LONDON -- The United Kingdom is nearing a crucial decision as it tries to tackle the climate crisis -- whether to make a major push into new nuclear power or to proliferate coal-fired power plants constructed so their carbon emissions are captured and safely stored.
While U.S. officials and America's utility industry continue to mull this question, Britain's decisional clock is ticking much faster. At stake are not just the government's pressing legal commitments to slash the country's contribution to global emissions of climate-changing carbon gases, but also a stated policy goal of reducing dependence on energy imports from unstable regions.
In a recent report on the country's future energy mix, Malcolm Wicks -- a former energy minister and now Prime Minister Gordon Brown's special representative on international energy -- called for a tripling of the amount of electricity produced from nuclear power plants from 12.5 percent of the national total now to 35 percent to 40 percent by 2030.
"At a time when the UK is becoming increasingly reliant on imported fossil fuels we need to ask whether the UK should be more ambitious on nuclear power. When national security considerations are added to climate change exigencies I believe the answer is yes," wrote Wicks.
It was the first time the government has been so specific on the desired size of the new nuclear contribution. It has made it clear for some years that it favors a new generation of nuclear power plants as the existing fleet is progressively closed down due to old age.
Nuclear sees itself rapidly expanding
The nuclear industry, which provides 6.3 percent of the world's primary energy production, sees itself as central to this equation. It forecasts a minimum five-fold rise in nuclear power by the end of the century worldwide. Its forecasts for the United Kingdom are broadly in line with that global picture.
But there is a potential catch. The French and German power utility companies that have so far expressed an interest in building new nuclear plants in Britain have made it clear they will not make the massive capital outlay needed -- a 1.5-gigawatt nuclear power plant would cost an estimated $2 billion-$3 billion to build -- without price guarantees.
But guaranteeing future carbon prices or electricity prices would amount to a large bet that would put government money at risk. If the price went below the guaranteed minimum the government -- in other words, the taxpayers -- would have to pick up the difference. U.K. officials have repeatedly said they will not put public money into new nuclear.
Tom Burke, a respected climate change commentator with London-based environmental think tank E3G, says this is all dangerous nonsense.
"Nuclear is not the answer. There is no way it can replace a significant amount of coal globally. What is needed in Britain is a serious focus on energy efficiency, a swift development of and promotion of carbon capture and storage, electrification of the terrestrial transport system and more renewables," he said.
"But so far the government is pushing nuclear and only paying lip service to the others. There have been a lot of words but little action."
Could there be a coal renaissance?
Into this ring steps the British coal industry, long believed to have been dead after the mine closures of the 1980s when cheap imports replaced more expensive domestic coal. But it is actually undergoing something of a renaissance.
Domestic production of coal is currently around 18 million tonnes a year and is seen rising to around 20 million tonnes. That is about one-third of current demand of 60 million tonnes, although that total is expected to fall to around 40 million tonnes over time.
The trouble is that coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, is part of the climate problem, so how can it also be seen as part of the solution? The answer is to stop the emissions from burning it from entering the atmosphere in the first place.
That can be through a combination of increased combustion efficiency and carbon capture and storage -- the latter being the much sought-after climate silver bullet. However, the technology is untried on a commercial scale.
Added to that is the fact that as it stands, capturing emissions from burning fossil fuels like coal and gas for electricity production requires so much energy that it reduces burning efficiency by around one quarter. In short, to produce a given electricity output with capture and storage technology fitted to the power plant means burning 25 percent to 30 percent more fuel.
Age and regulation takes its toll on existing plants
One factor that is pushing the United Kingdom to make a prompt policy decision is the fact that around one-third of the country's electricity generating capacity will be taken out of service by 2016 due to a combination of old age and E.U. emission reduction legislation aimed specifically at fossil-fueled power plants.
Currently renewables like wind, waves, tidal, hydro and solar supply barely 5 percent of the country's electricity -- a figure that under E.U. rules must rise to around 35 percent by 2020. And they have their own set of problems, not least of which are cost and the production of a sometimes wildly fluctuating output.
Gas is a potential interim answer, as although it still produces carbon emissions they are far less than from coal. But gas has its own political dynamic with Britain's North Sea reserves rapidly running out. That leaves gas-rich Russia, with its looming potential of tieing political strings to future supplies.
Once a net exporter of gas, Britain now expects up to half of supplies expected to be imported within a decade. Because gas supplies have for years been literally in the backyard, Britain has neglected to build gas storage facilities. Some experts fear this lack of storage will become an Achilles heel, exposing consumers to the more expensive price gyrations of the spot market.
"Nuclear will not be able to bridge the electricity generation gap in time and nor will renewables, so it comes down to a choice between coal and gas -- whether carbon abated, partially abated or unabated," said David Brewer of Coalpro, the confederation of UK coal producers.
"Of those two energy sources coal comes from a wider variety of places and is far less open to political instability than gas," he added.
Is the answer in Alaska?
Indeed coal is very widely available and in plentiful -- although not infinite -- supply. It is also in steeply rising demand as countries such as India and China fuel their booming economic growth with its power. The U.S. Energy Information Administration sees world coal demand rising by 49 percent between 2006 and 2030, with almost all of that rise occurring in developing non-OECD countries.
A recent report from the clean coal section of the International Energy Agency noted that coal demand was roughly 5.5 gigatonnes a year, but it warned that declared commercially proven reserves looked likely to be insufficient to meet predicted demand in 2030. However, commercially proven reserves are a fraction of the Earth's mineable coal deposits.
The IEA report notes that estimates of coal resources in Alaska -- the amount of coal that is assumed to be in the ground but that has not yet been fully measured -- at just over 5,000 gigatonnes, or about 1,000 years' supply at current levels of demand.
"There is an absolutely enormous amount of coal in the world. The extent of its exploitability will depend on price and that will rise over this century as the gas and oil run out," said Coalpro's Brewer. "The world is not going to run out of coal anytime soon."