2014 Nuclear Issues Vol 37 No 9 December

Posted by NucNet on 30 December 2014 in Issues

The need for nuclear development.

The Government “Review of the Civil Nuclear R&D Landscape in the UK “ March 2013 said it all.

“The capability in the UK’s national laboratories and industry is smaller and more fragmented than it has been in the past … fission R&D is mainly concentrated on current reactor operations, waste management and decommissioning and not on forward-looking areas of interest such as fuel development and advanced reactor systems.” … At present, there is no overarching UK coordinated international strategy for nuclear R&D.” … attention needs to be focussed on areas where gaps in UK capability exist such as in advanced fuel cycles and future reactor systems.”

UK Government expenditure on nuclear R &D for 2010/2011, at £66m, was not only significantly lower than for France and the US at about £600m and £800 respectively (to say nothing of China, India and S Korea) but, contrary to the situation in major nuclear nations, the majority of the UK expenditure is focussed on the nuclear power of the past (decommissioning), the present (safety and performance), and the very long-term future (fusion); little is spent on research into future generations of fission reactors and their fuel cycle, which would be of immediate benefit.

While the UK may be gaining some expertise in decommissioning nuclear stations and in burying the radioactive waste there appear to be no initiatives to remedy the failure to develop advanced reactors and their fuel cycles – which will almost certainly reuse, as fuel, the so-called nuclear wastes that the NDA is now seeking to bury at a not inconsiderable cost, while also arousing general antagonism and opposition in ‘threatened’ communities.

Faced with Government apathy, and the indifference of most of the major electricity companies, whose main interests lie outside the UK, and with a minimum of interest amongst the nuclear manufacturing industry, it has been left to a prominent environmentalist to call attention to the lack of any initiatives. Writing in the Guardian (October 21st) George Monbiot, now an enthusiast for nuclear power, who believes “that to abandon our primary source of low carbon energy during a climate change crisis would be madness. It would mean replacing atomic plants with something much worse.” … and he continues

…“The harsh reality is that less nuclear means more gas and coal. Coal burning produces, among other toxic emissions, heavy metals, acid sulphates and particulates, which cause a wide range of heart and lung diseases. Even before you take the impacts of climate change into account, coal is likely to kill more people every week than the Chernobyl disaster has killed since 1986. It astonishes me to see people fretting about continuing leaks at Fukushima, which present a tiny health risk even to the Japanese, while ignoring the carcinogenic pollutants being sprayed across our own country. But none of this means that we should accept nuclear power at any cost. And at Hinkley Point the cost is too high.”

… “The clunky third-generation power station chosen for Hinkley C already looks outdated, beside the promise of integral fast reactors and liquid fluoride thorium reactors. While other power stations are consuming nuclear waste, Hinkley will be producing it. …“An estimate endorsed by the chief scientific adviser at the government’s Energy Department suggests that, if integral fast reactors were deployed, the UK’s stockpile of nuclear waste could be used to generate enough low-carbon energy to meet all UK demand for 500 years. These reactors would keep recycling the waste until hardly any remained: solving three huge problems – energy supply, nuclear waste and climate change – at once. Thorium reactors use an element that’s already extracted in large quantities as an unwanted byeproduct of other mining industries.”
Monbiot referred to the GE Hitachi offer to build a fast reactor to start generating electricity from waste plutonium and (unlike the Hinkley developers) to carry the cost if the project failed, but had not yet obtained any reply from the Government on how they might respond.

It is certainly too late for the UK to attempt to develop any expertise in the present generation of reactors, as EDF has already pointed out we lack the skills and experience. We may also, having shortsightedly closed Dounreay, lost out on sodium cooled fast reactors, which are now being brought to commercial development by the Russians and Chinese. Some early work on gas- cooled fast reactors could perhaps be revived, as well as the OECD Dragon HTR work at Winifrith, while the recent call for thorium fuelled reactors should be carefully assessed.

We must abandon the present apathy and restart our nuclear development.

Energy and Economic Growth

The transformation of the world’s economies from a pastoral society, in which the available energy was limited to the natural sources of wind, water and sun, supplemented by wood, came with the use of coal.

With the industrial revolution the world was able to break free from the constraints on economic growth with the belief that apparently unlimited amounts of fossil fuels were available at ever-lower prices to fuel an ever- increasing economic growth. But there are now signs that this is coming to an end.

The use of coal, while still plentiful, is now being restricted by fears of climate change and the health effects of the gaseous discharges, (as in the recent concerns over air pollution in China). Most of the ‘easy’ oil has now been depleted and despite (or because of) the recent fall in oil price there has been a marked slowdown in the increase in the total world production. Gas is still plentiful and there are expectations that reserves and output will be increased by fracking shale gas (although these may prove over-optimistic.)

Energy is the life-blood of growth. Without heat, light and power you cannot build or run a modern economy, fuelling the factories and cities that provide goods, jobs and homes, supporting agriculture and water supply as well as transport, using energy in ever-increasing quantity. Although, with advances in technology the energy used per unit of economic output has declined, it is still and always must be positive. Assurance of an adequate energy supply at an acceptable cost is then an essential requirement for continued economic growth. In many countries, the flow of energy is usually taken for granted but price shocks and supply interruptions can shake whole economies.

Steady and reliable energy supplies are crucial to growth. Government policies generally focus on prices, security of supply and environmental protection, with the added goal of job creation – particularly when promoting “green jobs”. But maximizing direct employment in the energy sector in this way may not be the right goal if it increases energy prices and decreases the industry’s overall productivity.

Energy is a crucial input for nearly every good and service. Affordable and stable energy prices are a requirement for economic growth. The Government should give priority to investment in energy. The proposed expenditure of some £40-50 billion on H2S can then be questioned. There is little point in building a high-speed railway from London to the Midlands and North of England if there are doubts over the electricity supply that will be required to support the economy and even to drive the trains.

This money could be better used for direct investment by the Government in building a series of nuclear power stations, which could when completed either be sold to electricity supply companies or operated as a national industry.

Nuclear advocates

Four prominent climate scientists, Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James E. Hansen of Columbia University and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Adelaide have published a letter addressed to “those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power”, urging them to advocate the use of nuclear energy “as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem.”

“continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change…. the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems is a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump. Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels.

… the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump. With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions.

… passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.”

Stop burning fossil fuels

There are two good reasons to stop burning fossil fuels.

One, which now attracts considerable debate, is the discharge of carbon dioxide and the expectation that this will at some future date lead to an increase in global warming to an extent that it will threaten to damage our present way of life. Following a first meeting at Cacun in Mexico four years ago the UN Lima Congess made some progress in accepting that all countries should commit to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, ideally by March next year, with the aim to arrive at internationally agreed plan at a another UN meeting in Paris 2015.

The second reason which has been well known and documented for many years (see NI for January 2014) is the harm to human health from the combustion gases and particulates that are discharged from fossil fired power stations, and in particular from those burning coal. This is still largely ignored. Whatever the true figure due to human activity there can be little doubt that burning coal is a burden on the nations health and prosperity that should not be tolerated any longer.

Nuclear Power

It is expected that the UK will see the start of construction of its first new nuclear reactor, since Sizewell B began operating 20 years ago, with a positive decision expected to be taken by EDF early next year to build two 1600 MWe European Pressurised Reactors at Hinkley Point.

AREVA is expected to take a 10% share despite the problems and delays being experienced with similar AREVA EPRs in Finland and France which have prompted doubts over the future of this company, but this is unlikely as AREVA is a French state-owned company.

A more encouraging participation is a 30-40% stake expected to be taken by China General Nuclear Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation. These companies are now building two 1600 MWe Areva EPRs at their site in Taishan, but at cost said to be 40% of that for the French EPR at Flamanville. EDF also has a 30 percent stake in Taishan for which Areva is supplying components. To complicate matters further it is said that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also seeking to invest in Hinkley C.

In this web of interrelationships a joint agreement with the Chinese by the British government not only welcomes the Chinese participation in Hinkley Point C but goes on to look to Chinese participation in other reactor projects and to the potential investment and involvement by China in other sites. Rolls-
Royce has also an agreement with the Chinese nuclear reactor vendors, the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation and China General Nuclear Power Co, to “explore possible collaboration in areas such as engineering support, provision of components and systems, supply chain management and instrumentation & control technology,”

These agreements will probably ensure that the delays and cost overruns with the EPRs in Finland and France are not replicated for Hinkley. But this may also mean that the Chinese participants will seek some contol over subcontracts to the extent that the expectation by the DECC that 57% would be placed with UK companies may not be realised.

A second project is the plan by Horizon (80% Hitachi -20% GE) for a 2,700MW twin reactor ABWR to be kown as Wylfa Newydd at its site in Wylfa (where the present remaining Magnox station is expected to close by 2015). It is planned that this station will be in operation by 2026.

An agreement with the Government “with the aim of being able to agree for an in-principle guarantee by the end of 2016 to support the financing of the plant’’ was signed by Horizon in December 2013 subject to “final due diligence and ministerial approval.” Horizon is planning to follow Wylfa Newydd with a similar station at Oldbury. The ABWR design is already licensed in Japan and the USA. Four units have been built in Japan, and two are currently under construction in Taiwan.

A further proposal has come from NuGen, a joint venture between Toshiba (60%) and GDF SUEZ (40%) for 3 Westinghouse reactors with a combined output of 3.7MW at their Moorside site in West Cumbria adjacent to Sellafield. (Westinghouse is now owned by Toshiba having been sold off by BNFL .) NuGen has signed a co- operation agreement with the Government under the UK Guarantee Scheme which was introduced in 2012 to avoid delays to investment in UK infrastructure projects that may have stalled because of adverse credit conditions. Guarantees for up to £40 billion in aggregate can be offered.

More on SMR’s

The apparent need for the construction of large nuclear stations in the UK for support through government loans strengthens the case for smaller reactors that could be owned and financed by other than the major electricity supply companies, possibly by consortia of consumers – as in Finland.

The case for SMR’s has been argued by the National Nuclear Laboratory. Their report of 3rd December, written with the cooperation of a consortium comprising Amec, Atkins, KPMG, Lloyd’s Register, the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Rolls-Royce and the University of Manchester, considered 4 designs four designs in detail – the Canadian ACP100+; mPower (B&W and Bechtel); Westinghouse SMR (Westinghouse); and NuScale (Fluor). It concluded “that there is an opportunity for the UK to regain technology leadership in the ownership and development of low-carbon generation and secure energy supplies through investment in SMRs. This has the potential to position the UK as a global technology vendor in these fields, and consequently to spearhead the development of the UK supply chain, enabling British businesses to develop their capability, and increase international trade.”

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers also, in a report of September 2014, supports the case for SMRs and proposes Trawsfynydd as site for the devlopment and evaluation of three SMRs – B&W mPower 180MWe; NuScale in association with RollsRoyce a 45MW(e)PWR; and the Westinghouse SMR 225 MWe. This, it also suggests, could enable the UK to re-enter as a leading exporter of nuclear technology and equipment, should the international SMR market grow to support developing world economies, as is currently anticipated.

The advantages of SMR’s have been listed as

  • Financing: The UK Government is having to provide a £10 billion loan to EDF Energy to support the Hinkley Point scheme, and it will be over 10 years before it generates revenues. SMRs are built more rapidly and income from each completed unit can support further construction.
  • Manufactured off-site: SMRs can be fabricated, fuelled and sealed in the factory then delivered to the site ready for use cutting the construction costs and risks associated with larger reactors.
  • Non-proliferation: Many of the designs being considered operate on fuel with less than 5% enrichment, satisfying international concerns over proliferation.
  • Safety: SMRs are smaller with simpler components. Many are small enough to be installed underground for added safety.
  • Refueling and decommissioning: Depending on design, an SMR would only need refueling every two to seven years. Decommissioning can also proceed on a modular timetable, easing the financial burden.
  • Markets: For the domestic market a set of SMRs would be highly beneficial to the National Grid in balancing supply against intermittent renewables. For export markets SMRs are ideal for countries without the robust infrastructure required for large reactors.
  • Replace fossil fuel: SMRs could be a low-carbon replacement for retiring coal plant, to take up to 40% of base load electricity currently provided by coal, which renewables will be unable to achieve.

Burning Plutonium

The UK’s radioactive waste policies are managed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Although not officially classified as a waste, one of the by-products of irradiated spent fuel reprocessing is reactor grade plutonium and approximately 110 tonnes of this material is stored at the Sellafield site. Much of this could be made available for use as fuel. One potential route is for it to be ‘burnt’ in a Fast Reactor, such as the GE PRISM which has been offered to, and is now being evaluated by, the NDA.

The fox that lost its tail

The approval by the EU, of the UK request for exemptions from competition rules to ensure the construction and operation of Hinkley C, is being challenged by Austria and Germany, two countries that have themselves renounced the use of nuclear power, on the ground that it violates competition rules by giving public support to a mature technology that could be followed by other EU countries.

“It would set a negative precedent to open this type of subsidy for nuclear energy. ” This calls to mind the Aesop fable of the fox that lost its tail.

“He schemed to convince all the other foxes that being tailless was much more attractive, thus making up for his own deprivation. He assembled a good many foxes and publicly advised them to cut off their tails, saying that they would not only look much better without them, but that they would get rid of the weight of the brush, which was a very great inconvenience. One of them interrupting him said, “if you had not yourself lost your tail, my friend, you would not thus counsel us.”