Researched and written by Paul Cassar of MJMEnergy Ltd – http://www.mjmenergy.com
“Opponents of nuclear misread the science. It is safe and reliable. The challenge, as with other low carbon technologies, is to deliver nuclear power which is low cost as well. Green energy must be cheap energy.” – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-direction-for-uk-energy-policy
On 18th November 2015 the UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd revealed her plans for power generation for the nation. Amongst other things she plans to eliminate coal-fired power stations by 2025, increase gas-fired power stations and keep nuclear power stations central in the UK’s energy future.
Current Nuclear Power Generation
The UK currently has 15 nuclear reactors which generate around 18% of it’s electricity requirements. About half of these are due to be retired by 2025.
Located at eight sites and operated by French company EDF who bought the previous operator, British Energy, in 2008.
After extensive technical and safety reviews four of the sites have been given an extended life. The last one is due to close in 2030.
Apart from the fire in the nuclear reactor in Cumbria in 1957, nuclear has had a fairly consistent safety record in the UK.
Along with the risks associated with nuclear power generation there is also the problem of waste disposal.
Used nuclear fuel is both very hot and very radioactive. Water provides both cooling and shielding and used fuel will typically spend about five years submerged before being transferred into dry ventilated concrete containers.
Interestingly about 96% of the used fuel is uranium and 1% plutonium, so it can be recycled, although at present this is not normal practice. The other 3% is classed as high level waste.
High level nuclear waste will be radioactive for thousands of years and several countries are in the process of designing and constructing deep underground facilities as a place to dispose of it.
Future Nuclear Power Generation
Partly due to under-investment as well as political procrastination there is a growing pressure for the government, which is slowly backing itself into an energy deficient corner, to make some drastic decisions, regardless of cost, to keep the lights on.
It comes as no surprise then that future plans include talk of a fleet of new nuclear plants which could generate up to 30% of electricity to meet the nation’s growing needs, although at the time of writing there is no sign of a Final Investment Decision (FID).
Hinkley Point C
Already at least 8 years over due, Hinkley has been the subject of endless debates and discussions. It has a price tag of somewhere between £18bn and £24bn and, if built, will be one of the world’s largest nuclear projects capable of generating 3.2GW, enough for 6 million households, for 60 years.
There are two main issues with this project though.
Due to the amount of capital investment involved in this project it is estimated that EDF will tie up around 20% of it’s cash for ten years. They require a significant cash boost from the French government even though China has already agreed to take a 33% stake in the project.
The two EPRs (European Pressurised Reactors) which are intended to be not only safer but more efficient, may have a design fault which is causing considerable problems for the already delayed and over budget projects in Flamanville, France and Finland. Apparently the steel casings that confine the radioactivity contains excessive amounts of carbon which could cause the case to crack.
Areva, who provide the reactors, have known about this problem for over 10 years and have chosen to remain silent about it.
The steel case takes about six years to build and once in place cannot be replaced during the lifetime of the reactor.
France’s nuclear safety watchdog IRSN also found multiple malfunctioning valves that could potentially cause a meltdown. They are in the process of examining these valves.
Despite the knowledge of the problems with EPRs and the rapidly increasing cost of build and subsidies offered to EDF the UK government is ambitiously pushing the project to get it started.
The sweetner offered to encourage investors was the promise to pay them £92.50/Mwh which is more than double the current price. This makes power generated from this new build expensive by todays prices, not the cheap energy that Amber Rudd referred to. But will that still be the case in ten years’ time when this giant power station starts generating?
Plans are already in motion for other large build projects at Sizewell C and Bradwell B.
Small Modular Reactors
“It also means exploring new opportunities like Small Modular Reactors, which hold the promise of low cost, low carbon energy.” – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amber-rudds-speech-on-a-new-direction-for-uk-energy-policy
New larger and very expensive power plants are not the only way that civil nuclear electricity generation is heading for in the future. A relatively new technology known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are coming into focus.
Being much smaller than conventional power plants these reactors will typically produce 300MWe or less and being modular means they can be made in a factory and transported to site. This should drastically reduce time, cost and space required to generate electricity where it is needed.
The SMR idea isn’t a new one though. Rolls Royce have made them for the Royal Navy for over 50 years, making them ideal contenders for the £250m competition announced by the government to identify the best value SMR design for the UK.
Being smaller in size has advantages and disadvantages though:
Cheaper and quicker to build
Take up less space
Use of coolant to heat homes and factories
Closer to population Higher security risk Increased security costs
Closing environmentally dirty power stations but not sending the right economic signals for new builds has taken its toll over the last 10 – 15 years. Security of supply is getting ever tighter as more power stations are marked for closure with very little in sight to replace them.
Nuclear is being seen as a “quick” fix even though a new plant is still at least ten years away and at great expense and risk.
Amber Rudd describes nuclear as cheap green energy. But is it?
Given the growing environmental problems we are now facing starting from previous generations polluting the atmosphere albeit with some degree of ignorance. Is burying radioactive waste underground and leaving it for future generations to deal with a responsible way forward?
Perhaps encouraging investment into developing even cleaner and more efficient gas power plants, that could work alongside renewables, would be a better or more significant way of solving the UK’s ever looming energy crisis and in the process demonstrating true world leadership in these days of trying to bring balance to the planet’s climate.