There is no Free Lunch

It has been suggested that hydro electricity and nuclear energy are better alternatives to burning fossil fuel, because these sources do not provide emissions. Those suggestions are wrong.

Hydro electricity (in the traditional sense) involves building dams and flooding valleys. This causes in the construction very substantial emissions. First, in the building of the dam massive quantities of cement and concrete are used. Cement production accounts for more than 2% of the global carbon dioxide emissions. Secondly, when you flood areas which have plants the disturbance of the soil and the rotting vegetation provides larges quantities of emissions of carbon dioxide.

Nuclear energy involves three sources of emissions; first in the mining and processing of uranium. Much depends on where you get your uranium. If it comes from India then the emissions given off in the mining and processing when taken over the whole life cycle are greater than if you simply dig up coal and burn it. If your uranium comes from Australia there are much fewer emissions involved in its production, but supplies of easy to mine uranium are dwindling fast as the world employs more and more uranium based nuclear power stations.

There is a possibility that using thorium to create energy will provide a safer and lower emission source than uranium, but thorium is a new technology not yet properly understood and may well end up like fusion power – always just around the corner but the corner is endless.

The “green” lobby dislikes nuclear power for one very good reason. In the course of producing energy nuclear power produces nuclear waste. I have written about this (see  and at If the world is covered with nuclear power stations the amounts of nuclear waste to be stored would be enormous and the time periods over which they must be safely stored are longer than recorded history.

There is no free lunch, no silver bullet and no simply solution when it comes to providing the world with energy. Clearly heat producing energy from day light are under employed as are microgeneration, energy efficiency and energy savings.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks Rob,

    I think your suggestions ignore the relatively small ‘scale’ of hydro electric construction. So just a few points in rebuttal:

    1. I did not say that hydro-electric and nuclear are better alternatives to burning fossil fuels. I said…. “These can provide massive amounts of power without CO2 and without pollution.” My point was based on the premise that increased amounts of atmospheric CO2 is dangerous and which will cause global warming.

    2. You cite cement production as the cause of much atmospheric CO2 and suggest that constructing concrete dams will produce 2% of global CO2. With respect this point ignores the fact that dams are constructed only once and also ignores the fact that even 100 dams would not use even 1% of annual global cement production. So in the first (and only) year CO2 due to the dam would increase by <1% of 2% of the global CO2 emissions. ( .000098% in just one and the only year).

    3. I also suggest that even 100 valleys worth of 'underwater' rotting vegetation will not cause any significant increase in CO2 and far less than the thousands of windmills' concrete foundations and associated soil destruction. However, again, this will occur just once.

    4. You say that nuclear power causes emissions in mining. (what are the other two you refer to?) Well that must be true in a general sense. But the proportion of energy released means emissions in mining are insignificant compared to the (CO2 free) heat output in a power station. So whilst I accept that nuclear power is not pollution free in an absolute sense but, like making cement for dams, the power output per gram of COs is much greater in nuclear power stations.

    5. As for nuclear waste, well firstly, France has ( I believe) 30 nuclear power stations and can afford to deal with its waste. But in the long term uranium fuel is re-cyled/re-processed to recover useful fuel for reactors and to reduce the volume of waste. It also reduces the level of radio-activity so that after 100 years it is no longer hazardous. However, if you are a luddite nuclear will never be safe enough.

    6. Hydro electric, in my view, is the perfect answer. Cheaper and more powerful than solar or wind. It can be turned on and off in a trice, unlike conventional or nuclear power stations. It is not intermittant like windo or solar. Conclusively, it is a one off investment with minimal maintenance.

    7. As for micro generation! ……well just put a dynamo on a bike or tread mill and we can cycle to keep fit whilst the broadband router uses up all of the power generated.

    • 1. Agreed you did not say that, but your argument is wrong.
      2. I do not know where you get your figures
      3. Every major dam contributes massively in its construction to co2 emissions; every time you distrub or flood land there is a large amount of emssions.
      4. Mining, construction of power stations, works in storing of nuclear waste; the whole life cycle must be considered
      5. Uranium is not recyclable; the fission process destroys it. It cannot be successfully reprocessed. It comes ar different levels. the heat generated by fission is the source of power (heating water through turbines) but there are huge amounts of wasted heat, which is why nuclear power stations are located near large bodies of water or the sea, which act as heat dumps. The fission process breaks up atoms into plutonium in ceramic vessels. That releases huge amounts of radiation which power stations try to shield as much as possible. That means that they produce waste at different levels at radioactivity. The most hazardous waste eventually decays into lead over about a hundred thousand years but remains dangerously radioactive for thirty or forty thousand years.
      France used to dump all its nuclear waste in the UK and we got paid to take it. No one wants it mow and France is thinking of building huge amounts of underground tunnels to keep it away from people, locked in containers as far as possible. The only use for nuclear waste is to make depleted uranium shells, which nevertheless being depleted are still radioactive as the people of Iraq know to their cost. The USA used such shells there.If all the electricity use of the USA was distributed evenly among its population, and all of it came from nuclear power, then the amount of nuclear waste each of the 300 million folk in the USA would generate 39.5 grams . See .
      6 Not many mountains in England and what about the disadvantages
      7 You misunderstand microgeneration. It reduces the need for other energy sources rather than completely replacing them

  2. I won’t try to respond to your anti-nuclear points but I cannot understand your objection to hydro electric.

    You refuse to engage with my speculative figures on CO2 emissions in response point 2 and respond in point 3 with a completely unsupported contention that constructing dams contributes massively to CO2 emissions. I do not know where you get that from. What is massive?

    How can you argue that (say) 100 dams at a rate of 20 per year contribute ‘massively’ to CO2 emissions when we build roads and buildings which do not give back non-polluting energy? At a guess there must be over 300 major buildings completed each year in the UK alone. That is the massive source of CO2 emissions from using portland cement.

    As for your point that England does not have many mountains. Apart from being a dubious point as Cumbria and the peak district are full of the necessary high valleys. Scotland and Wales are also full of the requisite valleys. So the UK has plenty.

    I do not understand micro generation ? what! Of course if everyone sat at home every night keeping fit with a dynamo and treadmill to power their internet use then we might be able to do without a power station over night.

    But what about industry during the day when it needs serious wattage to power trains, industry, cooling of unventilated buildings, etc? Windmills require ‘goldilocks’ weather. Not too windy not too calm. In any case they are hardly micro generation so we have to rely on power stations to make up for sudden load increases. Solar is equally unreliable. But in any case a big problem for local generation of 240V is that there is no means of converting it to 3 phase 415V ‘up the line’ so local power must stay local and it cannot replace power used in trains, large buildings, even building sites. And certainly not factories.

    Unlike gas or coal fired power stations, hydro electric plants do not need to keep the turbines turning. Thus they can deliver instant full power and then shut off in response to demand. They do not pollute in operation. When used with a series of lakes and dams they can store energy by pumping water back up to the lake, say to obviate the need to shut down windmills or other power stations if supply exceeds demand.

    If we really want to cut down the emission of green house gases why doesn’t the EU adopt a stance upon all of the serious emitters of CO2. For example, limit new vehicle construction and non essential use, limit new building construction, restrict aviation to essential use only, restrict travel; enact a maximum energy consumption law for each family or corporation. Of course the big corporates and voters would rebel. So instead the EU takes the line of least resistance and we have enacted a law restricting power consumption of vacuum cleaners. Pointless!

    I would like to see all global warming advocates be required to display their personal non-renewable energy consumption on their friendface page. I think it might expose a lot of hypocrisy. You would find my mum as being very very green and Amber Rudd as a heavy user. Or perhaps not, as she supports the EDF nuclear power scheme.

    LIke so many global warmists they think ‘tinkering’ can solve the problem. In the end its a matter of numbers. The amount of energy needed for existing society is enormous.

    So I really don’t understand your vehement objection to hydro electric schemes.

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