2015 Nuclear Issues Vol 38 No 6 July

Posted by NucNet on 30 July 2015 in Issues

Nuclear matters

Of course nuclear matters; it is a reliable source of secure non-carbon emitting energy, but because of an unwillingness to accept this conclusion it has been desirable, in the USA at least, to form a new organisation for this purpose . “The mission of Nuclear Matters is to inform the public about the clear benefits that nuclear energy provides to our nation, raise awareness of the economic challenges to nuclear energy that threaten those benefits, and to work with stakeholders to explore possible policy solutions that properly value nuclear energy as a reliable, affordable and carbon-free electricity resource that is essential to America’s energy future.”

In this country plans, or at least intentions, are more advanced. The Government is committed to an expansion of nuclear power. Andrea Leadsom, the Minister of State at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, has reaffirmed the UK’s support for nuclear power with nuclear energy playing a “critical role” in the government’s security of supply and decarbonisation goals with a commitment to a significant expansion of nuclear capacity. “A package of reforms and regulatory measures will remove barriers to investment and give developers the confidence to take forward projects which will help deliver secure, low carbon and affordable energy.”

The implementation of these plans is however in the hands of the private energy companies, which could face other problems. As the NIA delicately puts it “the Government is supportive of – but not involved in – the delivery of a nuclear new build programme for the UK.”

The construction of Hinkley C is now being delayed until the problems that have beset similar AREVA reactors in Finland and France are understood and can be remedied.

In the meantime there are plans by NuGeneration, a joint venture between Toshiba and ENGIE (formerly GDF SUEZ) to build three AP1000 nuclear plants, up to 3.4 GW near Sellafield, in Cumbria with the first station coming online from 2024, while Hitachi-GE is planning to start construction about 2018 of two BWRs (2700 MW) on the Wylfa site with operation expected in the first half of the 2020,s; a second station would at Oldbury would follow.

SMR’s

It now seems possible that these nuclear plans may be overtaken by the deployment of SMR’s (small modular reactors). In the US NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) intend to seek approval for a design containing up to 12 reactor modules in a single reactor building by the end of 2017 or beginning of 2018.

NuScale’s self-contained SMR houses the reactor core, pressuriser and steam generator inside a single containment vessel. It relies on gravity, not pumps, to circulate the water in the primary circuit up through a riser above the core and down through a helical coil steam generator. With a single unit generating up to 50 MWe (gross), a plant of 12 modules would be able to produce up to 600 MWe (gross). Each module is just under 25m in length, 4.6m in diameter and weighs around 450 tonnes. This application is supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Another design with a larger output, the Westinghouse SMR is a 225 MWe PWR reactor with passive safety features which it claims could be built on 15 acre site, compared with 60,000 acres for 225 MW of wind or 2,400 acres for solar. With passive safety features and a compact integral design the reactor could be shipped to site.

With the considerable interest in SMRs in the UK (NI Dec 2014) it seems possible that plans for SMR development could follow here with first reactors entering into operation in the early 2020s possibly before a conventional nuclear station. Speaking at the Nuclear Industry Association conference Ms Leadsom said: “Small Modular Reactors are an option we are investigating further. These have the potential to drive down the cost of nuclear energy and make financing easier through shorter construction times and lower initial capital investment requirements, in addition to high-value commercial opportunities.”

The former Magnox station at Trawsfynydd  has been suggested as one possible site while Penultimate Power, created in 2012 to develop SMRs, wants to develop a manufacturing plant and trial the world’s first small modular reactor (SMR) on land next to the existing Hartlepool nuclear power plant.

Saving Lives

A report in the The Lancet (Health and Climate Change, June 15) warns that “The effects of climate change are being felt today, and future projections  represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.”… “ The direct effects of climate change include increased heat stress, floods, drought, and increased frequency of intense storms, with the indirect threatening population health through adverse changes in air pollution, the spread of disease vectors, food insecurity and undernutrition, displacement, and mental ill health.”

It calls for a rapid phase out of coal from the global energy mix with coal plants being replaced by cleaner energy alterantives , but accepts that there will be “a cautious transitional role for natural gas”. The phase out of coal would target air pollution from the transport, agriculture, and energy sectors, and in particular that from particulate matter. The technical expertise, technology, and finance to prevent further significant climate change is readily available, and understood, but bold political action is required. This should include a rapid expansion of access to renewable energy in low income and middleincome countries to provide a reliable source of electricty.

The source of this renewable energy is not discussed, but the call for a ‘reliable’ source points to the need for an expansion of nuclear generation. Whatever the merits of wind and solar energy reliability is not among them.

“GHG emissions have steadily climbed since the industrial revolution. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a long time, with a part remaining for thousands of years or longer. As a result, atmospheric GHG concentrations have risen steeply in the industrial age, those of CO2 reaching more than 400 parts per million in 2014, for the first time since humans walked the planet. Every additional ppm is equivalent to about 7·5 billion tonnes of atmospheric CO2…. The oceans have absorbed the bulk (90% or more) of this energy in recent years ocean surface temperatures have risen. However, temperatures at the Earth’s surface have also risen, with each of the last three decades being successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. Indeed, 2014 was the hottest year on record. Overall, the Earth (global average land and ocean temperature) has warmed by some 0·85°C between 1880 and 2012.8 Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a rate of up to 50000 km2 per year, the Antarctic ice sheet is now losing 159 billion tonnes of ice each year, and sea levels are rising inexorably.”

As much of past emissions remain in the atmosphere and will drive continued warming in the future, GHG concentrations in the atmosphere will rise at a rate that is incompatible with limiting warming to 2°C in the coming 35 years (by 2050), and which exceeds the IPCC’s worst case scenario of an average temperature rise of more than 4°C above preindustrial temperatures in the next 85 years, at which point global temperature will still be increasing by roughly 0·7°C per decade (due to the lag in reaching equilibrium).

“This distribution will not be even: the so called polar amplification phenomena might cause temperatures in parts of the Arctic to increase by 11°C in this timeframe.”

The report is against Carbon Capture and Storage which it sees as magnifying the somewhat dubious threat of rising and volatile fuel prices.

The report also, somewhat grugingly, recognizes that nuclear power has a part to play as one of the technologies with the greatest decarbonisation potential, along with offshore wind, and concentrated solar power (CSP). But it sees problems for nuclear from large unit sizes, potential regulatory concerns, and long lead times. This ignores the fact that, in Europe nuclear generated 27% of electricity in 2013 at compared with 7.5% from wind and only 2.7% from solar. But in the end accepts that renewables and nuclear can be justified as a hedge against future increases in fossil fuel prices.

A particulary interesting suggestion sees cities as playing a larger part in climate action.  “The leaders of cities around the world, from major metropolitan hubs like New York and São Paulo, to smaller centres like Rabat or Medellin, are increasingly using the networked reach of their municipal governments to address climate change in ways that are often more flexible and more directly applied than those of the national or international levels. Evermore city leaders have been leveraging their network power through international networks such as the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, and the World Mayors Council on Climate Change.”

With the growing interest in Small Modular Reactors it is now probable that the investment required could fall within the financial scope of a city budget. Cities such as Hartlepool, Manchester and Birmingham might then support a local SMR project.