Chicken or Egg
Which comes first? Does the availability of energy trigger economic growth or does growth require an increase in energy supply?
A graph of energy and the economy, plotting annual changes in growth suggests that it is the first -smaller changes in energy supply precede larger changes in economic growth. But if this is the case the prospect for future economic growth seems dim unless the older Magnox reactors and Sizewell B can, as they should be, kept in operation. With fears of global warming, the growing doubts over burning fossil fuels point to the need to expand renewable and nuclear capacity. But with the difficulties, delays, and cost overruns for the APRs being built in Finland and France, a first new nuclear station, Hinkley C, may, at best, not come into operation until 2023 or later - or even at all. What then are the prospects for new nuclear reactors at Wylfa in Wales or Moorside in Cumbria? Are we to be increasingly dependent on an expansion of wind power? But with offshore wind operating at an average load factor of only around 33%, and around 25% for onshore wind, this would require increasing support from back up supply probably from gas-fired plant. And with the Government announcement that it is to end the subsidy paid to onshore wind it is unlikely that any large expansion will now take place.
Although there now seem some uncertainties about Chinese investment in Hinkley C, there are reports that the Government has approved the sale of the decommissioned nuclear site at Bradwell to the Chinese for the construction of a Chinese nuclear plant. And if we are to be dependent on overseas nuclear technology we should not exclude the possibility of a South Korean plant, given the apparently trouble-free progress of the nuclear stations now being built at Barakah in the United Arab Emirates.
The possibility of the Chinese building nuclear stations in the UK however alarms Dieter Helm who proposes that the government should take a stake in Hinkley. “Add in the military and security issues of letting Chinese state- owned companies into the heart of the British nuclear industry, and it seems positively perverse to prefer Chinese government money to British government money. Better an Anglo-French project. (British Energy Policy – What happens next. 16th June)
The GMB Union is also alarmed at the possibility that the Government will allow Chinese state companies to build and operate a new plant at Bradwell with the Chinese being allowed to ship over large amounts of equipment from Chinese factories, which it claims will potentially affect British nuclear safety and as well as hitting UK jobs. “Energy policy is a shambles because the government is driven by ideology. It will do anything to bring in private or Chinese state money to build British energy infrastructure rather than have it (debt) on George Osborne’s balance sheet,”
This seems perverse. With the failure to build successors to Sizewell B, and the disasterous political decision of 2003 to reject nuclear power and support renewables, and following the privatisation of the electricity industry, the future of our electricity supply is now determined by foreign-owned companies. There then seems little reason for Helm and the GMB to specifically oppose a possible Chinese plant. We need a reliable source of nuclear electricity to take over from the existing magnox fleet and Sizewell B and this would give UK industry time to re-enter the nuclear market through the development of small modular reactors. In his article Helm also refers to “existing nuclear reactors, which have great incentives to keep running to postpone the costs of decommissioning.” This shows a misunderstanding of the economics of nuclear power where stations have a high initial cost compared with fossil-fired plant but can, and should, continue to operate over a longer lifetime, not to postpone their decommissioning costs but to generate power well into the future as they are designed to do. In this respect EDF is now extending the operation of its Magnox reactors by up to 10 years, and for 20 years for Sizewell B.
Don’t say ‘nuclear’
Many discussions of energy and electricity supply manage to avoid the apparently dreaded words ‘nuclear power’ and consider only fossil fuels and renewables. Given the large public subsidies for renewables this is not surprising, despite the new Conservative government decision to withdraw support for onshore wind. But it is worrying when, in an interview on Carbon Brief, Dr Fatih Birol the chief economist of the IEA (and due to take over as chief executive in September), is recorded as responding to a question on the desirability of a 100% renewable future: “If it is tomorrow, that’s wishful thinking. But if it’s in the very future, it is definitely feasible, and it is also something that I would like to see.”
Given the unpredictability of wind energy and the variability of solar energy a 100% renewable energy future implies a substantial reliance on other energy sources as back up; it also assumes a very substantial reduction in the cost of renewable energies and in their subsidies. It is then surprising that, as recorded in the interview, Birol never mentions nuclear power - this could however be a feature of the interview.
In 2013, nuclear plants generated around 27% of the electricity produced in the European Union, with nuclear reactors operating in 14 Member States. In comparison for the renewables the highest share of net electricity generation in 2013 was from hydropower plants (12.8%), followed by wind turbines (7.5%) and solar power (2.7%). Although wind generation is still increasing it has some way to go before it equals nuclear power.
A good idea
The new energy secretary Amber Rudd has suggested that in order to gain greater public support nuclear power stations should be designed “to look beautiful”. She has said that Britain’s current nuclear power stations, which are all located at coastal sites, are notorious for their ugly functionality. “People in general want public structures to look good, as well as being functional. It’s not a trivial thing, when you have a big infrastructure project that you put time, effort and money into.”
The comparison between nuclear and fossil-fired stations says it all. According to one assessment Uranium-235, the isotope of uranium that is used in nuclear reactors, can produce 3.7 million times as much energy as the same amount of coal; as an example, to fuel a 1000 MWe reactor for 1.5 years about 2 metric tons of Uranium-235 (in the 100 metric tons of fuel - uranium dioxide) would be consumed. To operate a coal plant of the same output would require 1 train of 89 coal cars of 100 tons every day. Over 350,000 tons of ash would be produced daily as well as over 4 million tons of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides would be released to the atmosphere.
The reactor building and the turbine hall are major structures which cannot be hidden and even these may be dwarfed on some sites by cooling towers, but they only occupy a part of the site, and while there will always be traffic into and from the nuclear station it should be possible to have some landscaping with garden areas planted with lawns, flower beds, and trees. This need not be costly, there will always be, amongst recently retired employees, some enthusiasts willing to carry out the work.
These suggestions have been supported by Ann Robinson of uSwitch (and Sone). “I think she’s absolutely right. We’re a small island and it’s important to do things in a sensitive way.” Nuclear Issues
But although any serious attempt at landscaping would probably increase the area of the plant, it would however demonstrate for the public the virtue of nuclear power as a concentrated and clean energy source.
South Korea is also active in Saudi Arabia which has plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years. In March the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding that could enable at least two South Korean- designed SMART reactors to be built in Saudi Arabia and in a further cooperation the two countries are to jointly promote the 330 MWt pressurised water reactor with integral steam generators and advanced safety features in the global market. A combination of Saudi money and S Korean nuclear technology.
Saudi Arabia sees nuclear power as essential to help meet growing energy demand for both electricity generation and water desalination while reducing reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources and is actively seeking cooperation with a number of countries.
A joint venture company, Invania, with Invap of Argentina, is to develop nuclear technology for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear power program. Russia too has now entered into a wide ranging agreement to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. This covers the design, construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear power and research reactors, including desalination plants and particle accelerators; the provision of nuclear fuel cycle services, including nuclear power plants and research reactors; the management of used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management; the production of radioisotopes and their application in industry, medicine and agriculture; and, the education and training of specialists in the field of nuclear energy. It includes a coordination committee as well as the formation of joint working groups to carry out specific projects and research, exchange of experts, organi ation of seminars and workshops, assistance in education and training of scientific and technical personnel, the exchange of scientific and technical information.
There are also earlier agreements with Finland, on regulation and safety, and with China and France. This move towards nuclear power by Saudi Arabia, a major oil and gas exporter, could be driven by the perception that dependence on fossil fuels is coming to an end, or by rivalry with Iran. Yet Iran’s attempts to develop a civil nuclear power industry are regarded with suspicion and even opposed by the West whereas Saudi ambitions are encouraged.
The sooner the world accepts the need for nuclear power, the safer it will become.