May 24 talk – Zion Lights on decarbonising electricity generation

Zion Lights, science communicator and Humanists UK Patron, came to speak to us in May. Zion is a longtime environmental activist, having been heavily involved in Extinction Rebellion and was arrested twice during protests against coal and tar sands investment in the 2000s.

Zion talked about the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for power generation, which currently produces 30% of our CO2 emissions. It’s not just CO2 that is a concern – the air pollution caused by this form of electricity generation is itself directly responsible for many deaths. Zion argued that we are a power-dependent society and there seems little chance of that changing, especially as other countries develop and start to enjoy the benefits that we have long taken advantage of. Trying to reduce our power consumption as a way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions seems very unlikely to succeed. 

So, how can we eliminate fossil fuels from power generation? The only successes so far used nuclear and hydro power. For instance, France reduced its reliance on fossil fuels for producing electricity dramatically over 10 years in the 1980s by building a large number of  nuclear power stations. 

In the 21st century there is much greater opposition to nuclear power, but statistics show it is the safest in terms of lives lost. When Germany closed its own nuclear power stations, but then failed to generate enough electricity through solar and wind, it had to turn to coal to make up the shortfall. Not only did this boost its CO2 emissions, there was an attendant loss of life due to air pollution. Nuclear waste is often cited as a concern, but Zion considers this not to be as big of an issue as is made out, the volume of highly radioactive waste actually being relatively small and manageable. 

After a quick break, we had a short Q&A session. Zion was asked if there was a potential problem with uranium supplies, but she doesn’t think this is anything to worry about. New technology such as small modular reactors (SMRs) and the use of thorium as an alternative to uranium was raised. Zion finds SMRs promising but thinks it’s too soon to be certain, and the use of thorium is too new to draw definitive conclusions. While there are many other sources of CO2 to worry about, Zion clarified that her talk focused specifically on power generation.  

Finally, we discussed the cost and time required to build new nuclear reactors in the UK. Hinkley Point C has exceeded its budget and timeline, and the new Sizewell reactor, which hasn’t started construction yet, seems likely to face similar overruns. Zion pointed out that this is largely due to regulatory issues in the UK. South Korea has been more successful in building new nuclear plants by sticking to established designs and building a skilled workforce. In contrast, UK regulators have demanded thousands of design changes, increasing costs and causing companies to work with unfamiliar designs. Additionally, the UK has failed to maintain a skilled workforce, contributing to the difficulties in building new nuclear power stations.






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