SONE Publications

2013 Nuclear Issues Vol 36 No 10

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Energy policy

“We must change our energy policy now to head off power cuts and price rises.” This is the heading of a comment by Tony Lodge published by the Centre for Policy Studies on 9th October which makes some valid criticisms of the mess we have now got ourselves into, but which completely ignores the role of nuclear power and the need for new nuclear stations. The solution he offers depends on building more coal-fired stations.

He rightly criticises the misguided efforts to expand renewables as an “expensive disaster” which followed from Blair’s apparent lack of understanding of the difference between electricity and energy at the 2007 EU Council. But the failure of the Blair government began much earlier when the then Energy Secretary, Patricia Hewitt (2001-2005), sabotaged British Energy’s far-sighted proposal for a programme of new nuclear stations, brought the company to near bankruptcy and in effect removed its chairman.

In proposing more coal-fired stations Lodge points to Germany and the Netherlands as examples to follow. But Germany, which is also building lignite fired plants and has a massive renewables programme, was forced into this with the misguided decision to close its nuclear plants after Fukushima and now has the highest electricity prices in Europe. For the Netherlands a report by Poyry for the DECC (April 2013) says that after some controversy 3 large stations totalling 3.5 GW are to be built; these are now in the final stages of construction, but that no more are likely to be built. Lodge urges that these are examples to follow!

Lodge also implies a criticism of the Government’s commitment to close over 12GW (gigawatts) of coal and oil power plants by 2015 to meet EU emissions rules. But the requirement to close these older plants is not unreasonable, with the prevailing wind they are dumping our pollutants onto other European countries causing problems with acid rain and poor air quality.

As with most adovcates of fossil fuels, and also, in the other camp, advocates of the so-called green energies he rightly criticizes, Lodge avoids any mention of the contribution of nuclear power to present and future electricity supply. If we pretend its not there we do not need to consider it.

A hopeless mess

The future supply electricity for the UK, and hence the future of the economy itself which depends on a secure supply at an acceptable cost, is now in jeopardy. It is difficult to see a way out. We face economic collapse. The retiring head of Ofcom, Alistair Buchanan, has said that uncertainties over wind power, dwindling gas stocks and the failure to build new generating capacity has left Britain extremely vulnerable to power cuts. The National Grid has also warned that the safety margin for UK power supply this winter in an “average cold spell” has dwindled to 5pc – down from around 17pc two years ago, with more closures of older coal stations to come. The latest warning comes from the Royal Academy of Engineering – “although the electricity supply is expected to be sufficient to cover predicted levels of demand, it is likely to stretch the system close to its limits, notably during the winter of 2014-15, increasing the chances of power outages if several adverse events (low wind, cold weather, unplanned plant outages) were to happen at the same time.” The Royal Academy also points out that most of the energy companies operating in this country are international organisations that will invest in the UK only if it proves to be an attractive market. This is relevant to the threat by Labour leader Ed Miliband to freeze electricity prices for 20 months which could deter their investment in new capacity and justify their claims that this will cause electricity blackouts.

We should have set in hand a programme of new nuclear stations to follow Sizewell B, on which construction began 26 years ago in 1987. The failure to do so rests with the Blair government and the energy secretary Patricia Hewitt, but her successors Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling and finally Ed Milliband were equally ineffective, while it is only in the recent weeks that the coalition Liberal Ed Davey has converted to recognizing the necessity of new nuclear stations. But this is far too late. Hinkley Point is unlikely to be in operation before the early or even mid 2020’s. Nor, unless quite exceptional steps are taken to facilitate the ordering and construction of any new projects, or even of SMR,s, will the situation improve before the early 2020’s

As is now being increasingly recognized wind power and other green energies are excessively costly and ineffective. This leaves only gas and/or coal. Supplies of gas from the North Sea are declining and imported gas is likely to become ever more expensive – hence the probably over-optimistic expectations now being placed on fracking. Could we now be driven to accept the solutions proposed by Lodge and begin a new programme of coal stations and accept that this will destroy any attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to counter the threat of climate change. It is being argued that the contribution of the UK to world carbon emissions is insignificant at 1.48% compared with 24% for China and 6.1% for India but the UK has only 0.9% of world population, China 19.1% and India 17.4%. Both China and India are now making significant investments in nuclear power; China with 17 stations in operation and 32 under construction; India with 20 in operation and 7 under construction.

In terms of carbon emissions gas would show a significant improvement over coal, even with the expensive flue gas cleansing that would be required for new coal stations there would be some impairment of air quality as well as deaths and injuries in mining accidents – even if these are in the coal exporting countries. And as with the criticism so often directed against nuclear power – ‘what about the waste.”

Could we consider the import of electricity by cable from Norway or even Iceland? This could be a means of relieving the economic and disasters of electricity shortages and blackouts in the next few years

Even more depressing

According to EDF it seems that the UK, has now lost its opportunity to contribute to the nuclear expansion which is now on course, not only in the UK, but in many other countries. In an article in the Guardian (15 Oct) the Commercial Director for nuclear new build at EDF Energy asserts that “most of the available contracts could be beyond UK suppliers, which are struggling to meet the complex safety and quality standards of the nuclear industry.” For EDF all we seem capable for is the civil works – “muck shifting”.

Reports from the Royal Academy of Engineering have established that, with the experience gained follow-on replica stations are cheaper than first of a kind, and also, (and this is the point emphasised by EDF), that “Subcontractors should be of high quality and experienced in nuclear construction, or taught the necessary special skills and requirements for quality, traceability and documentation.” Obviously if British subcontractors are excluded from Hinkley C contracts they will never have the opportunity to acquire these capabilities. The Government should surely insist, as part of the generous strike price subsidy, that British companies be given a share in Hinkley C to enable them to build up these skills so that they can then bid for further nuclear contracts in this country and also overseas. Otherwise the only nuclear expertise British industry can claim will be in the shutting down and decommissioning of nuclear stations.

Swords into ploughshares

It seems that Rolls Royce with its nuclear submarine experience may be the sole remaining repository in the UK of any nuclear initiatives and expertise. In addition to its collaboration with Rosatom and Fortum on the 1200 MW VVER pressurised water reactor for the UK, Rolls Royce is also to collaborate with the American NuScale Power on the development of small modular reactors.

NuScale Power is 60% owned by the American Fluor corporation. Fluor itself is a global engineering, procurement and construction company with a long history in the US nuclear power industry and has built, or provided support at 20 nuclear units in the United States over the past 67 years. In supporting NuScale in its bid for finance from the USDoE in its second round of funding for SMRs, Rolls Royce points out that it has considerable manufacturing experience in the US, and a rich 50-year nuclear heritage spanning reactor and component design and manufacture through to operational support, obsolescence management and plant life extension.

NuScale is developing a 45 MWe self-contained pressurized water reactor and generator set, which would be factory made and transported, by truck, rail or barge for deployment in units of up to 12 at one site to give nuclear plants with capacities from 45 MWe to 540 MWe. It is claimed that using conventional fuel assemblies, the core would be cooled by natural circulation, requiring fewer components and safety systems than conventional reactors. The first round of the DoE SMR funding was won by Babcock and Wilcox in 2012. In addition to NuScale other competitors for the second round include Westinghouse, Holtec International and Hybrid Power Technologies.

While electricity from the first SMRs will probably be more expensive than from the much larger nuclear stations now being built it is probable that with factory production of a large number of units the price would fall sharply. It also seems that the safety requirements, for small reactors that could be placed underground would be simplified. More importantly it might be possible to install a significant capacity before the second half of the 2020s when the first of the new nuclear new build stations are likely to come on line.

Climate change

Common sense requires that we should take the warnings of global warming and climate change seriously and start to reduce the combustion of fossil fuels as far as possible without too great an economic disruption. This will obviously take time – the UK for instance will be increasingly dependent, for at least the next 10 years, on fossil fuels for electricity generation, and on oil for transport until electric vehicles become more commonplace. The much needed new nuclear stations my not be in operation until the second half of the 2020,s

If the climate sceptics and the fossil fuel industries are correct and reductions in the burning of fossil fuels are unnecessary one certain result will be that emissions not only of carbon dioxide will continue but also of the oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, and in addition, for coal, of particulates and quantities of ash. The requirement that new coal stations should be “CCS ready” is ludicrous. Attempts to sequester and bury carbon dioxide will prove unacceptably expensive and probably unsafe, certainly in the longer term.

The consequences will be an increase in adverse health effects, particularly in crowded cities where air pollution is already a problem. Any enforced reduction in burning fossil fuels will also be fiercely resisted all the way by the coal, oil and gas industries. An example comes from Australia where the new Australian government is proposing to reverse an emissions reduction policy which is disadvantaging its coal industry, despite having suffered last year from a summer with the highest temperatures since records began and now some devastating forest fires even before the peak summer arrives.

The eventual consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels could, as the climate scientists warn, be disastrous. Increasing temperatures are not the only problem there would be more extreme climate induced effects, different in different parts of the world – floods, droughts, forest fires, typhoons, rising sea levels and increasing acidity as well as crop failures and poor harvests. Many of these are already occurring. It has also been suggested that roots of the civil war in Syria are a response to a succession of severe droughts which has driven the farming population from the countryside into the cities where they became a source of political unrest. At the other extreme a weakening or eventual reversal of the gulf stream would bring Siberian winters to the UK and Northern Europe.

Given these two alternatives is must surely make sense to accelerate the replacement of fossil fuels for electricity and heat by nuclear power.

Cost of offshore wind

In answer to a question in the House of Lords (Hansard 8 Oct.) the government gave the levelised cost (the ratio of the total costs of a generic plant to the total amount of electricity expected) of offshore wind power as £113/ MWh for Round 2 and £120/MWh for Round 3. While recognising that the levelised cost is highly sensitive to assumptions of the capital costs, fuel and EU ETS allowance, operating costs, load factor, and discount rate no mention was made of the expected operational lifetime which would obviously determine the total amount of electricity generated. It seems to be generally assumed that this will be some 20 or even 25 years.

A study by Professor Gordon Hughes for the Renewable Energy Foundation (2012) finds that for operating offshore wind farms in UK waters the normalised load factor falls of to just over 15% at age 10 and to 11% at age 15 and he concludes that “With such low load factors it seems likely that many wind farms will be re-powered – i.e. the turbines will be replaced – once they reach the age of 10 or at most 15.”

If this is taken into account the estimated levelised cost of offshore wind would rise significantly above the assumed figure. This would increase the support for renewable electricity projects through the Renewables Obligation which is already estimated to account, on average, for around £30 (in real 2012 prices) or 2% of the household energy bill in 2013.

Cost of nuclear power

Is it possible that the strike price the DECC has negotiated with EDF for Hinkley C at £92.50/ MWh will lock the UK into exorbitantly high nuclear power costs? The strike price, if EDF goes on to build Sizewell C, will fall to ££89.50/MWh, but this may just reflect the reduced costs of building a replica station. But what happens for subsequent stations that could be built by other overseas groups. Will they not expect to be awarded contracts on similar terms to those given to EDF? These payments – from the consumer – will not come into effect until the stations are operating in the mid or late 2020s, and it is not possible to predict with confidence the level to which the cost of electricity may rise above the present £45/MWh, but in other countries where nuclear plants are now being built, usually with loans from commercial banks on normal terms, the assumptions on future costs are part of the considerations on which the decision to build is based.

This question is relevant since Hinkley C, in which China is now to take a 30% share, can be seen as a mirror image of the ARREVA nuclear station now being built at Taishan in China by a consortia in which EDF has a 30% stake with 70% held by the China Guandong NP Holding company. The finance is being provided, as is the normal practice, by a group of banks .China Development Bank, Bank of China, and the French Societe General. Why should the UK be different?

Taishan is expected to come into operation by the end of 2013. It may be some small consideration that at least two British companies have already been contracted by ARREVA – Sir Robert McAlpine to design some auxillary buildings, and Severn Trent for a water purification system.

Why three explosions

We are sorry to burden you with more on the Fukushima event but we think some questions remain on the explosions. The danger of a build up of hydrogen to reach an explosive concentration is well known and strenuous precautions are in place at all nuclear plants to take care of this concern. In European plants igniter units are installed which are set to automatically initiate a spark when hydrogen levels are such that the gas will burn in a controlled fashion.

We have already asked Tokyo Electric Power Company if they had igniters and if so why they did not work. We have received no reply. Yet it is an important question. If they had them and they did not work then the world nuclear industry needs to know so that they can check their units. If they did not have them then why not?

A further question for Tokyo Electric Power Company is why did they allow three explosions to take place? We sympathise with the desperate situation they were facing due to the passage of a gigantic wave caused by the biggest earthquake ever. This caused an estimateted 26 000 deaths and equal number of injured and homeless. But surely after the first explosion they could have done something to prevent subsequent ones. Venting the containment buildings and perhaps adding a bit of nitrogen would have been enough, but we believe that the Japanese operators were analysing the problem and debating whether they should eject more radioactivity into the environment. Eventually the explosion answered the question for them by ejecting the radioactivity for them. This seems to be an unfortunate fault of the Japanese. They spend too much time arguing about the analysis of a problem without recognising the urgency of getting on and doing something. They knew from the first explosion of the danger so why did they not do something to prevent the second and third.

We may be being a little bit harsh on the Japanese but it does seem that allowing subsequent explosions to follow the first was a little tardy even if the passing of a record tsunami had already caused devastating consequences.