Coal and uranium are companions rather than competitors

Diversity versus adversity

1 May 2008

It was just a bookmark. The folded sheet of paper must have been keeping its place for a long time. I found it while taking part in a search through an English country-house library that had in its heyday been the home of many reference books. The surviving volumes were of varying interest but what in a curious way proved most memorable to me was that bookmark.

It was in fact a slim old leaflet, reduced to placekeeping duty. Before its demotion it must have done some active service in a 1980s campaign by its publisher, the UK’s sometime Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which reigned over the greater part of the then-nationally-owned electricity supply industry. Its message on this occasion was about Britain’s latest nuclear power station, which was to be the first in the country equipped with a pressurised water reactor rather than CO2-gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactors.


The construction of this new station was being defended against vigorous opposition. Various arguments were presented in the leaflet. Perhaps the easiest of them was the one in favour of fuel diversity to ‘reduce the Board’s heavy dependence on coal and lessen the risk to electricity consumers of a severe disruption in the supply of any one power station fuel’.

It was noted that over 80 per cent of the Board’s electricity output was from coal-fired stations and 16 per cent from nuclear. The diversity advocated was just ‘a better balance of coal and nuclear plant in future’. According to the leaflet the CEGB saw a bright future for coal and expected to ‘remain a major coal-burning utility until well into the next century’. There was no suggestion of near-term recourse to further diversification, and no mention of natural gas. (I have reason to believe that in those days there was some resistance to the use of natural gas, deemed a premium chemical resource, as mere fuel for power stations.) The Board apparently had no inkling of the ‘dash for gas’ that later came to pass.†

Although desire still exists in the UK (as elsewhere) for insurance against over-dependence on any fuel, coal use is being viewed askance in some quarters for reasons (including climate-changing potential) beyond any lingering over-dependence upon the once-dominant fuel. The two principal solid-fuel candidates for power stations – coal and uranium – can be seen as companions rather than competitors in contribution to fuel diversification, and in the modern world the danger of over-dependence may be thought to be greater in connection with natural gas. Insurance against over-dependence on any fuel seems anyway not to have increased its relative importance among the growing number of considerations.

All in all there appears to have been an astonishing amount of change for a mere quarter of a century. But when I remember that bookmark I think that the astonishment may be overdone or misplaced. The reference library in which I found the leaflet has become a relic. Now we get all the information we want in new ways, from electrically enabled nets, webs, data banks, data processors, search engines and so forth. That is a change to marvel at.

Thou shalt not throw away calorific value

One of the UK’s political parties is said to favour, by way of a ‘green’ tax, a levy on what one of its more formidable advocates calls ‘large-scale plants, including nuclear’. That may not surprise you but perhaps the precise subject of the proposed impost will. The charge would be on the heat generated but allowed to go to waste.

No power engineer can but sympathise with pleas for cogeneration and combined heat and power plants. Yet the idea of penalising industrial-scale generators for not incorporating both lots of hardware seems to me to be going a bit far. Let me put to the levy-lovers what I see as a logical extension to the idea: tax any incompletely combusted fraction of a carbonaceous (fossil or bio-) fuel for the heat lost in unexploited calorific value. How would they like that?

There is an ethical principle here for philosophers to ponder. Would it be right (if it were practical) to impose punitive taxes on any body (anybody) for ‘wasting’ (whether by throwing away or simply not using) more than a prescribed amount of something valuable?

Carbon, for instance?

The mind (there are those who would say) boggles.

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