Memorandum submitted by the Institute
The Institute fully supports R&D into new
renewable energy technologies, which may eventually reduce the
requirement for fossil fuel electricity generation. Renewable
energy technologies are an essential part of the future energy
mix, but there is a need for increased research and innovation
in the relevant R&D sectors, in order for the UK and the EU
to be in a position to respond to the challenges of the medium
to long-term future.
The Institute noted that the Performance and
Innovation Unit's (PIU) energy report recommended that the target
for the production of electricity generated from renewables sources
should be increased to 20% by 2020. The Institute is of the view
that the current target of 10% itself is somewhat unrealistic,
as renewable energy technologies presently suffer from various
barriers to exploitation, which demand greater R&D. These
includethe power density required by some EU member states,
particularly the UK, making the use of renewable sources problematic;
disadvantages of renewables with respect to base-load capacity
and the inflexibility of their supply; high economic costs in
comparison to fossil fuel technologies; and they can have environmental
impacts (ie noise pollution, visual intrusion etc.) which may
be reduced only through substantially greater capital investment.
In addition, renewable energy technologies will
need to be assessed comprehensively and objectively for their
full environmental impacts. They must be considered against the
backdrop of competitive energy markets and the need to ensure
a socially beneficial energy policy. This may be perceived as
a barrier to innovation and technology, but it is important that
an environmental impact assessment is made, including issues such
as noise pollution, visual intrusion, environmental damage from
underpinning infrastructure, and the whole life cycle of the technology
from construction through to decommissioning. Environmental considerations
and comparisons should not be restricted to an evaluation of emissions.
Objective and consistent considerations should be applied equally
to all technologies, as a balanced and stable energy policy will
require a clear understanding of each technology. Energy markets
and regulatory frameworks should reflect such considerations in
Another issue that requires consideration is
the need for differentiation between energy sources for high-density
populations (eg big cities, industry) and those for low-density
rural populations. When discussing renewable energy technologies,
what is sensible for low-density populations may be valueless
for a city. For example, renewable energy technologies will undoubtedly
be useful to developing nations, being within the grasp of their
financial and technological resources. In addition, renewables
could provide an opportunity for the UK to export relevant skills
As highlighted the power density required can
make the use of renewable sources problematic, particularly in
the UK. Wave, tidal, and wind and solar would each require large
areas of land and sea to provide for a significant amount of UK
demand, and peak demand may often occur when these resources are
not operating. The coldest days in the UK year tend to coincide
with calm weather and with peak demand being in the early evening.
Tidal energy remains an almost unused source of energy, however,
the environmental consequences are not well understood and the
availability of sites may be problematic. Further R&D in this
area and on energy storage is needed.
There is considerable scope for the amalgamation
of offshore wind with other sea-based energy technologies such
as wave and tide energy. The civil engineering infrastructure
and the transmission requirements would be increased little and
all the other technologies could be made in additional units.
The newer static wave generators could be added to the turbine
towers and tide additions would be small, but cheap additions.
This would also help to spread the electricity production variations
for pure wind sources.
Wind power is considered to be the leading renewable
energy technology for the UK, however, Denmark is ahead in wind
power technologies. A number of points that require consideration
are whether wind power could replace coal or nuclear power and
reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, when these power plants
close down, or cope with increased demand? Wind power will most
probably be a part-time power supply, when it is closed down by
a lack of wind.
One of the most promising renewable energy technologies
being developed is solar power. So far, only a small fraction
of the energy currently used is generated from solar cells. The
problem is the power density (the power generated per unit), it
is questionable whether solar power will be in a position to supply
energy for increasing base-load demand within the next decade.
However, on going research into thermophotovoltaic
(TPV) cells has shown that they could have the potential to yield
a power density greater than 300 times that of a standard solar
cell. But in order for the true potential of solar power to be
realised, greater funds for R&D are needed.
The Institute wholeheartedly agrees with the
recent comments made by the government's Chief Scientific Advisor,
Professor David King, that in order for the UK to meet its international
targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it must inevitably
revive its nuclear power plant building programme.
The Institute also agrees that unless there
is new nuclear build, the reliance on fossil fuel energy generation
would be unabated. Renewables energy technologies alone will not
enable the UK to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets, or satisfy the
UK's demand for electricity generation, as the decommissioning
of nuclear plants will result in the contribution of the UK's
electricity generation declining from around 27% to less than
around four% by 2020. Nuclear power plants provide large amounts
of dependable base-load electricity capacity, they operate efficiently
for several decades, and have made a significant contribution
in helping the UK to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. New
nuclear plants are required in order to maintain and improve not
just the UK's, but the EU's current diversity, security and environmental
balance of electricity supply.
With a 10-year minimum lead-time for the development
of a nuclear plant from initial concept to power on the grid,
a decision on new nuclear build needs to be made no later than
the middle of the decade. The Institute was concerned to note
that the PIU report states that if the UK does not support nuclear
power today, the option will still be open in later years. Any
decision made later than 2005 will lead to the further haemorrhaging
of the UK's nuclear skills base, after which the development of
new nuclear plants will be severely disadvantaged. It is imperative
that the government makes a firm decision soon and does not keep
the nuclear industry on tenterhooks while it waits for the renewable
industry to bridge the gap. Nuclear capacity should be increased
to fulfil the immediate need arising over the next 10-15 years,
and this time can then be utilised in the development of other
low-carbon technologies such as renewables and nuclear fusion.
In order for the nuclear option to remain open
in the UK, the following government actions are urgently needed:
government funding to support and
encourage research into reactor technology and waste management;
UK participation in international
fission R&D projects;
incentivisation of all low carbon
generating technologies to enable competition on a level playing
the enabling of long-term electricity
markets, at prices which will encourage new base-load capacity;
government and industry to provide
joint funding for early regulatory approvals of new reactor designs.
While the popular perception in Europe and North
America is that nuclear power is an industry in decline the reality
globally is the reverse. Over recent years there has been a wave
of new nuclear plant construction in the Far East, most notably
Reactor design and manufacturers have gone through
a period of consolidation and restructuring in recent years. As
a result two reactor systems stand ready to seek licensing for
the UK. One is the "Advanced Passive" series of 600MW
and 1000MW pressurised light water reactors from BNFL-Westinghouse
and the other is the Next Generation CANDU (originally "Canadian
deuterium uranium") system from Atomic Energy Canada Limited
in association with British Energy.
Looking to the longer-term there has been much
discussion on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) being developed
in South Africa by an international consortium. Key benefits of
PBMR include the fuel's ability to withstand very high temperatures,
and that the concept is of a simple modular construction with
consequential low capital cost of units, which may be produced
in substantial numbers ensuring economy of scale.
Although current reactor designs are mature
and proven, the technology must evolve and adapt to survive. Immediate
action is required to restore a credible UK nuclear technology
base with an expanded R&D programme, which will create the
capability to embark on short-term new build programmes, support
long-term developments for safer and more economic reactors, and
facilitate UK participation in international programmes.
Government funded nuclear R&D programmes
are an essential prerequisite for a new build programme, to recreate
the skill and infrastructure base. However, the UK government's
nuclear R&D expenditure has declined considerably over the
past two decades. This has lead to a decline in the nuclear R&D
base and infrastructure, which will be weakened further when the
remaining nuclear plants are progressively decommissioned, and
an ageing skills base approaches retirement.
This concern relating to the skills base was
highlighted in the recent report by the HSE-NII entitled, Nuclear
Education in British Universities, which concluded that unless
there is urgent action nuclear education in the UK will slowly
disappear, compromising the future staffing requirements of the
nuclear industry. This message was reinforced in the DTI's recent
Nuclear and Radiological Skills study. It is essential that the
measures recommended in this study are implemented, to proactively
protect the UK's skills base as the next restructuring of the
nuclear industry is imminent with the establishment of the Liabilities
Management Authority (LMA). The effect of commitment to new nuclear
build would not only require such consolidation of the nuclear
skills base, but would strongly contribute to it in improving
the attractiveness and vitality of the nuclear sector.
With regards to the issue of managing radioactive
waste, it is fundamental to separate the issue of dealing with
radioactive waste and the construction of new nuclear plants.
It needs to be understood by policy makers and the public that
the problem of managing radioactive waste is largely a legacy
from the past. Even if a decision is made not to construct new
nuclear plants, the problem of managing nuclear waste produced
as a consequence of current electricity generation and plant decommissioning
will still exist. The new nuclear plants, highlighted in the previous
paragraphs, will generate significantly lower amounts of waste,
and the UK should not use the difficult challenge of dealing with
legacy wastes as a basis to delay the decision to build new nuclear
One possible solution to the thorny problem
of radioactive waste management could be the accelerator driven
transmutation of nuclear waste. The world has generated over 1250
tons of plutonium, which could be disposed of by being burnt in
a fast neutron fluxin a fast reactor or in a specialised
accelerator facility. Each ton of plutonium contains as much energy
as two million tons of oil equivalent, and a one-gigawatt power
station can incinerate approximately one ton of plutonium in a
year. Fast reactor technology based on lead or sodium coolant
exists and could be implemented immediately. The implementation
of this technology could also be a sensible step towards a full
energy amplifier concept for a power stationa concept advocated
by the Nobel Laureate high-energy physicist, Professor Carlo Rubbia.
Late last year, the Institute held a workshop
at the DTI Conference Centre entitled, Nuclear Powerthe
practicalities. The aim of the workshop was to discuss the
issues that would arise from a government decision to develop
the contribution of nuclear power to the UK's energy needs. The
workshop examined possible models for the nuclear fuel cycle and
for waste management, the relative benefits and disadvantages
of a nuclear renaissance based upon a single reactor design, and
the UK's capacity to engage in an expansion of nuclear power both
in terms of technical capability and the necessary human resources.
A copy of the workshop report has been enclosed, which can also
be downloaded from the Institute's website at http://policy.iop.org/IOP/Foresight/programme.html.
In addition, the Institute is of the view that
nuclear fusion has an important role to play in low emission energy
technology in the long-term future. Despite the fact that commercial
electricity generation from nuclear fusion is not likely before
2030, its benefits as an energy source for the long-term future
are very large.
Nuclear fusion has long been hailed as the ultimate
energy source, mimicking on Earth the processes which take place
deep inside the Sun and other stars, where light elements are
fused to form heavier ones, releasing huge amounts of energy.
Harnessing this energy on Earth would provide a virtually inexhaustible
energy source with no greenhouse gas emissions.
Fusion research is finally coming of age. Results
from large machines like the Joint European Torus (JET), the world's
largest magnetically confined fusion facility, mean that physicists
have a deep understanding of the processes which will make fusion
a reliable system for large scale base-load electricity generation.
Today, a so-called "Fast Track" approach
recommended by a panel of European experts led by Professor David
King, if adopted, will bring this much closer. Their report recommends
undertaking materials testing in parallel with the proposed next
step magnetic fusion device, the International Thermonuclear Experimental
Reactor (ITER), thus, demonstrating fusion energy production on
a 20-30 year time scale. The UK is at the forefront of this push
to make fusion a reality.
The Institute recently held a seminar entitled,
FusionThe Future of electricity generation, which
provided an insight into the enormous potential of fusion energy.
The seminar also reviewed the research needs and courses of action
that will be required in order to demonstrate fusion energy production.
A copy of the seminar report has been enclosed, which can also
be downloaded from the Institute's website at http://policy.iop.org/Policy/profile.html
The combustion of fossil fuels will be a major
source of the world's energy for the foreseeable future since
alternatives cannot currently provide the quantities at an economic
level. Furthermore there are certain sectors, such as civil aviation,
for which no other realistic alternative fuel types are available.
Combustion in all its diverse forms, therefore, will remain an
important issue for many years. There has been a lack of funding
and support for UK combustion research in recent years, and the
profile of combustion research needs to be raised as a necessary
requirement for sustainable economic growth in the short to medium-term.
Fundamental and applied combustion research
can decrease our use of fossil fuels, and hence greenhouse gases,
and noxious emissions at source, rather than relying on clean-up
technologies after the event. It is also necessary if biofuels
are to be fully exploited, as well as alternative technologies
such as the production of syngas from gasification plant for subsequent
combustion in gas turbines.
The Institute would be in favour of continued
electricity generation from coal powered generators if the generating
efficiency could be increased, hence lowering emissions.
A major challenge ahead for suppliers of fossil
fuel energy technologies will be to mitigate the emissions. There
is a need to identify and have in place cost-effective technologies
that can be applied rapidly, to coincide with any major policy
The most obvious solution to the problem of
greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce the volume of emissions
at source. Remediation is not an ideal solution, and the land
area of the UK is possibly too small for tree planting to make
a significant contribution in lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide
levels. However, existing forests and other carbon sinks (such
as soils) should be conserved, in order to prevent the latter,
in particular, from becoming potential sources of carbon.
Geological carbon sequestration, under the right
provisos, could play a role in mitigating the effects of carbon
dioxide emissions in the short to medium-term future. Captured
carbon dioxide could be converted into an appropriate form and
deposited in the earth's geological strata, preferably under the
seabed. This would be best applied to emissions from large power
stations. However, the main barriers to sequestration appear to
be the associated high costs and concerns over the safe environmental
storage of large quantities of carbon dioxide.
The EU's long-term dependence on oil as a transport
fuel source could be reduced with the continued development of
hydrogen fuel cells and the emergence of a "hydrogen economy"
The internal combustion engine has dominated the transport industry
and small-scale energy generation for over a century. But concerns
over the environmental impact of exhaust emissions has led to
the development of fuel cells, which provide both ultra-low emissions
and high efficiencies.
Unlike batteries, fuel cells do not require
charging and do not lose energy when converting between electrical
and chemical energy. Indeed, energy storage in some form of fuel
is more effective than in any type of rechargeable battery, since
it improves the power density of the system and ultimately the
driving range of the vehicle.
Applications like stationary power plants and
fuel cells for transportation could become a commercial reality
within the next five to 10 years, mainly due to technological
improvements in the proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell.
These advances have resulted in a series of strategic alliances
between fuel-cell developers and car manufacturers.
In the transport sector there would appear to
be great potential for international commercial licensing in the
area of fuel cell and battery powered electric vehicle technologies.
The use of cleanly generated mains electricity to charge batteries
or to prepare hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cell use offers great
environmental promise in the area of vehicular transport. Such
technologies would be well suited to commercial licensing.
In addition, the re-formulation of oil and gas
into hydrogen-rich fuels which can be used in on-board fuel cells
powering electric motors could also be a viable alternative to
traditional oil based motors.
17 September 2002