Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The joys of totalitarianism

Not least of the reasons behind the EU’s love affair with China must be – I suspect – a certain jealousy.

Managing a disparate group of 25 member states is not dissimilar to trying to herd cats and, in the deep recesses of their hearts, I am sure many a functionnaire must secretly wish for the certainties of absolute power afforded to the totalitarian rulers of China.

Consider, for instance, the ongoing farce of the EU's emission trading scheme, where the latest news, conveyed by courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, is of continued delays in implementation arising from a "row" between the British government and the commission over the precise levels of carbon dioxide industry will be permitted to pump into the atmosphere before they attract massive fines or will have to buy "carbon credits".

Now compare with the situation in China, where the rulers are not only untroubled by the crass idiocies of Kyoto but are also mercifully free from the influences of the bunny-huggers and are able to forge ahead with their own innovative solution to the energy crisis, in a response that may, in the end, do more to curb CO2 emissions than any amount of well-meaning guff from Brussels.

That "innovative solution", of course, is nuclear power, but not the conventional path. First mentioned on this Blog in October last, the Chinese are pioneering the unique "pebble bed" reactor which, if successful, seems set to deliver all the early promises made of nuclear energy, with none of the major safety problems.

With a test plant already in place, China is now poised to go into commercial production. With the Huaneng consortium, one of China's biggest power producers, having decided on a site in the eastern province of Shandong to build a 195MW gas-cooled power plant. The proposed reactor is expected to start producing electricity within five years.

If successful, this pebble bed reactor would be the first of a radical new design. A high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGRs), the heart of the system is a small core fed by low-enriched uranium fuel consisting of half-millimetre-sized particles of uranium dioxide encased in graphite and silicon carbide, which in turn are encased in billiard-ball sized graphite balls.

The size of the balls and the coating is gauged precisely to allow critical mass to be maintained at the normal operation temperature of 700°C but, if the core overheats, the coating expands increasing the distances between the uranium cores, losing the critical mass and damping down the reaction.

Thus, in the event of what would otherwise be a catastrophic loss of coolant, the system is self-limiting and closes down automatically. In tests, researchers at Tsinghua's Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology have actually switched off all its safety systems a move that would be suicidal madness in an ordinary reactor and watched the reactor cool down on its own.

Instead of the water coolant in conventional reactors, helium gas is used as the primary heat transfer medium and, because the uptake of radioactivity of helium gas is minimal, waste reduction is minimised. Further, the system operates without the high pressure involved in the conventional reactor and can dispense with the expensive containment vessel which is standard on existing designs.

The pebble-bed design actually pre-dates the conventional nuclear pile, but the design was never pursued by the US. A research plant was established in Germany but encountered technical problems and resistance by environmental activists, whence patents were acquired by South African interests.

However, plans for a pilot plant near Cape Town, developed by Eskom, the South African power utility, US-based Exelon and British Nuclear Fuels, have also been stalled by environmental challenges.

That has left China, which has links with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to operate the world's only test pebble bed reactor outside Beijing and is providing the technology for the planned power station.

One the concept has been established, and few doubt that it will be, it not only offers the prospect of plentiful, cheap electricity but it is planned that surplus capacity will be used to produce hydrogen through another innovative process of high-temperature electrolysis, using also the waste heat from the reactors.

Chain, therefore, in addition to solving its pressing electricity generation crisis, could also end up being the world’s first "hydrogen economy", with the beneficial entirely incidental side-effect of massively reducing carbon emissions.

It is thus hugely ironic that the undemocratic, totalitarian, Kyoto-free People’s Republic of China possible hold the key to the holy grail of emission reduction that the bunny-hugging, environmentally friendly EU seeks but has singularly failed to achieve, for all its mountains of regulations and initiatives.

Arguably, therefore, the answer to saving the planet is totalitarianism, a sentiment with which most Greens would heartily agree – not for nothing are they called the "water-melons": green on the outside and red inside – but there is another option: leadership.

In a democratic state, major changes are achieved by leadership: vision, courage, persuasion and argument. But since the EU is not a democracy, and cannot aspire to the status of a totalitarian state, it seems to doomed to failure.

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