Shut down or safe low power?
After a major natural disaster, such as an earthquake, the operators of nuclear power plants usually claim proudly that their reactors shut down automatically. There is a preoccupation with prevention of a reactivity accident. But is this necessarily the best condition for the reactors to be in. To start with the power plant itself needs a certain amount of electricity. Loss of off-site power is a major safety concern of a nuclear power plant. Of course there are diesel generators on standby but they may have been hit by the natural disaster as was the case at Fukushima.
It might be better if the reactors merely reduced power say to the level at which they could continue to supply their own needs. Then if the operators were satisfied they could increase power again to meet other supply demands which might be critical to help deal with the natural disaster.
When a reactor is shut down completely there is a build up of xenon poison which can prevent restart for several hours or even a day or two. The level at which the reactor is able to burn off the xenon might be a suitable low power level to aim for. You would at least have demonstrated the ability to insert control rods so why not also demonstrate the ability to pull them out again.
Well at least it is worth some bright young engineer caring out a careful safety analysis.
Lesson from Fukushima
Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) is accepting more of the blame for the Fukushima accident. A task force headed by Tepco’s new president, Naomi Hirose, said that “looking back on the accident, the problem was that preparations were not made in advance.” The suggestion is that previous evaluations of possible tsunami had not been taken seriously enough. The task force noted that “there was concern that if new severe accident measures were implemented it could spread concern that there is a problem with the safety of current plans.”
If this is the case it is disgraceful. One should never hold back from implementing safety measures because of fear of adverse reaction. Rather one should seek to explain what you are doing and if that is too difficult you should not be operating a nuclear power plant.
Our information is that Tepco had been warned on at least two occasions about the possibility of large tsunami but they were arguing about the calculations rather than taking some action. The cost would have been small compared with the costs that Tepco now faces for the loss of at least three nuclear reactors. This has been demonstrated 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 on flood protection.
The important question now is what are other operators of nuclear power plants around the World doing. Few are in areas where a tsunami as huge as that experienced on the East coast of Japan are likely to occur but they have still studied the accident in detail and in particular have improved measures for dealing with the consequences of large external events. They have also studied their protection for loss of off-site power.
The report of the task force has called for at least 30 safety improvements. These include protection against tsunami, the provision of off-site electric power and cooling water and high pressure coolant injection measures.
What a mess
The government proudly proclaims that Britain leads the world in offshore wind power. As Ed Davey the energy minister told the Global Offshore Wind Conference (June 13-14) “We have more installed offshore wind than the rest of the world put together. We have more projects in the pipeline than anyone else.
Five of the top ten biggest offshore windfarms are in British waters; by the end of the year, seven will be. We are the most attractive place for investment, and we are securing an ever-greater chunk of the supply chain.”
But who benefits? It is certainly not the UK electricity customers who ultimately pay the massive subsidy for an expensive and intermittent electricity supply. Nor is it the environment; as the new Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson, has pointed out the gas back-up required for wind power adds to carbon emissions.
British industry may take a share of the windfall as subcontractors , but the major benefits go to overseas companies eager to take advantage of the generous subsidies available .
An article in the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet (17TH October) contrasts the
support for offshore wind in the UK, at the equivalent of 90 öre/kWh with the
18 öre paid in Sweden and Norway, and suggests this is the motive for the
participation in UK offshore wind farms – of Vattenfall (Sweden) in Ormonde,
150 MWe – and of Statoil and Statkraft (Norway) in Sheringham Shoal, 317 MeW.
The article also expresses some surprise that the opening ceremony for
Sheringham Shoal was attended by the Crown Prince of Norway and the heads of
the two Norwegian companies, contrasting the expected output of Sheringham
Shoal at 1.1 TWh/year (an optimistic 40% load factor) with the 18.9
TWh/year from the 4 reactors at the Ringhals nuclear plant in Sweden.
This however does not deter Davey – “The green economy is in my political DNA” – and he told the Wind conference “I am absolutely determined that the UK will retain its reputation as one of the best places in the world to invest in renewable energy”. And he went on “Looking to 2050, we have three options – offshore wind, nuclear, CCS”. This surprisingly ignores the UK’s increasing dependency on gas, and as gas output from the North Sea continues its inevitable decline this means increasing gas imports with the expectation the price of gas will continue to rise. It also ignores the inconvenient fact that gas consumption, to back up intermittency, will rise in step with an increase in wind power.
Nothing but gas
But Davey has a different message for the gas industry, telling the Gastech conference on 8th October that “The UK is a major consumer of gas: among the largest in Europe. Over £22 billion worth of natural gas was sold in the UK last year, making it the single most important fuel in the UK’s energy mix. Gas provided 68% of our heating and accounted for 37% of our primary energy use.”
While most gas comes from pipeline connections with the rest of Europe, about one quarter (25 billion cubic metres) is imported as liquefied natural gas (LNG), making us, in 2011, the world’s third largest LNG importer. Shale gas might provide some indigenous production, but this is as yet far from certain. As Davey said questions of regulatory oversight and the involvement of local communities have yet to be answered.
Gas already provides some 40% of electricity generation, (with 30% from coal, 19% nuclear and 9% renewables and hydro.) But the share of gas can only increase. Older coal-fired stations are now being closed down under EU carbon emission requirements and the building of new stations may be dependent on the development of carbon capture and storage technology at an acceptable cost – which seems ever-increasingly unlikely.
The only alternative to this ever-growing dependency on imported gas is nuclear power, which has the additional advantages of lower – almost zero carbon emissions – and could provide electricity over the next 50 or more years at a secure and low cost. Regrettably the delays and prevarications over the construction of new nuclear plants – with the government being held to ransom by the one French owned company prepared to consider building new stations – means that at best we may not have any new nuclear electricity before 2020 at earliest.
It seems that the government accepts this situation and has plans to authorize the addition of some 20 GWe of gas-fired plants, with an expected useful life of some 25 years, between now and 2030. Indeed as Davey complacently told the GasTech conference “We are good at gas – and we like gas.”
This optimism is not shared by the energy regulator Ofgem who in their 2009 Project Discovery report declared that “Britain will face significant levels of gas imports increasing our exposure to uncertainties in the global gas market, supply disruption and potential price increases. Given the levels of investment needed, there is a high likelihood of rising consumer bills, especially if oil and gas prices continue their underlying rise since 2003.”
Ofgem’s concerns have now been confirmed in an analysis carried out jointly with the National Grid which shows that the margins for electricity generation are projected to fall from the already low figure of 14% in 2012/13 to an alarming 4% in 2015/16. As the press has quickly observed this means that the chance of a blackout occurring is likely to reach 1 in 12, with power cuts of up to 1 or two hours. Indeed if economic growth revives with an increasing electricity demand the chance of power cuts could be as high as 1 in 2.4 which inevitably would damage any recovery. In any event it means that electricity prices will certainly rise.
What can be done? Regrettably the only immediate solution is to increase gas- fired generation, which brings the danger of increasing reliance on gas imports at ever-higher prices. At the same time the Government must as a matter of urgency end the delays and uncertainties in building new nuclear plants. It must either take the responsibility itself and order a new station or encourage and support a cooperative venture from electricity dependent industries together with consumer groups. We clearly cannot rely on any new nuclear plant being built at an acceptable price by foreign owned electricity companies who have other priorities.
Nothing but nuclear
There are obviously many uncertainties surrounding Davey’s three options for 2050 – off-shore wind, nuclear, and CCS. It is also not obvious that sufficient gas will be available at an acceptable price in 40 years time. But a reliance on offshore wind is equally uncertain with the problems of intermittency, high cost and an, as yet, unproven lifetime for wind turbines given an expected rise in sea level and the possibility of increasing stormier conditions that could come with climate change.
CCS is even more uncertain. The technology of capture will certainly add to
the cost of coal or gas fired power stations as well as reducing their
electricity output. The costs of an integrated pipeline network linking the
generating stations to a disposal site in the North Sea will also be large.
But above all, doubts over the practicality, safety and public acceptance of
plans to bury hundreds of millions of tones of carbon dioxide – every year
– for the forseeable future, and to ensure that it will then be securely contained for ever and ever, make it impossible to consider this as a serious proposition.
This leaves only nuclear power. The sooner we start the better.
How we got here
Davey may think that “we are good at gas” but ‘we’ are certainly not good at understanding the essential role of a secure, stable and cheap electricity supply in ensuring a healthy economy and the contribution to this from nuclear power.
Some 40 years ago, in December 1979, David Howell, the incoming Secretary of State for Energy, announced a new nuclear power programme to Parliament. Warning of a decline in the 1990’s he said ‘there must be continuing nuclear power station orders if our long-term energy supplies are to be secured and current industrial uncertainties are to be resolved.’The electricity industry had advised him that ‘on cautious assumptions it would need to order at least one new nuclear power station a year in the decade from 1982, or a programme of the order of 15 000 MWeover ten years’. After years of prevarication and delays, and after the two and a quarter years of the public inquiry which reported favourably in 1986, the Sizewell B PWR station was eventually commissioned in 1994, 15 years after Howell’s warning.
The failure of successive governments to understand energy is only too obvious from history. Succeeding Howell (May 1979 – September 1981) 4 more Secretaries of State for Energy were in post until April 1992 when energy was abolished as a separate government department and merged into the Department of Trade and Industry. After eight successive Secretaries of State for Energy and Presidents of the Board of Trade, responsibility for energy was transferred for the short period of just over one year, to one incumbent as Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and President of the Board of Trade. Finally from October 2008 we now have the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which so far has seen three Secretaries of State – Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne, and still in post, Ed Davey.
Since Howell’s warnings in 1979 Government responsibility for energy over a period of 33 years has been held by 16 different politicians and passed between four different government departments under Conservative, Labour and now a Con/Lib coalition government. During this time only one nuclear station, Sizewell B, has been commissioned (1994). If the present procrastination and delays are brought to an end we may, if we are lucky, see the next nuclear station to be online by the early 2020’s. In the meantime we have a growing, unavoidable dependency on gas and can only expect higher prices and power cuts.
The delays, of three or more years, and the cost overruns of the Olkiluoto-3 nuclear power station in Finland are well known. They have been widely publicised by the green lobby to support their arguments that the costs of nuclear power are widely underestimated. There will probably be further bad publicity when responsibility for the financial cost increases is argued between the main contractor Areva and its French and Finnish subcontractors and equipment suppliers.
Olkiluoto-3 is one of the stations reviewed in the October 2010 report of the Royal Academy of Engineering on “Nuclear Lessons Learned” which identified a common theme as a general lack of experience at all levels of the particular demands of a nuclear project, pointing out that it is now over 30 years since the last nuclear stations in Finland, Olkiluoto 1 and 2 went critical. Many of those involved in building the earlier stations have by now retired and their experience forgotten; the momentum has been lost. Successor stations will be built more efficiently and at a lower cost than the ‘first of a kind’.
This lesson seems to have been taken to heart by the authorities in Finland. The government, through the Finnish parliament , has already authorised – decisions in principle – the construction of two more nuclear stations. Being closer to the events at Olkiluoto they must believe with some certainty that the present delays and difficulties will not be repeated.
It is of particular interest that the first of the new stations, Hankikivi-1, (halfway up Finland on the Baltic coast) will be built for a nuclear cooperative, Femmovoima Oy which is 34% owned by E.ON but with the remaining 66% shared between some 70 industrial companies and private and municipal electricity distributers. All the shareholders will get electricity at cost price in proportion to their ownership, with the expectation that this reliable and cheap supply will continue for the 50 or more years after the station is commissioned. Femmovoima is now evaluating offers from Areva and Toshiba and is expected to announce its decision shortly.
The group of shareholders in Femmovoima are themselves organised through their
own company Voimaosakeyhtiö SF – a cooperative founded in 2006 to enable the
members “to get their own reasonably priced electricity”.
There is a wide range of membership, details of whom are given on the company’s website. They include large mining and metal producers as well as some quite small companies – Finnofoam, a family business employing about 40 people – as well as retail conglomerates, dairy companies, and a number of municipal, private, and local electricity distributors. The shareholding companies are widely spread throughout Finland.
There would clearly be some obvious benefits if this cooperative ownership structure were adopted in the UK. Nuclear cooperatives could be encouraged as a part of the Green Deal under which a number of major cities put forward plans to lower emissions and reduce electricity costs for the public as well as for local industries.
There would also be a wider benefit in that full details of the costs and benefits of nuclear power would not be restricted to the members of the cooperative but would become public knowledge. This would avoid the problems of the so far undisclosed negotiations between the Government and EDF on the ‘strike price’ for electricity from Hinkley Point, with the suspicion that this may be linked to the unreasonably high price being paid for subsidised wind power.
It is interesting that while E.ON has withdrawn from the Horizon joint venture project with RWE in the UK – a decision based in part on financial constraints – it is continuing with a 34% stake in Femmovoima. Is it then possible that a smaller stake, 20-30%, in a joint partnership with industrial and municipal partners could be considered
The comprehensive report by the Academy of Engineering on Nuclear Lessons Learnt was published two years ago but one of the key points it identified – the benefits of a series of stations to the same design – seems to be being ignored. One of the conclusions of the report under the heading Design, Planning and procurement states that
“Follow-on replica stations are cheaper and take less time to construct than the first-of-a-kind. It is inevitable that lessons will be learned and experience gained that can reduce the program time and the cost of a replicated station. Experience has shown that follow-on replica projects can catch up and even overtake the ‘lead’ project. The interval between the lead and follow-on stations is important as the most effective way of passing on lessons and experience is to transfer people. There are clear industrial relations benefits if skilled construction staff rundown on the lead site is matched by a requirement for a build up of that skill on a follow-on site. The projects currently ongoing in mainland China indicate how significant improvements can be made in going from first-of-a-kind to a follow-on station.”
The original idea of the Government of encouraging competitive bids from the major electricity suppliers for nuclear stations on up to 10 different sites seems to have collapsed and they are now tied into, so far confidential negotiations, with a single supplier, EDF, over a first station at Hinkley Point based on the concept of a strike price.
Heads I win, tails you loose
According to the WNA , “if the market price of power is below a ‘strike price’, then a guarantor will make up the difference, while market prices above the strike price will see the generator will pay back the difference. Crucial to this scheme is to set fair strike prices for each technology as well as an appropriate guarantor.” This seems to depend on the “market price” which for electricity will be influenced by the subsidies being paid to wind power. And who is this ‘guarantor’ who will meet any costs?
There are also ‘capacity payments’ – “a ‘market for capacity’ that would
encourage the construction of non-intermittent power sources, like fossil
fuels or nuclear, to avoid shortfalls during cold, windless periods.” These
capacity payments are required to meet the additional costs running non-
intermittent power sources inefficiently.
It seems that wind power is to be subsidised both ways, directly when the wind blows and indirectly when it does not.
Projections for a continuing growth in nuclear power have been made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) despite the Japanese silly accident at Fukushima. A steady rise in the number of nuclear power plants is forecast in the world for the next 20 years. The IAEA makes high and low projections which show 25% increase for the low case and 100 % – a doubling in generation capacity – for the high case by 2030.
The projections, made after the Fukushima incident, indicate a slightly slower rate of growth but still growth in virtually all parts of the world. The only hesitation is due to Angela Merkel’s mad decision to close German nuclear plants. It is to be hoped that this arbitrary decision can yet be reversed when Germany has a new chancellor.
The projections indicate for the low case that nuclear capacity will grow from 370 GWe today to 456 GWe in 2030 which represents a nine percent reduction in growth compared with last years forecast. But in the in high case the capacity is forecast to grow to 740 GWe by 2030. This is only about one percent less than the growth projected in 2011. Compared with forecasts made before the March 2011 Fukushima incident it is 16 percent down. In the worst case the projections represent a ten year delay in pre-Fukushima anticipated growth with capacity that was formerly projected to be in place by 2020 now not expected till 2030.
Making these projections at the IAEA General Conference in September the director-general, Yukiya Amano, said that the Fukushima accident had raised “fundamental questions” about the future of nuclear energy but 18 months after the accident “it is clear that nuclear energy will remain an important option for many countries”. Most of the growth is forecast in regions that already have operating nuclear plants. It is projected that growth will be strongest in the Far East including China and South Korea. Other regions forecasting substantial growth in nuclear power are Eastern Europe including Russia, the Middle East and South Asia particularly India and Pakistan.
In Europe there is a big difference between the high and low projections. The high projection assumes that the current financial and economic crises will be overcome relatively soon and that past rates of economic growth and electricity demand will resume.