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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
The nuclear debate: Part two
As policy-shapers gear up to debate whether the UK should build a new generation of nuclear reactors, the BBC News website asks two prominent experts with opposing views to debate the issue.

Vice President of the Royal Society Sir David Wallace, who believes nuclear may still have a future, exchanged e-mails with Tom Burke, a visiting Professor at Imperial College London and a nuclear sceptic.


Dear Tom Burke,

For me that there are no simple solutions - no silver bullets
David Wallace
Yes, there is a lot on which we agree, including the urgent need for action - both within the UK and globally - and the massive scale of the task to cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2).

You are right in particular to highlight the role that the technologies of clean coal and carbon sequestration must play.

As you point out, China's thirst for energy and the vast amounts of coal it has available to burn mean that taking forward these technologies will be essential if we are really to tackle global emissions.


The problem is made worse by the lower energy release per ton of CO2 emitted when burning coal compared to gas.

The recent rise in gas prices has led to an increase in the amount of coal burned in the UK, which has been a contributory factor in the rise in the UK's own CO2 emissions by more than 2% between 2002 and 2003 - an embarrassment when the UK is striving to establish international leadership on climate change.

We agree that the successful deployment of technologies for carbon sequestration - the capture and secure storage of the emitted carbon dioxide - is essential if the problem is going to be addressed.

I suspect that where we differ is that I believe that these technologies are not as readily deployable on the massive scale needed, nor are they as risk free as you imply.

Specific concerns about the burning of coal include:

  • The capture technology exists, but it has not been tested commercially on a significant scale.

    Nuclear technology has matured greatly since Sizewell, our newest nuclear power station, was built in the 1980s

  • Globally, we currently release some 20 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day. The infrastructure and the plant required to capture a significant fraction of this are formidable.

  • There is increased cost - estimated at around 15% - for sequestration compared to emission into the atmosphere, so sequestration would need regulation or financial incentives to ensure its uptake. The cost increases if capture technology is retrofitted to existing stations.

    And capture technologies are only one half of what we need to consider - storing it in a safe way is also problematic.

    Finally, we should never forget the toll exacted in the mining of coal. According to official records there were 6000 deaths in China alone last year, not to mention the injuries and damage to health which so many more suffer.

    All of this means for me that there are no simple solutions, no silver bullets.

    Every option will have to be brought into play whenever it can contribute to tackling the problem.

    Modern nuclear power designs have higher efficiency, and produce a much reduced volume of radioactive waste
    Nuclear technology has matured greatly since Sizewell, our newest nuclear power station, was built in the 1980s.

    Modern designs have higher efficiency, and produce a much reduced volume of radioactive waste.

    Including the poorly conditioned waste from early military programmes, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has estimated the total existing UK inventory at 80,000 cubic metres of solid radioactive waste; of course this has to be dealt with, but the volume is tiny in comparison with CO2 emissions.

    In addition, replacement nuclear power stations would add less than 20% to it over the next 50 years or so.

    After much public debate, nuclear power has been accepted in Finland, and as you say, other countries have major programmes to install nuclear plant.

    Regardless of our choice of technologies, incentives such as a carbon tax or global carbon trading are needed to ensure that future power generation takes into account the long-term impact of carbon emissions and not just short-term economics.

    As the Royal Society has pointed out the current Climate Change Levy is not fit for purpose in this respect.

    You are right, the time to act is short and we cannot afford to get it wrong.

    The government has tough political choices to make in this parliament, addressing security of supply as well as climate change issues.

    Our short exchange can no more identify definitively those technologies that should be favoured than it can those that should be rejected.

    We need technologies to be ruled in at this point, not ruled out, and action taken now.

    Yours sincerely,

    David Wallace

    Vice President of The Royal Society and Vice Chancellor of Loughborough University


    Dear Sir David,

    Tom Burke
    I see no politically available route to a stable climate that does not involve Chinese, Indian and North American coal
    Tom Burke
    I agree with you that the government has some tough political choices to make in this parliament - which leaves me baffled by your conclusion that "we need technologies to be ruled in at this point, not ruled out".

    Making choices is all about ruling some things out.

    Doing a little of everything is a recipe for doing nothing very well. It is an evasion of precisely those tough choices you argue for.

    It is disingenuous of you to compare the volume of radioactive waste with the volume of CO2 emissions.

    In my long involvement in the debate over nuclear power I do not recall anyone ever arguing that the problem with radioactive waste was that we did not have enough room on the planet to put it all in.

    The problem with radioactive waste is that it is radioactive. The volume, or indeed the weight, are immaterial. The issue that matters to the public is not how much there is, but how radioactive it is.

    Some of it will remain so for longer than recorded human history. The challenge is not that of finding enough space for it, but of finding a barrier sufficiently robust to prevent it harming human beings.

    The problem with radioactive waste is that it is radioactive. The volume, or indeed the weight, are immaterial
    There are many serious problems associated with the burning of coal other than emissions of CO2. This is why organisations such as Greenpeace are currently campaigning against its further use.

    These include emissions of nitrogen and sulphur dioxides which cause acid rain, fine particulates that are damaging to respiration and mercury.

    However, I see no politically available route to a stable climate that does not involve Chinese, Indian and North American coal for energy security reasons.

    Therefore we need to focus our efforts on changing the technology deployed to use that coal so as to reduce its impact on the climate. This means accelerating the deployment of coal gasification technologies.

    In addition, coal gasification, which allows you to extract the CO2 before combustion, not only reduces the cost of its eventual sequestration it also allows you to strip out the sulphur, mercury and particulates and to reduce the nitrogen emissions.

    We need to focus our efforts on changing the technology deployed to use coal so as to reduce its impact on the climate
    Coal gasification is not a new technology. We already have considerable experience with it. What is new is the idea of combining gasification with electricity generation and that does raise some important issues but they are institutional rather than technological.

    You are right to say that this will cause some incremental increase in the cost of building new coal-fired power stations. My understanding is that these are rather less than you suggest but even so they will have to be paid.

    I do not think the additional cost of then sequestering the CO2 will be a significant barrier to its deployment.

    Since there is a clear public good to be obtained from bringing about this technology shift - the maintenance of a stable climate - there is a clear case for meeting those additional cost from the public purse.

    We will, of course, have to do this cost-effectively by building public-private partnerships in order to get the best value for the public money spent.

    You are also right to raise concerns, shared by many people, about the integrity of the reservoirs in which CO2 will need to be sequestered for very long periods.

    It will not be enough to rely on the common sense observation that these formations have been stable for many millions of years otherwise the oil, gas or saline water in them would have found its way to the surface already. We will need to devise sophisticated monitoring systems and response plans for dealing with possible breaches of reservoir integrity but these are both well within our current technical capabilities.

    We share a common concern about the scale and urgency of the problem facing humanity.

    I think we also agree that the political choices made on energy and climate policy in the coming decade will amongst the most significant ever made in history.

    We differ only in our judgement as to what pattern of choice will best contribute to the task in hand.

    Yours sincerely,

    Tom Burke

    Visiting Professor at Imperial and University Colleges London. Co-founder of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism.




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