January 8, 2006

The world considers its nuclear options

Posted in Sunday Business Post · 10 comments ·
Share 

Just when the two governments are more or less singing from the same hymn sheet on the North, Ireland and Britain are on the brink of the mother and father of all rows. The issue is nuclear power, Sellafield and the likelihood that Tony Blair is going to signal huge investment in Britain’s nuclear power programme for the first time since the 1960s.
According to one of the most senior British diplomats in Dublin, the only major remaining faultline between the two nations is Sellafield and, if Britain goes ultra-nuclear in May, this problem will get much worse.
Before this week, many in London regarded more nuclear investment as almost a sure thing. In its New Year forecast, The Financial Times suggested that a new nuclear drive was practically guaranteed.
The events of recent days have greatly enhanced the credibility of the pro-nuclear argument. Russia’s bellicose decision to block gas supplies to Ukraine and, as a result, to undermine the stability of gas supplies to the EU, sent shockwaves through western capitals – even if the cracks were papered over in a deal between the two.
The main geopolitical reason for Britain and others renewing their love affair with nuclear power is the instability of global supplies of energy. Areas with mineral resources, particularly oil, are more volatile than ever.
From Iran to Venezuela, many of the world’s major oil producers are at best unfriendly to the west and, at worst, openly hostile. Russia, on the other hand – which will hold the presidency of the G8 in February – is keen to present itself as a supplier that the west �could do business with’�.
That proposition has been greatly weakened by its move against Ukraine last week, which has more to do with adolescent smarting over Moscow’s loss of influence in Kiev following the Orange Revolution, than the profits of Russia’s gas giant Gazprom. This view is made more concrete by the fact that Russia still sells its gas to its pliant client state, Belarus, for half nothing.
But Russia’s behaviour only seems irrational to non-Russians. If you are sitting in the Kremlin, your world view is shaped by Napoleonic and Hitlerian nightmares of invasion from the west. So when the nice cuddly EU moves into your backyard and flirts with your former chattel Ukraine, you get nervous.
You do not see the innocent march of western democracy, you see yet another threat to Russia’s security. So you react with the only weapon you have – energy.
And you know what, the west suddenly wakes up!
Back in Downing Street, how would you read the situation? You might conclude that, with Iran threatening to �wipe Israel off the face of the earth’�, Venezuela on a collision course with Uncle Sam, and Russia now sabre-rattling on the Dnieper, securing your own energy resources has never been more critical.
Add to this the fact that the Chinese government, via its largest companies, has spent the past four years buying up major positions in global commodities organisations and you will realise that there is a new arms race on the horizon – it is the race for control of resources.
Although you denied it at the time and hid behind the charade of WMD, your move into Iraq was based on the same energy premise. So why not time your military pullout from Iraq to coincide with an announcement of renewed nuclear investment at home? In away, there is perfect symmetry between both moves, that which you could not secure abroad (dependable energy supplies), you can at least guarantee at home (through nuclear power).
Britain is not alone in going for the nuclear option. China has announced 27 new nuclear plants and, in all, 50 new nuclear power plants have been announced worldwide in the past two years.
We have also seen 60 new uranium plants opening in the same period. Even when these 27 new Chinese plants come online, uranium will only provide 4 per cent of China’s energy needs.
China’s moves are prompted by the same fears that are driving the British. By 2030,China expects to be depending on unstable oil imports for 82 per cent of its energy needs.
India’s position is even more precarious – on present trends it will be importing 94 per cent of its oil by 2030.
Other countries, such as environmentally friendly Finland, are citing environmental rather than geostrategic reasons for a new-found love affair with nuclear power. The depletion of the ozone layer is well known and caused by the illegal use of CFCs. Estimates vary, but most indicate that ozone depletion over the North and South Poles ranges from 45 per cent to 20 per cent. Skin cancer, the rampant killer of the past 20 years would be considerably less common had this not been the case.
And what about global warming?
Have you ever experienced a Canadian winter? Apparently, it gets very cold for long periods. And yet here in balmy Dublin, we are actually further north than freezing Montreal. However, as we all learned in �nature class’� in national school, the warm gulf stream keeps us toasty in winter. This is now threatened.
The gulf stream is a large conveyor belt that drags warm Caribbean water up to us and a crucial part of the process that displaces cold with warm water is the ocean’s salinity.
Because of global warming, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, the polar ice caps are melting. Oceanographers are worried that, as the polar ice caps melt, the resulting increases in freshwater into the seas will affect the sensitive balance that drives this oceanic conveyor belt.
So what are we to do? Having written on this subject before, I realise that it prompts significant emotions, all of which are legitimate. However, debate is not served by sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that the world is not re-examining nuclear power as a real option.
There is equally little point in trying to influence an argument that frequently moves from the narrow parameter of whether nuclear power is an option to a full-on shouting match about so many ancillary issues that the core point tends to get lost. Suffice to say that all sides on the Sellafield issue are girding their loins for an explosive barney when Britain, as expected, unveils its new nuclear programme in May.
One angle worth exploring is the personal financial implications of this new nuclear age. In the financial markets, the price of spot uranium has risen from a low of $8 in 1999 to a high of $35. Uranium stocks are rising rapidly and they have, from the investor’s perception at least, the advantage of being largely based in Canada, the US and Australia.
The market is clearly signalling a boom in nuclear-related stocks and, given that it takes so long for plants and demand to come on-stream, this may go on for some time. So it may well be worth a punt. There’s one home for your maturing SSIA cash that you might not have thought about!


  1. Reuben Godfrey

    The date at the head of the article is wrong.
    That’s all I have to add I’m afraid.

  2. John bennett

    I don’t think global warming is the real problem, i think
    the essential problem is that fossil fuels will not be able
    to meet the world’s future energy needs and neither will
    renewables. It is far more pallatible and acceptable for
    governments to focus on global warming rather than the
    bleaker and starker problem of natural resource depletion.
    The natural variation in the worlds temperature over
    thousands of years is much greater than the rise in
    temperature attributable to global warming. Yes nuclear
    energy is very much back on the agenda.

  3. Martin

    Ireland has two choices to secure it future energy needs.
    Go nuclear or start investing heavily in renewable energy.
    Given that we import over 90% of our energy needs. all of
    which are fossil fuels. It is important for ireland to
    become more enerfy independent.
    Energy requirement for Ireland is divided into three
    areas, Electricity, Heat and Transport.
    Ireland has a target of 13.2% of renewable electricity by
    2010.
    The total electricity generating capacity in Ireland is
    approximately 5000MW. 240MW is generated by
    hydroelectricity, 420MW generated by wind, and the ESB
    generates 3951MW of electricity from non-renewable fuels.
    The 13.2% is achievable by 2010, this can be met by wind
    energy. Other options are: Peat powered electricity
    stations converted to biomass. Peat currently accounts for
    250MW of electricity produced in Ireland. Small scale wind
    turbines could be incorporated into dwellings along with
    solar panels. Centralized anaerobic digesters could
    produce energy from biogas. Large industries could install
    CHP, making more efficient use of both electricity and
    heat. Government policy must be proactive e.g. adoption of
    a grant scheme for householders to incorporate renewable
    energy technology into their households. A change in
    agriculture policy encouraging farmers to produce energy
    crops e.g. willow and Elephant grass.
    Upgrading the national grid to make connection of wind
    farms and small scale biomass electricity generation
    easier. A net metering system for domestic wind turbines.

    Approximately 1/3 of all energy consumed is for Heating of
    homes and buildings, the majority of this comes from non-
    renewable sources. Renewable resources can meet all
    heating needs. Ireland has the best growing climate in
    Europe for growing biomass at 10m3/ha/year (SEI 2005).
    Biomass is vital in replacing non-renewable heating fuels,
    these fuels could be derived from forestry, sawmill
    wastes, post consumer waste, and short rotation forestry.
    It is difficult to say when the transition to renewable
    fuels can be fully achieved, the price of coal, gas and
    oil will have a major bearing on the speed of the
    transition.
    This would be achievable by change in government policy,
    and a grant scheme as previously explained above.
    Greater insulation levels and use of passive solar design
    in buildings and houses would reduce space heating
    requirements. Solar water heaters on buildings will reduce
    the energy demands for water heating. Grant schemes
    similar to the clear skies initiative in the UK would help
    in promoting this technology.
    Approximately 1/3 of all energy is used for transportation
    e.g. Motor vehicles, trains and planes. Vehicles run on
    fuels that are non-renewable. Replacing these fuels
    represents the greatest challenge in the future.
    Biodiesel, bioethanol, and oilseed rape represent the most
    likely replacements for petrol and diesel. These fuels
    have to be produced from biomass. There is limited land
    resources for food, and biomass production for both heat
    and electricity, it seems unlikely that enough biofuels
    could be produced to support consumption levels. The
    government transport policy will have to move away from
    private cars to a public transport system. Freight will
    have to move from the roads onto rail. Fuel efficient cars
    have to be sold to make better use of resources.. When
    this can happen will depend on the price of oil.
    Ireland must become a more energy efficient and energy
    independent society to guarantee social and economic
    stability future generations.

  4. Rosscoe

    Interesting comments below about the potential of biomass
    in Ireland (and elsewhere), unfortunately intensive use of
    biomass & biofuels will not get us out of the fossil-fuel
    trap.

    The ‘mass’ in common biomass crops is provided through the
    use of nitrogen based fertilizers, almost all of which are
    derived from natural gas (via ammonia). Witness the rise in
    the price of nitrogen fertizers in-line with gas prices.
    China’s recent imposition of a punitive tax on fertilizer
    exports reinforces the point, exporting fertilizer is
    equivalent to exporting energy, something that they are
    desperately short of.

    Another contraint on the intensive cultivation of biomass
    crops is water supply. Not so much of a concern in Ireland,
    but fast becoming a serious issue in other areas of the
    world.

    Biomass undoubtedly has its place in the future energy
    supply mix, but can only partially fill the void left by
    fossil fuels.

  5. Kieran

    I would question linking the developments in the Ukraine
    with Blair’s announcement. Blair has been stage managing
    the reintroduction of the Nuclear question into the British
    media for the past six to eight months. A study has been
    commissioned but like the supercasino and 24 hour drinking
    proposals, it’s a post decision call. In the Nuclear case,
    this includes paying a communication company major bucks
    to “leak” good news and “surveys” (usually misinterpreted
    and misleading).

    This is particularly under scruntiny here in Scotland where
    the first minister has promised to bring devolved planning
    powers to bear on the proposals. Still and all, the
    wonderful gulf stream would kill us all (east of Ireland
    and Scotland south of Glasgow-Edinburgh) should any fall
    out occur.

  6. Jim Bob

    great article David, er.. I mean Vincent!!

    Hope you get the aul’ copy and paste up and working soon,
    your article on nuclear power was very interesting.

    If the English are going to start up more nuclear power
    plants they can locate them on the English Channel coast.
    The French can hardly argue with that.

  7. The Dumb Webmaster

    Hi Jim Bob

    Thanks for pointing out the error. Correct article now online.

    Regards

    Ronan

  8. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    David, I lived in Canada for eight years. I lived five
    hours from Detroit in the Province of Ontario on the shore
    of Lake Huron. We got an average 180 inches of snowfall
    yearly! When it snowed, you could see about two yards
    ahead of your automobile headlights before a snow curtain
    blinded you. However, although heavy, the snowfalls ended
    fairly quickly. The sun, moon, and stars reflected on a
    gorgeous white landscape, which compensated for whatever
    shoveling we had to do. The air was crisp, clean, and we
    dressed for the weather, so the cold was not a problem.
    We also had a nuclear power station sixty miles from us to
    provide the energy we needed to stay warm in our houses.
    I think the folks in Ireland could make similar
    adjustments if for some reason the Gulf Stream changed
    course and carried off its warm water and associated
    weather.

    Paul Rux, Ph.D., Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, USA

  9. One of the most significant global trends arriving in the near future is a shift away from fossil fuels and towards hydrogen. The term, “hydrogen economy” refers to a global economy powered by hydrogen, not oil.
    The hydrogen economy is important for the advancement of humanity for several reasons. First off, the oil economy is fraught with problems:

    Pollution: burning fossil fuels generates alarming levels of pollution that affect every living organism on the planet. We pollute our cities the worst, contributing to tens of millions of premature deaths each year due to the disease-causing effects of inhaled by-products from combustion engines, coal plants and other machines powered by fossil fuels. Fossil fuels also contribute to global pollution through oils spills, oil extraction, oil refining, and other processes.

    Global warming: although this topic is aggressively debated, there is growing consensus that the burning of fossil fuels contributes strongly to global warming. The true impact of this warming is often lost on the general public, because it seems so remote from modern life. The natural consequences of global warming are quite severe: rising oceans, disappearing coastlines, mass extinction of ocean life, severe and unpredictable climate change, a sharp increase in natural disasters, and so on. Essentially, global warming makes the planet an unfriendly place in which to live.

    Control of resources: this is perhaps one of the most damning aspects of our global dependence on oil. Because oil is so vital to the economies of nations, its control escalates to “national security” priority. Accordingly, the 20th century (and now, the beginning of the 21st century) witnessed unprecedented death and destruction in the form of military conquest primarily motivated by control of resources. World War II was largely fought over oil resources. (Japan’s primary motivation for attacking Pearl Harbor, for example, was the U.S. oil blockade.) There is little doubt that today’s military actions in the Middle East are largely motivated by oil interests, regardless of their advertised justifications. (If Iraq were nothing but sand, dirt and huts, do you honestly think anybody would bother fighting over it?) A shift away from the oil economy to a clean, renewable and widely available energy source would ease tensions that have historically surrounded the control of limited resources.

    Limited supply: fossil fuels are, indeed, running out. There is a finite supply of oil to be found on the planet, and once that oil is consumed, it simply cannot be recreated without waiting hundreds of thousands of years for nature to create more. Estimates of the number of years remaining for the fossil fuel supply range from 20 to 200 years. Extraction technologies continue to improve each year, so there is little agreement on exactly how much oil we have left as a civilization. What is not in contention, however, is that the supply is finite.

    Beyond the problems with the oil economy, there are additional reasons why a hydrogen economy offers unprecedented benefits to the quality of life of people everywhere:

    Hydrogen is everywhere: Hydrogen is in water and can be easily extracted with solar power. Hydrogen is found in abundance at the bottom of the ocean in frozen gas hydrates (see below). Hydrogen is in natural gas, petroleum, and the byproducts of microbial activity. Hydrogen isn’t limited to a few geographic regions of the planet, and that makes it a resource that automatically reduces geopolitical tension over the control of limited oil resources.

    Hydrogen is clean: Through fuel cell technology, hydrogen can be converted to electricity with no harmful waste products. Hydrogen doesn’t pollute cities, rivers, streams or oceans. Hydrogen doesn’t cause global warming. Shifting to a hydrogen economy could save millions of lives each year in terms of human health effects alone, not to mention its effects on the health of the planet and its various forms of life.

    Gas hydrates are abundant: At the bottom of the colder regions of the world’s oceans, gas hydrates are plentiful. These are frozen ice-like crystals of frozen hydrogen. They’re found off the coasts of Canada, Japan, Alaska, Russian, China, Iceland and the countries of Northern Europe. Technology now exists to harvest these gas hydrates, store them at liquid nitrogen temperature, and easily convert them into usable hydrogen gas by allowing them to melt at normal atmospheric pressure. The entire process is clean, energy efficient, and technically feasible. The available supply of gas hydrates is enormous, far exceeding the known supplies of all fossil fuels on the planet.

    Hydrogen is renewable: Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is renewable. Converting hydrogen gas to electricity in fuel cells doesn’t “destroy” the hydrogen; it just alters the state of the hydrogen. As a result, hydrogen molecules can be used over and over again to store and release electrical potential. For example, solar panel electrodes immersed in water cause the water to give off hydrogen gas. When that hydrogen gas is fed into a fuel cell, the byproduct is water. No hydrogen is destroyed in the process, it is simply transformed. In this way, hydrogen operates like a battery that transforms energy from the sun into usable electricity. This is just one of many examples of a hydrogen energy cycle that produces usable electricity.

    Hydrogen solves serious global problems
    By shifting to a hydrogen economy, we will simultaneously solve a long list of problems tied to the oil economy (pollution, limited resources, global warming, etc.) while creating new opportunities with hydrogen (clean, renewable, plentiful energy).
    Applications for hydrogen are widespread: automotive (hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles), industrial (hydrogen powered factories), municipal (powering cities with large-scale hydrogen power plants) and residential (home-based hydrogen power plants that convert natural gas to electricity).

  10. When considering nuclear options for India, there is an excellent choice. It is called natural nuclear and it works on nuclear fusion situated safely in the sun 150 million kms away! This exploitation is via living energy in kindly use! When reforestation is included via people’s co-operatives on a global basis, it preserves energy in cycles of use because of the policy of production,consumption and return. Yes we must shift away from the modern(a fataly flawed civilization) to a normal civilization. Otherwise we are doomed: See the URL: http://nucleargulfstreamconnect.blogspot.com/ and
    http://lastdaysofmankind.rediffblogs.com/

You must log in to post a comment.
× Hide comments