back to article Heavyweight physics prof weighs into climate/energy scrap

A topflight science brainbox at Cambridge University has weighed into the ever-louder and more unruly climate/energy debate with several things that so far have been mostly lacking: hard numbers, willingness to upset all sides, and an attempt to see whether the various agendas put forward would actually stack up. Professor …


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  1. mark Silver badge
    Gates Horns

    makes sense!

    That's the only thing I've ever read that both makes sense and suggests some solutions that dont involve reverting to the middle ages.

    ...and I've read a lot about this.

    The trouble is Nimbys - they just want the power to keep coming out of their plugholes the same way it does now - magic pixie power

  2. Ben
    Thumb Up

    Great article....

    Excellent that someone is doing good work on this problem , rather than simply lying their tits off because it suits their political/commercial agenda OR running around our meeja reps propagating hysteria .......downloading and reading , got to be more informative than (see above). : tips hat to El Reg. Have a good weekend.

  3. David Adams
    Thumb Up

    Very interexting article

    Nice to see some figures with attached research for a change.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The biofuel section seems a little confused, surely biofuel is purely for transport?

    You wouldn't grow fields of wheat, convert them two ethanol to burn in a static power station, you'd just burn the wheat (or whatever).

  5. Adam Foxton

    "letting his machine-learning lab at Cambridge run itself these days"

    Please tell me that can be taken literally and is true.

  6. Bob Marris

    Intellectual humour?

    > He says he's largely letting his machine-learning lab at Cambridge run

    > itself these days

    Is this a Cambridge A.I. Prof's idea of a high-brow joke?

  7. Steven Raith

    nice to see some common sense

    on the whole energy thing.

    Something that has been lacking of late, outwith NUKES BAD! WIND FARMS GOOD! type shite that the various pressure groups keep spouting out.

  8. Jonathan
    Thumb Up

    Someone give this guy a medal!

    At last, some hard numbers and easily understandable facts related to present and future energy generation and consumption.

    Very good read, thanks El Reg.

  9. Gilbert Wham

    Scientist contributes sense to climate debate - will be soundly ignored shocker...

    More alarmingly:

    "He says he's largely letting his machine-learning lab at Cambridge run itself these days,"

    Bears watching, this chap. I'm keeping my torch & pitchfork handy, just in case...

  10. Michael
    Thumb Down

    Most of these numbers are well know and are wildly uncertain

    Its nice that people are leaving their fields of expertise to stick their oar in here: the field needs all the help it can get. ANd there are no single solutions, but there are many partial solutions which when added coherently become very substantial. But this effort is very short of the mark. I won't go on and on but...

    (a) Switching stuff and using low energy light bulbs >does< help. In my (rather high tech) house I brought electricity consumption down by 30% by this technique at essentially no inconvenience to me. Nationally, switching to low energy bulbs means that roughly 1 GWe of installed capacity can be switched off - about 2% o fUK demand or one power station we don't need to build.

    (b) Having stated that the biggest problem is thermal (space heating) the article then concentrates on electricity generation which is quite a different problem. There is no doubt that thermally the best thing we can do is to insulate our homes, shops and workplaces. Estimates differ, but reducing space heating demands by 30% would not be hard.

    (c) The authors assumed faith in clean coal is endearing. This is a technology which has never been demonstrated at scale, and the scale required is collosal. Taking world numbers of something on the order of 10 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum, this occupies a volume at a minimum 10 cubic kilometres. This volume has to be gas tight with an internal pressure of 50 bar and storage would have to be permanent. This volume would have to be built every year. For the UK the demands are proportionately less, but it makes storing nuclear waste look easy.

    So well done for stimulating a numerical based discussion, but no marks for plausibility.

    Michael de Podesta

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Nice work

    My job involves performance analysis of software, and I often use these kind of speculative calculations to evaluate possible options in order to guide where we allocate limited engineering effort for best gains.

    I haven't read the book yet, but I certainly will. This kind of thinking is absolutely essential if we are to find a properly sustainable solution to our energy requirements. Far too many people pontificate about their preferred options for power generation - sometimes with relatively high-level ears to hand - without any understanding of the logical conclusions.

    Government in particular seems to be capable of making decisions based upon little more than gut feeling about ideas and concepts. You need maths to make things work and fudging stats to get your ideal outcome only works in spreadsheets. See the NHS and tax.

  12. John Mangan

    Fantastic . . .

    I know what I'm going to be reading this weekend. I've longed for someone to actually put realistic numbers on these various options; line them up side-by-side and let the spectators judge. Nobody likes nuclear but it does look like its that or fry.

  13. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    We NEED mathematical appreciation of policies..

    Umm... if he (or any civil servant responsible for poilcy) applied his estimation skills to the figures behind Global Warming, he'd realise there's nothing to worry about, because there isn't ANY proof that it's happening at all.

    Mind you, I'm quite pro-nuclear. When it came out in the 1950s power was going to be so cheap it wouldn't be metered. You can actually do that with nuclear power, and I think that limitless free power would transform our society.

    Can't do it any other way....

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Not safe to base predictions..

    ..of how long various sources of energy will last based on American consumption levels because Americans will simply increase their consumption levels in line with what is available.

    So, assume the US of A will continue to find a use for around 20%-25% of the world's total available supply of energy for the forseeable future (as it does now) and see how that buggers the figures.

  15. Cathryn

    Africa's Sun

    The problem with planning to import solar power from Africa is that Africa will need it's own renewable energy sources. Now maybe there's enough to go around, but I'd like to think that we in Africa get first dibs on our own solar resources.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Brilliant, someone should make a movie!

    Al Gore repentant, An even more inconvenient truth.

    Unfortunately, like all religions, green-ism does not stand up to scientific scrutiny of the facts. The faithful -aka brainwashed- will ignore the facts and carry on believing what they want to believe, largely on the basis that what they have been taught in school and seen on (BBC) TV must be true.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Heat by George Monbiot

    Has he not read it? A lot of this has already been pointed out. The important point is needing to reduce our energy requirement - and there's plenty of profligate waste right now...

  18. Chronos Silver badge
    Thumb Up


    About time we had someone with a bit o' sense talking about this. I would have gone a little further with the nuclear is simply dangerous issue, of course, since we have little idea how many lives have been lost to coal (the whole shabang - blacklung, cave-ins, firedamp), oil (what has four legs and goes "woof?" Piper Alpha), gas, offshore and onshore wind etc. to compare to the "known" number of lives lost to nuclear power.

    I'd also like to know how many people/animals/fish have been blended by hydro, not because I really give a damn, but it seems a particularly nasty way to go. Still, "Trawsfynydd Hydroelectric is brought to you in association with Moulinex - of course it blends!" may give them an additional revenue stream. Oh, and the RSPB can get stuffed; the more shite-hawks beaned by turbines, the better as far as I'm concerned. Those of you who live near the coast (or landfill) or own a boat that you have ever painted or cleaned will know exactly where I'm coming from.

    Aye, perspective is what we need and Professor MacKay seems to have it in bundles. That said, the current trend seems to be legislate for anything that stupid people may stub their toes on. Given that we're legislating against natural selection, why don't we simply hook a huge alternator to Darwin's grave? He's sure to be spinning at a rate of knots.

  19. Mark

    "willingness to upset all sides"

    Not sure why this is a good thing.

    Fits my personal personnel management scheme: denigrate annoy and harrass people until they do what I want.

    So next time I'm told off, I'll point them here.


  20. MarkJ


    I'm always a little sceptical when I see a physicist who claims not to be pro-nuclear being pro-nuclear. Mainly because the only physicists who seem not to be pro-nuclear power are the ones being paid to research photo-voltaics and the like.

  21. AJames

    This is what we need

    An excellent article - I look forward to the book. If we are to have any chance of solving the looming global energy and climate crisis, we need to tell our politicians to stop posturing and start dealing with the hard facts. We owe it to our children and to future generations.

  22. Kit Temple

    Renewable efficiency levels

    From reading this article, I'm not clear if he has considered the constantly improving technologies of renewable energies. Renewable sources such as photovoltaics keep improving their efficiencies year by year. So if you implement a 10-year plan of rolling out renewable equipment, then the equipment installed in year 10 would be significantly more efficient.

    Also ignoring PV on roofs in favour of PV farms in Africa makes financial sense if all expenditure had to come directly from the government's pocket - but one benefit of installing PV on roofs is to share the cost with UK residents who pay out some of their capital and recoup it over the years.

  23. Tim
    Thumb Up

    Killing two birds:

    Why not burn all the obese people, thus eliminating the obesity problem, and their associated high energy consumption. This has the added benefit of making the whole of the US empty. We could then store all our landfill there!

  24. Mark

    "At present, there being no scarcity of uranium"

    Uh, reserves currently stand at about 50 years. And most power is NOT from nuclear.

    If we used breeder reactors, but then again, we nearly invaded iran because they wanted something that *could* possibly be used to create weapons-grade materials, which breeder reactors definitely do.

    If nuclear is so safe and cheap, why is it that new reactors are only built when the government pays the insurance tab and offsets decommissioning?

    As to the opening gambit, I notice that you haven't actually put any numbers to the "10% of the UK under wind turbines would save half of what a 50km daily drive would use up". Where's your figures?

  25. jeffrey


    Didn't someone come up with an idea where you could convert sellafield for about £4Billion to recycle both existing and projected uk nuclear waste, an option which would supply the same amount of electrcity from nuclear power as the uk currently produces, but without having to by in fresh fuel for a period of about 100 years? I seem to recall we would offer to be the worlds recycling bin and other countries would pay us to take their nuclear waste of their hands, whereupon we would recycle it by putting it into our special reactors several times over to generate our own electricity?

  26. John Sager

    He'll get Lomborged:(

    This is incendiary stuff to the planet-huggers, and I fear that, if his book gets to be as widely read as it should be, then he'll get the same kind of treatment as Lomborg did. Incidentally, I wish the 'save-the-planet' crowd would be rather more honest about their motivations. The planet doesn't need saving - It'll carry on fine and indeed a real environmental crisis will just provide lots more scope for evolution. There may be no more tigers but there will be other top predators doing their stuff. What would need saving is the human race, so I wish they would just acknowledge that selfish fact.

  27. James Anderson

    Confirms what I always thought.

    Switching off the telly rather than leaving it on standby makes not a blind bit of difference.

    The good professor rubbished the idea even without pointing out that for six months of the year if your telly wasn't contributing its heat to the house the central heating would have to take up the slack.

    Looks like were going nuclear -- better get used to the idea.

  28. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Making use of the Sahara

    Interesting article. The problem with nuclear fission is still safe disposal of the waste. Until this has been solved the costs unlike the risks are unknown.

    Fortunately this is already starting - solar *and* wind power is being adopted in the Maghreb as a way to reduce electricity imports from countries like Spain. In addition to the direct economic benefits this has added social benefits because it requires a skilled local labour force to maintain the generators. Providing employment is one of the key ways to reduce social tension which is at least partly responsible for political radicalisation and emigration. The Sahara including the mountain ranges is easily big enough to generate enough electricity for the local countries and Europe and will require co-operation on both sides to be successful.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Well he's talking about (i think) the total amount of energy produced, whether you're using it in static stations or in vehicals is of little consequence.

    Shame no one that makes decisions will listen to the guy though.

  30. Austin Chamberlain

    A rare bit of rationality ...

    If only the various interest groups, companies, government bodies and politicians could be forced to handle things in such a rational manner.

  31. John Robson Silver badge

    That's a decent way of looking at the options...

    Oh - and @Biofuels (JonB)

    It's still biofuel if you burn the wheat, just hasn't been made into biopetrol.

    Basically then I've done the best I can for my Carbon footprint - I've stopped commuting 70 miles per day and now cycle to work...

  32. Richard
    Thumb Up


    Someone has actually applied common sense and hard maths to what has been up to now mainly a hot-air (ouch) debate. The guy is going to get abuse from all sides due to entrenched positions and narrow-mindedness, but this seems like the first practical scientifically based analysis.

    Total respect!

  33. Mark Land

    Good article, but

    I would hope that reduction of demand due to efficiencies and a shift of focus from consumerism may reduce our energy demands long term significantly.

    I agree that turning TVs off of standy is dumb, but that doesnt mean there is not other ways to use a lot less. For example, the article makes it quite clear that EU residents use a lot less energy per head than US at the moment, but I imagine there is still improvement to be made.

    I am very impressed with the article though, addresses the problems with real possible solutions. I have big doubts that any government would actually use science and numbers in this way, as historically they tend to rely on "common sense", and "interesting science, but, we know best"

    I have some optimism that economics will actually sort the problem out in the end, the higher cost of energy and hence consumables, will mean we will have to use less. For example, buying food from local farms or co-ops will become cheaper compared to the motorway/supermarket model that exists today, as requires less fuel to deliver the goods.

  34. Joe K
    Thumb Up

    I liked this

    Read like quality sci-fi in some places.

    "Fire up the thorium energy extractors dammit!! We need 30 gigawatts at once, Coronation Street is almost finished!"

  35. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    At last someone has realised...

    that with a maximum UK insolation on the order of half a kilowatt per square meter, solar power for anything other than low grade heating is a non-starter.

    Thinking about it, if you insist only on renewable power, your limit is that 500w/m^2, multiplied by whatever inefficiencies you can apply on the green technology of your choice.

    Fission for me please, until they get fusion (just around the corner, for the fortieth consecutive year!) working. Or perhaps vacuum fluctuation zero-point technology, or even magic pixie dust...

    Mine's the one with the Bremsenausstrallung blue glow...

  36. Simon

    This guy knows what hes talking about

    Long article but he touches on so much good sense.

    Firstly, I wish people would stop all this talk about re-newables. Wind and solar power, its such non-sense, especially in a country like the UK where supply is unreliable. Anyone who thinks we could rely on these supplies is talking pants.

    Home generated solar and wind power, tsk, anyone who buys into this is being ripped off.

    Electric cars as well, not a very efficient way of doing it, especially if you are charging it from a remote power station. Its a very lossy way of doing it, best wait until someone develops something mainstream that generates its power in the car (Like Hydrogen). Also electric cars are dangerous as they dont make a noise and you will get an increase in pedestrian accidents, however this could be solved by added a noise maker on the vehicle.

    Nuclear fission, grrr, why do people like Green peace hate nuclear so much? Its much cleaner than say coal, the waste products generated are exagerated. Nuclear waste is more about classification rather than danger. A pen that was used in an office of a nuclear power station is classified as such and has to be disposed as low level waste, this is usually just sticking it in a lanfill site away from normal landfill. The real dangerous stuff is produced in very small amounts, its a bit like the asbestos scares we get, its not that dangerous unless you do something really stupid.

    Nuclear fusion, I have spoken to people involved in this. The status is that they know how to do it, now its just a materials research problem to build a tokamak that will keep running without high maintenance costs. Still its expensive and a commercial design is always "20 years away" so we should stick with fission until then.

    Coal is still not a bad idea, theres maybe more coal in the ground than oil or gas. With moden technology it could be used as a very clean method of generation.

    DC transmission of electricity, briefly mentioned is a much better way of transmitting power than AC. You can transmit DC over hundreds of miles rather than a few miles with AC without the losses. Much higher power can be transmitted for a much smaller cost. If people want to do the "Green thing" then how about millions of solar cells in the Sahara with the power being transmitted to Europe via DC power lines to southern Europe, with enough spare for North Africa.

    So yes, listen to guys like this.

  37. Duncan Robertson
    Thumb Up

    Superb article!

    Whilst no tree-hugger, I do think that we need to do something about energy consumption in this country. This is coming from someone that works for an Oil and Gas Consultancy as well!!

    Anyway, there's no economical way to produce the amount of energy we need, let alone the amount we want, from renewables. Clean coal needs to be implemented, as does Nuclear. I think I'm right in saying that the UK has only ever had 1 Fast Breeder - Dounreay. YES, there were problems! It was built in the 50's, we didn't (and some may argue still don't) know much about Nuclear Physics. Through work carried out at Dounreay, we understand a lot more. And no I'm not just talking about the "What do we do to prevent this from happening again?" lessons learned... The amount of research that was carried out at Dounreay is staggering and we just shut it down. Eh? No, we need more of these Fast Breeders.

    Wind is too unreliable and takes up too many beauty spots and all that - according to most folk. Wave is not quite there yet. Tidal will take a fair amount of investment and there are only a few sites suited to large-scale development. There's the tree-huggers to consider here as well. Bio-fuel will mean the entire UK being covered with fields of Rape or something and then we'll go hungry.

    Sorry folks, either scale down your energy requirements - something that is not easy when we are so reliant on it - or embrace the Nuclear age! It's the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable. No more relying on the Saudis or Russians for Oil and Gas, then having them jack up prices on a whim. When you think what has caused the hike in Oil prices recently, a large portion of the blame has to land on these toe-rag stockbroker types who speculate on commodities prices. Yeah, you pricks, the price has gone up because you all bought loads. Leave it alone! You can afford to run your Porsche with your bonus. Some of us have to fork out £1.32 per litre (IN THE OIL CAPITAL OF EUROPE!!!) and do 70 miles a day just commuting. And no there is no bus! Why do I live here? Because it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. I drink clean water, off a hill, from the tap. My kids are safe. I leave my house unlocked, car with the keys in the ignition and I can breathe clean air.

    As far as where to put these new Nuclear stations, how about on the sites of the existing plants? They were chosen for a reason and you're also cutting de-commisioning costs long term.

    Rant over. That is all....

  38. michael

    there was grate desturbance in the force

    the sound of the hopes of a 1000 enviromentlists sudnley screaming out in trror and sudnley going silent

  39. Steve Crook

    Finally, some maths that actually makes sense.

    The analysis is spot on. We have no choice but to build Nuclear power stations. Personally, I don't like the idea, but the maths makes it clear that for a country that gets as little sun as we do, there's no choice. Just find the sites and build the bloody things.

    Also, it buries the idea that tidal and wind power are anything but a joke, which is a big bonus.

  40. yo

    Nuclear Power

    I quite like how the major issue about nuclear power is ignored, namely storage of spent fuel.

    I also find it extremely naive to suggest that increases in the price of fuel will not be passed on to the customer, which is what you suggest will happen.

    You are quite right in pointing out that most appliances that get flack for wasting energy, don't use much energy, but surely the point is that they waste energy and you hardly get any benefit.

    I've run an energy audit at home and came up with quite a lot of interesting data

    30W for 5.1 sound system

    15W for router

    100W for PC

    10W (phone chargers, tooth brush charger and battery charger)

    That's 155W or 3.7 kWh wasted every day.

    For the sake of argument make 100W for the average household, they might not have a pc on 24/7 but will have TVs, DVD players, Hi Fis and you are looking at 2.5GW, not massive but significant

  41. Lee Dowling Silver badge

    Hooray! Someone with some common sense.

    Rather than guess at numbers and provide fantastic visions of a windmill in your garden running everything in your house, let's actually sit down and do the numbers sensibly. Someone give this man a medal. And alternate scenarios for the greenies - fantastic - let's show them why man MUST burn more uranium before anything like that ever gets viable.

    I love the way that everything is overexaggerated - "Let's assume we need much less energy and we can blanket the country with the best windmills for ever and destroy every habitat by doing whatever we want with loch water and STILL it's not close to viable".

    I was suitably impressed by the fusion numbers to want to instantly stop messing about with fluttering things in the breeze and letting the oceans slosh a couple of generators about and start researching fusion seriously as the only thing worth our time. And while we're getting there, let's just stick one or two more tiny nuclear reactors about to make up for all the lost renewable energy (and then some) for the next century or so.

    Slightly offtopic: I was in B&Q the other day. They sell a home wind-turbine. I was bored and had to wait for the wife to decide between eight identical shades of beige paint, so I did some mental arithmetic.

    If I bought it and installed it and achieved the theoretical maximum power from it, all day every day, it would pay for itself in about 8 years. It had a "design life" of five. That's not counting what happens if it falls off, breaks, wears, becomes less efficient, gets vandalised or happens to sit in a non-optimal location.

    So, theoretically, after 8 years of (hopefully) cash-free maintenance and gale-force winds, I would *just* start to get some free electricity. Not counting installation. Or delivery. Or the planning consultant. Or the planning permission. Or getting the electricity company to install their kit so I could pump back to the grid.

    And when I did start to save money, the enormous eyesore could *just* about generate enough electricity (after battery/conversion losses) to run a 1-bar electric fire if it was operating to it's perfect theoretical maximum. With reasonable averaging of windspeed, power, etc. I could *just* about get it to run a bulb or two in the shed 24/7 - energy saving ones at that.

    This thing had four-foot blades, was bigger than and cost more than my car. It doesn't take a genius to look at that in realistic terms and instantly dismiss it as not viable. Even with the advantages and efficiences gained by scaling up, it's simple to see why wind is, pretty much, useless as a power source. (If you still need an analogy, it's like trying to power your kids toys by blowing on one of those handheld-fans and wiring it's battery contacts up to their Tonka).

    The best bit was that EVERY bloke who walked past stopped and looked at it in admiration. I assume either brainwashing by the Green party or some sort of size comparison contest was in progress. Such was the interest generated by potentially "saving energy/money"that EVERY bloke looked. And then some of the more intelligent saw the numbers. The rest, I assume, already have one and are watching their voltmeters religiously to see when they start to claw their money back.

    BTW: If you want an eye opener about your electricity usage, get a pre-pay meter. Seriously, you'll never believe the difference that turning on an electric heater/kettle makes.

  42. Anonymous Coward

    Why stop there?

    I'd go further... 30x the current nuclear to ~310GW. That would cover our total UK energy requirement 2700TWh (no external oil needed). Invest in synthetic methane & petrol refineries and run transport & home heating etc. on the _same_ infrastructure we have now without the dependence on Russia or the Gulf. Why tool up for hydrogen/electric cars when we have working petrol ones? Tax "real" petrol & diesel into the stoneage (e.g. double the duty, £2 or £3 per litre sounds good) & have v.low duty on zero carbon synthetic fuel.

    However this kind of change would require long term investment, forethought and balls. 3 things which governments lack when it is much quicker to build gas fired powerstations and buy gas from Norway & Russia.

    Just my 2p

  43. michael


    the point of this is he is converting all use in to an equivlent elecy output so aloth he says "biofules will genrate so much lecky" what he meanes is "bio fules will genrate so much car fule witch if they where lecky cars would be this much power taken form the grid"

  44. James Pickett

    Just a thought...

    I once did a back-of-envelope calculation that revealed that the amount of sunshine (@1kW/m2) enjoyed by my garden on one summer's day would be enough to heat my house for a year, so I agree that solar energy is a Good Thing. Given that the oceans absorb a fair amount of it, and distribute it a bit, why not use heat pumps to capture some of that energy? You could even help restore the melting Arctic, always assuming that it actually is...

  45. Sulehir


    It's truly a nice change to see a (mainly) unbiased evaluation. Everything else you seem to see is either greenpeace orientated "we'll build a few more windmills and everyone will have enough electricity" or just a big "trust us and maintain the status quo" from big business and government.

    I hope many people read his book and take note, Ill be sending copies round to everyone I know.

  46. Risky
    Thumb Up

    Great article

    I've bookmarked his page and might even have a read of the book yet. There is a desperate need for some rational thought on these matters and less of the "Don't Think Act Now!" hype.

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Go nuclear, research fusion

    But didn't we know that already?

    BTW @ "no marks for plausibility" - no pleasing some people! But I found your estimates of 30% each from light bulb replacement and loft insulation *incredibly* endearing. I think we can get another 30% from hugging trees.

  48. Anne van der Bom

    Stay sceptic

    An advice that I forgot in my first post.

    Everybody seems very eager to believe this professor. He is only human and can make mistakes. Don't be lured into the belief that if a book contains that much of math, that it must be true.

    Stay sceptic!

  49. Anne van der Bom


    Well I can already mention the first glaring mistake. It is the claim that 10% of britain would have to be covered in wind turbines to provide half engergy for enabling the cars in Brintain to travel 50 km/day. I checked up on his calculation and he comes to an amount of energy of 40kWh/day....... by using the calorific value of fuel!

    Aaaaargh. This is so fundamentally wrong. He completely the point that an average car engine is 20% efficient, and an electric motor around 90%.

    Actual real-world data of electricity consumption for an electric car (comparable to our current petrol cars!) is somewhere between 6 and 10 km per kWh. This is a full factor of 5 less!

    I wouldn't trust a professor that make mistakes that are so fundamentally and obviously wrong. And he is boasting about having all the numbers like he knows it all. I would say he didn't do his homework

  50. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Uranium economy

    The HUGE problem with nuclear power is political - not the lentil knitters, but international politics. As the report points out, uranium reserves are pretty limited if the World decided that fission was the way forward (and it is increasingly looking that way).

    Thorium is in some way an even bigger problem than uranium since it needs to be transmuted into U233 before it can be used as a fuel. The Indians, who have some of the largest thorium reserves, have long experience in doing this. BUT U233 is an excellent material for bomb making. It can be used in a uranium cannon bomb (unlike plutonium), a much simpler, cheaper way of becoming a nuclear power as it doesn't need anything like the same level of expertise - the design of Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima didn't need to be tested and the South Africans assembled a number of similar weapons without ever testing their designs.

    The way to extend uranium reserves is through reprocessing and recycling U235 for further use and either blending in Pu239 to make MOX or to embark on a real fast breeder program using Pu239 as the fuel and U238 as the breeding blanket. This would mean a huge commitment to reprocessing - an economic disaster in the UK which is the only country to have ever gone wholeheartedly for the process, and something of an environment nightmare as it means finding repositories for spent actinides. Could any government make such a commitment?

    BUT the monster in this is the plutonium economy. Such a programme would require hundreds of tonnes of plutonium, all suitable for bomb making, to be shipped around the World on a continuous basis. It would mean providing countries with whom we have awkward, if not hostile, relationships with plutonium. Bearing in mind the fracas we're currently having with Iran over its uranium program does anyone countenance the US or Israel permitting Iran to receive plutonium shipments?

    Okay, we could avoid trans-shipments and say that everyone has a reprocessing program of their own. The technology is from the 1940s and is accessible to anyone with a supply of concrete, kerosene and some 1st year degree chemistry. Is the World ready for 200 odd reprocessing programmes all with the potential to divert plutonium into bomb programs?

    Or the US and the rest of the Security Council could say that all new nuclear economies must sign up to receive fuel from their enrichment and processing plants and return spent fuel to them. This hasn't worked too well in the past - India's successful civilian and military programs are a direct protest at trying to impose similar rules through the Non Proliferation Treaty, and Iran's current intransigence is in part down to the fact that under the Treaty every country is permitted to have their own civilian nuclear programs - including a complete fuel cycle. The West demanding that Iran must accept fuel from outside is not grounded in law.

    So can the readers of this mighty organ see how to get round these problems?


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