The future of nuclear energy in the UK
This report (July 2012) from the Birmingham Policy Commission, of the University, under the chairmanship of Lord Hunt, a former Minister of Energy, gives a valuable assessment of the challenges facing the UK if it is to build up its nuclear programme. In his foreword Lord Hunt warns that unless the Government shows a decisive lead and creates the right conditions for investment in the UK, the country risks losing out on its huge potential for developing a new nuclear industry.
Driven by the need to address climate change and decarbonise energy production, the emphasis is on renewable energies but these sources alone cannot meet the full UK demand and the Government has the aim of encouraging the continued use of nuclear energy – “a tried and tested technology shown to be one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases and that would contribute to the UK’s security of supply through providing a significant fraction of the country’s base load electricity.”
The report implicitly criticizes the Government ‘leave it to the market’ approach to determine the energy mix, which tempts the companies to focus on the near time and an expansion of gas-fired stations, whereas the use of nuclear power requires a long-term commitment of at least 100 years between the initial planning and final decommissioning.
The declared aim has been not to produce yet another document on the pros and cons of nuclear energy but to examine the present circumstances in the UK in the light of government support and assess what needs to be done to maximise the chances that this policy is effective. The nine academic members of the Commission contributed a balance of both technical and non-technical expertise, including some with anti-nuclear views, and were headed by Professor Martin Freer, Director of the Birmingham Centre of Nuclear Education and Research, assisted by Dr Audrey Nganwa of Birmingham University.
The University of Birmingham Policy Commission have produced a remarkable document stuffed full with sensible discussions and wise comment on the issues involved, many of which we will certainly return to and discuss.
The broad conclusions of the commission are:
1. There are strong arguments for pursuing a programme of building new nuclear reactors. These include the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change and to ensure the UK’s energy independence. Nuclear energy may well be the cheapest low carbon energy source; in times of growing domestic energy bills and fuel poverty, when cost is critical, it should be part of an overall programme of developing renewable sources and maximising energy efficiency.
2. The future of nuclear new build now lies in the balance. Progress in fixing the market conditions that make investment favourable has been slow, and there is a significant danger that the current level of engagement of the utilities will be lost. The financial risks associated with building new nuclear power stations are beyond the balance sheets of many of the utilities. These risks need to be shared between the public and private sectors.
3. Considerations in the nuclear sector include not only new build but also the fuel cycle and waste disposal. This sector is highly complex and strategic decisions have both short and long-term consequences. These decisions cannot be made by the Government or Industry alone; a coherent long term strategy, or roadmap, is required to ensure that decisions on the nature of the fuel cycle, plutonium stockpile and waste disposal do not close off future options. (As indeed the UK seems about to do with the impending sale of our enrichment capability.)
4. The Government should set up a statutory Nuclear Policy Council, or similar, modeled on the Committee on Climate Change, that can establish and champion a long term, technically informed, roadmap for nuclear energy in the UK.
5. The UK has fallen significantly behind its international competitors in fission energy research and now has very few world-leading research facilities. Investment in new facilities (eg, the National Nuclear Laboratory’s Phase 3 labs) is required to maintain national expertise in the nuclear fuel cycle, and support for other national facilities (eg, the Dalton Cumbrian Facility) should be funded by the research councils. In view of the UK’s current expertise in materials science, it should seek to develop major world-class research facilities based around the development of new materials capable of performing in the more hostile conditions present in Generation IV (and fusion) reactors.
6. Geological disposal is the widely and scientifically accepted solution for the safe management of high-level nuclear waste. Identifying the optimal site involves a balance between finding a suitable geology and a community prepared to host the repository. While the UK approach of seeking voluntary host communities is appropriate, the present position of having a single confirmed potential host community in Cumbria is a weakness and more needs to be done to encourage other communities to engage with the siting process. This may involve increased efforts by the implementing organisations in communication and dialogue as well as ensuring that the incentives are set at an appropriate level.
7. Public opinion is extremely important for the future of nuclear energy. However, public understanding of nuclear energy, nuclear radiation and the risks associated with nuclear reactors is currently relatively weak. It has been argued that improved understanding of the science behind nuclear energy can help to improve public acceptance.
8. There are challenges in ensuring there is a suitably skilled workforce in
place for when the build programme commences. Even though much has been
achieved already, there are significant concerns that the scale of training
achievable will not match demand. Effective government engagement is required
to stimulate training and education programmes.
We must hope that the Government will take note and act on this report.
China is now ranked together with the USA as the world’s largest electricity producers, but it may soon move to first place with a mean annual electricity growth of 12% between 2000 and 2010 compared with only 0.7% in the USA.
In 2010 the generation of just over 4000 TWh was primarily from coal, with some gas, at 80% and 17% from hydro power; almost 2% was from nuclear and
1.3% from wind. In recent years there has been a large expansion of wind power capacity and an extraordinary growth in solar power from a very small level.
In China, as in the UK, a Renewable Energy Law obliges the grid operators to purchase a fixed amount of renewable energy with the possibility of applying for subsidies from a ‘renewable energy fund, to cover extra costs. China also has a feed-in tariff for wind power that will apply throughout the wind farm’s assumed 20-year service life.
The nuclear sector is also expanding rapidly. In addition to the 15 reactors in operation there are 30 reactors with over 33 GWe of capacity under construction and the government plans to have at least 70 GWe in operation by 2020. Safety reviews implemented after the Fukushima accident were completed at the end of 2011 and in May 2012 approvals for new plant were resumed. Uranium stockpiles are being built up from overseas imports with a further development of domestic production in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
China also benefits from a continuing construction programme. As the Academy of Engineering has pointed out “follow-on stations are cheaper and take less time to construct than first-of a-kind” – particularly when there has been a gap of some years during which experience of meeting high nuclear standards even in such routine matters as pouring concrete has been lost. This explains the well- publicised delays in the EPR reactors at Olkiluoto (Finland) and Flamanville (France). In contrast, for the EPRs being built at Taishan in China, which were started in 2009 and 2010, the construction is on course to be completed much faster and without problems.
Despite relying on coal for 70% of its electricity generation, China has a critical opinion of carbon capture and storage. Speaking in London, in October, two members of the Chinese Energy Research Institute, which has some responsibility for macroeconomic planning, described CCS as facing fatal problems, including the lack of integrated commercial demonstrations, increasing total costs, falling energy efficiency, lack of legislative support, and low public acceptance.
Instead they urged that developed countries should show more understanding and tolerance to developing countries in coping with climate change issues with their relatively fast growing energy demand. Most developing countries experience unfavourable conditions (such as drought, harsh climate, fragile ecosystem, heavy pollution, limited energy resources, etc.), while most developed countries enjoy comfortable natural conditions (such as small temperature differences all year round and plentiful rainfall in Europe, fertile lands and can afford to purchase abundant energy resources). In addition, developing countries are lagging behind in advanced technologies, their costs of development are therefore greater.
As the largest developing country in Asia, where energy resources are most expensive and scarce, China is paying more and more for the energy necessary for its people’s survival and development, with consume coal as the basic energy resource. They concluded that the 2 degree target as addressed by the UNFCC is not realistic.
A recent study by the World Resources Institute finds that in 2010 global coal consumption reached 7 238 million tonnes. More than 60% of this was used to generate electricity. Of this China’s consumption accounted for 46% followed by the USA at 13% and India 9%. It assesses that 1 199 new coal-fired plants are to be built, with a total installed capacity of just under 1.5 million MWe in 59 countries. China and India together account for 76% of this expansion. The IEA has estimated that global coal trade rose by 13.4% in 2010 to just over 1 000 million tones.
Coal-fired power plants are not only a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions but also a major source of acid rain and air pollution. World ranking in terms of coal-fired electricity generation (2009) shows that Germany, even before the force of the nuclear shutdown had been felt, comes in at 4th, Poland at 10th and the UK at 12th with 105 TWh. Sweden, with only 0.5 TWh, is practically coal-free.
The World Heath Organization has estimated that there are 1.34 million urban premature deaths per year from air pollution and it emphasises that these are not just early deaths — they are preventable deaths.
The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen steadily from 280 ppm at the onset of the industrial age to the present 391 ppm, other potent greenhouse gases, methane for instance, have also reached record levels. The reasons for this increase may be complex with interchange between the oceans, and vegetation playing a role, but there is little doubt that the ever- increasing combustion of fossil fuels has been a major cause. The extent to which this increase is responsible for climate change is still questioned, but the majority view is that this indisputable increase, through the ‘greenhouse effect’, is not only responsible for global warming and associated climate change, but that it will become more threatening in the future as the combustion of fossil fuels continues to increase.
Such reductions in emissions that have occurred, as in Europe, have been gained at the expense of increasing emissions in the developing world from where imports of energy intensive imports of goods and materials have increased.
There are only two solutions: the world must either seek an alternative to the continued striving for economic growth for an ever-increasing population, or progressively substitute fossil fuels with non-carbon emitting energies. In practice, since the so-called ‘green’ energies are expensive and inefficiently intermittent, this will require a massive expansion of nuclear generation.
There is some small encouragement in that China, for instance, the world’s biggest coal consumers, while unwilling to accept the limit of a two degree target rise is rapidly expanding its nuclear capacity. India too another large coal burner also has an increasing nuclear programme .
With increasing doubts of the value and purpose of on-shore wind farms and with growing public opposition to any expansion of on shore wind, it seems that the greater part of the Government attempts to meet the EU target of 20% of energy from renewables by 2020 is to come from offshore wind. Out of sight, out of mind, these have not attracted much opposition. The public, as yet, seem largely unaware that of the increasingly large sums they will be paying in subsidies for offshore wind, extracted through the Renewable Obligation that goes mainly to Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Germany companies who are now building and operating them. Areva has just announced plans to build a manufacturing plant for wind farm components in Scotland.
The Government boasts that we are leading the world in this technology, but other countries may be adopting a more cautious approach, while in the meantime benefitting from our generosity. Faced with the problems that might arise, the Government is now making bold, but so far unsubstantiated, claims that the admittedly high costs of offshore wind will be substantially reduced.
A report from the Crown Estates (HC517) declares that the levelised cost of offshore wind could fall from the present value of £140-144/MWh to £100/MWh or even further. One of the main sources of this reduction will come from large increases in the capacity factor from the present 31% up to 50%. This could in part be a consequence of the move to windier sites further away from the shoreline. These sites however will probably be in deeper waters requiring more costly foundations and the grid connection charges will also increase. There is also the possibility that the expected increase in wind speed could, if it reaches gale force, require the turbines to be shut down.
A critical article by Professor G Hughes of Edinburgh (Why is wind power so expensive, July 2011) points out that, “there will be times when wind generation would not be dispatched even though it is available. Thus, the actual load factors will be lower than the values used. The magnitude of the reduction will depend on the amount of non-wind base load capacity (required for system stability) and the pattern of potential wind generation in relation to peak and base load demand. No-one really knows how large the gap between potential and actual load factors is likely to be, but it will get larger as the amount of installed wind capacity increases. This creates a vicious circle under which installing additional capacity to meet the renewable generation target reduces the actual load factor and requires yet more capacity. It is not unreasonable to assume that the actual load factor for offshore wind will turn out to be little different from today’s 28%.” The assumed improvement in capacity factor to 50% that the Crown Estates foresee may then be an illusion.
In addition levelised costs are calculated over the expected lifetime the plant, which for windfarms is assumed to be 20-25 years. There is as yet no experience to confirm these figures. It could be that, with rising sea levels and stormier conditions possible from climate change, the operational life of the very large wind turbines now being installed – which with rotor diameters of 100 meters or more could be vulnerable – may be no more than 10-15 years. The costs of maintenance of the turbines, with hub heights of 70 metres above sea level, and when access might be restricted by stormy seas, could also be well above the assumptions used in estimating the levelised costs. The consequent increase in downtime would also reduce the capacity factor. Even larger turbines are now being proposed. E.ON is planning a 700 MWe wind farm off the Sussex coast with Turbines between 3MW and 7 MWe generating capacity and with respective maximum height to tip of 180 m and 210 m.
A diagram from RWE shows that contrary to the expectation of falling costs, the actual capital cost of offshore wind farms in the North Sea has risen consistently from about !1.6 million per MWe in the period around 2000 to about !3.5 – 4 million/MWe by 2010 (2011 real prices) as the size of the wind turbines has increased from 2 MWe to up to 6 MWe.
The Crown Estates study acknowledges that the costs have substantially
increased since the first wind farms of the early 2000s and explains them as having been driven by supply chain bottle necks, sub-optimal (poor!) reliability, and the move to deeper water sites, – but optimistically declares, that these costs have now stabilised and will fall. Significant sums are now to be spent by the Government on improving the supply chain and enabling UK companies to take a larger share while recognising that at present, “the UK supply chain captures relatively little value in current deployments”.
An earlier report by Technology and Policy Assessment group of the UK Energy Research Centre (September 2010) on the cost of offshore wind noted that “offshore wind has been subject to particular supply chain bottlenecks and cost escalations associated with making offshore turbines reliable and installing them in deeper more distant sites. As a result, cost reductions anticipated in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave way to dramatic increases in the period from 2005 – 2009.” And it did not foresee any meaningful reductions up to 2015, although accepting that the costs may have peaked while as much as 80% of a typical wind farm built in the UK in the past 5 years had been imported. It ambiguously concluded in seeing grounds for optimism tempered with realism associated with the development of offshore wind. But this is an area where realism seems in short supply.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now issued a construction and operating licence for the GE-Hitachi-Cameco proposal to build a laser enrichment plant at its site in Wilmington, North Carolina, based on the successful development of the Australian Silex process. A test loop is already operating and it is planned that will be expanded ‘with a high likelihood of success’ to a full- scale plant.
Enrichment accounts for about half the cost of nuclear fuel and 5% of the cost of nuclear electricity. If the Wilmington project successfully goes ahead it could be expected that just as the first gaseous diffusion plants were superseded by centrifuge plants the advantages of laser process will dominate future production.
This has, belatedly, aroused considerable alarm since the laser process, which could produce high enrichment levels, would greatly enhance the risks of nuclear weapon proliferation. But it is now probably too late to shut the stable door. The knowledge that a laser process can, is being, or could be developed will be sufficient to spur many attempts in a number of countries to develop a process and enter the growing market for enriched uranium to meet an expanding demand.
This work does not require large resources. The successful Australian development started from modest beginnings. The company was established in 1988 as an R&D subsidiary of Sonic Healthcare Ltd by its founder Dr Michael Goldsworthy, to research his isotope separation ideas, with the support of Dr Horst Struve. A successful ‘Proof of Principle’ demonstration was achieved in 1995; the separate Silex company was listed in 1998; the agreement between the US and Australian governments for cooperation on continued development was signed in 1999, and in 2007 the transfer of the Silex enrichment project to GE’s Wilmington site was completed in 2007.
It can be expected that any new ventures will be achieved in a much shorter timescale. Much of any new initial work could be carried out using isotopes of elements other than uranium, which would make attempts to control this development well nigh impossible. Indeed there could be a commercial market for pure isotopes of a number of elements.
We cannot attempt to restrict new technological developments on the suspicion that they might be misused.
Tepco produces a plan
Tokyo Electric Power Company has announced a plan for the decommissioning of the Fukushima nuclear power station. It extends over thirty years and costs a massive 5 trillion Yen ($6.1 billion).
As we have reported before, TEPCO has the main responsibility for meeting the high cost of the event though it is now seeking help from the Japanese government. It says that it is now losing money and staff. They should be reflecting on the relatively low cost paid by Tohoku Electric Power Company, the operators of the Onagawa plant which was much closer to the epicentre of the massive earthquake but just managed to escape unscathed because they had spent a bit more money. They had installed higher flood protection while TEPCO were still arguing about the basis for calculating the cost and doing nothing in the meantime.
TEPCO says that the final cost “may be staggering and potentially far exceed available reserves”.