With an every growing population, increasing demand for power and diminishing reserves of conventional fuels such as coal, oil and gas; there is certainly a need to develop other sources of power. Nuclear is one such solution along with the ‘renewables’ such as tidal, wave, wind, solar etc.
To date the nuclear industry hasn’t faired so well. With a few notable exceptions the safety record is pretty impressive but the real downfall is the cost.
Here in the UK we built the first reactor and have had nuclear power as part of the overall programme of electricity generation for the last 55 years. In recent years the scale of nuclear derived electricity has dropped slightly from a quarter of all production a few years ago to a fifth. Part of the reason for this is that the early reactors are being decommissioned faster than new ones are being built.
The main reason why there is limited interest in pushing ahead with new reactors is that the costs to date have been astronomical. Nuclear has been by far the most expensive source of electricity and the cost of decommissioning alone is running into hundreds of billions of dollars – several thousand dollars for every household in the UK.
Events at Chernobyl, Fukushima I, Three Mile Island and other stations have highlighted the dangers and potential dangers of nuclear fission. But we need to keep these in context. These events make world headlines because of the scale of them, but they are few and far between. Conversely, there are frequent accidents and deaths in the mining and power industries but they tend to be confined to the local news.
Where we have the problems at the moment tend to be concentrated on the cooling and control systems that are needed to contain the nuclear reactions and to prevent a meltdown and release of radioactive material. History tells us that it’s these areas that are most vulnerable and that when things go wrong they can do so with catastrophic consequences.
Nuclear installations also pose a problem in respect of unstable governments, conflicts and terrorism. We saw what the Iraqis did in Kuwait to the oil fields, imagine what would have happened if Kuwait had nuclear power stations. Similarly, Iran is developing nuclear power and this may well be, as the Iranian authorities state, for purely peaceful purposes. But in a politically and militarily unstable region of the world, such a station would be a prime target for insurgents or military attack.
One very promising option is that of nuclear fusion. Unlike nuclear fission, which is a chain reaction and is extremely hard to control, once started fusion can be turned on or off at the flick of a switch. The process operates by capturing the energy that is released when deuterium atoms are fused together. This isotope of hydrogen occurs naturally in the environment and is quite harmless, unlike the uranium and it’s isotopes that are used in fusion.
The drawback with fusion is that incredible temperatures are required to fuse the atoms together, at present we don’t have the capability of designing a system that would contain such extreme heat. In time this may well be developed. If and when this happens then nuclear power may well revolutionise global energy supply and unlike fusion, it could be extremely cheap and safe.
On the downside, scientists and engineers have been grappling with the task of containing the heat for more than 50 years now. Who knows how much longer it will be before the first fusion reactors come on line.
In the meantime we have a much more imminent energy problem. Although not an ideal solution, I do think that nuclear fission has a role to play, but we do need to tread carefully. One area in which I think significant improvements need to be made is the siting of such power stations. They have the potential to cause widespread devastation to the human population if things go wrong, but all too often are sited in relatively close proximity to significantly large numbers of people.
Alongside nuclear I would also like to see an expansion of renewables. We’re doing it in the UK and are in the process of building the world’s largest onshore and offshore windfarms. The capital costs are high but in the longer term there are significant savings to be made. Already the early wind farms have paid for themselves and are now effectively generating free electricity (it’s not free on demand as the power is fed into the national grid and the consumer still has to pay for the much larger costed component).