June 2010 – Letter to Chris Huhne

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

Dear Mr. Huhne,

The Joan Pye Project congratulates you upon your appointment as Secretary for State for Energy and Climate Change. 

Who we are

The Joan Pye Project Committee is a non-profit making organisation which comprise an independent network of some 12 distant supporters: physicists, chemists and chartered engineers who have spent the major part of their careers in research and in applied areas of the power industry.  As such, we take a keen interest in all matters connected with energy production and distribution and would like to ensure that fundamental facts regarding wind turbines are unambiguously communicated to yourself and your peers.  We are particularly keen to put the case for nuclear generated electricity.

Background to the Energy Minister’s Responsibilities

Your Post must be regarded as of equal importance with that of the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, since there is no facet of our economy which is able to function without a high quality supply of electricity, able to respond to all demands, at all times.

Without such an electricity network, we have no “Economy”.   Your responsibilities are therefore onerous.

Our present national supply dates back to 1925 when the situation was seen as desperate.   Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sought the advice of Sir John Weir, a leading Glasgow industrialist.   Weir brought in two leading consulting engineers Charles Merz and John Kennedy.   Within a year these two men drafted a detailed plan which was waved through virtually untouched to become the Electricity Supply Act of 1926.

The basic concept of large electricity generators supplying a nationwide high voltage Grid remains the backbone of our present system.

It absolutely central to the understanding of the lasting utility of the system, that it was designed and operated by highly qualified and experienced Electrical Engineers.   It is a highly technical operation, and its operating principles must be understood by any person or authority desirous of introducing significant alterations to its modus operandi.

It is a fact, greatly to be regretted, that in the uppermost echelons of Government, no trace may be found of individuals who have pursued any academic study in the field of the physical sciences, beyond GCSE level.   Those lacking this knowledge will not have the pre-requisite qualifications either to make, or to have a meaningful understanding of, the implications of advice given to them.

It is welcomed, though embryonic at this stage, that the Prime Minister has the ambition that further general scientific awareness of MPs should be implemented via the offices of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.   The Joan Pye Project welcomes this initiative.

This is, however, a time of seismic shocks in the electrical generation industry.   We have proposals that our one-time major source of energy, coal, should be discontinued in the middle future, that nuclear generators shall be shut as their scheduled operative life comes to an end, that inevitably gas generation shall expand, and that a variety of renewable generators shall be introduced, but principally wind power.

Energy Technology: Misconceptions vs. Facts

All aspects of our energy scenario are highly technical in their implementation and implication, but regrettably this axiom appears to have been overshadowed by the largely emotional appeal of, somehow, “free” energy.

First and foremost must be action to ensure a

“high quality supply of electricity, able to respond to all demands, at all times”. 

The Joan Pye Project wishes to draw to your attention a number of misconceptions which appear to underlie the desire of all Parliamentary Parties greatly to develop wind power.

  • All renewable energy systems harvest energy from sources which, by comparison with fossil or nuclear systems, are extremely weak; powerful though they seem from a human, lay, perspective.

 

  • Renewable energy of any variety is incapable of fulfilling the headline role of responding to demand at all times.   This is due to its fundamental inability to generate electricity on any but an intermittent basis.

 

  • In the case of wind power, the only system presently able to produce meaningful amounts of electricity, this is demonstrated by the not infrequent occurrence of high pressure (low wind speeds) becoming established, as they did during the winter of 2009-2010, over the whole of the British Isles and the contiguous sea areas, in which it is proposed to build huge wind installations.   Geographical dispersion is thus no solution to the overall lack of suitable wind.

 

  • It is frequently quoted in governmental circles, indeed within the DECC itself, that the British Isles has “the best wind resource in Western Europe”.   This may be so, however, it is still ill-matched to the wind speed requirement of the turbines themselves.   This fact is most starkly illustrated by the histogram enclosed with this letter.

 

  • If the capacity of wind generation is allowed to reach the tens of percent of total generation that its proponents desire, back-up fossil fuel generation, almost certainly open cycle gas turbines, will be needed to the extent of up to 95%.

 

  • The significance of these facts is deliberately obscured by the advocates of wind power who repeatedly quote their electrical production in the form of a total number of Mega.Watt.Hours generated during one year.   Intermittency is thus suppressed.

 


Energy Technology: Cost Facts

Turning to nuclear power, the Liberal Democratic Party has repeatedly stated;

“Nuclear power is very, very, expensive”. 

  • The latest estimate of the comparative costs of power generating systems, made by Parsons Brinkerhoff, now part of Balfour Beatty is:-

 

Tidal generation – between 16 and 38 p/kWh

Offshore wind – between 15 and 21 p/kWh

Onshore wind – between 8 and 11 p/kWh

Combined cycle gas turbine – between 6 and 11 p/kWh

Nuclear – between 6 and 8 p/kWh

This is very much in line with the findings of all similar examinations of power costs for a number of years.   Nuclear power involves no subsidies.   The definitive statement on this subject was made by the Nuclear Industries Association:-

“The UK nuclear industry is very clear that nuclear new build will not be government funded.   The government has stated categorically that there will be no subsidy provided to any new build project, the industry understands this and is more than happy to proceed with a privately funded new build project.  

  

The private sector will pay the full costs of construction, operation and decommissioning of a new build project.   Long-term wastes management costs will; also be funded by the private sector, with strict controls in place to ensure that adequate funds are being put in place for this throughout the lifetime of the plant”[1]. 

The Project hopes that these points will now be better understood.

Radioactive Waste 

Both your Party Leader and Simon Hughes have stated, on air, that

“there is no solution to the ‘problem’ of radioactive waste”.

It must be assumed that they have been referring to the High Level Waste that consists essentially of fuel withdrawn from the reactor.   A number of points must be understood;

  •  
    • Radioactivity decays.   The radio activity dies away with time.   The rate of decay is measured by the ”half-life” of the material, the time taken for the radioactivity count rate to decay to half its value .   Irradiated fuel elements have a half-life of about 35 years.   Thus after ten half-lives, some 350 years, only about one thousandth of the radio-activity remains, reducing to one millionth in 700 years.   Not tens or hundreds of thousands of years.   This figure applies to a tiny part of the material (the actinides) which is very weakly radio-active, were it not, it would not last so long.

 

  •  
    • The quantities of High Level waste are not great, being on the scale of one “lorry load” per year.

 

  •  
    • The process for the vitrification of radioactive waste is well known by the scientific community, and is used by the French at their plant at La Hague.   Waste is embodied in glass which is filled into a sealed metal containment vessel. The disposal of this vessel may be made, with complete safety, in deep granite strata.   Here it is allowed to heat the surrounding rock to a softening point when it becomes incorporated into the granite body.   By placing the vessels in the middle of thick granite beds, of the order of several kilometres, the disposal is absolutely secure and far removed from water movement, which is only of the order of millimetres over thousands of years.   Difficulty is experienced in the political and public acceptance of the process which has been thoroughly researched.

 

  •  
    • The storage and movement of any of this material is subject to security which is second to none.

 

Conclusion

It is essential that the influence of vested interests be avoided when framing policies.   This has, unfortunately, not historically been the case, a circumstance which has come about largely because those with decision making responsibilities have lacked the knowledge essential to discriminate between technical virtues of proposals driven by financial advantage rather than national interest.   This is due to the very different career structures of scientists and engineers, and politicians.

The Project would welcome the opportunity to discuss personally with you these various matters, with, of course no cost to the Treasury.

We have enclosed a copy of the SONE (Supporters of Nuclear Energy) briefing note on Electricity Supply for your information.

We write to you in the form of an open letter which is being posted on the Joan Pye website, and the text is to be passed for information to various persons and offices.

The project looks forward to your response.

Yours Sincerely,

Richard H Phillips, on behalf of the Joan Pye Project


[1] Tris Denton,  Communications Officer,  Nuclear Industry Association”

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