international efforts to wean countries off fossil fuels.

Its Results Pack says heating and cooling accounts for about half of all the continent’s energy consumption. Currently about 75% of that is provided by fossil fuels. However, drilling deep enough would mean all Europe’s buildings could be heated and cooled using subterranean energy.

Like wind and solar, the cost of harnessing geothermal energy has tumbled in recent years, making it far more competitive with coal and gas. Shallow boreholes using heat pumps have cut the cost of harnessing it by 20-30%.

Rare metal bonus

One of the most interesting of the 12 examples in the Pack is a way of extracting heat for energy while at the same time obtaining rare and expensive metals from far below the Earth’s crust. This is being developed at the University of Miskolc in Hungary.

Cold water is pumped 4-5 kilometres into a borehole at high pressure. It passes through natural fissures in the hot rock and comes to the surface through another drill hole as hot vapour. This gas is used to produce electricity and for heating.

The rocks with their many cracks form a natural underground heat exchanger, but the scheme offers an added bonus. As the cold water is pumped through the cracks it gradually dissolves the rock, making the cracks larger and the system more efficient, and over time increasing the output of both electricity and heat.

But also important, as a potential resource, is the fact that the return borehole brings up precious metals in the vapour. Using patented gaseous diffusion techniques, the vapour can yield the metals with a near-100% recovery rate. The metals’ market value dramatically improves the return on investment, the paper says. − Climate News Network

Global fossil fuel demand’s ‘staggering’ fall

The world’s energy markets are in upheaval, as experts report an historic fall in global fossil fuel demand.

LONDON, 1 May, 2020 − One of the pillars of industrial society is tottering: global fossil fuel demand is buckling, with only renewable energy expected to show any growth this year.

Oil prices are going through the floor. The market for coal and gas is shrinking fast. And global emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases are set to fall in 2020 by 8%, the largest annual decrease in emissions ever recorded.

The latest report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the global energy watchdog, will make sobering reading for those involved in the fossil fuel industry – and hearten those fighting against a warming world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought death, pain and suffering around the world and is causing widespread economic and financial hardship.

But it’s become clear that the Covid crisis has done something that years of climate change negotiations have failed to do – it has not only forced us to change the way we live our lives, but also dramatically altered the way we use the planet’s resources, in particular its energy supplies.

‘Unheard-of slump’

“This is a historic shock to the entire energy world”, says Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

“Amid today’s unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas.

“Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use”, says Dr Birol.

The IEA report, its Global Energy Review 2020, looks at likely energy trends over the coming months and analyses data accumulated over the first Covid-influenced 100 days of this year.

Overall world energy demand in 2020 is set to fall by 6% − a drop seven times greater than the decline recorded in the wake of the 2008/2009 global financial crash.

“The plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas. Only renewables are holding up”

That fall is equivalent to losing the entire annual energy demand of India − or the combined yearly demand of the UK, France, Germany and Italy.

Oil demand, says the report, is expected to decline by 9% over the present year, its biggest annual drop in a quarter of a century. Demand for gas – which has consistently expanded over recent times − is expected to fall by 5%.

The economic disruption caused by the Covid pandemic is likely to hit the coal industry – already in decline − particularly hard. The IEA forecasts coal demand to drop this year by 8% compared with 2019, its biggest year-on-year decline since the end of WWII.

“It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before”, says the report.

The study says renewable energy is the one segment of the sector that will see growth over the present year.

Decline already begun

The dominant role of fossil fuels in the energy market was already in decline before the Covid crisis. This trend is likely to continue as low operating costs and flexible access to electricity grids make renewables ever more competitive.

Moves in many countries towards cleaner energy and more climate change-related regulations will see an overall growth of 5% in renewable electricity generation in 2020.

The IEA is generally seen as a conservative body, careful not to offend powerful interests in the global energy industry.

It says the resilience of renewable energy in the midst of a global crisis could encourage fossil fuel companies to switch to generating more clean energy.

There is the possibility that countries will revert to the old ways, with fossil fuel use climbing again as economies recover.

‘Inescapable’ challenge ahead

The IEA urges governments to put clean energy at the centre of their economic recovery plans and prioritise clean energy technologies including batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture.

In an article last month Dr Birol talked of the impact the Covid crisis was having on people’s health and economic activity.

“Although they may be severe, the effects are likely to be temporary”, he wrote.

“Meanwhile the threat posed by climate change, which requires us to reduce global emissions significantly this decade, will remain.

“We should not allow today’s crisis to compromise our efforts to tackle the world’s inescapable challenge.” − Climate News Network

The world’s energy markets are in upheaval, as experts report an historic fall in global fossil fuel demand.

LONDON, 1 May, 2020 − One of the pillars of industrial society is tottering: global fossil fuel demand is buckling, with only renewable energy expected to show any growth this year.

Oil prices are going through the floor. The market for coal and gas is shrinking fast. And global emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases are set to fall in 2020 by 8%, the largest annual decrease in emissions ever recorded.

The latest report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the global energy watchdog, will make sobering reading for those involved in the fossil fuel industry – and hearten those fighting against a warming world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought death, pain and suffering around the world and is causing widespread economic and financial hardship.

But it’s become clear that the Covid crisis has done something that years of climate change negotiations have failed to do – it has not only forced us to change the way we live our lives, but also dramatically altered the way we use the planet’s resources, in particular its energy supplies.

‘Unheard-of slump’

“This is a historic shock to the entire energy world”, says Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

“Amid today’s unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas.

“Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use”, says Dr Birol.

The IEA report, its Global Energy Review 2020, looks at likely energy trends over the coming months and analyses data accumulated over the first Covid-influenced 100 days of this year.

Overall world energy demand in 2020 is set to fall by 6% − a drop seven times greater than the decline recorded in the wake of the 2008/2009 global financial crash.

“The plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas. Only renewables are holding up”

That fall is equivalent to losing the entire annual energy demand of India − or the combined yearly demand of the UK, France, Germany and Italy.

Oil demand, says the report, is expected to decline by 9% over the present year, its biggest annual drop in a quarter of a century. Demand for gas – which has consistently expanded over recent times − is expected to fall by 5%.

The economic disruption caused by the Covid pandemic is likely to hit the coal industry – already in decline − particularly hard. The IEA forecasts coal demand to drop this year by 8% compared with 2019, its biggest year-on-year decline since the end of WWII.

“It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before”, says the report.

The study says renewable energy is the one segment of the sector that will see growth over the present year.

Decline already begun

The dominant role of fossil fuels in the energy market was already in decline before the Covid crisis. This trend is likely to continue as low operating costs and flexible access to electricity grids make renewables ever more competitive.

Moves in many countries towards cleaner energy and more climate change-related regulations will see an overall growth of 5% in renewable electricity generation in 2020.

The IEA is generally seen as a conservative body, careful not to offend powerful interests in the global energy industry.

It says the resilience of renewable energy in the midst of a global crisis could encourage fossil fuel companies to switch to generating more clean energy.

There is the possibility that countries will revert to the old ways, with fossil fuel use climbing again as economies recover.

‘Inescapable’ challenge ahead

The IEA urges governments to put clean energy at the centre of their economic recovery plans and prioritise clean energy technologies including batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture.

In an article last month Dr Birol talked of the impact the Covid crisis was having on people’s health and economic activity.

“Although they may be severe, the effects are likely to be temporary”, he wrote.

“Meanwhile the threat posed by climate change, which requires us to reduce global emissions significantly this decade, will remain.

“We should not allow today’s crisis to compromise our efforts to tackle the world’s inescapable challenge.” − Climate News Network

Sea level rise threatens UK nuclear reactor plans

Sea level rise may consign the planned UK site for two large nuclear reactors to vanish beneath the waves.

LONDON, 28 April, 2020 – Controversial plans by the French nuclear giant EDF to build two of its massive new reactors on the low-lying east coast of England are causing alarm: the shore is eroding and local people fear sea level rise could maroon the station on an island.

A newly published paper adds weight to the objections of two local government bodies, East Suffolk Council and Suffolk County Council, which have already lodged objections to EDF’s plans because they fear the proposed sea defences for the new station, Sizewell C, will be inadequate.

EDF, which is currently expecting the go-ahead to start building the station from the British government, says it has done its own expert assessment, had its calculations independently checked, and is satisfied that the coast is stable and the planned concrete sea defences will be adequate.

The argument is whether the coastal banks which prevent storm waves hitting this part of the coast will remain intact for the next 150 years – roughly the life of the station, taking into account 20 years of construction, 60 years of operation and then the time needed to decommission it.

The paper is the work of a structural engineer, Nick Scarr, a member of the Nuclear Consulting Group, which is an independent, non-profit virtual institute that provides expert research and analysis of nuclear issues.

As relevant, though, is his knowledge of the coastal waters of Suffolk, where he spends time sailing. He believes the coast is inherently unstable.

Catastrophic accident risk

With sea level rise and storm surges, he says, the site will become an island with its defences eroded by the sea well before the station reaches the end of its active life, risking a catastrophic accident, which is why he wrote his report.

He told the Climate News Network: “Any sailor, or lifeboat crew, knows that East Coast banks need respect – they have dynamic patterns, and even the latest charts cannot be accurate for long.

“I was deeply concerned by EDF’s premise that there is micro-stability at the Sizewell site, which makes it suitable for new-build nuclear. It is true if you restrict analysis to recent historical data, but it is false if you look at longer-term data and evidence-based climate science predictions.

“Climate science not only tells us that storm surges have a higher median level to work from, but that they will also render the banks ineffective for mitigating wave power on the Sizewell foreshore (because of reduced friction, as the water depth is greater).”

The longer-term data Scarr mentions are not altogether reassuring. Less than 10 miles from the site are the remains of Dunwich, once a thriving medieval port that disappeared in 1338 because of coastal erosion and a huge storm.

Nick Scarr added: “Note that Sizewell security needs to last at least from now to the year 2150. A shorter period than this, 1868-1992, shown in hydrographic charting, tells us clearly how unstable the offshore banks are over a longer time frame, and that is without sea level rise.”

“Any sailor, or lifeboat crew, knows that East Coast banks need respect – they have dynamic patterns, and even the latest charts cannot be accurate for long”

Sea level rise is expected to be up to a metre on this coast by the end of the century, but that is only part of the problem – the “once in a century” storm surges are expected to occur as often as once a year by 2050.

This is not the first time that ambitious plans by the government to build nuclear power stations on the British coast have been questioned. A proposed station at Dungeness in Kent, on England’s south-east coast,  has already been shelved because the existing station there is in danger from the sea.

The Suffolk site already has two stations. Sizewell A has been closed and is being decommissioned. The second, Sizewell B,  owned by EDF, has been operating since the early 1990s and is due to close some time in the 2030s.

The new reactors, together called Sizewell C, will be built further out to sea than A and B and will rely on an undersea ridge, a coralline crag, as a bastion against storm waves crashing into the station.

EDF’s contention that the site is safe is partly based on a report by engineers Mott Macdonald, compiled in 2014 and based on historical data, which says that this undersea ridge is stable and will continue to be a form of natural coastal defence.

However, East Suffolk and Suffolk County Councils, in their joint response to EDF’s consultation, make it clear that Sizewell C’s development has not in their view been shown to be able to be  protected from erosion or flood risk over the site’s life.

Fuel storage problem

Scarr’s report goes further, concluding: “This threat to the Sizewell foreshore is clearly an untenable risk.”

One contentious issue on nuclear sites, including those at Sizewell, is the need for decades-long storage of large quantities of highly dangerous spent nuclear fuel in cooling ponds once it is removed from the reactors. Currently the UK has no such disposal route.

Asked about Starr’s report and the councils’ objections, EDF told the Network: “The design of the power station, including its sea defence and the raised platform it will be built on, will protect Sizewell C from flooding.”

It added: “Sizewell C will safely manage the spent fuel from the station on the site for its lifetime, or until a deep geological repository becomes available.

“Sizewell is located within a stable part of the Suffolk coastline between two hard points and the offshore bank of sediment, the Dunwich-Sizewell bank.  We have undertaken extensive studies of the coastline in developing our plans.

“We have performed a great deal of modelling to forecast potential future scenarios along the Sizewell coast, with and without Sizewell C, to fully assess the effect of the station on coastal processes. We then asked independent experts to critique the forecasts to provide the very best assessment of long-term coastal change.

Dungeness jeopardy

“When built, the permanent sea defences would protect the power station from a 1 in 10,000-year storm event, including climate change and sea level rise. We’ve designed flexibility into our permanent coastal sea defence, meaning it could be raised during the lifetime of Sizewell C if needed.”

Another of EDF’s existing reactors, at Dungeness, which is built on a vast shingle bank, was taken offline seven years ago for five months while an emergency sea wall was built to prevent it being flooded.

For decades the defences of the twin reactors have had constantly to be reinforced because the shingle banks on which they stand are being eroded by the sea.

That station was designed more than 30 years ago, before scientists realised the dangers that sea level rise posed, and apparently without understanding how the shingle constantly moves.

Although it is due to shut later this decade it will still represent a serious danger to the public for another century until it can be safely decommissioned and demolished.

During that time millions of pounds will have to be spent making sure it is not overwhelmed by storms and sea level rise. – Climate News Network

Sea level rise may consign the planned UK site for two large nuclear reactors to vanish beneath the waves.

LONDON, 28 April, 2020 – Controversial plans by the French nuclear giant EDF to build two of its massive new reactors on the low-lying east coast of England are causing alarm: the shore is eroding and local people fear sea level rise could maroon the station on an island.

A newly published paper adds weight to the objections of two local government bodies, East Suffolk Council and Suffolk County Council, which have already lodged objections to EDF’s plans because they fear the proposed sea defences for the new station, Sizewell C, will be inadequate.

EDF, which is currently expecting the go-ahead to start building the station from the British government, says it has done its own expert assessment, had its calculations independently checked, and is satisfied that the coast is stable and the planned concrete sea defences will be adequate.

The argument is whether the coastal banks which prevent storm waves hitting this part of the coast will remain intact for the next 150 years – roughly the life of the station, taking into account 20 years of construction, 60 years of operation and then the time needed to decommission it.

The paper is the work of a structural engineer, Nick Scarr, a member of the Nuclear Consulting Group, which is an independent, non-profit virtual institute that provides expert research and analysis of nuclear issues.

As relevant, though, is his knowledge of the coastal waters of Suffolk, where he spends time sailing. He believes the coast is inherently unstable.

Catastrophic accident risk

With sea level rise and storm surges, he says, the site will become an island with its defences eroded by the sea well before the station reaches the end of its active life, risking a catastrophic accident, which is why he wrote his report.

He told the Climate News Network: “Any sailor, or lifeboat crew, knows that East Coast banks need respect – they have dynamic patterns, and even the latest charts cannot be accurate for long.

“I was deeply concerned by EDF’s premise that there is micro-stability at the Sizewell site, which makes it suitable for new-build nuclear. It is true if you restrict analysis to recent historical data, but it is false if you look at longer-term data and evidence-based climate science predictions.

“Climate science not only tells us that storm surges have a higher median level to work from, but that they will also render the banks ineffective for mitigating wave power on the Sizewell foreshore (because of reduced friction, as the water depth is greater).”

The longer-term data Scarr mentions are not altogether reassuring. Less than 10 miles from the site are the remains of Dunwich, once a thriving medieval port that disappeared in 1338 because of coastal erosion and a huge storm.

Nick Scarr added: “Note that Sizewell security needs to last at least from now to the year 2150. A shorter period than this, 1868-1992, shown in hydrographic charting, tells us clearly how unstable the offshore banks are over a longer time frame, and that is without sea level rise.”

“Any sailor, or lifeboat crew, knows that East Coast banks need respect – they have dynamic patterns, and even the latest charts cannot be accurate for long”

Sea level rise is expected to be up to a metre on this coast by the end of the century, but that is only part of the problem – the “once in a century” storm surges are expected to occur as often as once a year by 2050.

This is not the first time that ambitious plans by the government to build nuclear power stations on the British coast have been questioned. A proposed station at Dungeness in Kent, on England’s south-east coast,  has already been shelved because the existing station there is in danger from the sea.

The Suffolk site already has two stations. Sizewell A has been closed and is being decommissioned. The second, Sizewell B,  owned by EDF, has been operating since the early 1990s and is due to close some time in the 2030s.

The new reactors, together called Sizewell C, will be built further out to sea than A and B and will rely on an undersea ridge, a coralline crag, as a bastion against storm waves crashing into the station.

EDF’s contention that the site is safe is partly based on a report by engineers Mott Macdonald, compiled in 2014 and based on historical data, which says that this undersea ridge is stable and will continue to be a form of natural coastal defence.

However, East Suffolk and Suffolk County Councils, in their joint response to EDF’s consultation, make it clear that Sizewell C’s development has not in their view been shown to be able to be  protected from erosion or flood risk over the site’s life.

Fuel storage problem

Scarr’s report goes further, concluding: “This threat to the Sizewell foreshore is clearly an untenable risk.”

One contentious issue on nuclear sites, including those at Sizewell, is the need for decades-long storage of large quantities of highly dangerous spent nuclear fuel in cooling ponds once it is removed from the reactors. Currently the UK has no such disposal route.

Asked about Starr’s report and the councils’ objections, EDF told the Network: “The design of the power station, including its sea defence and the raised platform it will be built on, will protect Sizewell C from flooding.”

It added: “Sizewell C will safely manage the spent fuel from the station on the site for its lifetime, or until a deep geological repository becomes available.

“Sizewell is located within a stable part of the Suffolk coastline between two hard points and the offshore bank of sediment, the Dunwich-Sizewell bank.  We have undertaken extensive studies of the coastline in developing our plans.

“We have performed a great deal of modelling to forecast potential future scenarios along the Sizewell coast, with and without Sizewell C, to fully assess the effect of the station on coastal processes. We then asked independent experts to critique the forecasts to provide the very best assessment of long-term coastal change.

Dungeness jeopardy

“When built, the permanent sea defences would protect the power station from a 1 in 10,000-year storm event, including climate change and sea level rise. We’ve designed flexibility into our permanent coastal sea defence, meaning it could be raised during the lifetime of Sizewell C if needed.”

Another of EDF’s existing reactors, at Dungeness, which is built on a vast shingle bank, was taken offline seven years ago for five months while an emergency sea wall was built to prevent it being flooded.

For decades the defences of the twin reactors have had constantly to be reinforced because the shingle banks on which they stand are being eroded by the sea.

That station was designed more than 30 years ago, before scientists realised the dangers that sea level rise posed, and apparently without understanding how the shingle constantly moves.

Although it is due to shut later this decade it will still represent a serious danger to the public for another century until it can be safely decommissioned and demolished.

During that time millions of pounds will have to be spent making sure it is not overwhelmed by storms and sea level rise. – Climate News Network

It’s a galloping goodbye to Europe’s coal

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Europe’s coal has powered it for centuries. But with gathering speed it is now turning its back on the fuel.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 – The energy that has powered a continent for several hundred years, driving its industry, fighting its wars and keeping its people warm, is on the way out, fast: Europe’s coal is in rapid decline.

Coal is far and away the most polluting of fossil fuels and is a major factor in the build-up of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But, according to a recent report by two of Europe’s leading energy analyst groups, the use of coal for power generation among the 27 countries of the European Union fell by a record 24% last year.

The report, by the Germany-based Agora Energiewende group and Ember, an independent London climate think-tank focused on speeding up the global electricity transition, will make stark reading for Europe’s coal lobbyists.

Renewables are on the rise across most of Europe, while coal use is in sharp decline. In 2019 wind and solar power together accounted for 18% of the EU’s power generation, while coal produced 15%. That’s the first time renewables have trumped coal in Europe’s energy generation mix.

“Europe is leading the world on rapidly replacing coal generation with wind and solar and, as a result, power sector CO2 emissions have never fallen so quickly”, says Dave Jones, an electricity specialist at Ember.

“Europe has become a test bed for replacing coal with wind and solar power, and the fast results should give reassurance to other countries that they can rapidly phase out coal too.”

Total phase-out soon

The report says that greenhouse gas emissions from the EU’s power sector have fallen by more than 30% since 2012, with a year-on-year drop of 12% in 2019.

A number of European countries have already said goodbye to coal. In 2016 Belgium closed its last coal-fired energy plant. In April this year both Austria and Sweden followed suit.

The report highlights the way in which many EU countries have sharply reduced coal use in recent years: most plan to totally eliminate it as an energy source in the near future.

Eight years ago more than 30% of the power generated in the UK came from coal-fired power plants. Last year only 2% of power was derived from coal. The UK plans to stop using it for energy generation in four years’ time.

Germany has traditionally been one of the EU’s biggest coal users. In 2013 coal fuelled 45% of the country’s power generation: last year that figure fell to 28%.

Germany says it will eliminate coal from its power mix by 2038, though government critics say this is not nearly fast enough to meet EU-wide emission reduction targets.

A number of factors are behind coal’s decline. Economics has played a big role.

“Europe has become a test bed for replacing coal with wind and solar power, and the fast results should give reassurance to other countries that they can rapidly phase out coal too”

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash industrial activity slowed and Europe’s coal use dropped.

The power sector became more efficient: although in recent years – before the Covid-19 pandemic – industrial activity picked up, the EU’s total electricity consumption was 4% lower in 2019 than a decade earlier.

Falling installation and operating costs for solar and wind power plants have resulted in renewable energy becoming ever more competitive: the price of natural gas – a less polluting fossil fuel than coal – has also been declining, while reforms in the European carbon trading scheme resulting in higher charges being levied on polluters have driven up the cost of coal.

All is not clean air and clear blue skies in Europe, however. Coal is still a significant source of power in Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. And while Germany has reduced its reliance on coal, it still burns large amounts of lignite or brown coal, the dirtiest form of the fuel.

Pollution and climate change do not recognise borders. Many states surrounding the EU are still reliant on coal and have plans for expanding coal-fired power plants.

China is helping Serbia to expand its coal-fired power capacity. Kosovo, which has some of the biggest reserves of lignite in the world, is also building more coal-fired power plants.

The World Bank says Kosovo has some of the worst air pollution in Europe, with emissions from its lignite-fuelled power stations causing many premature deaths each year. – Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Europe’s coal has powered it for centuries. But with gathering speed it is now turning its back on the fuel.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 – The energy that has powered a continent for several hundred years, driving its industry, fighting its wars and keeping its people warm, is on the way out, fast: Europe’s coal is in rapid decline.

Coal is far and away the most polluting of fossil fuels and is a major factor in the build-up of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But, according to a recent report by two of Europe’s leading energy analyst groups, the use of coal for power generation among the 27 countries of the European Union fell by a record 24% last year.

The report, by the Germany-based Agora Energiewende group and Ember, an independent London climate think-tank focused on speeding up the global electricity transition, will make stark reading for Europe’s coal lobbyists.

Renewables are on the rise across most of Europe, while coal use is in sharp decline. In 2019 wind and solar power together accounted for 18% of the EU’s power generation, while coal produced 15%. That’s the first time renewables have trumped coal in Europe’s energy generation mix.

“Europe is leading the world on rapidly replacing coal generation with wind and solar and, as a result, power sector CO2 emissions have never fallen so quickly”, says Dave Jones, an electricity specialist at Ember.

“Europe has become a test bed for replacing coal with wind and solar power, and the fast results should give reassurance to other countries that they can rapidly phase out coal too.”

Total phase-out soon

The report says that greenhouse gas emissions from the EU’s power sector have fallen by more than 30% since 2012, with a year-on-year drop of 12% in 2019.

A number of European countries have already said goodbye to coal. In 2016 Belgium closed its last coal-fired energy plant. In April this year both Austria and Sweden followed suit.

The report highlights the way in which many EU countries have sharply reduced coal use in recent years: most plan to totally eliminate it as an energy source in the near future.

Eight years ago more than 30% of the power generated in the UK came from coal-fired power plants. Last year only 2% of power was derived from coal. The UK plans to stop using it for energy generation in four years’ time.

Germany has traditionally been one of the EU’s biggest coal users. In 2013 coal fuelled 45% of the country’s power generation: last year that figure fell to 28%.

Germany says it will eliminate coal from its power mix by 2038, though government critics say this is not nearly fast enough to meet EU-wide emission reduction targets.

A number of factors are behind coal’s decline. Economics has played a big role.

“Europe has become a test bed for replacing coal with wind and solar power, and the fast results should give reassurance to other countries that they can rapidly phase out coal too”

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash industrial activity slowed and Europe’s coal use dropped.

The power sector became more efficient: although in recent years – before the Covid-19 pandemic – industrial activity picked up, the EU’s total electricity consumption was 4% lower in 2019 than a decade earlier.

Falling installation and operating costs for solar and wind power plants have resulted in renewable energy becoming ever more competitive: the price of natural gas – a less polluting fossil fuel than coal – has also been declining, while reforms in the European carbon trading scheme resulting in higher charges being levied on polluters have driven up the cost of coal.

All is not clean air and clear blue skies in Europe, however. Coal is still a significant source of power in Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. And while Germany has reduced its reliance on coal, it still burns large amounts of lignite or brown coal, the dirtiest form of the fuel.

Pollution and climate change do not recognise borders. Many states surrounding the EU are still reliant on coal and have plans for expanding coal-fired power plants.

China is helping Serbia to expand its coal-fired power capacity. Kosovo, which has some of the biggest reserves of lignite in the world, is also building more coal-fired power plants.

The World Bank says Kosovo has some of the worst air pollution in Europe, with emissions from its lignite-fuelled power stations causing many premature deaths each year. – Climate News Network

UK plutonium stockpile is a costly headache

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

The end of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has left an expensive UK plutonium stockpile with no peaceful use.

LONDON, 23 April, 2020 − For 70 years Britain has been dissolving spent nuclear fuel in acid, separating the plutonium and uranium it contains and stockpiling the plutonium in the hope of finding some peaceful use for it, to no avail: all it has to show today is a UK plutonium stockpile.

To comply with its international obligations not to discharge any more liquid radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom government agreed more than 20 years ago under the Ospar Convention on the protection of the north-east Atlantic to shut its nuclear fuel reprocessing works at Sellafield in northwestern England at the end of this year.

As well as 139 tonnes of plutonium, which has to be both carefully stored to prevent a nuclear chain reaction and protected by armed guards as well, to avoid terrorist attack, there are thousands of tonnes of depleted uranium at Sellafield.

The reprocessing plant shut down prematurely as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak among its employees, and most of the 11,500 workers there have been sent home, leaving a skeleton staff to keep the site safe. Whether the plant will be restarted after the epidemic is unknown.

Fewer than half Sellafield’s workers are involved in reprocessing. Most are engaged in cleaning up after decades of nuclear energy generation and related experiments. There are 200 buildings at the massive site, many of them disused. It costs British taxpayers around £2.3 billion (US$2.8bn) a year to run Sellafield and keep it safe.

Solution needed soon

While the British government has been reluctant to make any decision on what to do about its stockpiled plutonium and uranium, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has expressed alarm about the danger it poses.

“The United Kingdom has to find a solution for its plutonium stockpile, and quickly,” its report says.

The scientists point out that there is enough plutonium to make hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons, and that it is a permanent proliferation risk. The annual cost of £73m to keep the plutonium safe is dwarfed by the much larger cost of trying to make safe the whole site with its thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste.

The Bulletin reports that the original reason for the reprocessing works was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The UK supplied the US at times, as well as producing its own weapons. A 2014 agreement between the British and US governments gives an outline of the nuclear links which then existed between them.

“The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource”

For decades there were also plans to use plutonium in fast breeder reactors and to blend it with uranium to make Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) .

This was a time when governments believed that the world’s supply of uranium would run out and that re-using it with plutonium would be a way of generating large amounts of electricity, as a way to avoid burning fossil fuels and as part of the solution to climate change.

MOX was one possible fuel. Using recycled plutonium in fast breeder reactors was another possibility. And a third option was new-style reactors that burned plutonium, theoretically possible but never built.

But uranium did not run out, and MOX did not prove economic. It and the new reactors proved so technically difficult they were abandoned.

Despite these setbacks, successive British governments have continued reprocessing, always refusing to class plutonium as a waste, while still exploring ways of using it in some kind of new reactor. This is likely to remain the official position even after reprocessing ends in December.

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the agency that runs Sellafield, faced by this indecision, continues to store the plutonium behind three barbed-wire barricades, guarded by the only armed civilian police force in the country.

Here to stay?

One of the tricky political problems is that 23 tonnes of the plutonium is owned by Japan, which sent its spent fuel to be reprocessed at Sellafield but is unable to use the recycled material, which cannot be returned to Japan in its current state because of nuclear proliferation concerns.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has examined all the potential options suggested to put the 139 tonnes of plutonium to some useful peaceful purpose (in other words, to create energy), but concludes that none of them is viable.

It says: “The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource, and authority should again take a closer look at immobilisation options.”

Among the solutions that have been suggested is to mix the plutonium with ceramics to immobilise and stabilise it, so that it can be safely stored or disposed of, not used for weapons. The government has so far rejected that option. − Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

The end of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has left an expensive UK plutonium stockpile with no peaceful use.

LONDON, 23 April, 2020 − For 70 years Britain has been dissolving spent nuclear fuel in acid, separating the plutonium and uranium it contains and stockpiling the plutonium in the hope of finding some peaceful use for it, to no avail: all it has to show today is a UK plutonium stockpile.

To comply with its international obligations not to discharge any more liquid radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom government agreed more than 20 years ago under the Ospar Convention on the protection of the north-east Atlantic to shut its nuclear fuel reprocessing works at Sellafield in northwestern England at the end of this year.

As well as 139 tonnes of plutonium, which has to be both carefully stored to prevent a nuclear chain reaction and protected by armed guards as well, to avoid terrorist attack, there are thousands of tonnes of depleted uranium at Sellafield.

The reprocessing plant shut down prematurely as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak among its employees, and most of the 11,500 workers there have been sent home, leaving a skeleton staff to keep the site safe. Whether the plant will be restarted after the epidemic is unknown.

Fewer than half Sellafield’s workers are involved in reprocessing. Most are engaged in cleaning up after decades of nuclear energy generation and related experiments. There are 200 buildings at the massive site, many of them disused. It costs British taxpayers around £2.3 billion (US$2.8bn) a year to run Sellafield and keep it safe.

Solution needed soon

While the British government has been reluctant to make any decision on what to do about its stockpiled plutonium and uranium, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has expressed alarm about the danger it poses.

“The United Kingdom has to find a solution for its plutonium stockpile, and quickly,” its report says.

The scientists point out that there is enough plutonium to make hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons, and that it is a permanent proliferation risk. The annual cost of £73m to keep the plutonium safe is dwarfed by the much larger cost of trying to make safe the whole site with its thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste.

The Bulletin reports that the original reason for the reprocessing works was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The UK supplied the US at times, as well as producing its own weapons. A 2014 agreement between the British and US governments gives an outline of the nuclear links which then existed between them.

“The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource”

For decades there were also plans to use plutonium in fast breeder reactors and to blend it with uranium to make Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) .

This was a time when governments believed that the world’s supply of uranium would run out and that re-using it with plutonium would be a way of generating large amounts of electricity, as a way to avoid burning fossil fuels and as part of the solution to climate change.

MOX was one possible fuel. Using recycled plutonium in fast breeder reactors was another possibility. And a third option was new-style reactors that burned plutonium, theoretically possible but never built.

But uranium did not run out, and MOX did not prove economic. It and the new reactors proved so technically difficult they were abandoned.

Despite these setbacks, successive British governments have continued reprocessing, always refusing to class plutonium as a waste, while still exploring ways of using it in some kind of new reactor. This is likely to remain the official position even after reprocessing ends in December.

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the agency that runs Sellafield, faced by this indecision, continues to store the plutonium behind three barbed-wire barricades, guarded by the only armed civilian police force in the country.

Here to stay?

One of the tricky political problems is that 23 tonnes of the plutonium is owned by Japan, which sent its spent fuel to be reprocessed at Sellafield but is unable to use the recycled material, which cannot be returned to Japan in its current state because of nuclear proliferation concerns.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has examined all the potential options suggested to put the 139 tonnes of plutonium to some useful peaceful purpose (in other words, to create energy), but concludes that none of them is viable.

It says: “The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource, and authority should again take a closer look at immobilisation options.”

Among the solutions that have been suggested is to mix the plutonium with ceramics to immobilise and stabilise it, so that it can be safely stored or disposed of, not used for weapons. The government has so far rejected that option. − Climate News Network