Professor’s MacKay’s nuclear vision

It is difficult for a nation to plan its energy requirements for the future and that difficulty is made harder when that nation cannot decide upon a settled energy policy. In the United Kingdom there are so many conflicting policy proposals that I despair of the United Kingdom ever establishing an energy policy which secures energy and keeps emissions from energy to a minimum.

The latest foray in to the field on energy policy comes from Professor David MacKay who is the Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. His vision of Britain’s future energy is built around nuclear power providing electricity.

This would mean (a) increasing by a factor of four the nations existing nuclear generating plants (b) heating by electricity combined with heat pumps and (c) phasing out existing natural gas boilers over a period of time.

It is a curious vision which asks more questions than it answers. For example, where will we get all the uranium? If every nation followed this model uranium reserves would be eaten up within ten or fifteen years. The last uranium to be mined would come from low grade ore the mining of which creates (when translated into kilowatt hours) more carbon dioxide emissions than natural gas.

Another question is where would we dump all the spent radioactive material for the next ten thousand years?

It is also difficult to understand how heat pumps would really save that many emissions. Heat pumps use electricity and their coefficient of performance (COP) in warm weather (when you do not need that much heat) will be somewhere around a factor of 3.5 or 4. In other worlds you would use up to 75% less electricity by harnessing the heat pump. As the weather gets colder so the COP reduces to around a factor of 1 to 1.5. That means in essence that heat pumps will need virtually the same electricity to power the heating system as if the heating system was without a heat pump.

Increasing our nuclear power stations would not be helpful in terms of the requirement for an electric grid to be able to increase and decrease power according to demand. Nuclear power provides a steady “base load” of electricity; it is hard and takes time to switch nuclear reactors on according to demand. We will still need some means of producing electricity to cope with the power surges.

That means that we would still need gas powered electricity generators that can be switched on and off very quickly. Converting natural gas to electricity (where about half the energy is wasted in heat processes) and then piping the current around the country (where about 8% of the electricity is also lost as heat) will probably give you emission numbers under Professor MacKay’s idea, that add up to existing emissions, because the gas generating stations will be powered up in cold weather to cope with the heat demand at which time the COP of the heat pumps will naturally reduce.

I haven’t done the numbers but it is entirely possible that the heat pumps and nuclear combination may give rise to greater emissions than now.

I do not criticise heat pumps – they have their place and particularly when powered by high quality thermal solar panels can provide very high COP increases, but these systems are expensive. By the way, Genersys produces such a system but has yet to install it in the United Kingdom.

I would vehemently oppose increasing the number and size of nuclear generating plants until we have discovered a foolproof method of disposing of the waste and until can secure uranium supplies from stable places that will not use uranium as a bargaining tool.

My vision for our future energy involves a large uptake on microgeneration of clean renewable technology. We shall never be able to eliminate fossil fuel and uranium in the short medium or long term, and we should recognise that and get on with installing clean renewables as the easiest and quick route to reducing our nation’s carbon footprint.

9 Responses

  1. Robert, Thank you, this is an excellent broad analysis of the problems of where the UK will obtain it’s future energy requirements.

    I agree with the Nulear energy explanation because Uranium Ore needs to be dug out of the ground using a great deal of Fossil fuel energy in the process. The price of Uranium will inevitably increase also the suppply will be be reduced for an increasing demand. So there will be a situation of’peak uranium’ as well as peak oil. Renewables are catching up far too slowly to replace fossil fuels as well.

    The system energy losses of generating electricity from fossil fuels , and the efficency gains of heat pumpsis not often as good as advertised, well thats very true.

    I agreee that small scale renewables along with careful efficient use of the energy from these is the way to go.

  2. That is the problem with the UK, we do to little, to late, this country has always lacked in decent investment in the infrastructure of this country, Transport, Roads, and Energy Resources, it is a false economy when the Government leave things thinking they will save money, to then run round round like headless chickens when the problems of lack of investment hit us in the face, but now it is too late, early investment in building for the future is immensly important for any country, when will we ever learn

  3. The Sunday Times misrepresented my talk, which featured a presentation of “Plan M” from my book, and made no recommendations at all apart from “we must choose a plan that adds up”. Plan M gets roughly 2/3 of its energy from renewables, and gets just as much from solar thermal in deserts as it does from nuclear. I don’t recommend plan M; rather I show it to help people understand the choices ahead of us. As I say in my talk, if we don’t want nuclear, then we can triple plan M’s wind power, or double its solar in deserts.
    Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!
    All the best, David

  4. Robert, sometimes it is nice to be proved wrong, as you have by Professor David MacKay in his sincere comment, however it actually verifies your own stance of how renewables need to be increased much much more if we want to have the lights on and be warm, without the increased used of nuclear fission energy.
    The UK government has a style of sacking advisers that do not fit with government policy, so if there is any threat to Professor MacKay because of what he has stated in his comment then this would be totally wrong and corrupt.

  5. Robert,

    The other rather large elephant in the nuclear room is cost. It’s massive and appears to be growing ever larger. A few links that I’ve collected:

    * The Staggering Cost of New Nuclear Power:

    * Nuclear power could cost trillions over renewables:

    * The ridiculously high cost of nuclear power:

    * New nuclear power plants are currently far and away the most expensive form of non-fossil fuel power you can (try to) buy:

    Then there is the environmental destruction from the continual mining of ore. See:

    * Britain’s nuclear strategy threatens destruction of Kalahari.


    David MacKay:

    > Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!

    Indeed! Even the best of them all too often mangle the message.

    • I have been carping on about nuclear costs for years. And they haven’t even estimated the long term storage costs – that’s a legacy for the next twenty or thiry generations!

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