Five questions for Chris Huhne

War Memorial at Emley in West YorkshireToday may well be Armistice Day but, face the fact, more lives will be lost as a result of unmitigated climate change than have been lost in all wars in the last 7,000 years. So, with that thought in mind, here is a transcript of an email I sent to Mr Huhne on Tuesdsay 8 November 2011… For the attention of the Rt Hon Chris Huhne MP Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Dept of Energy and Climate Change 3 Whitehall Place London SW1A 2AW Dear Mr Huhne, Re: What’s Fuelling Your Energy Bill? – BBC Panorama – 7 November 2011 Energy Crisis For me, the timing of this programme is very fortuitous, as I have been reading James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, the second half of which is remarkable for two things, the brutality of his criticism and the simplicity of his solution: It is brutal because he criticises (1) the failure of the UNFCCC Kyoto process (i.e. emissions targets have not been met by anybody); (2) special interest groups for manipulating politicians (because policy inaction is the goal of those that dispute global warming); and (3) governments for lying to themselves and us (because catastrophic climate change can only be avoided by phasing out coal and not developing unconventional sources of fossil fuel)… In this respect, Hansen points out that the latter is the result of successive governments being caught between pro-fossil fuel and anti-nuclear lobbies who have ensured that, over the last 25 years, we have pursued one and shunned the other. Hansen’s solution to our energy problems is remarkably simple yet very challenging: He suggests that the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) programme (cancelled in the UK in the late 1980s) should be now be re-instated and pursued vigorously because FBRs can be fuelled by (1) the 99% of the Earth’s uranium that thermal reactors cannot use; and/or (2) long-lived high-level radioactive waste (producing smaller amounts of less-dangerous waste); and/or (3) uranium extracted from seawater (where it is universally present at greater concentration than its average crustal abundance). Climate Change In Storms of my Grandchildren, James Hansen points out that the Earth regulates its temperature (in response to any energy imbalance) by moving carbon dioxide (CO2) between the oceans and the atmosphere. In the case of glacial / inter-glacial cycles of the last 750,000 years this has always been temperature change first and CO2 change second. However, today, we have two problems: (1) We are already in an inter-glacial (warm) period; and (2) We are driving CO2 to atmospheric levels the Earth has not seen for 35 million years. Therefore, in order to restore the energy imbalance, the Earth will now have to warm up. Thus the ice sheets are melting and sea level is rising. Between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago, sea level rose by 4 to 5 metres per century for several centuries; as a 6 Celsius increase in global average temperatures resulted in a 100m rise in sea level. Therefore, given that we show no sign of being willing to stop burning fossil fuel, we are heading for somewhere between an additional 3 and 6 Celsius (post-1750AD) increase in temperature. Therefore, what ice is left will now melt and, eventually, Antarctica will be ice-free for the first time in 35 million years and sea level will rise by 50 to 100 metres… This scenario is not taken from the screenplay for The Day After Tomorrow and, as I am sure you are aware, it will take centuries if not millennia for the Earth to re-establish a new equilibrium, but, all the signs are that this is now starting to happen at ever-increasing speed; and the disruption it will cause will be immense. Questions Given all of the above, can you please explain why government policy seems intent on: 1. Not pursuing the FBR option that would solve three problems in one go (i.e. climate change, our energy crisis, and our existing legacy of radioactive waste)? 2. Pursuing long-term emissions reductions programmes when what we urgently need to do is eliminate as many emissions as possible as quickly as possible (because it is cumulative emissions since 1750 that are the critical factor in determining the magnitude of change that will eventually occur)? 3. Allowing the continuing burning of coal that can only be justified by relying on unproven and inherently dangerous carbon capture and storage (because to be effective CO2 must never escape)? 4. Promoting the development of unconventional fossil fuels instead of (not as well as) investment in novel “always-on” technologies such as tidal stream power and the new Spanish 24/7 power stations (using parabolic mirrors and capacitors to produce energy even when it is cloudy and at night)? 5. Considering massive new National Grid infrastructure rather than paying all suitable individuals to leave the grid altogether by means of micro-power generation? I trust you will accept this criticism in the constructive way it is intended (as I would very much like to be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem). Nevertheless, it would be greatly appreciated if you could avoid sending me a formulaic response generated by choosing sentences and/or paragraphs from a pre-existing database of potential responses and, instead, confine yourself to addressing the the 5 very specific questions above. Kind regards, Rick Altman BSc(Hons) [Geology], MSc [Hydrogeology], MA [Env.Pol.], FGS CGeol MCIWEM.

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Carbon Capture and Storage, Climate Science, Economics, Energy Crisis, Environment, IPCC, James Hansen, Politics, Populism, Storms of my Grandchildren, UNFCCC and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Five questions for Chris Huhne

  1. Whilst I believe in there being a greater than 50% chance that AGW will cause real problems (there are neg feedbacks that hold stability for at least some of the likely rise in temp) I feel that in a small island such as UK there is not room for nuclear of any form. Can we afford to clear 30Km radius from around an “accident”? How long do unknown future generations have to tend the cooling ponds, repair leaks etc? What is the real cost of nuclear life cycle Construction/mining/refining/transport/running waste management/decommissioning/more waste management? Fast breeders? What about thorium – supposedly fail safe!!! and plenty of thorium. This document is worth a read: Nuclear Power, The energy balance referenced from here http://www.stormsmith.nl/ All nuclear stations require a spinning reserve equivalent to the output of one reactor (a scram can and does happen). I.e. perhaps 500MW to 1GW of spinning reserve Wind does not require this much (if any) spinning reserve but it does require stations to be ready to power up quickly – a lower cost than spinning reserve. Wind is not a replacement for conventional (worst case no wind = 100% conventional sources) What wind does is displace reserves of fossil fuel to the future and simultaneously reduces emissions. Perhaps the best reduction in ghgs and preservation of resources is conservation – energy efficient homes/transport. Modern electronics helps here with very low losses, and subsidised home insulation.

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    • Rick_Altman says:

      Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I have visited the website to which you directed me, but cannot get the Part A to F links to work. However, I will try again later. In the interim, please note that I am not a pro-nuclear fanatic – I am just a realist. Furthermore, as I thought I had made quite clear, FBR would deal with the nuclear waste legacy problem we already have (and therefore also the dirty bomb and weapons proliferation risks of having this plutonium, depleted uranium, and other wastes lying around). Finally, if pursued to the stage that it was comercially viable, FBR could be mass-produced much more easily and quickly than current reactor technology and would enable us to use the 99% of uranium we have already dug up and all that in the sea, which would last for 1000s of years (therefore no more mining would be necessary). Notwithstanding all of the above, I am also in favour, as I think I have also made clear before now, of pursuing sensible sources of renewable energy (amongst which I do not include wind power). These alternatives are out there but are not being pursued because our government (as Hansen says) appears committed to the almost unquestionable orthodoxy that we shall proceed to burn all fossil fuels merely because they are there. In his writing, Hansen is almost entirely reliant on the work of Tom Blees: See: http://www.prescriptionfortheplanet.com/

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      • pendantry says:

        The thought of ‘mass-producing’ nuclear power reactors gives me a case of the screaming heebijeebies. As thefordprefect says, the UK is too small. (1) nuclear power stations tend to be built on coasts; (2) we’re quite possibly looking forward to substantial sea-level rises in coming decades; (3) the human race has a proven track record of being unable to plan ahead further than the end of its collective nose.

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      • Rick_Altman says:

        Very good point. I may have failed to think laterally. If Hansen is right (and I think he is), once the melting of ice sheets really gets going, sea level could rise by 4 to 5 metres per century for the best part of 2,000 years. As you say, leaving aside all the obvious implications, this will be a major problem for building, using, and then safely decommissioning nuclear sites….

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    • Rick_Altman says:

      To thefordprefect: It seemed to me that the authors of the stromsmith.nl website were/are highly prejudiced in their write-up of nuclear energy (although they do not seem to address fast neutron reactors specifically). However, as Ido not have the expertise to adjudicate, I emailed Tom Blees to see if he knew of them. He does and he agrees they are not being objective. See: http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/search?q=Leeuwen

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  2. Some collections of stuff (nuclear/Wind) here: http://climateandstuff.blogspot.com/search/label/windturbines Did some back of envelope calcs on wind costs. Gave a break even time of about 4 years for a 28% load factor and £1 for 1watt build cost £100k/year maintenance, £0.11/kwh (current end user price). The house of commons stuff is interesting (same address) There is also a link to older stormsmith document if the one in 1st message fails Breeders have their problems (sodium cooled, still need to reprocess (and re=use) fuel elements. And in 30years you still need to decommission the plant including the radioactive coolant.

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    • Rick_Altman says:

      I know I did not really address the “safety” issue but, leaving aside the fact that more people are killed by their underpants than are killed in nulcear accidents, most of the hazards already exist. Of these, by far the most problematic could have been eliminated by now if we had not given up on FBR/FNR over 20 years ago. Dounreay may take 300 years to be cleaned-up but that does not mean that every nuclear site will be the same. Far from it. In any case, as with David MacKay, I do not see that we can meet our long-term, necessarily low-to-zero carbon, energy needs without reliance upon nuclear. However, the extent of that need could be minimised if our government also did everything to minimise the scale of centrally-generated power demand; and made the cost of all fossil fuel use reflect the environmental damage it is doing. This latter point is the reason why Hansen is so opposed to cap-and trade schemes and in favour of a flat carbon tax allied to universal tax refunds. This would encourage individuals to reduce their consumption and the corporate pursuit of alternative energy sources/businesses. Of course, the only thing that is standing in the way of this – and perpetuating pulbic ignorance of the urgency of the problem – is the fossil fuel lobby (i.e. part of the 1%). This is why climate change campaigners must ally themsleves with – and take advantage of the emergence of – the Occupy movement.

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  3. pendantry says:

    Breaking news: French energy company fined, executives jailed, for industrial espionage against Greenpeace. If the nuclear industry feels the need to engage in conspiracy and law-breaking to further its aims, isn’t that a clue that they are hiding something?

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    • Rick_Altman says:

      No – it just demonstrates that EDF Energy are getting fed up with ideologically-driven irrational opposition. As was Sir John Beddington’s outburst earlier in the year when he said we need to get a whole lot more intolerant of pseudo-scientific assertions that climate change is not happening.

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      • pendantry says:

        Whether a stance is ‘rational’ or not depends very much on your knowledge and point of view. I followed your link and do not understand your problem with what Sir John Beddington said: I for one agree that we need to get a whole lot more intolerant of pseudoscientific assertions. The merchants of doubt cynically use the terms ‘junk science’ and ‘sound science’ purely to muddy the water. Theirs is certainly an ‘ideologically-driven irrational opposition’ if there ever was one. Concerning nuclear power: have you read this post on Blue Rock? I also thoroughly recommend the BBC documentary A is for Atom (summarised by my post Nuclear power: how we got into this mess).

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      • Rick_Altman says:

        I think you misunderstood me, Colin. My point is that scientists should be equally intolerant of ideological opposition – whether it be climate change denial or anti-nuclear. However, if either group can put forward rational counter arguments then, obviously, they must be refuted. For example, nothing you have said – or linked to – changes the facts that (1) more people have been killed putting on their trousers than have been killed in nuclear accidents; (2) our nuclear legacy (waste), weapons proliferation and dirty bomb risks all exist already; (3) FBR was cancelled for short-term, irrational reasons; and (4) even if everyone that could do so took themselves off the grid by virtue of micro-power generation, in the medium to long term, humanity still has a looming energy crisis.

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  4. weatherdem says:

    I especially like your Q#5. Are the two approaches irreconcilable? I advocate for distributed power generation (at the same location where usage is occurring), but think there is still some necessity for a larger, smarter power grid to be pursued as well. Does that fit into your framework?

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    • Rick_Altman says:

      Are the two approaches irreconcilable?” Not necessarily: I would just like to be certain that, before despoiling our countryside with a new network of overhead high-voltage power lines, our government had first considered all the ways in which the demand for centrally-generated electricity could be minimised. I would also like to be re-assured that they are not beholden to the fossil fuel lobby and big business interests in the way that James Hansen says they are… “Does that fit into your framework?” This is not my framework: I am just re-stating the arguments of many other people, including Tom Blees, James Hansen, James Lovelock, Mark Lynas, David MacKay, George Monbiot, and Stewart Brand…

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  5. Pingback: Alarmville or Calmville – which is the fantasy? | Anthropocene Reality

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