April Newsletter No187

Posted by SONE on 30 April 2014 in Newsletters

Tagged with: Australia, Climate Change, Desmond Tutu, Ed Davey, Ed Miliband, Hinkley Point, Horizon, James Lovelock, Michael Gove, Poland, SMR, Uranium, William Hague.

Oh to be in England – but not when madness is there

Robert Browning may wistfully have written: “Oh to be in England now that April’s there”. Our advice would be to give it a miss – and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, too – when UN environmental zeal in inflicted upon it. It leads to madness.

In its Fifth Assessment, published from Yokohama perhaps appropriately for the UK’s press of April 1, its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was as ever catastrophic. It finds there is a 95% certainty that most global warming is man made. Nobody on the planet is going to be untouched by it. The UK and the rest of Northern Europe will need to cope with increasing risks from coastal and inland flooding, heatwaves and droughts.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, Ed Miliband, Opposition leader, and, of course, Ed Davey, Energy Secretary, all took the opportunity to call for action. The UN wants a switch from fossil fuels to so called green energy which, for the UN, includes wind and solar but also, perhaps, nuclear power (about which more later). The cost is put at a mere £300bn a year, which the world, assuming it has it in its back pocket, shows no sign of coughing up for this purpose.

Which brings us to serious madness. The South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid-style boycott of and disinvestment from fossil fuels. Does he think before he opens his mouth? Has he the slightest idea what a successful campaign of that sort would do to the world and its fragile balance?

Not to be outdone, Andrew Miller, Labour chairman of the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, not only told global warming sceptics, Ed Davey-style, to shut up, but demanded the BBC limit interviews with those “Monster Raving Loonies”. He proved conclusively that some politicians have a tenuous hold on democratic principles.

UN lukewarm on nuclear

In these fanatical circumstances it is difficult to try to be objective, especially when Michael Gove, Education Secretary, felt the need to warn teachers that it is against the law to teach a particular political or ideological point of view. He did so after reading a report accusing “activist” teachers of trying to turn children into “the foot soldiers of the green movement”. It does not help that from our own personal observation this breach of the law seems to have been going on for some time now.

It is not likely to make much difference to the teaching profession that the IPCC went on to state the obvious – namely, that nuclear energy could make an increasing contribution to low carbon supply, even though, it said, its share of global electricity generation had been declining since 1993. That incidentally is virtually the whole of the period the IPCC has been trying to frighten us out of our skins over global warming.

But it hedged nuclear’s potential about with “barriers to its use”. These included operational, uranium mining and financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapons proliferation concerns and adverse public opinion. It conceded that new fuel cycle and reactor technologies are investigating some of these issues and progress has been made in R&D on safety and waste disposal. But it did not add up to a ringing endorsement of nuclear power. It is at best an amber light.

You would never think from all this that nuclear is by far the safest global means of generating electricity and that it emits next to no greenhouse gases. The environmentalists’ preference for gash solutions to their “catastrophic” problem is as remarkable as those who persist in calling themselves environmentalists while wrecking landscapes with alien wind turbines.

All this shows you what a monumental task remains for SONE 16 years after its formation to keep the nuclear flame alive.

Scaremongers caught out

That task is all the greater for the increasing incoherence into which UK energy policy is falling. We could leave Northern Ireland largely out of this equation if there were not those there who want to close Sellafield because of its imagined effect on the Irish Sea.

Those Ulster imaginations will not have been reduced by a curious report in The Guardian on April 21 that the Environment Agency says the Drigg radioactive waste dump near Sellafield is almost certain over time to be hit by rising seas and contaminate the Cumbrian coast with large amounts of radioactive waste. It was going to start leaking on to the shore in “a few hundred to a few thousand years from now”.

If this isn’t typical Guardian scaremongering, we don’t know what is. After all, Drigg takes only low level radioactive waste and is therefore not likely to spread large amounts of radioactivity over the coast sometime, if ever, always assuming the sea is rising and was allowed to invaded the site.

And so a day later another summary of the Environment Agency’s paper was put out – this time by the Nuclear News Network. Lo and behold it quoted the Environment Agency as saying there was no regulatory reason why the repository should not continue even though, “in the absence of intervention” it was expected to be the subject of coastal erosion in the context of global warming within a timeframe of a few hundred to a few thousand years from now.
Precisely. Lots can happen over several millennia and lots can be done to prevent it happening over the same timescale, always assuming the seas which are supposed to be rising get on with it. Once again these effortlessly superior Guardianistas reveal they think the rest of us are blithering idiots.

Closed minds

But back to energy policy. Wales has a closed mind on energy supply. It is fixated on renewables – and essentially wind – except at Wylfa in Anglesey where political considerations force it to contemplate another nuclear power station.

Scotland’s Nationalist determination to get all its energy from renewables is becoming an argument against independence on which Scots vote in September. What happens if an independent Scotland can’t power itself on windless or gale- hit days and, more to the immediate point, can’t build connections south to English consumers because investors are wary of the upheaval of independence? The backlog is serious for consumers. On April 3 The Times said generous subsidies had led to new wind capacity so outpacing connections to the grid that Scottish wind farms stand idle for want of it and are paid up to £9m a month for generating nothing.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband let it be known on April 22 that, if Labour wins the election next year, Britain will have to get used to onshore as well as offshore wind farms. They must be built where they can best generate electricity, he said.

Cameron’s proposed cap

This revelation came after David Cameron, according to briefing floating out of No 10, vouchsafed he wants to rid the countryside of the nation’s 4,000 on-shore wind turbines with a cap on their output, lower subsidies or tighter planning restrictions. The Liberal Democrats are predictably blocking this ungreen idea for appeasing the disaffected rural Tory vote, even if it seems the Prime Minister was only making the point that he sees a time when wind subsidies will have to be withdrawn because the UK has achieved its renewables targets.

We shall see what, if anything, the Tory manifesto for the next electionproduces. Presumably the Government’s inexplicable love affair with even more expensive and still unpredictable offshore wind power will continue – just as will our interminable wait for nuclear power station building. Please note the ominous political silence about nuclear power’s stalled development.

Word has it DECC is to be axed

All this raises the question as to who would wish to work in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is bad enough that it has always been schizophrenic, being responsible for energy supply and combating climate change – or global warming, as we prefer to put it.

It therefore comes as no surprise to discover a commentator canvassing it for the chop. Robert Lea, in the Daily Telegraph of April 21, said that the “word is that” if the Conservatives win the next election the Department will return whence it came and be subsumed in the Department for Business. He added this devastating criticism:

“It is a department loathed not simply for having been created by Gordon Brown for a ministerial lightweight, Ed Miliband. It is widely regarded as a department with neither the size nor scale nor funding nor technical and commercial expertise with which to be functional. It is a department that has become the apotheosis of a lack of joined up thinking, neither delivering the environmental brief of emissions reform nor its industrial imperative of security and affordability of supply. The dysfunctionality of DECC is no more manifest than in the multiple ministerial millinery of Michael Fallon shuttling between jobs in both Business and DECC because Downing Street and the Treasury distrust both (Lib Dem-led) departments.”

On this evidence, one of the seven wonders of the modern world is that the UK has not so far had a major black out.

We would merely add one point: we only tend to have a separate Department of Energy when there is a crisis. Given the dire warnings from Ofgem, the energy regulator, and the National Grid about blackouts from next year, a new Government could find itself abolishing the D/Energy (shorn we trust of climate change) at the very moment it needs to reinvent it. The chaos gets more chaotic.

Unfair to nuclear

This leads us to the EU state aids inquiry into the Government/EdF deal to build two new power reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Foratom, the Brussels-based nuclear industry association, has taken the European Commission to task over its inquiry into the project for “unfairly discrediting nuclear energy” and “failing to make an objective comparison” of its environmental impact.

It wants to know why it has not limited its inquiry to state aids and competition. It had not produced any reasonable argument to support its belief.that nuclear’s environmental impact was substantial. In fact, a study commissioned by the EC itself had shown that the total “environmental externalities” of nuclear were as low if not lower than wind, solar and especially biomass. “There is no evidence”, Foratom adds, “of any radioactive waste management practice in the EU having led to substantial damage to the environment or any indication that this will be the case in future”.

Foratom also said that the Commission had contradicted itself in saying that decommissioning costs of nuclear plants are uncertain by admitting they can be quantified to a large degree.

If all that we have written so far in this Newsletter does not convince readers that energy policy generally – UK and Europe-wide – is up the spout, we don’t know what will. Worse still, the chaos seems to intensify with time. Do these damned politicians and bureaucrats want security of low carbon power supply or don’t they?

And now for something useful…

We can at last report something potentially useful from Westminster. The Commons’ Energy Select Committee is to inquire into what is described as “small nuclear power”. The time has come when we should know a lot more about the potential of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), given their development across the world. In particular, we need an up-to-date view on their likely ability to compete with larger nuclear stations. The consensus in SONE seems to be that the economies of scale of larger reactors put them at a disadvantage. After losing out in the race for US government subsidy for their development, Westinghouse was inclined to say they were a product in search of a market.

The select committee, defining small reactors as below 300MW, sees them as having plenty of potential – for electricity generation, producing industrial process heat, desalination or water purification and co-generation. They could be built in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module thereby improving efficiency and reducing construction time and costs. It will be important that the committee also has something to say about public acceptability in view of the proliferation of sites implicit in their potential variety of industrial tasks.

Nuclear’s “New Dynamic” approaches

We are also delighted to report that the retiring director general, Luis Echavarri, of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, is upbeat about nuclear power’s future. In reviewing his 17 years as Spanish head of the NEA, he predicted a “new dynamic” within the next three to four years, with many countries turning back to nuclear power as a secure source of low-carbon electricity.

“The coming years are very important”, said the former project engineer for three of Spain’s nuclear power stations. “The industry must be more efficient, more competitive and offer more solutions to customers. These should include financial packages, new technologies and a mastering of the construction of plants”.
Looking back over his leadership – coinciding almost exactly with SONE’s existence – he identified three clear periods:

  1. Maintaining the nuclear option. Governments wanted the option – though not then, we should point out, in the UK – but with little interest in new investment.
  2. Renewed interest because of increased electricity demand and the drive to reduce carbon emissions.
  3. The Fukushima disaster after which safety analysis had been the priority. Mr Echavarri said that one very important lesson for society in general from Japan was that Mother Nature could create much more dangerous situations than previously thought.

Poland’s atomic bus

Our next bit of good news comes from Poland, which has won the European Nuclear Society’s award for communication excellence. It has gone to the Polish Atomic Forum Foundation’s atomic bus. This is a mobile laboratory project equipped with presentation devices and a mini nuclear laboratory to explain nuclear power to young people. It and the volunteer crew are supported to the tune of €30,000 a year by the Economics Ministry, the Polish Energy Group, EdF, Areva, General Electric, Westinghouse, Ernst and Young and WorleyParsons.

The project has been taking information to young people across the country for three years and latterly to northern Poland where the country’s future nuclear power plants are likely to be located. It has done so while there has been “a significant reduction” in the number of hours devoted to science in schools.
SONE members will find it encouraging not merely that Poland is preparing for a nuclear future but also that the Government and major international companies have helped fund a mobile educational tool which has been the focus for presentations at schools, universities and public institutions and popular science seminars. With our £8,000-a-year budget met entirely by members’ subscriptions, we are also perhaps entitled to be a little envious.

But – and this is a big but – with major Hinkley Point type nuclear plants priced at anything from £14bn-16bn we should, perhaps, keep the Atomic Bus’s €30,000 a year budget in perspective. The nuclear industry in its broadest sense has not for a long time thrown much money at one of nuclear’s problems: how to offset the damage to public opinion by unscrupulous anti-nukes dripping misinformation.

Nuclear on the march

Over the past month we have culled the following global plus points for nuclear that members of SONE may care to deploy in argument and correspondence:

  • Hitachi, behind the Horizon programme to build nuclear power reactors at Oldbury and Wylfa, is building up its resources, including a new UK HQ at Gloucester .
  • China has just connected its 20th nuclear power station to the grid; several others are about to start generating commercially.
  • Berkeley University’s energy institute has found that the closure in 2012 of California’s San Onofre nuclear power station increased the cost of electricity by 15% and CO2 emissions by the equivalent of putting 2m more vehicles on the road.
  • Fennovoima has decided to go ahead with the building of a new 1,200MW Russian reactor on Finland’s west coast.
  • The Japanese Cabinet has approved the use of nuclear as a baseload source of power and has paved the way for the return on-line of the 48 out of 50 reactors out of action since Fukushima, provided they pass safety tests.
  • A new poll in nuclear-wary Australia finds that more South Australians now support the use of nuclear energy than oppose it and a majority also backs uranium mining in the state.
  • The Massachusetts Institute of technology, combining nuclear and offshore oil technology, has come up with the idea of offshore floating nuclear power stations automatically cooled by surrounding seawater; they claim they could prevent Fukushima-type tsunami disasters.
  • The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reports that no discernible changes to future cancer rates and heredity disease are expected in the wake of Fukushima-Daiichi.

Projects galore while nuclear languishes in UK

While Britain was becoming a net importer of petroleum products for the first time since 1984 because of refinery closures and falling North Sea output, we have been bombarded with more white hopes for the future. Vast coal reserves under the North Sea are there to be exploited by in situ gasification as the UK’s deep mined onshore coal industry faces decline to its last pit. Fracking for shale gas, it is said, could produce a £33bn boost for the economy with a new industrial supply chain and 64,000 jobs. And then the Daily Mail on April 18 held out the prospect of inflatable dirigible-type wind turbines swinging in the breeze 100 yards above the ground generating power – but still only when the wind blows.

There is a never ending flow of projects while the answer to all our prayers – ticking every box on the Government’s checklist – remains unexploited. It seems that selling sand to Arabs and fridges to Eskimos is a doddle compared to persuading the powers that be to get serious about secure, low carbon nuclear power.

The last word

Finally, we return to global warming. In the USA the Science and Environmental Policy Project is extremely sceptical about man-made global warming. It points out that satellite and balloon observations of the atmosphere where the greenhouse gas effect takes place agree but computer models don’t and greatly over-estimate the warming trend. They show a consistent warming while atmospheric data shows no warming for a decade and surface data none for 15 years. Yet the IPCC has recorded increasing certainty about man’s responsibility for global warming – 50%-plus certainty in 1996; 66%-plus in 2001; 90%-plus in 2007 and now 95%-plus.

Let Professor James Lovelock, a SONE patron and leading environmentalist who has become much less alarmist about global warming, have the last word: “I don’t believe anybody really knows what is happening. They just guess”.


We regret to record the death of Robert Beith, 82, a long-standing member, of Felixstowe. He was involved in nuclear power from submarines to power stations with Foster Wheeler.