SONE Newsletter 268 - August 2021

Posted by Wade Allison on 9 August 2021 in Newsletters

Tagged with: AMR, Battery fires, Climate Change, Diablo Canyon, HTGR, Hinkley Point, Hydroelectricity, Moltex, Oroville Dam, Resilience, SMR, Thorium, Uranium.

This month

  • UK Government policy

  • Raw materials and raw principles

  • Another big lithium ion battery fire

  • Resilience, the question people need to ask

  • The jury

  • Hydroelectricity and climate change

UK Government policy

The good news is that on 29 July the Government published its long awaited report in favour of the development of an Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) in the UK. This is in addition, we hope, to their interest in Sizewell C and their encouragement of Small Modular Reactor (SMR) development. Both of the latter involve pressurised water reactors with their limited output temperature, high pressure and lower thermodynamic efficiency. The various designs of AMRs, in particular, the High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR) design which is helium cooled and the Government intends to support, perform much better against these criteria.

There is little doubt that the traditional PWRs, the SMRs and the AMRs will all be needed, if we are to replace fossil fuel energy in the next 2 or 3 decades. There is no reason to choose between them at this stage. However, to make commercial sense we should concentrate on developing one, or possibly two, designs of each. And, although the politicians, with their need to promote local jobs, don’t like to see it that way, the players are collaborations of international businesses, not the national champions of yesteryear. However, all have an interest in building a skilled workforce and public support that can lead to export markets for nth-of-a-kind. The world certainly sees the UK as having an important collaborative role in this future because it has a skilled workforce and a relatively positive public view of nuclear technology.

But the UK Government is not single minded in its approach to the long-term objectives needed to meet climate change. Rather, it looks to support whatever a significant number of voters say that they want on a five-year timescale, not the decades and centuries appropriate to climate change. As a result, the UK Government is also persuaded to invest resources in projects that have no realistic hope of working on the scale required. Some patience will be needed while these wasteful developments work themselves out over the next 10-15 years. We should advocate against them, but accept, perhaps, that such temporary deviations are necessary in a democracy.

On the other hand, authoritarian regimes may sometimes get to the answer before us. Both Russia and China appear to be doing that in the development and deployment of nuclear technology at present.

Raw materials and raw principles

It is hard to follow the jockeying as supply chains of new nuclear activity are established. Who is doing what? Where is the money coming from, and who owns the equity? How important is that anyway, provided that the end product is delivered?

SONE can more usefully ask questions about the availability of raw materials, and also watch for instances where basic scientific principles are being ignored. There are plenty of cases of these in which speculative ideas are hyped up to create jobs and attract government funding – and investment by unwary institutions, too. Appeals to Moore’s Law applied to scientific progress encourage society at large to expect that technology can always deliver increasing performance at lower cost, given more investment and time. Exceptionally, that Law applied to electronics for several decades, but is not applicable to other developments in general.

No amount of enthusiasm or investment can extend the Periodic Table of the Elements. Their properties vary widely and technologies often depend critically on the choice of one in particular. Extra supplies of an element cannot be made – whatever is available occurs naturally. When this is limited or is only to be found in a foreign territory, the viability of the technology may be impaired. Prices rise and the have-nots suffer.

New battery technologies, the magnets essential to wind turbines, the active electronic components of solar panels – most of these require elements of limited availability, in some cases from China, the Congo or other politically difficult locations.

There are few such vulnerabilities limiting a large-scale roll-out of nuclear fission technologies, I believe. SONE members may wish to correct me, here. Thorium and uranium ores are geographically widespread, and then there is the accumulation of partially used fuel and depleted uranium. Claims that fuel availability is a problem for nuclear are mistaken.

However, the supply of helium is limited, indeed could prove to be inadequate in the next decade or two, according to a recent authoritative report. Major current consumers include superconducting MRI magnets, scientific research and party balloons – the latter might be priced out of the market without hardship. The source of helium, originally from alpha radioactivity in the Earth’s crust, is produced as a by-product of natural gas production, we are told. That suggests that supplies will decline as the use of carbon fuels is reduced.

In the further particulars of the UK Government’s supporting case for HTGR development we read that the helium requirement for this reactor will “require a very small percentage of current known helium reserves”, referencing the authoritative report quoted above. Helium is not available from a reserve like other minerals. If natural gas production is to be dramatically reduced, so will the available supply of helium. If the HTGR development is to have substantial export potential with reactors produced in quantity, the reliance on an essentially limited resource seems likely to present a problem. The Government case does not appear to address this adequately.

Although helium is a very volatile gas, careful design and good maintenance can reduce the demand for replacement gas. Losses of only 0.12 kg/day were achieved by the Dragon reactor operated by the UKAEA in the 1970s. (Thank you to Paul Spare for contributing this final comment.)

Another big lithium ion battery fire

On 22 July the article in the SONE Newsletter 267, “The danger and inadequacy of lithium storage batteries”, was published online in Australia.

Then, by coincidence, just one week later reports came that two units of the huge new 450 MWh Tesla lithium ion storage battery in Victoria, Australia, had gone up in flames, holding down 150 fire crew and 30 fire engines for four days.

Tesla battery fire in Victoria

This new battery was under test and so not fully charged, apparently. As a result, although the units can be seen to be very close together with no vehicular access between, the fire did not spread further and no one was killed.

Smoke billows from a fire at Victoria's new Tesla Big Battery on Friday

Otherwise, it seems likely that the runaway battery fire would have spread to the whole, 225 times larger than the 2 MWh Arizona accident in 2019. The frequency of these incidents seems to be increasing. Reports of the increasing deployment of these storage units world-wide appear almost every week. It will only be a matter of time before there is a very much larger accident. We should all urge the safety authorities to start doing their job.

At the same time a comparison with the grossly exaggerated public account of nuclear safety seems both tragic and bizarre.

The resilience, the question that people need to ask

In decades to come it is likely that society will value infra structure that can survive. Whether the threat comes from a turbulent environment, broken supply chains or attack by hostile neighbours, the watchword will be resilience.

In the fossil fuel era, existential threats arose from loss of access to fuel or food. This was the principal concern of economic and political activity, but war and famine were often the result.

In a future with renewables, breaks in energy supply from extreme weather events and failed harvests from shifting weather patterns will be equally threatening. Indeed, we have already seen these in the trashing of solar farms by hurricanes, the destruction by wild fires, and the spread of regions of drought and flood. Even greater destruction may be expected.

Increasingly, the resilience of nuclear power with its small footprint and ready supply of fuel, stockpiled on-site independent of weather, season and geography, will be its trump card in comparison to other energy sources. Vegetables and fruit, grown indoors with energy provided by waste heat and light from LEDs, will free the production of food from the vagaries of weather, and, in fact, allow food production 24 hours/day and 365 days/year at any point on the globe. Food insecurity and food miles will be no problem for those who have invested in nuclear power – that is in local Small Modular Reactors that do not require heavily loaded grids and interconnectors because they have high-capacity factors, only needing to go offline for brief planned fuel changes. And what should everybody do then in such an environment? Study the natural science that makes this possible, play music, and look after the very young and very old!

But society has not yet realised that such resilience is more important than cost or the other considerations often listed.

The jury

They are beginning to vote – vote with their lives, that is.

On 5 August Simon Kuper in the Financial Times wrote “Why graduates don’t want careers in oil and gas. Some major professions — and the boomers in them — are becoming taboo for young people.” Too often we see the politicians with their five-year view, or the financial markets with even shorter perspectives, as the audience that we have to win over to ensure a future with nuclear energy. Instead, we should concentrate our attention on young people. The end of the fossil fuel era will be determined by them, not the market traders. We should heed, not just the noisy young demonstrators in the street, but those who are deciding quietly how to invest their lives.

But, if they are now not following previous generations into supporting fossil fuels, what are they thinking? Let us work to ensure that they are not led astray by the Will O’ The Whisp of the “unreliables” but understand the firm future available for a society built on nuclear energy.

Of course, we should all talk to them about nuclear. But who else are they hearing from?

EDF is telling them about Sizewell C and their pilot plans for hydrogen production. The company emphasises the opportunities and skills acquired by young people, as it has at Hinkley C. Meanwhile, the anti-s are making a lot of noise about planning, but as a colleague in the US says “If you are in the flack, you know that you are over the target!” Anyway, any self-respecting environmentalist would support Sizewell C.

Rolls-Royce is advertising that it ‘Has Secured Investment For World’s First SMR Production Line’ There is even the impression that its future in SMR production might rescue the company from the likely fate of its jet engine division. Young people will notice this and vote with their feet. Rolls Royce will need to respond to this pressure, as much as that of the markets. That would be a very positive move for everybody.

Young people choosing a career will also be attracted by the Government interest in HTGR among the AMR technologies. But there are other promising developments in this area. Moltex, whose waste-burning design, SSR-W, is being developed in Canada, are also hiring. Recent emails from Moltex suggest that an exciting announcement is soon to be made about their uranium-fuelled SSR-U, its funding and timescale.

Meanwhile there is Core Power, a London-based start-up that is making waves in the marine industry by proposing nuclear-powered commercial shipping. The founder and CEO of Core Power will be addressing the SONE AGM on 4 October, so we will say no more about that here.

But there are more players in this story – other nuclear businesses are looking to establish in the UK too. What will happen exactly is unclear, but the future is certainly going to be exciting for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Anyway, they are unlikely to be hoodwinked by the wind and solar story. In spite of the media hype that is not going at all well, apparently.

Hydroelectricity and climate change

The assumption is often made that hydro, having integral storage, does not suffer from the intermittency that plagues wind and solar. That is true for timescales up to a few months. Nevertheless, hydro still depends on the weather as a source of regular precipitation. If the climate changes and there are long-term shifts, hydro may fail drastically, as is currently the case in California. On 5th August 2021 the generators at the Oroville Dam in California were shut down for the first time since it was opened in 1967. The same water shortage threatens Lake Mead and Lake Powell on the Colorado, too.

Significantly the performance of a nuclear plant should not be affected much by rainfall or drought. With a cooling tower or circulated sea water the net requirement for water is limited.

That California still wants to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant leaves no room to respect the proper functioning of that state in the interest of its citizens. Unfortunately, the same is true of Illinois and New York where good nuclear plants are being closed before their time for an alliance of reasons from the doctrinaire to the entangled fossil fuel interests controlled by accountants and their financial algorithms. But the same is true of Germany and its followers, too.

Wade Allison, Hon. Sec.
Oxford, 8 August 2021