Nest of energy dilemmas

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Kath McDonald (letters, September 1) is to be commended for her measured comments about the energy debate in general and the development of wind farms in the Borders in particular.

What is not always appreciated by many, including politicians, is that, in sorting out the pros and cons of various forms of power generation, there is a need to address a whole nest of dilemmas. Wind power in the Borders is controversial primarily for aesthetic reasons. But at a Scottish or UK level the choice has to reflect many more considerations.

The biggest dilemma of all is that our nation needs new generating capacity very quickly indeed if power outages are to be avoided by the end of the decade. The decision as to how to do this is not going to be straightforward.

Wind power can never be the complete answer. If most high ground in the Borders was covered with turbines, it would even theoretically match only part of the output of the coal-fired Longannet facility in Fife or the nuclear Torness generator in East Lothian.

Even then, on a windless day, this could not provide the stand-by capacity to meet the sudden demand from thousands of electric kettles at the end of a popular TV programme.

Yes, nuclear power presents very serious challenges but let us better understand what these challenges mean. The “voluminous white clouds” observed by Ms McDonald would have had no pollution implications at all – they would merely be the condensation through cooling towers of benign exhaust steam previously passed through generating turbines.

The Chernobyl disaster resulted from the use in the former Communist bloc of a disgracefully dangerous and obsolete reactor design. This meant that, if the control system was compromised, nuclear fission would speed up until meltdown occurred; all western designs ensure the exact opposite.

Fukushima was an illustration of Murphy’s Law. Even in that earthquake-prone country, Japanese planners failed to anticipate the sheer magnitude of the tremor and following tsunami that hit their northeast coast.

It is certainly true that whatever design is used there is always the problem of the safe disposal underground, perhaps for thousands of years, of high-level radioactive waste (only a small proportion of the total waste generated).

This, however, is to be balanced against the near-zero emission of greenhouse gases from nuclear plants. In a specialised geological subject, there is room for convergent scientific and engineering assessment. Encouraging results for underground sequestration of carbon dioxide in depleted oil and gas reservoirs are paying extra dividends in that we have a better understanding of safely issues for the disposal of radioactive waste as well.

It is worth mentioning that, since the mid-1800s, far more people have been lost in coal mines or on oil and gas rigs than have ever suffered as the result of nuclear accidents.

It is to be hoped that our elected leaderships in Scotland and Westminster will never be tempted to cut support and funding for necessary research to ensure that we can both continue to live in a beautiful part of the country and to enjoy EastEnders.

Richard Crockett

Past President, Mining Institute of Scotland