Nuclear power and climate change

One of the main points of contention in the nuclear power debate is the use of nuclear power as tool to fight climate change.

On one side you have the proponents of nuclear power, who bill it as a stable, low-carbon energy source, that is available at all times of day, with minimal carbon output, high cost-efficiency and established technology.

On the other side you have the anti-nuclear movement, who say that nuclear power is a stopgap, ‘bandaid’ technology, that comes with too many health and safety risks, that is slow to build and in the end puts out as much carbon, because it takes so much industry to build the plants and store the spent fuel.

What the anti-nuclear movement would have is an immediate transition to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal, where available. The reaction of nuclear proponents is that these technologies are either restricted to certain parts of the world (like geothermal), take up far more land area than a similar capacity nuclear plant (like solar), or are intermittent and that there isn’t the technology to store captured energy (like wind and solar).

The problem is, is that there are ‘experts’ on both sides of the debate, who seem to be able to find information to support their own arguments while disproving their opponents. Also, any organisations weighing in on the debate tend to get ignored due to perceived conflicts of interest.

Even the IPCC is not above the squabbles of the nuclear debate, as outlined in this article, the position of the IPCC regarding nuclear power has varied greatly over time. In the first IPCC report, nuclear was listed as an important tool in creating a low-carbon energy system, then over then next five reports, the opinion veers away from nuclear until the most recent report, where it is again being encouraged as a pragmatic option while the technology needed to make renewables more reliable is developed. Much of this wavering seems to be related to the public opinion of nuclear power in the EU, which reflects the impact the nuclear debate can have on supposedly independent bodies.

Somehow — and I’m really not sure how — something needs to give in this debate, there needs to be some sort of consensus. While there is still all this indecision around nuclear, little work is going to be done on increasing our nuclear energy generating capacity. Maybe if both sides of the debate worked together instead, there would be progress in some direction.

Say something controversial.


Denmark’s amazing wind energy achievement

I was sent an article on ‘Earth We are One’, about a day earlier this year where Denmark produced 140% of its energy requirements (for the day) from wind energy alone. (Link to the article)

After dropping this fact, the article mentions that this record beat a previous record of 116% of daily energy demand produced form wind energy.

What seems to have happened, is that there was a particularly windy day on the North Sea, and Denmark’s wind energy capture system was put to the test. Under this test, the system performed admirably, and Denmark was able to sell on their overproduced energy to other countries in the region (Sweden, Norway and Germany). From the article, it seems that Germany had already produced much of what it needed, so it used the energy from Denmark to raise water up, to be converted back into electricity at a later date (this is called pumped-storage hydroelectricity, and is a common answer to the “how do you store renewable energy?” question).

This really is a tremendous achievement for Denmark (another of the many energy achievements to be awarded to Scandinavia in general), and is being lauded by pro-renewable/anti-nuclear campaigners as proof that renewables can do it all.

While I agree that it’s an important demonstration of the power of wind farming, this alone is not a demonstration of the ability of renewable energy’s ability to do all of the energy generation we need. 140% is amazing, but what about all the other days where it didn’t reach 100%? What happens when you have a week of no wind at all (I know it’s unlikely, but just go with it). After that much time, surely the pumped-stored energy you have is gone, and you’ll have to turn to other forms of electricity.

I acknowledge freely that I am not an expert in electricity grid dynamics, but it seems to me this is not such a great victory, and it points to a certain willingness of the anti-nuclear movement to point at any little piece of exciting information and claim it as proof that renewables are all we need.

I would have had less of a point if this was in some alternate version of Australia where we take advantage of all the renewable resources that we have access to, with large solar arrays being more than able to cover any deficit in wind generation (as long as its a sunny day).

Say something controversial.