MacKay also takes a look at the somewhat less right-on options. The biggies here are “clean” coal, in which coal power stations are modified so that the carbon they emit is captured and stuffed away somewhere, perhaps in old gas fields. For a man of his leanings — MacKay is a fairly hardcore pacifist, and more than a bit of a tree-hugger — he’s refreshingly open-minded.
We must not let ourselves be swept off our feet in horror at the danger of nuclear power. Nuclear power is not infinitely dangerous. It’s just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories, fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous.
MacKay concludes that nuclear scales up easily, and does so without dominating the country the way wind, solar, tidal and biomass do. The scale of engineering required, in terms of megatons of steel and concrete or areas of land and sea taken up, is enormously down on that needed by useful amounts of renewables.
Concerns over fuel price and security of supply aren’t nearly as much of an issue as they are with fossil fuels, because it’s comparatively easy to store energy-dense nuclear fuels like uranium and thorium — you could have several years’ supply stockpiled in the UK. If the price of the fuels rose, even if it multiplied seriously, it wouldn’t affect the price of energy much. Almost all the cost of nuclear energy comes from building, running and decommissioning the plant, and handling the wastes after.
Even so, present day nuclear fission technology is at best “a stopgap”, according to MacKay. His numbers suggest that the present method of using uranium would allow the entire human race to live like power-hog Americans in terms of power use for about a third of a year — assuming that only the uranium reserves now confirmed exist. Here MacKay perhaps reveals his natural anti-nuclear leanings somewhat, as he has put nuclear power to a much stiffer sustainability and fairness test than coal. But, showing commendable intellectual honesty, he goes on.
At present, there being no scarcity of uranium, it is typically dug from the ground and run through simple power stations just once before being classed as waste. Nobody explores for more uranium, and nobody has done so since the 1980s, because supplies are ample to meet current demand. There’s probably a lot more to be found, especially if the price of ore rose a lot. (Which wouldn’t affect the price of the energy significantly, remember.)
Furthermore, the use of fast-breeder reactors would get sixty times as much juice from a given amount of uranium, according to MacKay. Then, most get-at-able uranium is actually in the oceans, not in the ground — and the scale of the effort needed to mine the oceans for uranium, while noticeable in the same way as the nuclear stations themselves, is much less than mining the sea for wind and tide power.
Then, too, there’s thorium — probably a lot more abundant than uranium, and likewise full of juice.
Even MacKay admits that fast breeders and oceanic uranium together would power the entire human race at hoggish American levels for well over a thousand years, or at current European consumption for several millenia. He also says that known thorium reserves, used with current tech, would run the whole race at rich-westerner levels for several decades.
There’s also a thing called a thorium energy amplifier reactor which would be a lot more efficient. If it works as its Nobel prize-winning designers predict, known thorium reserves would run six billion people at American luxury for sixty thousand years.