The Scottish Government’s most recent compendium of energy statistics reveals, rather startlingly, that nuclear power is only second (28%) to wind (39.9%) as a producer of electricity in Scotland. The Torness and Hunterston B stations are also the largest sources of “non-intermittent supply” (ie, they keep going when the renewables becalm themselves), producing 2.2 gigawatts in 2019/20. It’s chastening. Even though the nuclear percentage is on a long-term decline, a decent chunk of our electrical civilisation in Scotland is still defined by two contrasting symbols. The Ferret revealed that two deactivated reactor sites, Dounreay in Caithness and Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway, are preparing their bids to build the world’s first “fusion” nuclear reactor, as planned by the UK Government. Ah, fusion! “Clean” nuclear energy, goes the story. Much fewer amounts of radioactive waste than “fission”. Zero chance of meltdown (just a rapid “cooldown”, apparently). The dream of harnessed subatomic energy revived. All your devices humming and glowing happily into the future, with no dread prospect of rationing or change of usage. No carbon emissions, as the mighty atom obediently and safely serves us. The “daft laddie” question might be: why try to simulate the inner workings of the sun, when – externally – it showers our Earth with enough raw energy, and sustains enough natural flows, to power our existing civilisation many times over? The International Energy Agency noted in October last year that solar was now cheaper than coal and that renewable sources would be the largest single source of electricity globally by 2025 (their graph just accelerates upwards). To prefer a robustly and smartly decentralised energy system, over the brittle and centralised option implied by nuclear facilities, is also a choice about social and cultural values. Political power should be as diffuse and broadly generated as energy power. The ideal would be that they are woven together (Germany’s localised renewables revolution is a great exemplar). Scotland knows what to do with nucleated material in bombs (we order them off the territory) and in old fission plants (we carefully and responsibly decommission them). But we don’t need to make this stuff into stars on Earth – at least not now. Let’s avoid the eco-horror story first, before we embark on the space opera.
The National 13th March 2021 read more »