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Charles on… anything that comes along

Tuesday 25 April 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 5:09 pm

Dreadful, truly dreadful: New Scientist on nuclear power

That’s the only phrase I can think of for Michael Brooks’s [paywalled] piece in New Scientist about nuclear power, “Is it all over for nuclear power?“. (Remember Andrew Marr’s dictum: when headlines end with questionmarks, the answer is usually firmly in the negative.)

OK, I’ll admit that I’m in favour - along with a fair number of other thinking people - of using nuclear power as the solution to our electricity generation needs, rather than fossil fuels or renewables. The French, who produce about 75% of their electricity from nuclear, seem to have muddled through with decent leccy prices; so much so that EDF has bought a number of British power companies.

I wouldn’t have minded this piece if it had been coherently argued. But it wasn’t. It assumed that renewables can fill the energy gap that the retirement of nuclear plants will leave; but that doesn’t answer how you cope with surges in demand (such as the classic “kettles on after Coronation Street at Christmas” - the one linked to was a 1200MW surge), or how you sequester power that those resources generate, or how you cope with the transmission losses in moving that energy from the remote places where the renewable resources are to the built-up places where they’re mostly needed.

Most insulting are some of the hidden assumptions. OK, nuclear electricity is “underpriced” because it often doesn’t include decommissioning costs; once you put those in, nuclear power suddenly becomes a lot more expensive than that generated by coal- or gas-fired stations.

Great, yah. But tell me - has anyone calculated the “decommissioning” costs of using gas-fired or coal-powered stations? Anyone tried to calculate the effect of ameliorating CO2 emissions per megawatt? I’d really like to see those numbers, and then have an honest comparison of fossil, nuclear and renewable power - on all the points that matter.

But articles like that one - ptuh. Badly constructed, badly argued, and it really saddened me that nobody at NS apparently had the courage or power or whatever to throw it back at the writer and get it redone properly. I’d like to think it wouldn’t have happened in my time. (I worked at New Scientist from 1992-95, having freelanced for it in 1991-2.) Probably it did. But not at such an important time, on such an important topic. It didn’t even have the courage to front up anyone from the nuclear industry, which left me incredulous. And how about Professor Ian Fell’s claim that “the engineers who built Sizewell B are all either retired or dead” (PDF, but you have to pay; trust me, the article quoted him.) That to me means that either in 1995, when construction finished, (1) they were all aged 50 or over (2) they all retired very young on the vast sums they made as nuclear engineers (3) they all died of gruesome radiation-related diseases.

I think we’d have heard if it was (3). I can’t believe the nuclear business was so good it was (2). Nor that the age range was so narrow that it’s (1). Yet this claim was taken on face value. Perhaps Professor Fells could substantiate his claim. It would have been nice if Michael Brooks had tried.

And sure, I know dog shouldn’t bite dog, but really. Bad is bad.

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