Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics


  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 include—the 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 future.

  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 and technologies.

  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 field;

    —  the enabling of long-term electricity markets, at prices which will encourage new base-load capacity; and

    —  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 in China.

  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 plants.

  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 flux—in 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 station—a 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 Power—the 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

  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, Fusion—The 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 sem.


  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 changes.

  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

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