Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Go nuclear

Energy will always be a politically-charged topic.  Growing up in a white-collar town dominated by oil companies, I understand what impact energy has on the economy. In Calgary everyone drives Porches when oil prices are high and they trade those Porches for Fords when times are tough. The rest of the world does precisely the opposite; when oil prices are high it costs us more to drive, heat our homes, and manufacture goods. Inflation goes up. Food is more expensive. The difference between countries that produce their own energy and those that don't is stark.

I was living in the UK in 2009 when the Russians and the Ukranians starting spitting at each other and the Russians turned off the natural gas pipeline. The knock-on effects (both real and potential) were felt throughout Europe, with 18 European countries reporting major drops or complete cuts in their gas supplies. It was a bit of a wake-up call for me; I'd never really understood the importance of energy self-sufficiency before. Last winter, during the most bitter of the cold spell, Norway (which supplies an ever increasing fraction of UK's gas) had to shut down one of its gas processing centres, leaving the UK with only 7 days worth of gas. Not exactly reassuring.

The UK produces energy from a number of sources. Approximately 40% of the UK's power comes from gas, 33% from coal, 20% from nuclear and 7% from renewables (mainly wind). Coal is dirty, and many of the coal plants are scheduled to be shut down in accordance with EU objectives. The UK aims to have 20% of its power come from renewable sources by 2015, so renewables are certainly not poised to produce the majority of the UK's electricity in the next decade. That leaves us with nuclear power and gas to make up the rest of the 80% once the coal-powered stations are shut down.

When the double-punch earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on 11 March, it was a once in a lifetime test for the nuclear community. The forty-year-old Fukushima power station was the 15th largest nuclear power station in the world. What shocked me was that there wasn't a melt-down. The footage of the greenhouses being flattened or of the enormous ships being pushed around like toys highlights the power of water. The Fukushima station did not escape unscathed, but there was no mushroom cloud either. Japan is in a seismically active region. The largest nuclear power station in the world, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, was shut down in 2007 after a nearby earthquake shook the power plant more than it should have. Fortunately no radiation leaked that time, and the plant re-started 21 months later. The Fukushima station was not as lucky, and radiation has certainly left the site. It will be years before we can assess the impact on the health of those living near the site, but nearby residents showed no immediate signs of radiation poisoning. The Fukushima power station shows that a nuclear power station can withstand a severe beating and not melt down. Well-done.

The problems of waste disposal and storage still exist. But I hope the UK will continue to recognize the importance of nuclear power as a source for safe, green electricity.