104. A Twisted Energy Tale

All too many decisions being made in 2016 puzzle me because they appear not to have been rationally thought through. These range from Brexit to the further construction of already out-of-date gigantic nuclear power plants, such as Hinkley in the UK.1 Globally, all nations are increasingly dependent on electric power but there is an enormous variation of sources — most of them polluting the planet’s atmosphere. Coal is on its way out but China is still building one new, highly polluting coal burning power plant every day of the year. Oil supplies may be dwindling (as in the North Sea off Scotland), but at the same time the price of barrels has been falling causing severe economic distress in the less developed nations.

Among the energy sources that are non-polluting, there are only a handful which I believe will serve us well in the years ahead. For example, wind-powered units are safe, long-lasting, and clean but nations like the UK have reduced their under-writing as part of austerity measures. All such energy sources everywhere now have lobbyists promoting their particular merits and pointing out the dangerous consequences of those of their competitors. Some of the plausible, but safe, sources of energy are available but remain under-invested. Exploiting the heat of the interior of the planet itself, like Iceland does on a vast scale, should tantalize us. On the other hand, hydrogen produced by sunlight is highly desirable but is difficult to handle. Huge plants have been developed in North Africa, but marketing liquid forms of hydrogen has proved expensive. Personally, I have been badly burnt by my investment in the future of this technology. Nevertheless, I continue to believe in it.

Hydroelectric power has truly been a godsend for humanity but the few new dams being built (in part for the lack of suitable locations) are no longer matching growing demand. The sad truth is that globally we have become increasingly dependent on problematic sources of energy, Chernobyl and Fukoshima have demonstrated how risky nuclear fission can be. Why then, continue to invest billions in nuclear fission which will produce decades of frustration, frightening clean-up costs and storage problems?2 Does this make sense? One must ask: Why did the new British Prime Minister go ahead with the huge, untested and highly expensive nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point? Theresa May never did regard nuclear plants as an effective resolution to the UK’s forthcoming electricity shortage, but after years of deliberation by all parties she did not see a way out.

Her decision was primarily based on economic and political reasons: Some 40,000 jobs in the UK were at stake; so were the UK’s economic relations with China which might have been compromised; while its relationship with France would also have been endangered as would the UK’s fragile investment standing globally. One of the few positive reasons for the go-ahead was that nuclear fission has the advantage of being a low carbon producer and without it, Britain would struggle to meet its national environmental target of carbon free energy by 2050.3

But not all countries have taken the same dubious path. Russia has stepped up research and development of Integral Fast Reactors — the first to come into successful operation being the BN-880 launched in August. After being painstakingly developed over nearly 40 years of trial and error, this 880 Megawatt fast neutron reactor reached its full Megawatt power in Siberia this past summer. This new plant will help to reduce Russia’s deadly weapons-grade plutonium stockpile. An advanced version also is being bought by the Chinese who will increase its power. It is important to note that the closed cycle of these new reactors will not require chemical processing or plutonium separation. It has also made Russia the only nation that currently is operating this kind of advanced breeder reactor. Russian physicists are already working on a more powerful 1200 Megawatt plant to be operative by 2020. Their long-range plan is to have eight BN-1230 reactors constructed by 2030. Russia and China will be the only states to have introduced a new era of nuclear reactor generators that are clean and ecologically secure.

Regretfully, I believe that although there have been decades of frustration in researching a way to safely launch laboratory methods of controlling nuclear fusion, we are still far removed from developing its commercial potential. Fusion reactors ultimately would combine light atomic nuclei into heavier particles to generate heat, much as the sun does. The continuation of massive investment in fission, instead of deeply researching the possibilities of fusion, is a manifest failure of our era. Capitalism has forced investors to seek out ever faster profits. Research, for risky projects like nuclear fusion, demands long term investments to meet the eventual energy needs of our grandchildren.5 Alas, our economic system is not geared to underwrite uncertain research for long-term results. Instead of being inspired or guided by the research and technological advances of our scientists, politicians — responding to electoral pressures — continue to tread on the well-worn path of least risk. As in so many other areas this is not the best way forwards for humanity.

1Andrew Packer, “Decision follows Years of fierce Debate,” The Financial Times, September 16, 2016, p.3
2Jonathan Ford, “Britain’s great energy gamble,” The Financial Times, September 18, 2016, p.18
3Sam Coates, “Compromise was vital to keep France on Side,” The Times, September 16, 2016, p. 6
4Eric Albert, “Feu vert conditionnel a Hinkley Point, Le Monde,4 (supplement) September 16, 2016
5Nils Pratley, “More Hinkleys would be madness,” The Guardian, September 16, 2016, p.9

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