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The Death of Coal Mining and the Nuclear Alternative

The views expressed in this article are those of its author and not necessarily those of ShareSoc.

Boris Johnson has said that the Glasgow climate deal is a “game-changing agreement” which sounds “the death knell for coal power”. Let us hope so. My father worked down a pit in Nottinghamshire in his early life and was all for replacing coal power stations by nuclear power. Coal mining is not just a great creator of pollution but is also positively dangerous for the miners.

China is one of the largest consumers and producers of coal and in 2019 there were 316 deaths of coal miners in that country. That was an improvement on previous years but it is still a horrific number.

Nuclear power is considered to be dangerous by some people but in reality it is remarkably safe. For example the Fukushima event in Japan in 2018 only directly caused the death of one person. For a very good analysis of the safety of various energy sources go here: https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy

One problem with nuclear power is that it tends to be produced in plants that have very high capital costs and take many years to build. They are also vulnerable to faults when in operation. This often results in very expensive costs in comparison with coal or gas. But that might be solved by the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) where Rolls-Royce (RR.) has a potential technology lead from their experience in building nuclear reactors to power submarines.

They have recently obtained more funding from the Government and from partners to develop this business – see the Rolls-Royce press release here:  https://www.rolls-royce.com/media/press-releases/2021/08-11-2021-rr-announces-funding-secured-for-small-modular-reactors.aspx

Will that enable Rolls-Royce to recover from the dire impacts of the Covid epidemic on its aero engine business? Perhaps but not for some years in the future I would estimate. Developing new technology and new production methods is always vulnerable to hitches of various kinds which tends to mean that it takes longer than expected.

There are of course alternatives to nuclear power such as wind power, hydroelectricity and solar. But wind power is intermittent thus requiring investment in big batteries to smooth the load and in the last year there was less wind that normally expected in the UK. This has impacted the results of companies such as The Renewables Infrastructure Group (TRIG) and Greencoat UK Wind (UKW).

Which technology will be the winner in solving the clean energy problem is not at all clear but I would bet that coal is definitely on the way out for electricity production although it might survive for use in steel manufacturing. UK coal fired power stations are scheduled to be closed down by 2024 and already the UK can go for many weeks without them being in operation.

Whether you accept the Government is right to aim for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or not, we must surely all welcome the replacement of coal power generation by other sources.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

DISCLOSURE: The author holds shares in TRIG and UKW but not RR.

2 Comments
  1. Mark Bentley says:

    To add to Roger’s argument, it is a little known fact that coal fired power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear ones in normal operation. See this article in Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste/

    It is sad that Fukushima caused a huge scare about nuclear power. In particular, Germany decided to abandon nuclear power making it more reliant on extremely “dirty” lignite as fuel for power generation. A disastrous decision IMO. Readers should note that modern reactors cannot fail in the way that the old Fukushima ones did. They are designed to “fail safe” in the event of a loss of active cooling and can use passive convective cooling to maintain reactor integrity under those circumstances.

  2. David Starkie says:

    One point to bear in mind is that the construction of nuclear (and most power sources), involves the release of huge quantities of CO2 etc in the manufacture of the steel and concrete need to build them. This up-front spike in ’embedded’ carbons is offset, slowly, over the working life of the plant. Of course, if you believe in ‘crisis’, ’emergency’ etc (which I don’t) the gains come too late.

    If we continue to manufacture steel (instead of off-shoring carbons through importing the stuff) we need coking coal or (again, slight of hand), we import it. It might make sense to open that (coking coal) mine in west Cumbria, using state of the art mechanisation to keep the miners safe.

    This net zero emissions crusade is full of contradictions!

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