Book Reviews from ATOM — 1978

1977 • 1979

Number 260, June

Must the World Run out of Energy?
Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administration, London, 1978

It is a pleasure not often given to an author to review a booklet in which his own work appears. I am pleased, therefore, to draw attention to the winter 1977—79 number of the Crown Agents’ Quarterly, which concerns itself with the world’s energy future in the post–oil era and the extent to which so–called alternate energy sources might contribute toward meeting world demand.

I stress world, for it is all too easy for those concerned with the energy debate to use spectacles blinkered not only as to the contributions which might be made by sources other than their favourites, but as to the contributions they might make outside any given nation’s borders. Secondly, these blinkered spectacles seem often not to correct the planners’ most prevalent defect of vision : myopia. Forecasts made today, if they are to have any real chance of passing the test of time, have to concern themselves not just with the next 10 to 15 years, but with periods in excess of 25 years — that is, they have to pay at least some heed not merely to assuring energy supply to the end of this century, but past it, until sometime in the 21st century. At that, the forecasts must then contain at least some element indicating that the forecaster realises that the world will, we hope, still be alive and consuming for many years on from then.

That said, one can begin to appreciate the emphasis given increasingly to the so–called renewable sources of energy — those which will not, sooner or later, come up against constraints imposed by a limited resource base.NOTE Oil is already nearing that point ; without the fast reactor, so may the nuclear industry ; coal exists in large quantities but is also valuable as feedstock for petroleum product substitution and for conversion like oil to a bewildering variety of chemical products from dyes to plastics and pharmaceuticals ; and so on.

In a keynote article in the Quarterly Noel Bott, a Crown Agents’ consultant, says the nature of the problem to which mankind has now to address itself is surely unique in human history. It is the global task of assuring a cheap and continuous flow of energy in the massive and increasing quantities which all modern societies need — in both the industrialised and the developing world — not only for the continuity of life as we know it but even for surrvival itself. Bott notes the critical historical dependence of standard of living on the usage of energy, and points out that up to now the world’s overall energy balance has depended on the availability of oil to make good any shortfall from other sources such as coal, gas, hydro and nuclear… The world’s energy demand has risen from about 10 million barrels per day oil equivalent (MBDOE) in 1900 to 115 MBDOE in 1970. We have passed from the almost complete dominance of coal to that of oil. This pattern will continue, providing the OPEC countries do not lower their present production ceilings or apply punitive price increases. But in relatively unconstrained demand conditions the energy gap will continue to widen to an (estimated) 27 MBDOE by year 2000. To make up this shortfall we need the equivalent of 2500 one–million kilowatt power stations — each driven by some energy source other than oil. (His emphasis.) Bott sees this gap arising even on a low–growth scenario ; at a 5 per cent annual rate of growth in demand the gap would amount, by his reckoning, to 127 MDBOE, or three times present oil production.

Further, he argues that despite the tremendous potential of coal and nuclear power, time precludes either of these sources making a sufficient impact to close the gap. The contribution he assumes from the alternative sources, wind, wave, geothermal, solar and bio–mass conversion is still low by the end of the century ; to prevent the gap being felt in a series of major crises there needs therefore to be at least 27 MBDOE negative contribution from savings and the more efficient use of existing energy resources.

Bolt is surely on safe ground when he writes that the only correct world policy has to be to exert a maximum effort into develping every possible option in an attempt to reduce the time required to mount and execute the large engineering prodjects that are needed to produce extra energy. Teutonic as his dictum sounds, he may have less support in his urging that each government, therefore, should set up its own special energy ministries in order to achieve broad self–sufficiency across a broad number of schemes, and there is a case for setting up a World Energy Council financed by research funds from the world’s aid organisations. This could bring together all existing research and inaugurate pilot schemes which might be beyond the means of individual countries. Jaw jaw is surely better than war war ; but the history of world co–operative ventures of this kind does not give one great confidence that such a Council would have a measurable impact : at least in the time available to it to do its work. Bott himself acknowledges that not only time but money is required to mount large industrial engineering projects — and it is clear that a vast number of projects will have to proceed simultaneously which, in turn, means that they will have to be identified, surveyed, assessed, designed and promoted within the next five years at the latest.

Co–operation does seem likely to be the key — but co–operation on a longer timescale, I would suggest, than Bott feels necessary. In other articles in the Quarterly authors review the contribution which might be made toward meeting energy demand by solar sources (including bio–mass conversion) ; wind power ; wave power (one of the many alternate energy sources being studied actively in the UK, and supported here by a description of a research project which is being carried out in Mauritius) ; geothermal energy (an article contributed by Dr John Garnish, of the Energy Technology Support Unit at Harwell) ; nuclear energy ; and the possible contribution of conservation.

In my article I argue that nuclear energy’s contribution is likely to remain greatest in the most advanced nations. I say this not in a spirit of industrial paternalism, but recognising that nuclear power — like many other advanced technologies — benefits its users most when deployed on a large scale. True economies begin to be made when the power station is of 600 megawatts or more ; modern stations in Britain today are of around 1250 megawatts. Such a station could not easily be used in a country having a decentralised, rural economy. Better by far for those nations which are already some way down the industrial road and who have experience of nuclear technology to build on their experience, thereby lessening their demand for oil and indeed for other fuels — at the same time undertaking vigorous development of all alternative sources of energy and of means of energy conversion and conservation. (Perhaps I should add that even in the Quarterly my piece runs with a footnote to the effect that the views expressed are my own.)

Prof M.W. Thring, of Queen Mary College London, suggests in the final article that the problem now faced by the world is two–fold :

How can we provide 8000 million people (say) in the next century with all the good consequences of the industrial revolution using not more than the present world average figure of 1·8 TCE (tons of coal equivalent) per head per year?

At the same time, we must find how to provide twice as much total energy as the world has at present, and to avoid the bad consequences of the industrial revolution such as pollution… inhumanly repetitive work, traffic jams, noise, stress and built–in obsolescence.

Prof Thring says he believes we can find the engineering solution to both these groups of problems, provided we can persuade enough thoughtful people to take a long–term look and see that the alternative is inevitable worldwide disaster with hundreds of millions of people being killed by famine, pestilence, worldwide war or violence… Mankind can reach a stable equilibrium with the environment in the next century, but only if the developed countries shift the major part of their research effort to the solving of these problems. A conclusion with which I concur.

James Daglish
UKAEA Information Services Branch

Number 265, November

Ground for Concern — Australia’s Uranium and Human Survival
Mary Elliot, ed, for Friends of the Earth
Penguin Books, London, 1977
228 pp, £2

In the words of the preface, this book sets out to provide a reasoned statement of the concern that Australians and people throughout the world feel about the prospects of a nuclear future. The authors have tried to grapple honestly with the problems of the atomic age, which is our age.

The book is essentially a collection of essays covering different aspects of the theme — which is that it would be damaging to the Australian environment and morally wrong to export uranium for the world’s nuclear power programmes. Nuclear power, it is argued, is unsafe and unnecessary.

Because of the different authorships, some overlap and contradiction is inevitable and the book, although well–structured, is not entirely coherent.

In terms of reporting facts, a fairly high degree of accuracy has been achieved, but a few glaring misconceptions cannot go unchallenged. For instance, in Chapter 1 we read that thermal pollution from nuclear stations is a major environmental hazard. In fact, residual heat from the best nuclear stations is no greater than from the best fossil–fired stations, and even pressurised water reators which have a lower thermal efficiency have only 25 per cent more residual heat — hardly a major increase on fossil stations. In any case, there are ways of dispersing heat from inland power stations (nuclear or fossil) that are not detrimental to the environment ; and the waste heat from coastal sites is generally beneficial to marine life.

Then, when dealing with fast reactors (p 67), the book says, it is happily not possible for a thermal reactor to become a nuclear bomb. Sadly the same cannot be said of a fast reactor. This is totally wrong. To produce a nuclear bomb the material has to be compressed while the chain reaction takes place. In a fast reactor, no such compression could possibly take place and therefore such a nuclear explosion could not occur. And it is certainly not true to say they are potentially so dangerous that on detection of a fault the whole plant must be closed down. All power stations and many other engineering plants have automatic shut–down mechanisms which operate in the event of faults, primarily to protect the operators and give an opportunity for investigation of the cause. Fast reactors have similar shut–down mechanisms for exactly the same reasons, not because they are more dangerous. Finally (p 214) there is the comment that Not one commercial fast breeder reactor is working in the world at the moment, since they are beset by severe technical problems. The fact is that on the basis of their favourable experience in operating large prototype fast reactor power stations, several nations are now preparing to build their first commercial–scale station. The troubles experienced with the prototype stations have mostly been external to the reactors, and were no more than would be expected at the prototype stage. Indeed, it is the function of prototypes to reveal aspects of design which require improvement, before commitment to full–scale plant.

A more difficult aspect of the book to assess is its treatment of subjective issues such as environmental impact and the future supply and demand for various forms of energy. Here, even given agreement on the facts, there is room for honest, reasonable men to disagree. In this I must confess to being disappointed by this book. It is marred by several lapses from the good advice given by Paul Ehrlich in the foreword that the anti–nuclear movement should avoid impugning the motives and competence of the people who oppose them. Also, I would have liked to see the alternatives dealt with as critically as is nuclear power. Instead, we find immensely detailed criticism of nuclear power, despite its good record, and a naive and superficial acceptance of the claims of alternative energy sources and of conservation. For instance, despite a recognition in the book that Australia is the only developed country with a large area within 30° of the equator, where most solar energy is concentrated, we are told that solar power can provide the answer to the world’s energy problems — although it may take 100 years. But, of course, we do not have 100 years to find a replacement for cheap fossil fuels — and will solar power ever be cheap enought to do so, no matter how much is spent on its development? The authors of Chapter 8 go so far as to say, if nuclear energy is not going to fill the gap, what can? The immediate answer appears to be — nothing. They then suggest that we can do no more than conserve energy until alternative sources are developed. Increased economy and efficiency in the use of energy is taking place, but even in affluent societies this cannot be done suddenly without serious disruption of employment patterns. Certainly, research into alternative energy sources and conservation measures (so far as they are economic) should be encouraged, but this will not go far towards meeting the needs of the majority of the increasing world population who can afford to use only small amounts of high–cost energy. A minority of mankind has been rescued from a short and brutish life by an abundance of cheap energy. This has provided a substitute for other resources, particularly of labour and land, and it is hard to see how maintenance and improvement of living standards world–wide can be achieved without greatly–increased supplies of cheap energy. Failing a large new source of cheap energy, large–scale unemployment, increased internal and international tensions and an increased probability of wars seem only too likely.

Finally, the nuclear energy issue is shown by this book as dividing left and right ; as a choice between large concentrated technologies run by centralised bureaucracies and small dispersed, locally controlled, technologies ; and as a confrontation between young idealists and a cynical money–making war–time generation of grey–beards. Each new generation is wont, like Don Quixote, to tilt at windmills (or in this case the modern equivalent, nuclear power stations) while the real threat goes unchallenged. The judgement on the authors of this book must be that they have failed to look critically and honestly at the social, environmental, and economic costs of not having nuclear power. Having argued against its exploitation, they must bear some responsibility for showing (and not merely asserting) that there is a substitute — and the laws of physics and chemistry are against them.

H. Hunt
Finance Branch, UKAEA

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