Weekly News Review - 20th December 2022

UK’s first new coalmine for 30 years gets go-ahead in Cumbria

The first new UK coalmine in 30 years has received government approval despite concern over its environmental impact. The West Cumbria Mining project will be based near Whitehaven and is estimated to create around 500 jobs. The proposed mine was given the green light by levelling up secretary Michael Gove last week.

It is estimated the mine will produce around 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal a year whilst emitting 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Analysis has shown that around 83% of the coal produced will be exported overseas as most UK steel producers have rejected the coal and are planning to move to lower carbon production methods.

The government believe that the mine will be compatible with the UK’s net zero emissions targets following a letter from the secretary of state which said that the effects of the development on carbon emissions “would be relatively neutral and not significant”. However, some senior Conservatives, including Kwasi Kwarteng and Alok Sharma, disagree with the decision.

Labour are also opposed to the coalmine and are attempting to prevent it from progressing. Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, said: “A Labour government will leave no stone unturned in seeking to prevent the opening of this climate-destroying coalmine, and instead ensure we deliver the green jobs that people in Cumbria deserve.”

Meanwhile, US climate official John Kerry has said he is closely examining the decision over concerns about the level of greenhouse gas emissions. He said: “Coal is not exactly the direction that the world is trying to move in, or needs to move in. What I want to know is the level of abatement here [such as whether the resulting greenhouse gases will be captured and stored] and the comparison of this particular process in the production of steel.”

The decision to approve the new coalmine has attracted global criticism from many developing nations who believe that the UK is destroying its climate credibility. Phasing out coal was a key part of the COP26 talks hosted by the UK last year.

Breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy announced

US scientists have reached a new milestone in the development of nuclear fusion by producing more energy from an experiment than was put it. Nuclear fusion has been researched for decades as scientists believe it has the potential to provide near-limitless clean energy. However, experts have said that large scale deployment of nuclear fusion is still a long way off and it could be decades before it is used to power homes.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the Sun and works by forcing pairs of light atoms together to release energy. It is the opposite of nuclear fusion, which is currently used in nuclear power stations, where heavy atoms are split apart. This process produces a large amount of radioactive waste which needs to be stored safely for a long time after use, whereas nuclear fusion produces only a small amount of short-lived radioactive waste.

The experiment took place at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. It used powerful lasers to heat a hydrogen containing capsule to 100 million degrees Celsius – hotter than the centre of the Sun, and compress it to more than 100 billion times that of Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule then began to implode on itself, forcing the hydrogen atoms to fuse and release energy.

Dr Melanie Windridge, CEO of Fusion Energy Insights, said: “Fusion has been exciting scientists since they first figured out what was causing the Sun to shine. These results today really put us on the path to the commercialisation of the technology.”

Despite the breakthrough the amount of energy generated was relatively small – only enough to power a few kettles. The experiment has also cost $3.5bn (£2.85bn) so there is still a large amount work required to perfect the technology and increase the amount of energy produced before it can be scaled up.

On the question of how long before we could see fusion being used in power stations, Dr Budil, the LLNL director, said there were still significant hurdles but that: “with concerted efforts and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant”.

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