Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Why Nuclear Power is important

British Energy appears to be having some technological problems. Cracks are emerging in important pipes and plants are being shut down. Despite this the new popularity of plans for nuclear power expansion does not appear to have abated. The reason why nuclear power is not going away is that it offers a way for us to get around the crucial dilemma posed by any consideration of energy in economic policy .

Wrigley's thesis on the Industrial Revolution is that it was primarily a move from organic towards inorganic sources of power. Britain could take a certain amount of additional energy from agriculture and forestry. However, this could not nearly match up to the collosal growth in population and secure rising living standards. Fortunately at this point the Industrial Revolution technologies were developed which allowed for a transition from flows of energy to stocks in the form of coal. These stocks meant that we did not have to choose between using agricultural land, essentially the obtaining of energy directly from the sun, for the production of food or to create wood for the production of energy. This changed the calculus and allowed us to avoid the Malthusian trap we may have faced otherwise and support a growing number of people at an improved standard of living.

The world is facing a similar dilemma now. If it is to deal with, not necessarily a rising population, but accustoming a larger segment of the world's population to developed country living standards then we will need to find a lot more energy. We will also need to increase agricultural energy in the form of food to thanks to a world population which has not finished expanding. Finally, there are worries about making further use of stocks of energy whose use may have serious externalities (climate change), divert huge amounts of wealth to unpleasant regimes, as Liam Fox has recently been highlighting in his conference speech and on 18 Doughty Street, and which becomes increasingly costly to extract. These externalities do not exist with flows of energy as even if the mechanism involves burning something it is the release of carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere during the formation of the energy source and they do not require extraction or much by way of geology. The issue of using hydrogen fuel cells for transport is something of a red herring in this debate as their function is to shift the production of energy to a central plant where the hydrogen is produced rather than to produce energy themselves.

Solar, wind and agricultural (such as ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil) energy are all flow stocks and we can expand their use significantly. However, the idea that we can expand land usage, yields and efficiency sufficiently to simultaneously supply an increased population with food, replace our existing fossil fuel capacity and respond to the additional requirements from a Third World getting richer is implausible. We are working with a limited amount of sunlight and our efficiency in using it can only rise so far, so fast. What this implies is that we face a situation similar to that faced by Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution and are in need of some form of energy beyond that we can take each year from the sun.

The solution has to be nuclear power. This report suggests that the fears of uranium stocks running out are overblown and we can expect stocks to rise with usage of uranium if more difficult to recover stocks become economical to discover and mine and technology improves. Even if uranium is likely to become scarcer replacing the Middle East with Australia and Canada as the best sources of a crucial but scarce raw material is an unambiguously good thing. Nuclear power is the one source that can provide enough power to make a big difference in the struggle with climate change. It is a great way to produce the power to crack seawater and produce all the hydrogen that hoped for changes in transport fuel will require. This is a much better candidate for a replacement for fossil fuels than expanding renewables.

There are safety concerns but these should not be overstated. Chernobyl was a terrible disaster but look at the ecological disasters elsewhere in the Soviet Empire or China or industrial humanitarian tragedies, in their mining industries for example, and you will quickly gain the correct impression that the problem was a Communist failure of management rather than a general tendency of nuclear power to be dangerous. Terrorist attacks aimed at our nuclear sites are a reason to make sure they are well defended rather than to give up on nuclear power. From the estimates I have seen the results of a terrorist attack would be awful but they are eminently defendable and the consequences are not bad enough to require a 1% doctrine style approach; the plants will not become nuclear bombs and are not sighted in cities. Finally, nuclear waste is less of an issue than it is made out to be; there is an awful lot of room underground to bury it. A major side effect of these security and safety concerns is to create a need for subsidy which, despite the affront to economic liberalism, is worth paying given the wider benefits of a move towards nuclear power.

In conclusion, it is not due to accident or a lack of research that renewables cannot easily replace fossil fuels. They are, in the end, still relying upon the same source of energy in the yearly intake of heat and light from the sun and improvements at the scale and speed we are looking for to satisfy our multiple demands for more energy seem unlikely. Nuclear power is the solution that we are looking for and should be embraced in any attempt at a long term solution to our energy needs.

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