YOU KNOW IT MAKES SENSE (POSSIBLY)
Del Boy Trotter, in the television comedy series Only Fools and Horses, regularly insists that “you know it makes sense” when trying to press home the case for something he’s not too sure about or is trying to please those he’s trying to influence. The European Union behaves in a similar way when it comes to nuclear energy.
After six years of debate the 28 member states of the EU have agreed to integrate their markets and increase security of supply under a policy known as the Energy Union. Investments of 200 billion Euros are expected over the next decade in pursuit of the policy. So far, so good – possibly. More than a fair amount of this expenditure will be on the politically correct intermittent renewables, of course.
You have to look hard to find references to nuclear energy in the Energy Union documents but there are some. In fact it’s a bit of a mixed bag of policies. Some of them will please member countries and others will be regarded as an attempt by the European Commission to meddle in areas best left to the individual member states and market forces.
Greater involvement by the Commission was probably inevitable, given that nuclear energy is the European Union’s largest low-carbon source at about 27 per cent of electricity generation. It is also a major contributor to energy security, an increasingly important consideration as the Russian bear continues to bare its claws.
The Energy Union’s communication package states that the EU should be at the forefront of the world’s “safest nuclear generation,” an aim which certainly makes sense. It also says that the EU must ensure member states have the highest standards of safety, security, waste management and non-proliferation, Again, fine by me.
Now we start to get a bit more controversial. The Energy Union proposals include proposals to “update and enhance” the European Commission’s requirement for information to be provided to it on nuclear projects. Proposed changes centre on the provisions of the somewhat out-dated Euratom Treaty, under which businesses and states engaged in nuclear energy projects are obliged to tell the EC about any investment projects related to new installations or the conversion of existing nuclear sites.
The revised provisions include changes to the EU’s rules on the information which must be reported to the EC regarding nuclear fuel and uranium supplies. The Commission says the update is needed to ensure that there are no concerns regarding diversification and security of uranium supply.
The European Commission also aims to introduce new rules on the participation of non-EU countries in energy projects in Europe, including nuclear energy projects. “Inter-governmental agreements should comply fully with EU legislation and be more transparent,” its proposals say. Next year the Commission intends to propose changes to the rules for concluding inter- governmental agreements with non-EU member states “to ensure that the EU has more control”.
THE THIRD PARTY
In practice this would mean member states of the EU providing detailed information on how they are negotiating with third countries. In addition, rather than the European Commission approving (or not) contracts such as that for the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in the UK it would actually sit in on the negotiations which led to them.
I’m not sure at what stage the Commission will want to get involved. When do informal, exploratory discussions on the possibility of a deal become serious negotiations? I also suspect that those trying to pursue delicate commercial deals, particularly companies or governments which are not members of the European Union, won’t be too keen on having a third party round the negotiating table.
Despite its determination to exercise more control over nuclear energy it is
not one of the new Energy Union’s four main priorities. These are listed as
development of renewable energy technologies, smart grids and energy efficiency. There’s no surprise in any of that. It also intends to produce a more sustainable electricity transmission system, which does sound more interesting.
In addition to the four main priorities, nuclear energy and carbon capture and
storage technology are included as two “research priorities” for those member
states “who want to use these technologies”, which seems a bit of a grudging
reference, put there one suspects in order not to offend those that don’t.
The Energy Union paper highlights a couple of concerns, talking of a need to increase diversity of supply for nuclear fuel and services which are imported and, by implication, criticising the nuclear industry for not introducing “more clean, low-carbon energy technologies”.
You may well ask whose fault that is if not the fault of the politicians, nationally and internationally, who have chosen to put their weight and our money behind wind turbines and solar panels rather than nuclear energy.
All 28 EU member states of the European Union are party to the Euratom Treaty, which was signed 58 years ago, although some of them regularly chose to ignore the obligations it bestowed on them. Let me remind them what they should have been doing.
Under the Treaty they agreed “to create the conditions required for the development of a powerful nuclear industry which will provide extensive supplies of energy, lead to the modernisation of technical processes and in addition have many other applications contributing to the well-being of their peoples”. Clear enough surely. Unfortunately, although part of the Energy Union programme will involve a communication later this year on “production targets for nuclear energy and the various types of investment required for their attainment”, there’s a snag.
THE DO NOTHING TARGET
Not every member state of the EU recognises that nuclear energy makes sense or accepts the overwhelming case for its expansion. Originally it was intended that the Energy Union communication would provide comprehensive information to potential investors about Euratom’s aims. Sadly, some of the signatory countries have made it clear that they they intend to put forward a nuclear production target of zero. As Del Boy might say – that’s taking the mickey.
The absence of any meaningful reference to the need for more nuclear energy must have come as a great disappointment to the ministers responsible for energy in eight of the EU member states. They wrote to the European Commission six days before the great Energy Union announcement asking for the forthcoming action plan to include nuclear energy alongside other low carbon technologies.
The ministers of Romania, France, the Czech republic, Lithuania, Poland,
Slovakia, Slovenia and, yes, the United Kingdom urged the EC to ensure that
the Communication on Energy Union included “a package of initiatives to
develop a supportive EU framework for safe and sustainable nuclear power”. It
didn’t. I wonder if the dead hand of Germany’s complicated coalition
government, opposed to nuclear energy but happy to burn brown coal, had
anything to do with it?
The eight supportive ministers wanted a commitment from the EC to explore the possibility of applying European financing mechanisms for large infrastructure projects to nuclear projects, which it didn’t. Why not?
A couple of months ago it was announced that major nuclear energy projects had indeed been included in a list of priority investments that could be financed over the next three years as part of a 315 billion Euros investment plan. Among the projects on the list prepared by a task force set up by the European Commission and the European Investment Bank, together with EU member states, are three in the UK – Hinkley Point C, Moorside and Wylfa.
Chances are that nothing has really changed but in typically Del Boy fashion it would be easy to believe that it has. One man who seems to know that supporting nuclear energy makes sense is the relatively new European Commissioner for Energy Union, Maros Selcovic, who regards the building of the Energy Union as one of the EC’s most pressing challenges. It is, too.
The EU imports 53 per cent of its energy at a cost of more than 400 billion Euros a year, making it the biggest energy customer in the world. That is what Mr. Selcovic is primarily concerned about, not only because of the cost but because of the political vulnerability it creates.
PUT IN PEOPLE POWER TO REDUCE PUTIN POWER
He has said that geopolitical events – notably in Ukraine and Russia – together with worldwide energy competition and the impact of climate change are triggering a “mind switch” in terms of the European Union’s energy and climate strategy.
As we have seen, his response to it would be a greater involvement by the EU in the energy affairs of member states. Not everyone will want to see what they will regard as further meddling by the EU but Mr. Selcovic means well I’m sure and at least he accepts that Europe needs more nuclear energy.
His plan is to finalise a “transparent and competitive” internal energy market. In practice this would mean member states of the EU providing detailed information on their negotiations with third countries. In addition, rather than the European Commission approving (or not) contracts such as that for Hinkley Point C it would actually sit in on the negotiations which led to them.
Apart from getting involved in commercial negotiations Mr. Selcovic is also
keen to get involved in practical matters, insisting that no member states
should be allowed to modify their energy systems without consultation because
this might have “huge consequences” for another member state’s energy systems.
The strategic framework for the Energy Union policy is clear. The EC is not at all happy that the European Union “has energy rules set at the European level, but in practice it has 28 national regulatory frameworks. This cannot continue,” the Commission says.
“Our vision is of an integrated continent-wide energy system where energy flows freely across borders, based on competition and the best possible use of resources, and with effective regulation of energy markets at EU level where necessary.” From the tenor of the briefing note it is obvious that it will be the Commission which decides what’s necessary.
The European Commission also intends to promote people power. Citizens would “take ownership” of their energy through smart meters and domestic generation and by cherry picking energy suppliers from across the entire EU. In this way they would be put in charge of their own energy destinies. But will they want the responsibility? I am not at all sure, given the inertia and suspicion which surrounds the issue of people switching between energy suppliers. Only a small proportion, less than a quarter, bother to do so at present.
In any case, for Europe-wide purchasing to happen there will have to be wholesale infrastructure changes, for example to ensure that each country has capacity to import 10 per cent of its electricity needs by 2020. Following that an internal market for energy needs to be completed and markets expanded so that consumers have the choice to source their energy from any supplier in the EU. In practice, the regulators of each country’s market will themselves be regulated.
The EU wants at least 30 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2030 and improved international transmission is seen as important if this is to happen. In addition the EU will accelerate the deployment of smart meters so that consumers can “moderate” their demand in times of lower supply or when prices rise. “Accelerate the deployment” is an interesting expression – could that mean the EU wants to see the use of these meters made compulsory?
The European Commission also has ideas about how the intermittent nature of the renewables might be overcome, at least in part. It would like to see more flexible markets, both on the supply and demand side, within and beyond a member state’s borders, with the development and use of new high voltage long distance connections and new storage technologies.
In terms of energy security the main issue is seen by the Commission as being the supply of gas and its pricing and these are described as a major driver behind the entire exercise. A comprehensive Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) strategy is promised, to look into access points, transport and storage.
Outside the EU the Commission wants the new Energy Union to use its muscle more and “speak with one voice” in energy negotiations. It wants all bilateral oil and gas import deals to comply fully with EU law. It also promises to pursue an active trade and investment agenda in the energy field, including access to foreign markets for European energy technology and services.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
On research, innovation and competitiveness, the focus is inevitably on renewables and a desire to “be the world number one”. Personally I don’t like the sound of that. Getting ahead in the renewables race would inevitably lead to increased energy costs and a reduction in industrial competitiveness.
Then we have a passing nod in the direction of nuclear energy. “Putting the EU at the forefront of smart grid and smart home technology, clean transport, as well as clean fossil fuel and the world’s safest nuclear generation is central to the aim of turning the Energy Union into a motor of growth, jobs and competitiveness,” the Commission says.
There have been mixed messages regarding the need for more nuclear research and development in recent weeks. The Energy Union prospectus mentions the need for it and an updated Technology Roadmap for Nuclear Energy report produced by the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is even more up-front.
It describes nuclear power as “one of the most important technologies that can help the world to limit increases in global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade” the target figure widely accepted within the scientific community as an absolute limit.
The Roadmap for Nuclear Energy report begins by putting forward a future energy mix scenario in which 930 GWe of nuclear capacity provides 17 per cent of electricity across the world, nearly three times as much as today. Even though the use of electricity is expected to grow between now and 2050 an increase of nuclear energy from today’s 377 GWe level to the 930 Gwe figure would contribute 13 per cent of the emissions reduction needed to limit global warming.
This scenario is not a prediction of what will happen but a foundation for analysing the policy change and industrial progress needed to achieve similar results. In that context around 12 GWe of new nuclear capacity must be brought online each year to reach the level of 930 Gwe by 2050 quite a challenge.
To stand any chance of doing so nuclear power plants should continue operation as long as possible, the Roadmap report says. This requires that governments “fully acknowledge” the value of long-term operation and take steps to support research and development that could prolong their operational lives.
In some electricity markets, long-established nuclear power plants are challenged by low-cost gas as well as subsidy regimes that enable renewable generators to supply at market prices that would otherwise result in losses. Governments should “review arrangements in the electricity market so as to allow nuclear power plants to operate effectively”.
Looking to new build projects the report urges governments to provide a clear commitment and long term strategy. “Governments should ensure price transparency and the stable policies required for investment in large capital intensive and long-lived base load power. Policies should support a level playing field for all sources of low-carbon power projects.”
Dame Sue Ion, is Chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) which was established in January last year to advise ministers, government departments and agencies on issues related to nuclear research in the UK. She has just produced NIRAB’s first annual report and expresses herself as “disappointed” that the government has not been able to allocate the funds necessary to enable a programme of Research and Development (R&B) to commence this coming year. Personally, I would have been spitting feathers.
NIRAB recommends that a programme of R&D across the range of priority areas it has identified be put in place as a matter of urgency and estimates that funding of some £50 million per year is required “to establish the UK at the top table of nuclear R&D nations”.
In its annual report NIRAB says that the key areas in need of more R&D are nuclear fuel fabrication, advanced reactor development and recycling and waste management. It argues that the UK can only be a competitive player in the global nuclear market if the government commits to a programme of R&D aimed at advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies as well as developing a skilled workforce.
The UK should invest in the development and manufacture of the next generation
of safer, accident tolerant and more efficient fuels, NIRAB says, and
investment should be made in the design and manufacture of significant reactor
components for small modular reactors (SMRs) and Generation IV reactors.
“Success would secure a share in the global market forecast to see an investment of 1.2 trillion dollars by 2030,” the report argues. It also calls for investment in R&D into advanced recycle and waste management technologies.
Sue Ion makes a particular point of the need to secure the country’s skill base. “Reinvigorating our high end skills across the fuel cycle will not only enable us to make informed choices to decide our own nuclear future it will help our companies attract and develop the scientists and engineers who will lead future advances in technologies,” she says.
The need for the development of a skilled workforce for the UK’s nuclear energy industry has also been pointed up by the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and the Nuclear Institute, which have signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate in this important area.
“As the nuclear industry continues to evolve so will the skills requirements change to meet the requirements of new build projects and long-term decommissioning,” the two organisations said in a joint statement.
The intention is for the organisations to collaborate in the areas of education, skills and training. The agreement covers a number of key issues, including strategies and activities to attract, develop and qualify new entrants as well as training and and improving the skills of current employees.
RADIUM GIRLS REVISITED
In last month’s Newsletter I re-told the story of the radium girls, women who earned a living painting the faces of watches and other objects with luminous paint in the early 1920’s. A significant number of them are said to have developed bone cancers many years later, caused by them licking their paint brushes to make them pointed and swallowing minute quantities of the Radium 226 contained in the paint.
Following litigation some received compensation for what happened to them and industrial injury legislation is said to have been changed in the US because of the public’s reaction to what they had heard and read. The story has been the subject of articles, books, and even a play and to this day it rates nine mentions under “radium girls” on the internet, none of them questioning the underlying truth of the tale. One of SONE’s committee members, Professor Jack Simmons, is adamant that it is not true, certainly concerning the scale of the problem.
He wrote to me expressing himself as being “surprised and somewhat distressed” that the Newsletter had “resuscitated the discredited myths concerning the radium girls”. Professor Simmons wrote a book about the issue with David Watt called “Radiation Protection Dosimetry : A Radical Reappraisal” and I can only suggest that SONE members with an interest in the subject read it.
Here is a brief summary of the facts provided by Professor Simmons which he asked me to publish in this Newsletter. I am glad to do so:
“Intake levels as large as 50 microcuries produce changes that cannot be distinguished from changes sometimes appearing in unexposed individuals. Only when the intake levels are significantly larger do bone changes appear that indicate the presence of radium.
“Plots of the incidence of bone cancer among the 2,400 workers as a function of the dose received by any individual showed that a log-normal distribution fitted the data well. None of the 1,400 subjects with an average skeletal dose of less than 10Gy had developed any malignancy. Both of these studies were published in 1994, soon after the last of the women had died.”