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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Energy Demand and Freezing Weather ...

The 'Big Freeze' in the US could have been made a great deal worse by massive power outages. The surprise is what 'saved' the system. It certainly wasn't all those windmills and solar cells, nor was it the coal and gas generating stations, and even the diesel emergency generating stations had problems. The probably unpalatable fact for the 'Green' lobbyists is that it was the nuclear stations that kept going while natural gas lines suffered massive drops in pressure (the gas 'liquified' in the low temperatures and Charles Law took over and did the rest), the diesel generators suffered fuel problems (diesel fuel tends to 'jellify' at very low temperatures) and the coal trains couldn't get enough to the power stations in the snow - and the snow hindered its movement from the storage bunkers to the furnaces where there was enough.

The much maligned and hated nuclear power stations alone had no problem. Need more power in the grid? Run up some more of the turbines and bring them on line. The only thing that could have bothered them was the collapse of the overhead power grid. From Smart Planet, I got the following data in an article entitled The Score After the Deep Freeze: Nuclear Power 1: Polar Vortex 0. When Solar and Wind were shutting down because the extreme weather rendered them unusable, nuclear took the strain. Output figures for New England for the period show:

  • Nuclear 29%
  • Gas 27%
  • Oil 15%
  • Coal 14%
It is reported that coal stacks froze solid, and both oil and gas had problems, and diesel generators don't function well in extreme low temperatures (ask the U-boat commanders ordered to operate above the Arctic Circle in the 1940s ...). The remaining 15% of the energy used came from a mix of other sources, though wind provided the bulk of it - when the wind conditions allowed it. Now, remember this is for ONE part of the US, and the freezing weather actually affected the whole of the North and West and extended almost as far South as Florida. Admittedly the New England area is possibly one of the more densely populated areas and therefore has a very high demand for power, but it highlights one of the biggest problems we face in the pursuit of 'clean' energy.

It is true that there are a number of problems associated with nuclear power, but the fear that has been whipped up against it is largely based on general ignorance. The ignorance of the majority of people is ruthlessly exploited by the anti-nuclear lobby who are probably almost as ignorant as those they claim to 'inform' on it. One of the biggest problems is the lack of understanding regarding radioactivity, radiation and the dangers. As a good friend and former colleague who specialised in radiation once remarked, it's a radioactive universe. Yes, the current Uranium based reactor systems do produce some nasty by-products with long 'half-lives' of decay, but the question most folk don't understand is the difference between exposure to Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation sources. The first two are fairly easy to shield, the third is not and is the really nasty one. Ironically, almost every anti-nuclear campaigner I've ever encountered doesn't know this and doesn't realise that the gold rings, ear rings and pendants they wear also emits radiation. So do the rocks used to build houses in places like Scotland or Cornwall.

Had an x-ray recently? You've probably had about half the allowable radiation dose permitted in a nuclear facility. I discovered some years ago talking to a man (then in his late 80s) who had been part of the Manhattan Project team, that their 'safe exposure limits' had been set by halving the exposure limits allowed for x-rays ... No one seems to have ever questioned them since.

Radiation in one form or another is present everywhere, most sources things we take for granted and don't even consider to be 'radioactive'. Until fairly recently if you'd held a Geiger counter near the face of a 'luminous' watch it would have gone crazy. In fact it isn't that long ago a watchmakers premises in London were found to be sufficiently radioactive as to need a massive (and expensive) decontamination process.

The real problem with Nuclear generation is the waste, and here again, there is as much misinformation as there is waste. The truth is that very little of the waste is actually 'high level' waste such as Plutonium, Polonium, Caesium and so on. Most of it is irradiated clothing, tools and other materials which do not have a long 'half-life'. It is this stuff that Greenpeace and CND activists love to find 'improperly stored', and whip up hysteria with often staged and retouched photographs. Of course the stuff is dangerous, but to claim it will 'poison' the ground water, or irradiate anyone walking past is is nonsense. The high level waste is a different matter, but again, there is actually very little of it. The fuel rods themselves are generally recovered and can be reprocessed so that around 80% of the original material is recovered. The nasty stuff can be removed and is first cooled, compressed into cakes, then sealed into solid glass slugs before being encased in concrete and a steel jacket. This is the stuff the anti-nuclear lobby would have the gullible believe is being mishandled and improperly stored - and ignorance is their tool.

The fact is that nuclear is the best alternative to wind, solar, coal and oil electricity generating plants. For one thing there is no CO2 output. Nor do we have to stay with the current Uranium fuelled reactors. The truth is that Uranium was chosen for the simple reason that it does 'breed' Plutonium and that was required to make the atomic bombs. The alternative is to use Thorium which has almost no seriously bad decay products. No Plutonium, no Polonium and no Caesium. In other words, you don't have the incredibly long 'half-lives' of the radioactive wastes we are currently dealing with. There is still waste, and there is still a 'risk' but then the waste from a coal burning power station is seriously nasty - and radioactive.

To those who would rather see a further spread of windmills I would point to the fact that during the recent storms in the UK the National Grid was receiving very little from all the hundreds of turbines around Britain. Most of them were shut down because the winds were too strong - so the power was being produced by all the 'dirty' technologies they are campaigning to have shut down permanently. If you would rather see hydro-electricity increased, there are problems there as well. Building a dam large enough to generate the sort of capacity required causes massive ecological disruption to wild-life and the river systems - take a look at the Aral Sea since the Soviets dammed all the rivers that once fed it. Take a look at the Snowy River in Australia below the dam built on that, or the Murray-Darling Basin once the waters feeding that were diverted to provide water to other uses.Take a look at what is happening now on the Yellow River in China and then take a look at how the Severn eco-system will be affected by a barrage spanning the estuary. Why not dam the Thames at Dartford? Sure, the river upstream will be stable (it currently has an 18 - 21 foot tide) and the outflow/inflow can be used to generate power, navigation will be affected of course, but think of the benefit ... 

Nuclear power generation doesn't impact rivers, landscapes or ecological systems in anything like the same way. Incidents such as Windscale, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima are rare - far rarer than incidents involving other power generating plants, and each one of those involved circumstances that were unique. There are no nuclear plants in Europe or the UK that incorporate the features of Fukushima, much less are built in earthquake and tsunami zones. Nor is it so easy to deliberately crash an aircraft into the reactor building. In fact I would bet that most people couldn't actually identify the reactor building at most such sites. Changing the type of fuel to Thorium would, in fact, change the ball game as well. OK, it isn't as easy as simply pulling one type of fuel rod and replacing it with another, but this is where the current "No Nuclear" attitude is actually holding us back. 

So far all the efforts to cut power use, to reduce reliance on 'fossil fuel' (and there is a huge debate on whether 'oil' is in fact a 'fossil' product) have failed. And they will continue to fail. Our society needs electricity - lots of it - to survive. Those who think we can revert to subsistence farming, are living in Lalaland, and those who think we can maintain our current standard of living and levels of civilisation while reducing our use of electricity and transport are fooling themselves. "Renewable" energy will never replace normal generating plants since they are not reliable, and the fact that ever single one of us is actually subsidising the owners of these things is a disgrace. Data from the National Grid shows that though wind has the capacity to supply 17% of demand, it rarely produces more than 5% of what is required. 

Nuclear is clearly far more reliable, and if the hysterical, misinformed, campaigning mob is faced with reality - as in the removal of all their electric gadgetry whenever their wind turbines drop out of the gird - we might see some real progress. Progress which doesn't mean defacing the countryside and destroying the ecology with their windmills, dams and acres of solar panels. It is time for a major rethink, and for some serious education of the ignorant.  

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