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Glom
2005-Nov-02, 12:26 AM
I'm preparing a letter to my MP begging her to support nuclear power in Britain. The main content alone takes up three full pages. What does anyone think in terms of structure, tone, length etc.


I am writing to you concern an issue of great importance to the country itself. We are reaching a crossroads in our energy supplies. We are increasingly importing more and more of our fossil fuel resources and the instability of price that goes with that means that, as a country, we may find ourselves struggling in this new, competitive world without secure and affordable energy.

The government is increasingly looking like it is finally moving to make the right decision and supporting the renewal of nuclear fission power in this country. The only complaint I have is that they have not done already. It is vitally important for everyone in this country that we maintain nuclear power as a significant part of our energy mix.

I know that the use of nuclear power is a contentious issue, but it really should not be. It gets a bad rap from certain interest groups, but it is an excellent source of energy. I will now detail why we should have it and why the opposition is wrong.

Powerful and plentiful

Most of our energy comes from coal and gas. The useful energy densities from coal and gas are approximately 3 kWh.kg-1 and 6kWh.kg-1 respectively. By contrast, natural uranium has an energy density of 50,000 kWh.kg-1 if only used once through in the open cycle and up to 3.5 million kWh.kg-1 if used in the closed cycle. As you can see, this means that significantly less fuel is required for nuclear power than for either coal or gas. While a large coal-fired power station will require many train loads of fuel every day to remain operational, a nuclear power station will require a mere truckload of fuel in a year. Recently, a record was set by the Three Mile Island power station for almost two years of constant operation between outages for refuelling. On the other end, it means the quantity of waste produced from a nuclear power station is very small.

While uranium-235 from cheap reserves may only be available for fifty years, which is about in line with the estimated lifetime of reserves of other important metals, other sources can extend this supply to two hundred years before we start worrying about the more unusual resources like phosphate deposits and seawater. This is all assuming the open cycle. The closed cycle increases these resources by at least a factor of 60, giving us around 4,000 years of uranium power from cheap reserves and over 12,000 from the other reserves. Beyond that is thorium, which is three times more abundant than uranium. Sufficient is it to say, we have fission fuel for the future with which we need be concerned.

Of course, nuclear power tends to be pitted against renewable energy generation by those who cannot recognise that this is not an either-or situation. A healthy energy mix is a diverse energy mix and in a diverse energy mix, there is room for both renewable energy and a sizeable nuclear portion. But resources for renewable energy are somewhat constrained by their nature. The need to preserve the beauty of British landscape limits wind farm development, tidal resources are limited by similar reasons, biomass by the availability of farming land, and solar will always be constrained by the inevitability of the solar constant, which remains around 1.4kW.m-2, meaning that even if PV cells were 100% efficient and ignoring the effects of night, angle insolation, and bad weather, it will still take an area of PV seven times that of a generation II pressurised water reactor to generate comparable energy. That is not to say that renewables cannot contribute, but they certainly need the help of a more concentrated energy source.

Clean and compact

Coal and gas burning release particulates, mercury and various acidic gases, which are rather unpleasant. Nuclear fission reactions are fully contained and as such, no significant amount of radioactive material leaves the core. The result is that the air around nuclear power stations remains clean, which is to the great benefit of the health of the local residents.

Because of the low fuel requirements, it also means there is no need for large amounts of transportation to carry the fuel all the time, which also helps to maintain the local environment. Similarly, the energy density helps by keeping the size of a generating station relatively small compared to a wind farm, which must consume large swaths of open countryside to generate a comparable amount of energy, thus reducing the impact on the environment further.

Waste tends to be top of the list of ant-nuclear arguments these days. In fact, the waste situation of nuclear power is to its advantage. It is produced in much smaller quantities than any other industrial waste. The fission products from a gigawatt-year, when vitrified into borosilicate blocks, weight about 5 tonnes, which is a drop in the ocean when considered against industrial waste in general. There are other wastes from various other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle of course, but they are no worse than the wastes from any other industrial processes.

We often hear about how terrible it is that high level nuclear waste remains radioactive from thousands of years, but this is far from terrible. First off, if used properly through the closed cycle, and future designs of reactors make this easier, cheaper and safer, then the long lived actinides get burned to produce yet more energy and the only true waste is the fission products. These will have decayed to below the activity of the original uranium ore after about six hundred years.

But more importantly, the fact that a time limit can be placed on the hazard of the waste makes nuclear waste that much more manageable. The highly toxic wastes from other industries, produced in far greater quantities remain hazard permanently. 30 years after being removed from the reactor, spent fuel only has ten percent of the activity that it originally had. After 30 years, other industrial wastes are just as hazardous as the day they were produced. It is much preferable to have waste constantly decreasing in hazard for hundreds of years until it is no longer considered hazardous at all, rather than having waste, which will be just as bad no matter how much time passes. I should also mention that accelerator-driven incinerator technology could help to reduce the lifetime of certain longer lived fission products even further.

Safe and secure

Nuclear power is statistically the safest way to generate electricity on a large scale. The Paul Scherrer Institute has determined that nuclear power has resulted in 8 deaths per terawatt-year, which is significantly lower than the next best, natural gas at 85 deaths per terawatt-year, and even lower still than coal with 342 deaths per terawatt-year. In Britain, nuclear power has operated safely for half a century.

Of course, whenever nuclear power comes up, Chernobyl tends to get a mention somewhere, but that particular event is not very relevant to the application of nuclear power in Britain. We do not, and have never even considered, building a reactor like the RBMK. This reactor design was unstable and lacked the essential that all Western reactors have had since the beginning of civil nuclear power. A Chernobyl style accident is simply not a credible possibility in a Western reactor. We have multiple redundant safety systems, which cannot be overridden like the automatic shutdown system at Chernobyl-4 on April 26 1986.

Modern Generation III+ reactors, the kind that we would obviously be considering building to renew our fleet, incorporate passive safety systems, the kind that depend on the laws of physics rather than engineered components. We also build containment vessels around our reactors to deal with everything from internal steam explosions to external aircraft collisions. These things are nearly indestructible. Even if a Chernobyl type explosion occurred in one of our reactors, and as I said, this is not very likely, the containment vessel would prevent radio-nuclides from spreading into the environment as they did in 1986.

Nuclear material is heavily guarded so the probability of terrorists getting their hands on any significant quantity on it is not a comparable concern compared to them getting their hands on large amounts of highly toxic chemicals. The fuel used in our reactors is not weapons useable so there is no need to be worried about their tricky fingers in that regard. Even a radiological dispersal device would not be particularly effective because it would disperse too little material over too wide an area despite the immature sensationalism of BBC programming. A chemical attack represents a far more effective way of dealing hurting people. The dirty bomb is the quintessential weapon of terror because it causes a lot of terror for very little actual harm and as Chernobyl demonstrated, sometimes fear can be a bigger killer than the radiation itself.

The bottom line

Cost is an issue of much dispute. The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that nuclear power is about as economical as gas and coal but it has the advantage of being more stable. The problem for Britain is the spectre of rising energy costs associated with the increased need to import gas in the future. If we depend too much on these unstable supplies, then a spike could cause economic difficulty for the people of this country. Nuclear is a much more stable form of power because the low fuel requirements make it easier to buy when the price is good and avoid the effects of short term price fluctuations.

There is no questioning that our own nuclear industry has not been the best run. We have been dependent on inferior gas-cooled reactors for most of our nuclear energy, the same kind the French abandoned in favour of PWRs. Other flaws have led to problems executing the closed cycle as well as we should have. But we should not take the failings of the past as an indication that it is not possible to succeed in the future making nuclear power economical. The French depend on nuclear power for 78% of their energy, paying competitive rates, and they are also the largest energy exporter, most of which goes to us, cheaper than our home grown nuclear power and to Italy, the world’s largest importer, who closed their nuclear power stations after 1986 on safety grounds, apparently not caring if their providers, the French, destroy themselves. They operate closed cycle nuclear power and have sensibly committed to retaining their nuclear capacity with newer and better reactors. The French are an example of how nuclear power can be made to work well.

The cost of future nuclear generating capability in Britain can be reduced with improvements in the system. First off, Gen III+ reactors incorporate improved standardisations, and simpler designs which will radically reduce the constructions costs and times over the Generation II reactors we have at present. Second, these reactors will be cheaper to maintain and will be more efficient leading to lower operating costs. Beyond that, it is important to take measures to reduce unnecessary burden on nuclear power. For starters, the ridiculous climate change levy should have never been anywhere near a nuclear operator. We need to streamline certification and avoid decade long public inquiries like the one that preceded Sizewell B.

We also need a much more sensible approach to health and safety regulations. The present state of regulations is ridiculously over-zealous. There is the case of the patient in Taipei Hospital who was given a radioactive cocktail for a diagnosis procedure. After the procedure, the radio-nuclides were excreted in his urine, but some of the urine was spilled. The result was the declaration of an environmental health scare and the closure of the hospital. How is it that a radioactive cocktail that is safe for a patient to ingest when fresh becomes a nuclear accident when, after hours of decay, a small portion of it is spilt on the hospital floor? The answer is ridiculously over-zealous regulations.

Current regulations in Europe require materials to have 1% of the activity of their natural counterparts. The Capitol Building in Washington D.C. is too radioactive to be licensed as a nuclear facility. Coal power stations constantly release more radioactive material into the environment than nuclear power stations and because they are not labelled nuclear facilities, they are not required to have this monitored. Depleted uranium is considered a special health hazard even though its activity is less than that of natural uranium. If a nuclear facility orders a 10m length of metal piping, because this piping will have a natural activity, once it is brought into the facility, it will be considered a radioactive material and any discarded parts must be treated as low level waste, even though no such consideration would be made if the same piping was brought into a coal power station.

These regulations jeopardise safety because the more you tighten the rope, the more likely you are to break it. The “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” regulation for a worker’s radiation exposure on the facility means they cannot inspect components as well as they should. Reviewing regulations to make them more level headed would not only improve safety, but also allow the people of this country to enjoy clean and abundant energy at the more realistic competitive cost.

We need properly run and justly regulated nuclear power in Britain for the sake of our energy security. It is the right thing for our economy and for our environment. I implore you to support the renewal of nuclear power in this country.

For more information, please visit my website at http://www.geocities.com/freedomforfission.


BTW, I've decided it's going to Gareth Thomas and not Lynne Jones. I think Thomas will be more receptive. I'll have to work on a special letter for Jones.