SONE Newsletter 267 – July 2021

Posted by Wade Allison on 19 July 2021 in Newsletters

Tagged with: BEIS, Battery fires, Carl Sagan, Dalton Nuclear Institute, Net Zero, Nuclear Consulting Group, Nuclear Institute, Paul Dorfman, Penultimate Power, Sarah Beacock, YouTube.

This month

  • Natural Science and ignorance. By Carl Sagan

  • High temperature reactors: a comment and a reply

  • The Nuclear Institute

  • The danger and inadequacy of lithium storage batteries

  • From the Dalton Nuclear Institute, Manchester:
    Nuclear energy for net zero: a strategy for action

  • For your diary: SONE AGM in person, 2pm Monday 4 October 2021

Natural Science and ignorance

Inspiring thoughts by Carl Sagan from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World.

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

News from Penultimate Power: a comment and a reply

In response to the article in Newsletter 266, a SONE member comments

There is a reference to the new reactor design producing an outlet temperature of 950C. Such temperatures are beyond the range most structural materials. Nimonic alloys are not normally operated above 650C. Although ceramics can survive at 950, there must be some associated metal structures.

Similarly, the combination of metals that are used in the electrolysis process are not compatible with these conditions.

Are there two separate processes here – electrolysis and high temperature dissociation?

My knowledge may be out of date in some fields, but I am very surprised by some of these statements.

Penultimate Power replies

The HTGR is an internationally licenced Japanese technology that has proven, safe operational experience at 950C, the first in the world to achieve this.  

Hydrogen is usually produced using PEM electrolysis at 100C. If it is carried out ~900C the efficiency improves from 40% to 60% using solid oxide electrodes. The Iodine-Sulphur process is quite different and uses the high temperature to split the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen with iodine and sulphur acting as catalysts.

Wade Allison, as editor, writes

In due course I think we would like to know more detail about this important topic. I have not done enough research on it myself. Perhaps another member has, in which case we would invite them to share their understanding in a future newsletter.

The Nuclear Institute

There are many bodies and concerns in the nuclear field. Some have similar titles; some are American, others British; some are closely allied to the industry, others maintain their independence. It has been suggested that we should explain to them what SONE stands for, and invite them to reciprocate. This month the Nuclear Institute has written a brief article for us, and I have written about us in return.

The Nuclear Institute is the professional membership body and learned society for the nuclear industry and has existed in a number of formats since 1957. We currently have around 3000 individual members, the majority of whom are currently working in the industry. The remainder are either studying nuclear or have a general interest in the topic.

We are licensed by three umbrella bodies to register Chartered Engineers, Chartered Scientists and Chartered Environmentalists but increasingly our members are not all from science and technology backgrounds but wish to learn more about the industry they work in.

As well as our own professional membership standard – the Nuclear Delta® – we offer all our members a range of services to ensure they learn and maintain their nuclear skills, knowledge and experience.

Some of the tools to do this include a news and technical journal – Nuclear Future – a CPD recording tool - My career path – regular events and webinars – many accessible to non-members – and networking and volunteering opportunities through our branch and young generation networks.

Our members, as you would expect, tend to be very pro-nuclear and they work in all sectors from new build, to safety, operations, waste management, defence and decommissioning. Our young members in particular have incredible passion for the industry and are keen to spread the word about nuclear to the next generation of new recruits as well as the world at large. They are currently leading a campaign called NetZeroNeedsNuclear which is looking to get nuclear considered fairly alongside renewables as a crucial path to net zero. Please think about joining their campaign here – there are lots of ways to help including a petition, adding to your social media profiles, writing to your MP and even a donation to help them get to Glasgow!

Our under 37s make up almost 45% of our membership and they are the ones who will inherit not only the planet but the nuclear industry itself. Supporting their campaign is a great way to demonstrate our solidarity with them and ensure our industry is in safe hands.

Sarah Beacock
CEO, Nuclear Institute

The danger and inadequacy of lithium storage batteries

The renewable energy industry and the government, too, are deceiving the public and their investors about grid scale energy storage with lithium ion batteries. Not only are the battery “farms” too small for the task – only able to bridge the intermittent supply of renewables for 2 to 3 hours – but the danger that they present to the public and fire fighters is ignored and unregulated. This contrasts with the danger from nuclear power which is fabricated and publicised, endlessly.

The situation is explained in a recent paper Safety of Grid Scale Lithium-ion Battery Energy Storage Systems that is getting worldwide attention (in the week to July 18 the most read paper posted by Oxford University). At a popular level the Mail on Sunday reported on July 11 UK’s giant battery ‘farms’ spark fears of explosions. A short factual discussion, given below, is to be published elsewhere.

Stored energy can bridge the gap when energy is needed but is not available. Such stores have become essential in modern life. Initially it was just the dry battery in a torch or radio and the lead acid battery in a car providing lighting and a means of starting. The capacity of such a 12 volt battery might be 100 Ampere hours – that is 1.2 kilo-watt hours (kWh). But the scale has increased by a factor of 100,000 and more. For example, the capacity of the Hornsdale Power Reserve in S. Australia, famously provided by Tesla, is now 193 MWh.

The demand for increased storage comes from the intermittency of wind and solar. These threaten breaks in supply lasting for days, even weeks. With national electricity consumption figures in tens of giga-watts and more expected with increased electrification, stores with a capacity thousands of times larger than Hornsdale are needed. Those currently under construction or planned could provide back-up for 3 to 4 hours which is simply inadequate. The likelihood of supply failure and extended blackouts, as recently experienced in Texas and California, underline the importance of this question.

The availability of the minerals to make batteries even on the present scale has excited the markets. However, large batteries may not be feasible or even desirable in the decades to come.

Climate Change is already here, and weather conditions are likely to deteriorate further for many decades yet, whether we reach NetZero by 2050 or not. So acceptable energy sources should be resilient, reliable and safe.

Batteries are chemical and store energy by separating components. This energy may then be released again when the components recombine. It is dangerous if control of this recombination is lost. In some batteries, like flow batteries or fuel cells, the components can be kept well apart, ensuring safety. However, in the popular Lithium-Ion battery they may not be. If recombination starts to take place inside the battery cell, the released energy raises the temperature, likely precipitating further failure. Such a battery fire is demonstrated in this video:

The internal energy released needs no air to “burn” and is not extinguishable in the normal way. Indeed, like the chemical fertiliser bomb that destroyed much of Beirut in 2020, batteries may simply explode. Some grid storage batteries now being built are, indeed, as powerful as the Beirut bomb.

But is there evidence that such fires and explosions happen frequently in practice? On April 16th 2021 a 25 MWh energy store in central Beijing that also provided rapid charging facilities for electric cars suffered a major battery fire. The report of the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services tells how the fire was attended by 47 fire trucks from 15 brigades and 235 fire fighters of whom 2 were killed. The reason for this large response and international interest is that such incidents have become rather frequent. More recently in July 2021, 5000 residents of Chicago were evacuated when 200,000 lithium batteries stored in a warehouse started exploding. The fire brigade did not use water, wisely, and attempted to contain the blaze with 28 tons of Portland cement. A lithium battery fire releases, not only a large amount of energy, but also large quantities of toxic gases including hydrogen fluoride, which is exceptionally corrosive. If water is used, it is not effective at extinguishing the fire and generates highly polluted run off. Instead of cement the fire service might have used sand, but there was little else they could do.

In an earlier incident in April 2019 in Arizona four firefighters were critically injured. In South Korea 32 such fires and explosions have been investigated. In Liverpool in Sept 2020 there was an explosion of a 20 MWh lithium ion energy store – a long-promised report is still awaited.

Following a recent academic study, questions have been asked in the UK Parliament. Unfortunately, BEIS, the department with responsibility for energy, seems to be exclusively concerned with reaching NetZero and so with an uninterrupted programme of electrification and roll-out of wind and solar. Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive that comes under a separate department applies no special regulations to the safety of large lithium ion battery stores or their planning! It is then left to small groups of concerned citizens (for example in Northern Ireland) to try to impress the dangers on the authorities and warn them before another avoidable disaster like Grenfell Tower occurs. So far, the instances of explosion and fire have been relatively small, 25 MWh or less. The next one could well be much larger.

Fashionable financial investments in wind and solar (and in lithium ion batteries on which their viability hangs) are blind to this question. They have allowed themselves to be boxed into a corner where these renewables are presented as the only carbon-free option – and the best hope for dying fossil fuel industries.

The only energy source that will be sufficient and safe in future is nuclear power. As for lithium batteries the safety case relies on evidence, not political wishes. Popular opinion, still in the thrall of scary cold war stories, has not noticed, apparently, that there were no nuclear casualties at Fukushima Daiichi, remarkably few at Chernobyl, and none in nuclear plants elsewhere. Unreliable renewable energy combined with the danger of large batteries should not be inflicted on society when a safe route to zero carbon is at hand.

Added note 19 July.

Another robot fire at Ocado, the grocery distributors, is reported today The story has all the marks of a runaway lithium battery fire. Here is a picture of the site of their previous fire in 2019. Evidently not a simple case of King Alfred and the cakes!

Ocado, Andover warehouse fire

Wade Allison

From the Dalton Nuclear Institute, Manchester:

Nuclear energy for net zero: a strategy for action

Download and read >>

In this paper, we address aspects of the national discussion that are currently underdeveloped, considering nuclear energy in the context of the net zero challenge, in supporting the UK’s hydrogen ambitions and in delivering economic growth, through industrial development, jobs and in supporting the levelling up agenda.

The paper provides a series of recommendations for supporting the nuclear sector in achieving its best potential, setting out the steps needed to examine the possible roles for nuclear energy using an objective, well-developed economic assessment system.

New nuclear could have a vital role to play in achieving net zero but if this potential is to be realised, there is much for the sector to do in the next three decades and important decisions lay ahead for policymakers.

We have developed this paper because we felt a responsibility as an impartial academic community to support our colleagues in government and industry. Now is the time to take key actions which will determine the roles nuclear can play, recognising that they should only be adopted if they contribute to an optimised economic and environmental solution.

A health warning

Of the many institutions, groups and websites that wave a nuclear banner, some are covers for anti-nuclear activity. These are recognisable for claims about nuclear power that ignore science and engineering and concentrate on popular concerns about waste, cost and delays – issues which would be easily overcome, but for their activism. One of these groups is “The Nuclear Consulting Group”, nom de plume of Paul Dorfman who describes himself as

Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Energy Institute, University College London, founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, an independent, non-profit virtual institute dedicated to providing expert research and analysis of nuclear issues.

Members of SONE may not be deceived, but others may well be, unfortunately.

For your diary: In-person SONE AGM

Mikal Bøe speaking on Core Power, 2pm Monday 4 October 2021

Wade Allison, Hon. Sec.
Oxford, 19 July 2021