In St. Petersburg they argued about the causes of the Fukushima accident
The leitmotif of almost all debates on the introduction of environmentally friendly methods of extraction, processing, and use of raw materials is the discussion of technologies not even of tomorrow, but of the day after tomorrow. At the same time, insufficient attention is paid to the innovations that are available right now. Such a conclusion was made by the experts who took part in the panel discussion “Environment and technical progress: balance of interests.” It was held at St. Petersburg Mining University as part of the forum contest for young scientists “Topical Issues of Subsoil Use.” The conference brought together over a thousand students, postgraduate students, and experts from 48 countries.
What energy sources will underlie the existence of our civilization in the future? Will humanity be able to offset the negative impact on nature, which has the infrastructure of the global fuel and energy complex and the mining industry? And is it possible to combine seemingly incompatible things: the need to extract more and more natural resources due to the growing population of Earth and minimize the negative impact of humanity on nature? These and other questions were posed to the forum’s guests by Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of Russia’s oldest higher technical school.
Charles Hendry, former British Minister of Energy and Chairman of the Board of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, said that hydrocarbons are still an important part of the United Kingdom’s energy balance. However, their importance is gradually decreasing due to the active construction of wind turbines and solar panels and the use of tidal energy. Nuclear power plants are also considered a very promising area for investment.
“We are investing in a new generation of reactors that are more reliable and competitive. Not only in the UK but also other countries, all over the world. We know that in some states the choice was made to shut down nuclear power plants after the Fukushima accident. But in Germany, for example, there was an increase in carbon dioxide emissions after the decision to move away from nuclear power. The question arises: was this decision justified well enough? After all, let’s face it, that tragedy was not the direct result of problems at the plant itself, it was the result of the tsunami. Simple logic says we need to build nuclear power plants in safer places, with modern technology, not give them up. They produce clean and comparatively cheap energy,” said Charles Hendry.
The expert of the Federation Council of Russia, the former technical director of Nord Stream Sergey Serdyukov did not fully agree with his colleague. He emphasized that "if the Americans had not upgraded at Fukushima, no accident would have happened."
“By centralizing the water cooling and moving it ashore, U.S. engineers created the ideal conditions for the tragedy. Of course, it is necessary to move away from controversial locations, where the consequences of certain emergencies can be unpredictable. But not because it is impossible to create a defense against a potential cataclysm there, but because it is expensive. If we talk about the place of the atom in the structure of global energy generation, I am perfectly certain that young people who are sitting in the hall today will use electricity produced by nuclear power plants until their old age," emphasized Sergei Serdyukov.
The next resource, whose potential he assessed at the request of Vladimir Litvinenko, was natural gas. The rector of Mining University reminded that three years ago it was attributed as “the reference energy source” in the EU. And that makes sense because methane is much less harmful to the environment than fuel oil or coal. At the same time, the cost of electricity produced through its combustion is relatively low. But now the rhetoric of Western politicians has suddenly changed, and gas has become as much of a pariah as other fossil fuels.
“Quite recently, it seemed that questions about the appropriateness of natural gas, simply could not arise. That it was a gift to mankind from God, who created the perfect source of energy. And we only need to learn how to extract and use it efficiently. Now CH4 has turned into a disreputable character in a blockbuster. But believe me: this has nothing to do with science, physics, or chemistry. It has to do solely with the struggle for control over mineral resources,” said Sergei Serdyukov.
Vladimir Litvinenko is of the same opinion. He reminded the audience that about 50% of the countries that have minerals in their entrails cannot develop them on their own due to a lack of technology and qualified specialists. We are talking primarily about Africa and some of the states of the former Soviet Union. Western companies, which get the lion’s share of revenues from this activity, are mostly engaged in the exploitation of deposits there. And the post-industrial powers, despite the bombastic declarations of their leaders about the energy transition, are certainly interested in this state of affairs.
It is precisely “environmental” initiatives that allow them to maintain the scale of their economic expansion. The idea of abandoning hydrocarbons, which is constantly discussed in the media and social networks, demotivates national governments to lobby the interests of their national extractive corporations and leads to a noticeable decrease in the prestige of the profession of mining engineers and oilmen among young people. Indeed, why develop the industry or obtain specialties, if in 20-30 years the whole world will produce energy through renewable sources and hydrogen? But it’s far from being that simple.
“No matter how much we might like it, hydrocarbons will be the basis of the global fuel and energy balance for a long time to come. But even in the next century, when the importance of fossil fuels for society will be much lower than today, raw materials will still be the basis for the development of civilization. Lithium, cobalt, polysilicon, copper - without these and many other resources it would be impossible to make batteries for electric cars, solar panels, or wind turbines. That is why one of the most urgent and important tasks for the industry is to create technologies that make mining more profitable and minimize the negative impact on the environment,” said the rector of Mining University.
He drew the attention of the young scientists who followed the discussion to the fact that the West urges the global community to abandon the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible, positioning them as an absolute evil. However, developing countries will not be able to do this if they want to, because the intensification of the energy transition will require them to spend too much money.
“Before we start talking about the environment, we need to figure out where all this talk will lead us," Sergei Serdyukov supported his colleague. “If the consequence of measures aimed at combating climate change is a significant drop in the average standard of living due to a sharp rise in the price of electricity and, accordingly, all end-use products, such measures are unlikely to be supported by the public. We already went through all this under the Soviet regime, we were told then,”let’s be patient, let’s tighten our belts for the sake of the great idea, for the happiness of future generations.” And now the same thing is happening. But who says that if we do not give up hydrocarbons in 2050 or 2060, the changes taking place on the planet will be irreversible and it will lead to a global catastrophe? I can give you a prediction for the year 2080 and tell you it’s utterly accurate. Do you know why? I don’t have to be responsible for it. Many European politicians who are calling for an early phase-out of fossil fuels are reasoning similarly.
Roman Samsonov, vice-president of the Russian Gas Society, agrees that some politicians often go to extremes, forgetting the negative consequences of overreaching in the fight for ecology. We are talking, for example, about the possible reduction of industrial safety. In addition, he believes that many technologies currently at stake simply cannot be applied in reality, but yet become the subject of lively discussions. Such a situation not only hinders an objective perception of reality but also distracts from the need to implement available innovations in the field of environmental conservation here and now.
Mr. Samsonov also touched on the motivation for the energy transition, which, by and large, is highly questionable.
"When someone talks about measurements of the carbon footprint, and you ask him: ‘and what instruments were used for this?’, ‘what methods?’, it is usually impossible to get any clear answer to this question. There is no unified international approach to such studies, so the figures are given by various experts often contradict each other. It happens that the task is simply adjusted for the answer so that the customers of the research have grounds to make certain policy decisions,” said Roman Samsonov.
Mikhail Potekhin, General Director of Caterpillar Eurasia, returned to the main topic of the discussion. He stressed that in the future mankind will need even more minerals than today, including for energy production. In other words, “the technological process will begin to have an even more significant impact on the very environment we are talking about protecting.”
Thus, a paradox arises. On the one hand, we are going to reduce the damage caused to nature, but at the same time, we are increasing the extraction and processing of natural resources. The only way out is to optimize these processes, there is simply no other way. But to do this, “we must focus on the real problems of today and solve them,” rather than fight the oil and gas industry, which is the foundation of the social and economic progress of mankind.
"Quite often we discuss technologies not even of tomorrow, but of the day after tomorrow. At the same time, not enough attention is paid to innovations that are already available and can be implemented right now. For various reasons, they are not applied in all regions of the world. Somewhere there is a lack of political will, somewhere there is a lack of finances... As for our equipment that is used in the extractive industry, digitalization can extend its life between services. For example, it makes it possible to reduce the amount of waste oil, which is also very important for the environment,” Mikhail Potekhin explained.
At the end of the discussion, the participants assured that they believe that renewable energy is an integral part of our future. However, the excessive intensification of the energy transition, reliance on technologies that are not sufficiently reliable and safe, in particular, hydrogen, oil, and gas are unacceptable, which can lead to the reduced energy security of the states and a noticeable increase in the cost of electricity.
Recall that the forum contest for young scientists “Topical Issues of Subsoil Use” was organized by the International Center of Competences in Mining Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO. SIBUR and PhosAgro traditionally acted as its partners.