SONE Newsletter 266 – June 2021

Posted by Wade Allison on 14 June 2021 in Newsletters

Tagged with: AGM, BEIS, COP26, Candida Whitmill, Core Power, Mikal Bøe, Net Zero, Paul Spare, Penultimate Power, Peter Havercan, SMR, SONE website, TRISO.

This month

  • SONE website rebuilt

  • News from Penultimate Power (UK) Ltd – by Candida Whitmill

  • Nuclear and NetZero – by Paul Spare, SONE

  • Glasgow declined!

  • You don’t have to be a scientist to trust nuclear energy – by Wade Allison

  • Core Power at SONE AGM, 2pm Monday 4 October 2021

SONE website rebuilt

A rebuild of the SONE website was long overdue. The transformation is now live thanks to a lot of work by Peter Havercan, member of SONE. He and the Committee have further changes in mind, but the first big step has been made. Thank you, Peter.

The main page has the same address as before and the email links should work too. Try it out!

News from Penultimate Power UK Ltd

Candida Whitmill, Managing Director writes:

UK/Japan Partnership first HTGR to register for new Advanced Technologies GDA

Penultimate Power UK has teamed up with the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency, JAEA, to build new Advanced Nuclear Technology in the UK. Following endorsement of nuclear of all sizes in the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan and December 2020 Energy White Paper, BEIS has opened up its Generic Design Assessment, GDA, to Advanced Nuclear Technologies. The GDA is the onerous process to licence a technology in the UK, run by the Office of Nuclear Regulation, the UK Regulator, and the Environment Agency. Penultimate Power UK is the first to register with the new licencing regime with their EH HTGR, a High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor.

That BEIS has put the ONR in funds to increase capacity to assess Generation IV technology is welcome news, yet the new regime appears to merely lower the level of entry and achieves little in raising prospects of a timely, more affordable technology licence.

The UK has one of the most globally respected nuclear regulators. However, private sector investors have no appetite for its open-ended approach to licencing costs. This unpredictability of costs is acerbated by it being disproportionate to HTGRs compared with PWR Gigawatt plants. At £200-230m a GDA represents around 1% of EDF’s overall costs for Hinkley C. It would be 144% of the first EH HTGR.

The Government has two choices here: do nothing and no new build, GW, SMR or AMR, will be built again, thus becoming market takers not market makers and lose our chance of securing unilateral energy and defence security. A rapid reduction in the UK’s skilled workforce would follow. Or fund the licensing of a EH HTGR demonstrator, streamlining the licensing process by incorporating credits for internationally licenced reactors, while at all times preserving public safety, but reducing costs to developers of advanced technology and thus opening up the UK market. Academia and NNL will also gain access to a valuable tool to maintain UK on the top stage globally for HTGR knowledge and development.

The 50MWth EH HTGR is helium cooled and uses TRISO fuel. It uniquely provides heat up to 950C, enabling hydrogen production by high temperature electrolysis and subsequently by the thermochemical splitting of water via the Iodine-Sulphur process. Due to its inherent safety and little requirement for cooling water, this compact reactor produces carbon-free heat, hydrogen and power at point of use, reducing systems and distribution costs. JAEA has been operating their HTGR for ten years. The first EH HTGR could be commissioned by 2029 followed by 20 units a year for 20 years from a manufacturing base on Teesside, supporting jobs across the Northern Powerhouse region.

Given the challenging 2050 timetable and restraint on the public purse and indeed on post-pandemic consumers, collaboration with a trusted international partner and proven technology is the accelerated, risk adverse option to decarbonisation.

Penultimate Power logo

Candida Whitmill - Managing Director Penultimate Power UK Limited, Time Central, 32 Gallowgate, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 4BF, candidawhitmill​

Nuclear Netzero, a statement for SONE – by Paul Spare

The contribution that nuclear power has made to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is very substantial but rarely explained. Let us start by considering the United Kingdom. The Magnox nuclear power programme that started sixty years ago, developed into the AGR fleet of fourteen reactors that are still operating, but approaching retirement. These reactors have provided a dependable power source that provides our base load for months continuously. At their peak, they replaced coal stations producing tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 per annum. These are not speculative numbers, but are reflected in the per capita emissions that have been collected by a number of international bodies.

Some of the strongest supporting evidence is revealed when the carbon emissions of countries such as Sweden, France and Switzerland are examined. These three first world states depend almost exclusively on a mixture of nuclear and hydro-electricity. The annual emissions in 2018 are shown in the table below:

Country CO2 tonnes/capita
France 4.6
Germany 8.9
Sweden 4.5
Switzerland 4.2
United Kingdom 6.5

Their policies have been successful year after year and demonstrate the case for nuclear generation very well. In contrast, although Germany has increased its renewables sector in a costly programme over the last twenty years, it has never been able to approach the low values of the best performers. This is inevitable as it is closing its nuclear plants and building back up coal stations.

It is also instructive to examine the variation with time. Carbon dioxide emissions in Sweden were increasing very rapidly through the 60s and 70s, reaching 12 tonnes/annum per capita. As their nuclear construction programme took effect, from around 1980, emissions declined progressively to less than 5 tonnes/annum and have remained very low. In the next decade in the UK, nuclear station construction will not keep up with retirements and emissions will increase again.

It has been calculated that globally, the reduction in CO2 emissions has been up to two billion tonnes per annum, 8 – 10% of the world total. The high energy concentration in nuclear fuel is part of the explanation. A large coal station may burn 2 million tonnes of coal a year; Drax burns about six million tonnes of wood chips, but Sizewell B uses only about 30 tonnes of uranium fuel.

There is a very clear correlation in all parts of the world between prosperity and energy consumption. If the very poorest countries are to reach a higher standard of living, then their energy consumption must increase. This presents an insuperable dilemma. Renewables may have low emissions, but require some reliable back up and this will inevitably be a fossil fuel. Small nuclear reactors may offer an option, but even a “small” reactor may exceed the capacity of the electricity grid in a poor country. Substantial technical expertise is also required and this is unlikely to be available. Perhaps, if the Small Modular Reactor programme is a commercial success, a mini version, compatible with the very small grid systems may prove feasible. The low-carbon benefits of nuclear power can then be shared will the poorest countries.

Glasgow declined

We have to report that, despite a lot of hard work by Ian McFarlane and others who joined our application, our bid for one or two pitches at the COP26 Meeting in November has been turned down without explanation. It is said that all publicity is good publicity, but, frankly, I wonder what we would have achieved in such a bear pit of activists! Members who were planning to go to Glasgow and help might find our AGM in London on the important subject of nuclear shipping more instructive! We are very keen to meet in person this year, so save the date – see the last item in this Newsletter for details (tbc).

“You don’t have to be a scientist to trust nuclear energy”

A gentle account by Wade Allison, written for those still too frightened to consider that society might actually be better off powered by nuclear energy.

As the world discusses sources of energy it is spooked by an eighty-year-old fear of ionising radiation and all forms of nuclear energy. But evidence from simple observation shows that this fear is simply misplaced and that everybody should be confident in making a future with nuclear power.

Everybody knew. It was in the papers, announced by the Emperor’s Chamberlain on TV and leaked in reports from inside the Palace, no less. It only remained to admire the New Clothes when the Emperor stepped out in public for the first time.

But then the evidence showed that there were no clothes, as only the innocent eye of the country lad saw. Hans Andersen’s story is just for children? Think again.

Everybody knows that nuclear radiation is dangerous – imagined to be the most dangerous invention ever made by man. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki it mesmerised the Cold War era. Nobody could escape its influence, and today it still evokes the ultimate threat in international politics.

Everybody knows that in 1986 many thousands of people had to be evacuated from a huge zone around the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, the source of the worst ever nuclear accident. Everybody expects this zone to be uninhabitable for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

But nobody told the animals in the evacuated region. Like the lad in Hans Andersen’s story, they saw only the evidence, the re-wilding of the zone. They were not evacuated; they were not told that they had been irradiated by an unseen deadly curse; they did not watch exciting disaster videos; they simply enjoyed the departure of humans. Indeed, numerous wildlife videos show that they are thriving today, whether radioactive or not:

And what happened in the nuclear “disaster” at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011? The extreme reaction by the authorities and the media caused severe mental, social and economic hardship, although no health effect of the radiation “is ever likely to be discernible” – as the UNSCEAR Committee eventually reported. No such panic would have occurred if adequate public education had been given in schools – as it is in Japan for the real danger from earthquake and tsunami. But such knowledge and familiarity with nature is needed worldwide. Mankind did not invent nuclear radiation, only the horror story that he has mistakenly spread with it. Natural science explains that nuclear energy and its radiation are essential ingredients of the environment that were particularly active before the Solar System formed. Then, even to survive on Earth at all, biological life had to evolve layers of fool proof protection against radiation despite its energy. Only when it succeeded, did life in our naturally radioactive environment become possible. That is just one of the reasons why radiation is particularly safe in practice and nuclear power has such a clean safety record.

And we should not leave the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without comment. As in the Tokyo raid five months earlier, the death toll was high, largely due to blast and firestorm. But later cancer deaths from the radiation were less than a percent, and the genetic mutations featured in horror movies never happened.

Unfortunately, fantasies like nuclear phobia get stabilised by disengagement, the self interest of expert groups and intellectual intimidation. Fear reduces the likelihood of searching discussion. Closed professional committees insulate opinion from re-examination – as Upton Sinclair wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. And then people feel inhibited – they think they might not be intelligent enough to understand a matter said to be complex. In these ways, nuclear phobia has become locked in public thinking despite the evidence. Better might be expected of academia, but there, too, studies are segmented into separate disciplines that obstruct questions across boundaries. In particular, physical scientists and biologists have been too mutually isolated for the truth about radiation safety to be openly discussed. Funding, posts and departments concentrate on core subjects seen to be exciting, not on their connections.

But in clinical medicine, at least, nuclear technology and biology do meet head on. Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes in nuclear science, is best known for her seminal work in radiation medicine a century ago. If she were to return today, she would not credit the extreme precaution that now suffocates her legacy to human health, society and the natural environment. Today, the truth is that, if fossil fuels and the totally inadequate contribution of renewables are rejected, the safe and powerful contribution of nuclear energy is the energy source that remains and that mankind needs. Marie Curie said “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” A fear of nuclear energy, like that of thunder and lightning, should be dispelled through a simple confidence in natural science. Indulging in nuclear phobia is a costly aberration that the world cannot afford.

Core Power at SONE AGM, 2pm Mon. 4 October 2021

SONE expects to hold the 2021 Annual General Meeting in person at the Institute of Civil Engineers, 1 Great George Street, London. The guest speaker will be Mikal Bøe, CEO Core Power Ltd, on the subject of ocean-going nuclear commercial shipping. For your diary!

Wade Allison, Hon. Sec.
Oxford, 14 June 2021