Friday, 23 November 2012



No, not my misspelling the title of the John Wayne classic  that somehow came to mind when recently prompted by a survey in the UK Renewable Energy Installer magazine to respond to the question: “Solar experts predict the UK could achieve PV grid parity as early as 2014. Do you agree – Yes/No?”   After I recorded my Yes, the poll return after 100 votes was 26% Ayes against 74% Noes.  I had expected more optimism.

However, that survey question created some unrest among my grey matter and made me look closer at the meaning of grid parity.  Wikipedia (WP) was the usual starting point: 

“Grid parity occurs when an alternative energy source can generate electricity at a levelized cost that is less than or equal to the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid. Reaching grid parity is considered to be an important point in the development of new sources of power. It is the point at which an alternative energy source becomes a contender for widespread development without subsidies or government support.The term is most commonly used when discussing renewable energy sources, notably solar power and wind power. It is widely believed that a wholesale shift in generation to these forms of energy will take place when they reach grid parity.”  

Alternative energies in the UK, as elsewhere, are financially assisted to promote their adoption, most often by feed-in-tariffs (FITs). WP defines FITs as  “… a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies. It achieves this by offering long-term contracts to renewable energy producers, typically based on the cost of generation of each technology.”  

As to the funding of FITs, a UK web site makes things plain:

 “The money doesn't come from the Government, but from the energy market…. Although the FITs are established in law, rather than coming from the government, the tariffs are actually paid by the energy suppliers… Where does the money come from?
It comes out of the pockets of the supply companies because they are really nice guys!
No seriously...
The suppliers pass on the cost of the Feed-In Tariffs scheme to all their electricity customers.
... so the bottom line is that people who don't install renewable energy systems pay for those who do!”

At the consumer end, this is obviously seen as making electricity more expensive; the undoubted general economic benefit, while far outweighing the cost of FITs, remains, however, less individually visible than electricity bills. FIT and similar schemes in various countries to engender renewable energy installations differ in method and kind, but I think all claim that they are not a subsidy (even the Court of European Justice said so about the German variety) since they are not funded out of general taxation income.  BTW, I detest phrases like ‘funded by the government’ which means nothing less than paid for out of our taxes.  But since FITs apply to all consumers of electricity (and who isn’t) they do amount to ‘taxation’ albeit  via an accounting system kept separate – by legislation – from general taxation so as to justify the notion that it ‘does not distort competition in a free market’. 

Let me start by looking at the German situation which, being the widely accepted FIT model, is also the most realistically documented.  The German FIT for renewable energies (EEG is the acronym for the actual German law for it) is, of course, not the only kind of state enshrined support of energy creation, but provides a good starter to explain things.  The German situation looks like this:
Source: Was Strom wirklich kostet. Studie im Auftrag von Greenpeace Energy EG und BWE E.V.
The real cost of electricity. Study prepared for Greenpeace Energy EG and BWE (Federal Wind Energy Association). August 2012.

The cumulative total support of 54 billion Euros [100%] for renewables compares to the combined total of the other quoted sources of 429 billion Euros [794%].  The Greenpeace/BWE study estimates that for the total period of 1970-2012 renewables received, on average, support to the tune of 3.4 EuroCent/kWh (GBP 0.0275/kWh, USD 0.0438/kWh). I would be facile to say that non-renewables received, in round terms, eight times as much financial support as renewables, since unlike FITs, the non-renewable support does not all go for making electricity, nor would such a simplified approach reflect the respective amounts of electricity produced by their respective means.  Taking these considerations into account, the report estimates a total of 8.9 EuroCent/kWh (GBP 0.072/kWh, USD 0.115/kWh) as average subsidies for non-renewables over the period, or 262% of FITs.

So it appears that the question to be asked really should be:  “Could non-renewable energies ever achieve ‘grid parity’ with renewable sources, given a level accounting system?” 

I have found nothing comparable to this German ‘The Real Cost of Energy’ report for other countries, but I am sure it is globally descriptive in principle. The US situation is usefully described in an article titled
‘The Federal Energy Subsidy Scorecard: How Renewables Stack Up’ available at
from which I would like to quote:

How Do Subsidies for Renewables Rank?
Evaluating federal energy subsidies is something akin to alchemy. The myriad of ways in which
they are funded, managed, and monitored, and year-to-year changes in legislation and
budgets make an exact accounting difficult. This said, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI)
recently completed a study for the period 2002 through 2008 in conjunction with the Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars which, coupled with the MISI study, illuminates how
federal energy subsidies affect renewables and other competing fuels.
These studies confirm conventional wisdom that fossil fuels have been the primary beneficiary
of federal energy subsidies. Oil and gas garnered 60 percent of an estimated total of $725
billion in federal assistance between 1950 and 2003, with oil alone taking 46% of the total.
Coal took 13 percent. Next was hydroelectric at 11 percent and nuclear at 9 percent, not
counting the liability cap subsidy which is an implicit avoided cost and impossible to quantify. At
the back of the pack are wind, solar, geothermal, and bio-fuels, recipients of only 6 percent of
total energy sector spending during this period.
Given the recent vintage of renewable technologies, use of a 1950 baseline for breaking down
how federal energy subsidies have been parceled out may not paint a fair picture. However,
the more recent 2002 – 2008 period continues to show fossil fuels as dominant. According to
ELI, subsidies to fossil fuels totaled $72 billion, with most going to oil and then gas.
Support for coal-carbon capture and storage received $2.3 billion of this total. Fossil fuels took
almost two-and-a-half times more in subsidies than renewables, which received $29 billion.
Furthermore of this $29 billion, $16.8 billion went to corn-based ethanol whose climate friendly
credentials are increasingly open to question.
Only $12.2 billion, or 16.6 percent of what fossil fuels received went for wind, solar,
geothermal, hydropower, and non-corn based biofuels and biomass. This is better than in
preceding years but much less than what is needed in the face of global warming, a point
understated by ELI Senior Attorney John Pendergrass when he introduced the ELI study’s
results by saying “These figures raise the pressing question of whether scarce government
funds might be better allocated to move the United States towards a low-carbon economy.”

That is a ratio of 5:1 in favour of fossil fuel subsidies over renewables – not much different to the German ratio of 8:1 when counting, as in the US example, all uses of energy and not only electricity generation.

A special mention must be made of nuclear energy for electricity generation.  Both the German and US examples quoted compare only direct fiscal subsidies.  There are, of course, additional ‘subsidies’ for nuclear energy.

Nuclear power has never been safe, and never will be, it appears – their risks just cannot be insured. The Times [09.09.09.] reports a notional Public Liability premium cover requirement of £620 million per power station, any excess falling on the taxpayer in addition to risks from waste storage and health and life losses. The world’s largest re-insurance company – Munich Re – is reported [ /, 23.03.11] to have declared that it is impossible to say how high an insurance premium should be in the absence of state guarantees, because there is no known modelling method on which to base a risk assessment.

And then there is the unresolved (unresolvable?) problem of what to do with nuclear waste.  A short summary by, of course, Wikipedia will suffice here:

“The use of nuclear technology requires a radioactive fuel. Uranium ore is present in the ground at relatively low concentrations and mined in 19 countries.[2] This mined uranium is used to fuel energy-generating nuclear reactors with fissionableuranium-238 which generates heat that is ultimately used to power turbines to generate electricity.[3]
Nuclear power provides about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity.[4] The expense of the nuclear industry remains predominantly reliant on subsidies and indirect insurance subsidies to continue.[5][6] Nuclear energy production is associated with potentially dangerous radioactive contamination as it relies upon unstable elements. In particular, nuclear power facilities produce about 200,000 metric tons of low and intermediate level waste (LILW) and 10,000 metric tons of high level waste (HLW) (including spent fuel designated as waste) each year worldwide.[7]
The use of nuclear fuel and the high-level radioactive waste the nuclear industry generates is highly hazardous to people and wildlife. Radiocontaminants in the environment can enter the food chain and become bioaccumulated.[8] Internal or external exposure can cause mutagenic DNA breakage producing teratogenic generational birth defectscancers and other damage. The United Nations (UNSCEAR) estimated in 2008 that average annual human radiation exposure includes 0.01 mSv (milli-Sievert) from the legacy of past atmospheric nuclear testing plus the Chernobyl disaster and the nuclear fuel cycle, along with 2.0 mSv from natural radioisotopes and 0.4 mSv from cosmic rays; all exposures vary by location.[9] Some radioisotopes in nuclear waste emit harmful radiation for the prolonged period of 4.5 billion years or more,[10] and storage has risks of containment. The storage of waste, health implications and dangers of radioactive fuel continue to be a topic of debate, resulting in a controversial and unresolved industry.”

A specific example comes from an article in Clean Technica  news, at

“Nuclear waste stored in run-down facilities poses an “intolerable risk;” long-term planning has faced “historic neglect” and decommissioning costs have spiralled out of control.
That’s the damning conclusion of a report by the National Audit Office into the Sellafield nuclear power station, the largest and oldest in the UK.

…Nearly 20 million gallons of nuclear waste are stored on the site in ponds and silos for the 50-year period needed for nuclear waste to cool down. Many of these are themselves over 50 years old and have “deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment”.
There have been many plans to improve the facilities, the latest of which came to a halt last year because it was “unrealistic,” with 85% of the improvements attempted failing to achieve what they were meant to achieve.

…The estimated cost of decommissioning the entire site by 2120 has risen by over 40% in just 3 years, and currently stands at $107 billion.”

There currently are 19 operational nuclear power plants in the UK (another eight are planned to be built by 2025).  World-wide there are 435 plants in operation  (62 under construction, and more planned). That makes multitrillion dollars just for intermediate waste storage (never mind the long-term problem for anything between 10,000 and millions of years). 

The world’s nuclear power plants produce a net output of 370,003 MW. Considering that 3.2 litre of clean water are needed for every kWh produced … but I leave that to you to figure out the implications in an idle moment.

The industrial revolution, of course, needed huge amounts of energy, provided by king coal, steam, and Tesla’s alternating current – as best available solutions.  But with currently available technologies, progress no longer lies with supercharged gargantuan steam engines.

Photovoltaics might be said to have achieved true-grid parity with fossils and nuclear ever since Becquerel first observed it in 1839; and wind since a few thousand years earlier.

And those two energy sources – PV and onshore wind – are the only renewables that satisfy all criteria for ranking as Clean Energy (and the hydrogen/fuel cell combination will no doubt solve all intermittency problems and provide all fuel needs):


As to WHY and HOW, some suggestions are at

Tuesday, 16 October 2012



One reader of my last blog wrote to me directly rather than commenting on the blogsite. I think the ensuing email conversation could be of wider interest.

           After posting my safety and cost concerns in regard to nuclear power it was pointed out to me that:

          …total deaths in the coal industry are in excess of 250,000,total deaths in the hydro industry in excess of 250,000, while total deaths from nuclear energy are less than 100. Your figure for "external costs" is sheer invention.  And sheer nonsense.

          To which I replied:
          Coal deaths:  all due to power stations?  Similarly hydro:  all due to generating stations?
My guess is mostly upstream of either – like mining and dam building (though coal can also be nasty downstream). Similarly, looking at upstream deaths of nuclear power stations, produced these sources within 5 minutes of Google search:

in the light of which the figure of 100 deaths for nuclear seems low by several orders of magnitude, which alone would also make the ‘external costs’ I quoted (from sources listed) probably too low.
Not to mention the downstream aftermaths and their costs.
But then I’m no expert, only a learning pundit of the very skeptical sort in relation to anything.

          Coal deaths largely due to mining.  Hydro largely dam bursts. I checked the Wikipedia piece -- it mentions risks of radon (now much reduced), but no indication of numbers that I could see.

         Wikipedia was one of thousands of search results which I could not immediately follow up on, but the other sources I quoted are more illuminating of uranium sourcing aftermaths.
The problem with radiation illnesses and deaths is very similar to the asbestos problem with which I was closely involved during an earlier post I held:  it took over thirty years to acknowledge the link between source and delayed deaths, and taking action.  At least one could remove asbestos as it is an inert material, harmless once encapsulated.  Tons of radioactive waste with half lives up to 2 million years just can’t be safely transported or stored, leaving unknown numbers of lingering deaths and genetic radiation damage over many generations unresolved.
My money remains on Clean Energy a la Hermann Scheer as the preferable option.  Seen on a world scale, it’s already the only option, if for water reasons alone (3.2 litres for every nuclear kWh…).

                    Not sure what Hermann Scheer had in mind, but currently available intermittent renewables contribute little or nothing (the inefficiencies of spinning reserve back-up eat up any contribution from renewable sources).  Cheers.

          Regarding your view on intermittent renewables: It depends how and by whom it’s done.  I have visited the town of Morbach four years ago where they quite happily live for the most part from municipally owned renewables.  Worth a visit (app.3 hours’ drive from Ostend), one of the early and most successful implementations of CivicEnergy, or 100% Energy Autonomy, as referred to elsewhere.  In Germany and Austria alone there are about 800+ municipalities that are  partly or close to achieving 100% Energy Autonomy (from smallest village to cities like Munich or whole regions, like Burgenland).  ‘CivicEnergy’ as a concept is introduced in my little ‘Ecotown’ eBook (a subset of my Sustainability Primer).  A worldwide inventory of 100% energy autonomy is available at  (go 100% Map).  My cheers go in that direction.

          Thanks, but I still don't get it.  Civic Energy is a nice name, but what does it mean?  How do they generate it?

          Let me take that one by one:
          First, Clean Energy definition enclosed with an assessment of its importance by Thomas Friedman, followed by my definition of CivicEnergy:

         How do they generate it? 

          With CleanEnergy more specifically, with combinations of PV, wind, biomass (organic waste and forestry sources – the latter most pronounced in the Austrian wood pellet industry), and hydro, depending on local conditions. Biomass, producing methane driving generators for electricity, and pellets driving CHP plants producing elt. power as well as heat for e.g. district heating or pellet drying, or other local commercial or industrial heat requirements; in short, with a combination of any locally available clean energy sources.


          Although you didn’t ask that:  to provide cheapest possible energy locally produced, and to earn money for the community by selling surplus production; no money for energy is being paid  to others but kept in the community for civil infrastructure, education, commerce, industry, sport, recreation and not to forget: employment creation.
Two illustrations also enclosed may illustrate this:  Osterholz press release, and Wildpoldsried, a village of 2553 inhabitants [2008], with their energy consumption of 6.391MWh in comparison to their generation of 20,543MWh – obviously a profitable business for the whole municipality. A more detailed description can be found at .

For the larger picture I would like to quote:

“Decentralization in this sense serves to balance society's living standards. Imagine a region with a population of 1 million, all of whom are currently supplied with energy by centralized providers. In Germany, current per capita energy costs (excluding plant investment) are around €2,500 per annum. This includes all direct and indirect energy costs, i.e. power, heat and fuel, as well as the energy costs represented in every consumer commodity and service. This represents a total of €2.5 billion per annum flowing out of this region's local economy. With the complete transition to power supply based on local renewables, this €2.5 billion would remain in the local economy. This is the equivalent of an economic development program of the same magnitude — on an annual basis, with no bureaucratic effort and distributed amongst the whole population! No government could ever afford to fund a development program of this size. It says much about the energy economists who, focused on energy-efficiency irrespective of its source and continuing to stare exclusively at kilowatt hour prices, fail to see this connection.”   
Quote from Hermann Scheer’s The Energy Imperative
[a MustRead
as is Diamandis’ Abundance

To stay with German and Austrian conditions, every village/town/city has an elected mayor by age-old traditions.  Of the 800+ communities following the Morbach, Osterholz and Wildpoldsried examples I mentioned here, in most cases the impetus of switching to CivicEnergy is driven by mayors, but local cooperatives (including community based cooperative banks) are also amongst the instigators.  CivicEnergy following this methodology provides not only direct democratic approval for their mayors in what is basically a win-win situation, but also re-election and possible larger political stature based on proven competences while leaving a thriving community for their successors. (e.g. Morbach).   Which is why my cheers remain going in this direction.

Keeping in mind that things Green are not necessarily Clean, nor are Renewables necessary civilised or Civic. 

           … now I start to get the picture.  But the "clean" options you mention are (apart from hydro) incapable of making any significant contribution neither to energy generation, nor to emissions reductions.  They are just the old story of pointless gesture politics, green posturing, and money wasted.

          I was rather astounded by your second sentence because I'm sure you know that, looking globally, before this century has little more than half way passed, the end of 19th century steam engines, even with the fanciest hi-tech cookers up front, has to face 21st century reality when there is just no alternative but to switch to clean renewables – if for no other reason than I described in my little punditry Peak What? essay in Alt-energy Magazine [].

But I, too, start to get the picture’.  That picture appears to me like the proposition that all of us plebs must function as the paying helots of the monopolistic energy behemoths, if not even in the fashion of state energy monopoly. 

David Cameron proclaimed in 2009 (before becoming UK Prime Minster after the 2010 election): 

 "We need a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power. From the state to citizens; from the Government to Parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy" [The Times, 30/05/2009] 

- tenets which are equally relevant in the energy field.  No such luck, of course, on any of the subjects mentioned, least of all energy. 

Your remarks about clean options also remind me of Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement that heavier than air flight is absolutely impossible, and we know what happened to that. Similarly, CivicEnergy is already ‘flying’ healthily in all shapes and sizes in over a million places, and growing, and preparing for the inevitable general realisation that only ground-up CivicEnergy can make the required contribution to the world’s energy needs which no monopolistic top-down helotism could, or needs to, or should supply together with a claim to state enforced uniqueness.  A little more of punditry in the form of three enclosed slides may illustrate my point.

          Sorry, Mike, but you're just plain wrong.  Wind farms do not achieve significant reductions in emissions, nor in consumption of fossil fuel energy.  They threaten the stability of the grid -- now even Ofgem is warning of blackouts by 2015.  See  

You can't "switch to clean renewables" because they don't deliver any significant net contribution to energy generation.  And they are so expensive that they undermine our economy, and drive energy intensive industries abroad.

We are mortgaging our children and pauperising our grandchildren for the sake of pointless political gestures, driven by hysteria over "Man Made Global Warming" that just isn't there.

I’m wrong, you say – well, that wouldn't be the first time even though I try to avoid or correct that. 
At least we agree on one thing:  the man-made-global-warming hysteria appears to amount to the biggest political and intellectual fraud ever.  So why worry whether windfarms reduce emissions (by which I assume you mean CO2) or not?  What other emissions could there possibly be?  Of course they don’t reduce the consumption of fossils fuels if you don’t build any.  Makes me wonder why the UK is therefore paying to build wind farms in Ireland in order to import electricity from there?  Electricity from onshore wind power is, of course, to be had for less than half the costs of offshore wind, but why leave UK mainland for it?  And since when does wind, or any other CleanEnergy, threaten the stability of the grid?  Makes me wonder how Australians and several continental countries manage to connect close to thousand CivicEnergy municipalities in addition to tens of thousands of household small scale PV installations to their grids?  Reasons must to be inflexible grids rather than CleanEnergy inputs.  I am, of course, member of GWPF and follow their publications and events.  But the quoted examples of matter-of-fact successful cohabitation of GW-size power installations and Clean and CivicEnergy providers on the same grid appear to me to disprove OFGEM or anyone else saying it can’t be done:  it is done as a matter of routine elsewhere.  Fact.
Clean and CivicEnergy providers, however, already make significant and growing contributions to energy generation.  If they didn’t, why would Austria, Belgium Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland and likely also Japan shortly, have decided to abandon nuclear and fossil fuels as energy sources?  Surely not because they all wish to ‘undermine their economies’ and return to the Stone Age.  Fact.

So yes, if the facts change, I’ll change my mind from favouring CleanEnergy, especially in the form of CivicEnergy, as the best (if not the only possible and lasting) practice and forward strategy to provide the world’s energy, prosperity and happiness.  

And here is what started it all:
My continuing learning curve in arriving at this conviction is visible on my blogsite since 2009 and in some of my articles quoted there (all open for comments), and in my eBooks. 

    >  Die Sonne bringt  es an den Tag  <

A few relevant links of the many arriving here just in the last few days may be of interest:

And for the swift moves of Japan:

Monday, 1 October 2012



Some oldies are becoming topical again:
Note: a further comment has been provided by Rudo de Ruijter, Independent researcher, 
          Link added in Comments below.

“Photons and Atoms
by Mike Hohmann on Monday, March 28, 2011 at 2:53pm

OK – one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but at 12:30h on 22 March 2011, German photovoltaic power installations fed 12.1 Gigawatt electricity into the national grid, exceeding the combined contribution of the nine remaining nuclear power stations together providing 12.0 Gigawatt [ 23.03.11]. Considering that current levels of PV installations are far below possibilities, as are wind, biofuel and other CleanEnergy resources, there just isn’t any ongoing need for nuclear energy.

Nuclear power has never been safe, and never will be, it appears – their risks just cannot be insured. The Times [09.09.09.] reports a notional Public Liability premium cover requirement of £620 million per power station, any excess falling on the taxpayer in addition to risks from waste storage and health and life losses. The world’s largest re-insurance company – Munich Re – is reported [ /, 23.03.11] to have declared that it is impossible to say how high an insurance premium should be in the absence of state guarantees, because there is no known modelling method on which to base a risk assessment.

Compare this to the £5million Public Liability Insurance being asked from residents who want to hold a Street Party on the occasion of the forthcoming Royal Wedding.......”

Or as Douglas Adams put it:

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.”

But even if the actual nuclear powered steam engines work as they should, unresolved problems remain for which our grandchildren – and theirs in turn – are unlikely to forgive us.  I enclose copy of a translation of a memorandum received over a year ago:

Translation of a memorandum received from Franz Eder dated 21 April 2011              

Notes on occasion of the nuclear disaster in Japan, and considering general problems with nuclear power
by Franz Eder 21.4.2011

“Die ich rief, die Geister,
   From the spirits that I called,
werd'ich nun nicht los.
   Master, now deliver me!”

                                     GoetheThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice   


The Dangers of Nuclear Accidents

To start with, I would like to make clear that I write these notes from a layman’s point of view for use by other non-specialists like me; a nuclear physicist might well look askance at them.  I am convinced, however, from talking to many other laymen like me that very little about these matters is generally known – which is why I hope these notes may be helpful.

These days we hear and talk much about the “Sustainability” of actions and processes, for example

  • Renewable resources must NOT be used faster than they grow or can be regenerated
  • NON-renewable resources (e.g. oil, gas) may be used only to the extent that renewable resources can NOT be made available.

These requirements for sustainability, while enshrined in law, so far exist only on paper.

The only real example in practice of enduring “Sustainability” is illustrated by the current nuclear disaster in Japan, with its aftermath ‘sustainably’ affecting men, women, children, animals, plants, air and ocean – for generations to come.

[remember Chernobyl in 1986; full list of nuclear disasters and their aftermaths at,1518,756369,00.html#ref=nlint ].

A few technical details:

  1. To ‘switch off’ an atomic power station, or to take it off-line in more technical parlance, requires the careful gradual insertion of control rods among the fuel rods in order to slow down the chain reaction of the nuclear fission process.
  2. During this process, the first 20 to 30 hours are extremely critical because the heat produced is no longer withdrawn by steam for power generation and the fuel rods get hotter.  An increased cooling effort is required, not only with water but also with special coolants to keep the fission process within manageable limits.
  3. After this initial period continual cooling of the reactor is a more normal routine.                [the working temperature of a nuclear reactor is around 800ºC.  It is claimed that the switch-off process can be routinely mastered].
  4. This requires some remarks about the Chernobyl accident.  The operators of the plant wanted to simulate an emergency, disconnected several safety systems in order to test what might happen and how one would need to react.
  5. During this emergency exercise, which also involved temporary reduction in cooling systems, the reactor over-heated to an extent that the control rods were no longer able to slow down the reaction and the rated heat output was exceeded by a factor 100.
  6. This emergency exercise was carried out over several days so that changing teams of operators were put to test in a shift system.

The result was an enormous increase of temperature inside the reactor, finally resulting in an explosion of the whole plant which blew off the 1000t heavy lid of the reactor allowing an unhindered release of radioactivity affecting wide parts of Europe, contaminating grass, mushrooms, milk etc.

In short, nuclear power generation is a very risky business.

-  2   -

The Dangers from Spent Fuel Rods

  • The fuel rods in nuclear reactors generally last for five years producing power in accordance with their design specification through nuclear fission, i.e. they boil water which powers steam turbines which in turn drive generators which finally produce the actual electricity.
  • At the end of their useful life the spent fuel rods are retrieved by robots from the reaction vessel and must be stored in cooling basins within the reactor building because of their high temperature of about 800ºC.  The on-site cooling period varies between one and five years.  Once cooled, these spent fuel rods were then (until 2005) transported to La Hague in France or to Sellafield in the UK to be reprocessed, i.e. 1-5% of the residual uranium are chemically extracted for use in new fuel rods.

Since 2005/6 it is illegal in Germany to send spent fuel rods for reprocessing, so that spent fuel rods have to be directly transported into interim storage facilities, e.g. Gorleben, where they need to be stored for an interim period 40 years before they can be transferred into final storage depots – which, however, do not yet exist.

  • To stay briefly with reprocessing:  the remaining nuclear waste (95-99% of spent fuel rods) remains highly radioactive and is fused with borate glass at a temperature of 1100ºC and poured into stainless steel tubes and sealed by welding; these cocoons have a diameter of 40cm and are 1.40m long.
  • The waste products in a fuel rod represent about 90-99%, the remaining 1-10% yield during reprocessing uranium and plutonium for re-use as fuel rods.

The CASTOR Transport Container

The containers for transporting spent fuel rods or cocoons are known as Castor Containers and are used to convey reprocessed fuel rods and the highly radioactive waste from reprocessing plants in La Hague or Sellafield to intermediate storage at Gorleben.

The technical details of Castor Containers:

Length:                         ~ 6.00m
Width:                           ~ 2.50m
Weight:                         ~ 120t
Load capacity:              ~ 10t ( that is 50-70 spent fuel rods, or 28 glass cocoons).
Cost                             € 1.5million
The Federal Republic of Germany is bound by contracts to take back all nuclear waste that arose from reprocessing spent fuel rods before 2005;  that means that transports from France are necessary until the end of 2011 and those from the UK are programmed to continue for between 2014 to 2017. 

The contents of Castors – whether fuel rods or glass  cocoonsproduce considerable heat, in the order of 400ºC, so that Castors have cooling ribs all over to help dissipate that heat.  In addition, the radiation must be constantly monitored because the 40cm thick envelope does not fully prevent the escape of radioactivity. 

Post-shutdown Residual Heat

When a nuclear reactor is shut down the radioactive decay of fission products continues to emit heat.  The power of this residual heat is about 10% of the thermal power of the reactor when under full load.  Should any cooling systems necessary to dissipate this residual heat stop functioning for any reason then rising temperatures may lead to hydrogen explosions and lastly to reactor melt-down – as happened in Japan.

This process will happen with spent fuel rods which are similarly subject to this residual heat at 10% of design power and must, therefore, be cooled in on-site cooling basins from 800ºC down to 400ºC.  This takes about 1-5 years;  only then is it possible to transport them.

Should anything disrupt the cooling arrangements during this period of residual heat dissipation, then even these spent fuel rods can produce enough heat from continuing nuclear chain reactions to lead to explosions and meltdown similar as might happen to the reactor itself.

The residual heat problem was my real reason for writing these notes because I think I am not the only one unaware of the big risks still latent in burnt-out fuel rods even after the have become useless for energy generation.

Perhaps we may better understand now why these long storage times for up to five years’ cooling within power stations followed by 40 further years in interim storage are necessary.  Only then is it possible to send these nuclear waste products to yet non-existent final depositories where they continue to dissipate heat and radiation. These final depositories are unacceptable to the public anywhere and remain the unresolved problem of the nuclear power industry.

I hope my brief notes may help to understand immediate and long-term dangers from nuclear power generation so that we know that no effort should be spared to rid ourselves from this menace.  Nothing I wrote is “directly copied from any nuclear scientist” but is based on my understanding of articles in Wikipedia and  Writing as a layman, may I be forgiven for any errors..

Issues with Radioactive Waste:

  • A nuclear power station with an output of 1,300MWp (the size of recent German power stations) produces about 50mper year of low heat producing radioactive waste,
  • During reprocessing, a further 10m3  of low heat producing radioactive waste arise
  • In addition app. 3mhighly radioactive fission products need to be dealt with
  • German nuclear power stations produce 450t/year of highly radioactive spent fuel rods
  • Worldwide, 12,000t/year of highly radioactive waste are produced;  by the end of 2010 a total of 800,000t has accrued, of which 70,000t in the US alone.
  • In Germany, the costs for dealing with nuclear waste are exempt from the general principle of the originator being liable for safe removal or storage. The result is that the taxpayer instead has to bear these costs, e.g. € 3million for nuclear waste transports alone, not to mention any other measures for dealing with the sheer never-ending problems with nuclear waste.

Some issues regarding nuclear waste from French and UK Reprocessing Plants:

Abbreviations used:
NPS                 = nuclear power station
RPP                 = reprocessing plant
FR                    = fuel rod
HAW                 = highly active waste
CC                    = Castor container
SD                   = storage depot
Cocoon            = stainless steel container for highly radioactive waste fused within borate glass
Nuclides           = unstable elements subject to radioactive decay

Radioactive Waste from RPPs in France and the UK

The borate glass, or more correctly, the HAW cocoons are stored for two years within the confines of RPPs before they are returned to Germany.  HAW cocoons generate heat so that before any final storage can be arranged they must be allowed to cool sufficiently in interim depots so that the rock caverns for eventual final storage are not overstressed.

The interim storage time for French cocoons is 30-40 years, cocoons from the Uk need to be stored for 40-50 years.

Each spent FR results in 0.6 to 0.9 cocoons, so that radioactive waste from reprocessing results in 2,850 cocoons from France and 700 cocoons from the UK which must be transported back to Germany. 

One Castor container can hold a maximum of 28 cocoons, so that around 130 CCs are needed to transport these ‘hot potatoes’  back to Germany.

Some more interesting numbers:  the average temperature of HAW cocoons is about 400ºC when leaving La Hague.  The maximum allowed safe temperature is 510ºC, but from temperatures above 500ºC the vitreous structure of cocooned waste can already deteriorate and crack, resulting in increased atomic radiation – a risk about which no further details are made public.  Above 600ºC the safe containment of radioactive material within the glass matrix can no longer be maintained.

If you followed me so far, I had in mind to elaborate further on ‘cocoons’, but that led me deeper into the whole nuclear mire than I had imagined. One amongst laymen, I had assumed that radioactive waste once fused within glass would be forever safely ‘locked behind bars’ – but no such luck.

Radiation Intensity of Cocoons

From here on I shall be dealing with some numbers whose significance, I must confess, I don’t fully grasp, but whose consequences are so momentous that I wish, at least,  to put them into perspective.

The nuclear wastes fused with glass inside cocoons are classified as highly radioactive, containing an unimaginably high number of unstable ‘nuclides’ which decay with varying lengths of half-lives. During decay they release particles (alpha and beta decay) as well as electromagnetic radiation (gamma rays).  It is the release of particles that is responsible for creating heat through friction with other atoms.

This is particularly important for the eventual final storage;  highly active waste (HAW) is also classified as ‘thermo-active waste’, usually known as HAW Cocoon.

HAW still contains 98-99% of the nuclear power present in the original fuel rods, for us laymen that’s still the same potential power.  This residual energy arises from the fission products in the reactor (mainly gamma and beta radiation) and trans-uranium  elements created by alpha particles.
At this point in my learning curve it was essential to understand the reasons for the high resultant heat;  to remind ourselves, the cocoons still have a temperature of 400ºC after two years of storage in the RPPs and must be transported at this temperature.

Radiation Dangers from Cocoons

The radiation potential of HAW cocoons is, for laymen like us, unimaginably high.  The half-life of the remaining nuclides can be as high as two million years.   Particles with short or medium long half-lives, e.g. caesium 137 gamma rays, are responsible for the high radiation doses during transport and interim storage, while the longer-lived nuclides, like alpha radiation from Neptunium 237, are the cause for the long-term safety problems at final containment depots.

Comparison of Risks

According specification, HAW cocoons from France can have extremely high radiation values from
- caesium 137,
            - strontium 90, and
                        - plutonium.
Staying with caesium, this means that with 28 cocoons in one Castor container it has the same radiation potential as a CASTOR V  NPS containing 10t of fuel rods.

At this point in the discussion, comparisons may be more useful than numbers, for example:
  • For a German NPS with an output of 1,300MW the total radioactive ‘inventory’ has only a marginally higher radioactive content than a SINGLE Castor container.
  • The content of a single HAW CC is the approximate equivalent of 20% of the nuclear inventory released during the Chernobyl accident.
  • The Gorleben storage depot for cocoons is licenced to contain the radioactive inventory of 2,000 HAW  CCs (that’s 56,000 cocoons).

To end these comparisons, a last example of the immense risks from this radiation load:

  • A single unshielded HAW cocoon has a surface radiation power which is lethal for humans within 60 seconds at a distance of 1.00m.

These examples alone should convince anyone that living with this “witches’ brew” should be avoided.

The data for RPPs and cocoons are taken from an essay by Wolfgang Neumann, physicist at The Ecology Group, Hanover.

I hope these notes have thrown some light – if not  shadows – on the cycle of nuclear power generation, and I should be pleased to receive any comments or corrections.

Franz Eder

“Sellafield-2 will produce 7.5 tons of plutonium every year.  1.5 kilogram of plutonium will make a nuclear bomb.
Sellafield-2 will release the same amount of radioactivity into the environment as Chernobyl every 4.5 years. One of these radioactive substances, krypton-85, will cause death and skin cancer”

The Real Costs of Nuclear Electricity
“It is hardly acceptable on moral grounds to assess the costs of possible consequences of a nuclear radiation catastrophe for life and limb of millions of people as well as the establishment of nuclear contaminated no-go areas in densely populated areas, in financial terms in order to arrive at a cost benefit calculation.”[1]  The same source quotes an estimated public liability premium of Euro 287billion to cover the likely costs of Euro 5trillion from a nuclear meltdown;  nuclear electricity plainly is beyond imaginable costs..   

The movie 4th Revolution [2] quotes the external costs of nuclear electricity at Euro 2.70/kWh. 
Compare this with the current costs of solar PV of Euro 0.14 and onshore wind of Euro 0.07 per kWh (unsubsidised).[3]