As Tony Blair embraces a nuclear new build and pushes aside recent failures to meet reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across the UK, I took a train ride from Devon to Woking to find out if there is a better solution.
I talked to a geology student on the train going to Exeter. She described in detail how the earth has changed over the past million years; how Scotland used to be a volcanic area; how the seas and oceans have shifted and changed, like immense amorphous organisms, over the course of time; how movements in the earth’s crust have created great mountainous areas and deep ravines; how fault lines break open; how the earth's plates collide …
In the UK most of our electricity still comes from huge coal and gas power stations. Drax power station in Yorkshire (alone) emitted 20.8 million tonnes of CO2 in 2005. The remaining huge power stations like Drax are the monuments to the UK’s centralised energy system…a system which revolutionised the way people lived in the 1920s and 30s, by providing an electricity supply for all homes and businesses. But almost a century later, faced with a global energy crisis and climate change, these power stations begin to feel like dinosaurs…They are heavily polluting, releasing massive amounts of gases, particulates and heat into the atmosphere and they are hugely inefficient, wasting roughly 65 per cent of primary energy input through heat release, long distance transmission, and inefficient end use.
Enter the nuclear solution. Nuclear power stations run with the 1920s idea of a centralised energy system but compare favourably to coal and also gas power stations in terms of reducing CO2 emissions at the point of production.
But in Woking and parts of Scandinavia “out of the box” thinking is leading to an energy revolution that could replace the nuclear option altogether.
The thing about Woking is, they haven’t compared the giant wind turbine to the nuclear power station in terms of electricity output… because that’s not the point. The point is to decentralise the energy system using local resources and to distribute that through a local network. For example modern combined heat and power (CHP) units produce electricity from gas or biomass, and the heat produced is used to heat local amenities and housing.
This improves the overall efficiency of gas threefold… i.e. reducing gas consumption and CO2 emissions by 65 per cent. Since 1990 Woking borough council has slashed energy use by nearly half, and council CO2 emissions by 77 per cent. They have turned existing buildings into energy generators through the use of solar photovoltaic roofs and other renewables, and are exploring means of creating environmentally friendly energy from waste. Alongside the development of a clean, secure and efficient power supply, has been a complementary initiative actively promoting efficiency in the home through things like insulation and energy efficient appliances.
From a local perspective the initiative has created income generation, jobs and security. If the national grid fails, then Woking can switch to “island generation mode” and continue to access energy from the private network. From a national perspective Woking council has slashed energy use and CO2 emissions by 6-times more than the requirements laid down in Kyoto for UK reductions 2010.
I return to my home in Devon: the rolling hills, the new crop of lambs, the quaint villages and the dark tors of Dartmoor rising as backdrop. Across the country suitable places have been identified as possible sites for the dumping of nuclear waste. There are seven potential sites in Devon. The nearest one to me is only 10 miles down the road at Willsworthy ranges. I hope that the nuclear waste dumps will not be in my backyard, here in Devon. But all across the country other people share similar hopes for their own backyards. We are all (well mostly) NIMBYs at heart, and I believe that this indicates how much we care. But although we have to protect our own back yard, we should see ourselves within the greater picture.
To read the full Nuclear Power Dossier click here
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2006