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Nuclear or Not?: Choices for Our Energy Future

Nuclear or Not?: Choices for Our Energy Future

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Nuclear or Not?: Choices for Our Energy Future

357 pagine
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Oct 22, 2013


Nuclear or Not? Choice for Our Energy Future documents the proceedings of a Royal Institution Forum held in October 1978. The Forum brought together the Friends of the Earth and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to discuss their opposing views concerning energy policy and nuclear power in the UK.
The volume begins by presenting the opening address given by Dr John Cunningham, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the UK Department of Energy, where he emphasized the Government's commitment to open debate and the need to 'ensure that the development of nuclear power does not outstrip public acceptance and understanding of what it involves'. The remainder to the text is devoted to the papers presented and discussions held during separate sessions on the energy problem, strategies for the future, alternative energy sources, the technological demands of nuclear power, the international proliferation of nuclear weapons, and policy steps for the UK. The text concludes with a review of the Forum.
Oct 22, 2013

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Nuclear or Not? - Elsevier Science



Gerald Foley and Ariene Van Buren

Publisher Summary

This chapter discusses that the proportion of energy consumed as electricity is a determinant of the energy policy adopted. Although electricity provides its benefits at the flick of a switch, it also entails large energy losses in generation. Million tons of coal equivalent provides a convenient measure of the total energy a country consumes. However, it conceals the diversity of end users to which fuels are put. The single-line projection of energy demand conveys a totally spurious impression of uniformity. It conceals critical dependencies on particular fuels; oil for example would be extremely difficult to replace as a transport fuel; it may also conceal ways in which a concerted effort at conservation might yield benefits greater than 10% to 15%. There is no doubt that huge energy savings are technically possible. The role one attributes to conservation is probably the largest single factor determining the energy demand one projects.

In Britain, so far, the nuclear debate has remained calm. North Sea oil has removed a great deal of the pressure to find new ways of supplying the country’s energy. Moreover, there is an embarrassingly high amount of electricity generating capacity already available. The latest power station, Drax B, was ordered despite the Central Electricity Generating Board’s protests that it was not yet needed. Total electricity consumption in 1977 was just 0.17% higher than in 1973, whereas power station ordering through the late 1960s had been based on anticipated growth rates of 5% or 6% per annum.

Britain has thus been spared the urgency felt in other countries, where government determination to press on with major nuclear programmes is driven by their heavy, or total, dependence on imported oil. Britain’s position, with a mature nuclear industry and no great urgency to expand it, permits it to hold a relatively relaxed debate on its own policies and on the effects of nuclear development in the rest of the world.

The Windscale Inquiry into a proposal by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) to build a thermal oxide reprocessing plant (THORP) lasted a hundred days over the summer and autumn of 1977. Substantial cases presented by the main environmental groups took the arguments well beyond the details of fuel processing and queried the justification for any British nuclear power programme at all. In preparing their evidence and presenting it to the Inquiry, the protesters attained a formidable level of expertise and forensic skill.*But Windscale was a long drawn-out affair, at times tediously legalistic and technical, and it lacked the immediacy and public appeal of a face to face confrontation.

Friends of the Earth and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority had been considering such a debate for a long time. In the spring of 1977 they agreed with Sir George Porter, Director of the Royal Institution, to hold it as a two-day Forum in the following October. It would also be an opportunity to update the Windscale arguments and test them in front of an audience. The Royal Institution has long been concerned with the relationship between science and the public and was an ideal place for the event.

As a neutral organising team, we had to obtain the agreement of the two sides to the structure and format of the debate and the topics to be discussed. This required a gradual synthesis of quite different views and a certain amount of ‘shuttle diplomacy’. Detailed specification was necessary if the debates were to have the sharp focus everyone wanted, but the more precise the definition the more difficult it became to agree the titles and the brief to the invited opposing speakers. The choice of a topic and its description can too easily suggest the conclusion: for example, the subtitle of Amory Lovins′ recent book Soft Engery Paths is Towards a Durable Peace′; a lecture by Edward Teller published in the UKAEA journal, Atom, February 1977, was called ‘Pollution by Poverty: the Need for Nuclear Power’. Neither side was prepared to concede that kind of advantage to the other.

But both were willing to compromise so that the debate should include all the subjects that people wanted to discuss. Nevertheless — or perhaps as a consequence — their rather different conceptions of the logical structure remained unresolved. Friends of the Earth saw the first day as an elucidation of the context and critera — economic, social, and political — for choosing between energy strategies; the second day was to examine the difficulties and dangers associated specifically with nuclear energy. The AEA, on the other hand, wanted the first day to subject the so-called ‘renewable’ energy sources and strategies based upon them to the same sort of criticism that nuclear power would be receiving on the second day.

The result was that, during the first day, most speakers attempted their own definition of the energy problem and their own strategy for the future. Although this frustrated the attempt to provide the debate with a logical progression it certainly enriched the discussion. The diversity of arguments demonstrates how many ways there are of combining and optimising the variables. The future is not predestined: it is a matter of deliberate policy. In the words of one member of the audience, ‘Planning is not so much about prediction and forecasting, but about trying to make the future happen in a way that we want.’

The pro-nuclear speakers argued that a satisfactory future will require greatly increased energy supplies — rising demand was essentially taken as given and unalterable without unacceptably restricting people’s freedom and lifestyles. The other side suggested that a change in attitude towards wasteful consumption was essential and that demand forecasts should be based on a thorough investigation of how much energy we actually need to sustain our standard of living. It is not enough just to try to provide energy in ever increasing amounts. Equally, if not more, the problem is one of rate, and of objective: how quickly and towards what ends we use the energy we have. Throughout the debate, there was this fundamental difference in attitudes towards consumption but for the most part it remained implicit. Although many people declared the need to focus on future lifestyles, few attempted to describe exactly what they meant by this.

Even if we agree that the economy will have to expand how should this expansion take place? Should new industry be capital intensive, energy intensive, or labour intensive? The proportion of energy we intend to consume as electricity is a determinant of the energy policy we adopt. Although electricity provides its benefits at the flick of a switch, it also entails large energy losses in generation. Whether electricity demand is projected on the basis of past trends or tailored down to just those activities it suits best, such as lighting, motive power, and electronics, makes a huge difference to the amount of energy we have to dig up out of the ground or harness from the world about us. Alone, it dictates the size of any nuclear programme.

The level of aggregation of energy forecasts also makes a difference. ‘Million tonnes of coal equivalent’ provides a convenient measure of the total energy a country consumes. But it conceals the diversity of end-uses to which fuels are put. The single-line projection of energy demand — whether or not it points to a ‘gap’ which needs to be filled — conveys a totally spurious impression of uniformity. It may conceal critical dependencies on particular fuels; oil for example would be extremely difficult to replace as a transport fuel; it may also conceal ways in which a concerted effort at conservation might yield benefits greater than the 10% to 15% which is usually thought plausible when looking at the aggregated total. There is no doubt that huge energy savings are technically possible. The role we attribute to conservation is probably the largest single factor determining the energy demand we project.

Although their starting points were widely different it is surprising how much agreement the speakers established. Both sides have made significant concessions when one compares what they are saying now with what they were saying a few years ago. There is a growing awareness of the difficulties inherent in any energy strategy; changes in the patterns of energy supply carry implications for the whole economy and may put at risk much of what we take for granted. The readiest consensus was that we should keep all our options open. Any technology which has a chance of being developed into a reliable and reasonably economic means of harnessing energy should receive support in funds for research, development, and demonstration. Solar, wind, and wave power proposals are now taken seriously by nuclear spokesmen where they were formerly treated as fantasies. No one was suggesting closing down the nuclear industry. We were, in fact, slightly disappointed by the lack of fireworks which all had expected when planning the debate.

The opening address to the Forum was given by Dr John Cunningham, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the UK Department of Energy. Political figures are well-known for saying nothing of substance on occasions like this, but Dr Cunningham’s contribution was unambiguous and forthright. He emphasized the Government’s commitment to open debate and the need to ‘ensure that the development of nuclear power does not outstrip public acceptance and understanding of what it involves.’ These were points to which Mr Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Energy, to whom Dr Cunningham is responsible, returned later in the day. But Dr Cunningham made it quite clear that the Government is fully committed to having nuclear power ‘play a significant role in the energy future.’

In the first session*Lord Avebury and K. R. Williams addressed the question ‘What is the Energy Problem?’ Williams presented what is now almost the conventional wisdom of future energy supply and demand. Recoverable reserves of oil are estimated at about 2,000 billion barrels; and the peak of production is likely to occur not later than the 1990s, but possibly earlier. Both his low and high projections of demand show a need to mobilise all available energy resources. His pessimism about conservation and the potential of the renewable resources leads to an increasing commitment to nuclear power.

Avebury was happy to accept the estimates of recoverable resources, but this was vigorously challenged by Professor Peter Odell who said that there was convincing evidence that there is a great deal more oil and natural gas to be recovered. This point was unfortunately not developed. If there are many decades until oil becomes really scarce much of the urgency is removed from nuclear development plans, even if one is fully convinced of the desirability of nuclear power.

Avebury chose instead to argue with Williams′ proposition that continued growth was both desirable and necessary. He was suspicious of the growth projection for electricity and felt that an analysis of end uses of energy would show a pattern which could be met with lower quantities of primary energy than those projected.

Given the absence of specific points of numerical disagreement but a profound difference in approach, it is not surprising that the debate lacked sharp focus. Despite valiant efforts by the Chairman, Avebury refused to be led into any quantification of future energy needs, even though a lowering of not much more than 10% in Williams′ low-demand scenario would eliminate the need for nuclear power completely in the year 2000 (albeit on an aggregated global basis). He simply said that in the developed countries, where the greater part of the demand increase is forecast to occur, it is possible to manage demand and reduce future energy needs in a variety of ways. Williams remained sceptical.

By contrast, in the second session the details and the numbers were provided by Gerald Leach, while Michael Posner made his case on the basis of his sense of where the proper direction lay. Leach’s thesis is simple. A great deal of work is in progress on the development and evaluation of methods of using energy much more efficiently. He believes that a considerable amount of growth can be accommodated without any increase in energy consumption; indeed, in many cases, growth can be accompanied by a reduction in consumption. His paper describes in meticulous detail where conservation can be most effective. With such a prospect there is little need for anything more than a tick-over nuclear programme at present. Sufficient time and effort need to be made available so that properly-costed energy strategies demonstrating the opportunities for conservation and increased efficiency can be developed. Increasing energy supplies requires a permanent commitment to maintaining the supply; reducing demand is cheaper and safer, and makes no claims on a future supply of resources.

Posner’s strategy is based upon a prudent investment in everything going, provided this can be justified against a future energy price two to three times today’s. It was not a position radically different from Leach’s. The main difference between the speakers was one of emphasis. Leach, because of his own comprehensive studies of the potential for energy conservation, is passionately convinced that an intelligent application of economically justifiable measures for conservation can dramatically alter the pattern of demand. If this happens then an energy ‘gap’ will not occur for decades, and national energy planning can take place in an atmosphere of much less urgency about the need for new supply sources. Posner, seeing things from the viewpoint of an establishment economist, as he describes himself, is very much more sceptical about the possibilities for change; his instincts and experience lead him to believe that the future will not be markedly different from the past and that we can best prepare for it by proceeding along the present lines of policy: that means a fairly hefty commitment to nuclear power, as well as an encouragement of conservation and whatever can be obtained from alternative energy sources.

Chapman and Miller followed with papers on alternative energy sources. Chapman is optimistic about the energy future for the UK. His belief is that with conservation, expanded coal production, and a close matching of supply with demand — providing high-grade energy only for high-grade uses — the problems which would arise from a continuation of present strategies could be, for the most part, avoided. He also believes that the large-scale development of wave-power is desirable and feasible. He produced a scenario — not a forecast, he emphasised — of how the UK might create an alternative energy policy in which the nuclear component is very much lower than presently envisaged, and, could moreover, be dispensed with if at some stage along the way towards the realisation of the scenario the problems associated with it become intractable.

Miller’s paper itemises the possible alternative energy sources and subjects them, as well as conservation, to analysis. He contrasts them with the known performance of nuclear power and finds then unconvincing. His rather harsh conclusion is that ‘we cannot do any better than follow the consensus of informed opinion in every industrialised country which is that, until more reliable and more economic resources of energy can be demonstrated, we can only rely on coal and nuclear power to meet the bulk of our needs in the medium and long-term.’

The discussion followed fairly predictably the lines of disagreement laid down in the two papers. The most interesting topic pursued was probably that of the need to provide a large-scale energy storage system if nuclear power is ever to be able to supply more than base-load electricity. Lack of predictability in supply is also, of course, one of the major objections to relying on alternative energy sources be they wave-power, wind-power, or solar energy. Solving the storage problem for nuclear power would solve it for the alternatives. Chapman’s ingenious approach was to postulate a fleet of battery-powered electric cars which would effectively provide the storage capacity required.

To finish the first day, the Secretary of State for Energy, Mr Tony Benn, answered questions from the floor. He seemed considerably less committed to nuclear power than his Parliamentary Under-Secretary Dr Cunningham earlier. He was strongly in favour of open debate on the country’s whole energy policy and said: ‘I cannot think of an issue more appropriate for a public discussion and public decision, as far as one can make it, than the subject of energy policy.’ He also said that there was more time to discuss energy policy than many thought and that his concern was that resources should be allocated as efficiently as possible. If a billion pounds was to be spent on one approach, then he wanted to know what could be obtained by allocating the same sum to each of the other possible approaches.

The first day thus revealed an important division of opinion, as well as a strange reversal of roles. Those on the nuclear side were pessimistic about the energy future. They saw no realistic way of dampening demands and preventing large-scale scarcities of energy. As a consequence, it was necessary to push ahead with nuclear development to fill the emerging energy ‘gap′. Their opponents, who might well have been called ‘eco-doomsters’ a couple of years ago, were much more cheerful about our prospects and saw a wide range of options both for energy supply and reducing demand; consequently nuclear power was needed neither as urgently nor in such quantities as was being suggested by its supporters.

It is also interesting to note that none of the principal speakers on the ‘anti-nuclear’ side was actually against it. All three explicitly said that they were in favour of a nuclear component in the country’s energy supply. There is no doubt this was disappointing, if not alarming, to that section of the audience which expected a total condemnation of nuclear power.* This feeling of a distance opening between speakers and sections of the audience, on both sides, became stronger on the second day.

Franklin’s paper tackled the technological demands of nuclear power directly and systematically. He described the methods and logic by which nuclear safety systems are designed and demonstrated that the probabilities of major nuclear accidents can be calculated to have values comparable with those of highly unlikely events — such as a jumbo jet crashing on a football stadium — the risk of which the public finds acceptable. His view is that if the common sense of people were allowed to operate without the influence of sensationalist publicity then nuclear power would be deemed acceptably safe by the majority of people.

Patterson, surprisingly to many, did not challenge the safety of nuclear power to any serious extent, except for the dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons arising from civilian nuclear programmes. Otherwise, he said, British nuclear technology gave evidence of ‘exemplary foresight’ in the design of safety systems, and might even be massively overdesigned. His argument was not that it was impossible to make nuclear power adequately safe but that the effort to do so was misapplied. The real hazard of nuclear power lay in its reinforcement of the centralised electricity grid. Dealing satisfactorily with the technological demands of nuclear power was, he conceded, quite possible but doing so would lead to the far greater risk of further dependence upon the grid system of energy distribution. The subsequent debate ranged round the topic but failed to come to grips with it in any satisfactory way. Perhaps the most interesting exchanges, which were mainly prompted by the Chairman, concerned the public right to information. Franklin revealed the distrust many technical people feel for journalists and pressure groups who may use technical information tendentiously out of context.

Most people in the nuclear industry are bitter about the current public treatment of nuclear power. They feel the industry is being subjected to an over-critical examination, with a determination to expand every incident, however trivial, into a near-disaster. The history of nuclear developments does much to explain such attitudes. During the years when the technology was establishing itself the public was kept ignorant of a great deal it should have known; openness is now being forced upon the industry, but secrecy has bred suspicion on both sides. It will take time and good will to build up responsible reporting based upon frank disclosure of information. If nuclear power is as detached from military application and if it is as much of a boon as its supporters so passionately believe, then there can be no good reason why the public should not be told all about it.

Sir Brian Flowers was chairman of the Royal Commission which, in 1976, reported so trenchantly on the deficiencies of the UK nuclear industry. Since then there have been big changes. The proposed ordering programme for thermal reactors has been drastically reduced by the AEA; the need for a public inquiry into the fast breeder reactor has been accepted by the

Government; questions of waste disposal, civil liberties, and international proliferation of nuclear weapons are all receiving considerable attention. It is a tribute to the influence of the Royal Commission’s report that attitudes of bland reassurance on the part of the AEA have given way to an openly expressed concern to deal with matters about which the public is justifiably concerned. In the light of this, the discussion on the fast reactor and the plutonium fuel cycle between Flowers and Marsham was an amiable affair. Much of its interest lies in Marsham’s exposition of the safety aspects of fast reactor technology and the inability of either his adversary or any members of the audience to point to any serious flaws in the reasoning. Arguments about civil liberties, for example, which can be horrifying when developed in isolation become very much less disturbing when considered in the light of Marsham’s description of the physical security measures which would protect plutonium and other fissile material from theft or ‘diversion.’ The practical difficulty of stealing 80 tonne steel casks and processing lethal cocktails of radioactive materials reduces the need for covert surveillance to that necessary in any other area of potential technological abuse. There was no convincing argument during the Forum that nuclear power or fast reactors create a serious additional threat to civil liberties.

The last debate was between Sir John Hill and Brian Johnson on the international proliferation of nuclear weapons. Johnson is an able analyst and exponent of the dangers of nuclear weapons′ proliferation. Few countries, he argues, will pay serious attention to any system of voluntary control or inspection when they feel their security is being threatened. There can therefore be no doubt that a widespread adoption of civil nuclear power would facilitate the production of even more weapons than exist at present. The counter-argument advanced by Hill is that adopting civil nuclear power is not the easiest method of obtaining weapons; any state that really wants a nuclear bomb can make one directly. The only hope of nuclear weapons′ control rests upon strong international agreements on safeguards and methods of inspection. Hill accepted Johnson’s arguments that the indiscriminate export of nuclear facilities to developing countries was not justifiable on economic or security grounds. Neither side was able to make a credible case for or against nuclear power on the grounds that it would alter developments in the rest of the

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