In last months NI we muddled up the dates in the first item – ‘An uncertain future’. Sizewell B began operating in 1995, so that if the new Hinkley Point station were to start up in the mid 2020s there would be a gap of some 30, not 50 years between the two stations.
This long delay ought still to be a matter of concern, but EDF has said that they will only decide whether to go ahead with Hinkley later this year. What happens if the decision is to delay further? How long will the gap be? When might we expect the new stations at Wylfa and Moorside come into operation.
There are also the serious delays and cost overruns with the other AREVA stations being built in Finland and, to a lesser extent, in France, although it should be expected that the reasons for these delays would now be understood and not recur for the next Areva station at Hinkley. Even so, our immediate nuclear future seems clouded with uncertainty.
Smal l Modular Reactors
In its first annual report published in February 2015 the Nuclear Industry Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) concluded there could be a substantial market for SMRs which could become cost-comparable with large reactors if used on a sufficiently large scale.
The report notes that although there has been a significant pace in SMR development this has all been carried out by overseas companies. But although none of the proposed designs is yet ready for deployment there is “a narrow window of opportunity for UK industry to work with SMR vendors to complete the design and manufacturing development, enabling them to secure a stake in SMR technology.”
As the cost of completing the development for any of the leading SMR designs, estimated to be in the range of £0.5 billion to £1.0 billion over a seven to ten year period, is thought to be beyond the scope of most potential UK companies the NIRAB recommends that the Government should provide sufficient financial support.
The findings of the NIRAB confirm a previous those of a previous study led by the National Nuclear Laboratory and carried out by a grouping of organisations (Atkins, Amec, KPMG, Lloyds Register, Nuclear AMRC, Rolls Royce, and Manchester University) which concluded, in its report of December 2014, that this could provide an opportunity for the UK to regain technology leadership in the ownership and development of low-carbon generation and at the same time as providing a secure domestic energy supply, it could position the UK as a global technology vendor in these fields.
Their report believes there could be a market for SMRs where they fulfill a market need that cannot, in all circumstances, be met by large nuclear plant, and it estimates that by 2035 this could amount to approximately 65-85GW with a value of £250-£400 billion. An interesting world map of potential markets puts China and the USA at 15,000 MW each, followed by Russia 10,000 MW, the UK 7,000 MW and Brazil 6,200 MW and with smaller markets in India.
Surprisingly, in contrast to the 7000 MW for the UK it puts the market for the rest of Europe at only 2140 MW. This would seem to disregard the pro- nuclear Eastern European countries – Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania Slovakia, Slovenia, who with France and the UK wrote to the EU commission (25th June 2014) stressing their view of the importance of nuclear power in the EU energy mix.
But there are also the traditional nuclear sceptics of Sussex University who see the increased attention being given to SMRs as a reaction to the high cost and delays now being seen with large reactors such as Hinkley Point C and what it sees as signs of a faltering nuclear renaissance – this is probably true. Although in their criticism of the NNL report they finally, and grudgingly, concede that “Over a much longer period than a decade, some SMRs might nevertheless be deployed, in the UK and elsewhere.” but they then modify this judgement “Whether the subsidies necessary for this would be a good use of public or consumers’ money in terms of carbon emission reductions must however be open to major doubt.”
Candi d comments
It is not only SMR development that is in need of stronger Government support. Some candid comments from a report by the Alvin Weinberg Foundation on nuclear developments in China (Nov 25th 2014) is critical of the lack in the UK of Government support for nuclear power development in general.
Without further government investment in Gen IV research, Britain will be left behind, while other nations partner with China on next generation nuclear R&D. The Sino-American partnership on climate change is developing alongside increasing collaboration between the two superpowers on advanced nuclear fission research. The US and China have been jointly developing the molten salt-cooled reactor known as the Fluoride-salt-cooled High
Temperature Reactor (FHR) since 2011. The Australian government’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation has also teamed up with China to contribute materials expertise to the molten salt reactor programme.
The UK should also be looking east for joint nuclear R&D opportunities, which could include molten salts work with China. As it stands however, Britain is missing out, while China and its partners storm ahead and position themselves to corner the global market in advanced nuclear fission technologies.
This supports the message of the NIRAB in its own press release.
There is an urgent need to take action to address a looming crisis in relation to the continued availability of the high level skills, which are required by both industry and the regulator. This skills issue has arisen, in part, as a result of a 20-year gap in funding in the UK for nuclear R&D into future nuclear energy technologies. The age profile of the high level R&D skill base is unsustainable, with the majority of experts rapidly approaching or already past the age of retirement.
The NIRAB then recommends that Government should commission a programme of research and innovation aimed at not only addressing the urgent skills issue and developing the next generation of experts, but also positioning UK industry to gain a significant stake in a global future nuclear reactor market delivering huge benefits to the UK economy over many decades.
Kee p it in the ground
The campaign being promoted by the Guardian newspaper to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is attracting wide publicity and some support. But the question of where else we will get essential electricity supply from seems to be ignored. The quantities vary but coal is the major fuel for electricity generation meeting around 36% of the total with gas at 27%, nuclear 20%, and renewables 15% – although their share is still increasing. But domestic production of coal is falling and we are increasingly dependent on imports. In
2013 UK coal production was 13 million tons – an all time low, with 49 million tons of imports, mainly from Russia and the USA. Of this total of 62 million tons some 50 million were taken for electricity generation. Reducing the 20% of UK coal will not make a great impact and the Americans and Russians will not be much affected and will find other markets.
Until electric vehicles become commonplace, oil will remain the major fuel for road transport, while consumption of gas, imported, or from the North Sea, will increase to meet expected energy growth and make up for any reduction in coal. Indeed Government policy is to increase gas production from the North Sea, with hopes for additional supplies from fracking. The decision and timing of any expansion of nuclear output remains in the hands of the largely foreign- owned electricity companies and seems unlikely for some 10 -15 years. Increasing supply of intermittent renewables will require an increasing back up support from fossil fuels.
Keep it in the ground, while a desirable ambition, seems unlikely to be achieved until nuclear power becomes the major source of electricity.
The Guardian then goes further with a front page article (19th May) on an estimate by the IMF that fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3 trillion (£3.4 trillion) a year – which it emphasises amounts to the “equivalent of $10million every minute of every day”. It explains that this vast subsidy derives from polluters not paying the costs imposed in burning these fuels which “include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution, and to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.”
The IMF claims that cutting these fossil fuel subsidies would cut global carbon emissions by 20% and reduce the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 50% – “about 1.6 million a year” . This last claim, which has been previously made (and largely ignored ) by green organisations arguing for renewable energies, is the most serious – it is indisputable, it is happening now and has been for many years past, whereas it is still possible for climate change sceptics to claim that the adverse consequences of carbon emissions are exaggerated.
New data from the World Heath Organisation shows the harm caused by air pollution to be much higher than thought. The IMF claims that just over half of the $5.3 trillion “is the money governments are forced to spend treating the victims of air pollution and the income lost because of ill health and premature deaths”.
Coal is the dirtiest fuel and receives just over half of the subsidies. But coal-fired power stations could, and should be replaced as soon as possible by nuclear power stations. Modern society needs secure and stable supplies of electricity. The fears of harm, from largely theoretical nuclear accidents, promoted by those opposed to nuclear power, and the small number of deaths from the very few nuclear accidents that have occurred are insignificant when compared to the actual deaths and disease which has been and still is being caused by burning coal.