SONE Newsletter 285 – March 2023

Posted by Wade Allison on 7 March 2023 in Newsletters

Tagged with: China, HALEU, Heat pumps, Louis de Broglie, Sir Bernard Ingham, Sir William McAlpine, Tim Stone, Waste heat.

This month

Sir Bernard Ingham (1932-2023)

Sir Bernard died on 24 February. Neville Chamberlain CBE, Chairman of SONE, writes:

How sad that we have lost Bernard. Unfortunately, as I detected on Tuesday when I last spoke with him, he was in poor physical shape. But sharp and direct he still was.

I had known Bernard for around 35 years and was always appreciative of his firm, rugged support for nuclear energy. For BNFL, he was an invaluable link into the top political thinking and we were able to use him to sound out crucial political attitude to any initiative we were contemplating. My favourite memory is of the time when our French competitor suddenly announced that they had agreed to share ownership of their new reprocessing plant with their German customers in exchange for exclusive access to the German market. I quickly established that BNFL’s German customers expected us to make a similar offer if we were to retain our share of this important market. Cautiously, I asked Bernard to check how such a move might be seen in No. 10. Within hours back came the reply, “Madam says that THORP is a British flagship project and we are not selling it to the k….s.” Message clear; an alternative approach was needed!

After Mrs Thatcher stood down, I was delighted that Bernard accepted my invitation to join BNFL as an advisor. In a conversation in 1998, we agreed that the industry was rapidly becoming insufficiently effective at arguing the nuclear case and that a new voice, independent of the nuclear companies, needed to be set up. SONE was born and Bernard agreed to be its first secretary. We asked Christopher Harding to be our first chairman but within little more than a year, Christopher had died. Sir William McAlpine had embraced SONE enthusiastically and readily agreed to become our second Chairman and subsequently served us well, again with Bernard working diligently away as our secretary, pouncing on any liberty taken (especially by the BBC!) with false stories about nuclear risks and casualties. Sadly, Bill too is no longer with us.

I have many fond memories of Bernard. He was always good company. I shall miss him enormously.

Neville Chamberlain, 25 February.

SONE, 25 years old on the 1 June 2023

As Neville notes in his obituary of Sir Bernard, SONE was founded in 1998 to keep the torch of nuclear power alight and see that is passed to younger generations. At its meeting in December the Committee had already raised the idea of offering one or two prizes to be given to aspiring scientists and engineers to mark the occasion and named in honour of Sir Bernard. Fortunately, in the course of his last telephone conversation, Neville was able to share the suggestion with Sir Bernard who said he was very flattered but delighted by the proposal. The Committee expects to finalise details at its March meeting in time for the April Newsletter.

Centenaries for the Flying Scotsman and, next year, de Broglie Waves

This year is the centenary of the Flying Scotsman, the record-breaking train built in Yorkshire, saved and owned by Sir William McAlpine from 1973 to 1995. As Neville has noted above, Sir William was also a champion of nuclear power and Chairman of SONE for 20 years.​LNER_​Class_A3_4472_​Flying_Scotsman.

In 1924 a young French aristocrat, Count Louis de Broglie, proposed in his PhD thesis that the behaviour of all particles and all radiation should, without exception, be described by waves. It is these waves applied to electrons in the outer parts of atoms that describe electronics and chemistry. In the same way the waves for neutrons and protons inside atomic nuclei describe nuclear energies that are set naturally a million times larger. That huge factor has presented a promethean challenge to human society that will take many centuries to domesticate fully. But in 1924 it began with an inspired extension of quantum theory by a young student that was confirmed by experiment just a few years later.

Heat-miles worth waiting for

Well, they are available, if you are lucky enough to live in China – if only from this point of view. WNN reports:

The long-distance pipeline will have an annual heating capacity that can reach 9.7 million gigajoules [I make that 300 MW], providing heat to a 13 million square metre area [13 sq. km] and meeting the needs of 1 million residents. This will replace the consumption of some 900,000 tonnes of coal, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1.65 million tonnes.

The project is planned to be put into operation before the end of 2023.

The first phase of a district heating demonstration project at the Qinshan nuclear power plant in China’s southern Zhejiang Province was commissioned in December 2021. The project is divided into three phases. The initial phase now provides nuclear energy-generated central heating to 460,000 square metres of accommodation in three residential areas and 5000 square metres of apartments for nearly 4000 residents of Haiyan County. The overall project goal is to have a nuclear heating area of 4 million square metres by 2025, covering the main urban area of Haiyan County and the entire area of Shupu Town.

Russia, several East European countries, Switzerland and Sweden have all had nuclear-fuelled district heating schemes, and heat from nuclear power plants has also been sent to industrial sites in several countries.

In UK, spoilt for decades by the provision of gas, waste heat from nuclear plants is usually pumped out to sea. But now the case for major investment in the substantial infrastructure required for district heating should be evident. We should be pressing for it. Recall that Hinkley Point C will produce 5.8 GW of waste heat, and Sizewell C similarly. If power stations were built where they should be, that is close to consumers, useful energy could be supplied to large conurbations at low cost. Of course, that would require bringing much heat to bear on governmental thinking. We should start shouting!

HALEU fuel for small or micro reactors

It’s basic neutron physics. A neutron produced in a nuclear fission process suffers one of three fates: it can hit a fissile nucleus, making another fission; it can escape from the reactor core; it can be absorbed by another nucleus without fissioning. (Neutrons decay with a half life of 10 minutes, anyway, but one of the three happens long before that.) The absorption may be by an atom in a control rod or by an impurity nucleus, such as Uranium-238 in the fuel. In a small reactor, for the fission rate to compete with the rate of escape, the fuel should be relatively pure – that is the enrichment should be higher than the normal 5% used in a large PWR. [There are other solutions like the use of heavy water or fast neutrons.] That is the reason for the use in small and micro reactors of High Assay Low Enriched Uranium fuel with a concentrations of Uranium-235 up to 20%. Needless to say there is plenty of comment on the politics involved.

Head winds for financing renewables, but nuclear too

The Financial Times reported on 26 February: “Wind farm developers demand UK tax breaks to offset rising costs. Companies including Vattenfall and Orsted want government help as prices of turbines increase sharply.” No surprise there.

But then we read “Eye-popping new cost estimates released for NuScale small modular reactor”. There are enough project designs in the market for new small reactors that I suggest we should welcome open competition between them to drive prices down. The situation is quite unlike that for wind – there the energy is missing 65% of the time, whereas for nuclear plenty of energy is always available. We should press for regulatory relaxation and welcome plenty of old-fashioned rivalry. Prices will fall provided markets, rather than centralised decision makers, are allowed to decide what happens. That is apparently the case in Eastern Europe, and it should in UK and US too.

The new power plant build rate required in the UK – Atkins

A new report “Decarbonising the UK power system: the Build Rate to 2035” published by Atkins tells the Government that it will be necessary to install 12-16 GW of new capacity every year. The average installed for the past five years has been 3.2 GW per year. The report makes grim reading, and a proper appreciation of the failings of renewables makes the situation very much worse.​news/uk-set-​to-miss-decarbonised-​energy-targets-at-​current-annual-build-rate/

Some simple UK stats – presented by Dr Tim Stone CBE, NIA

18% of primary energy is electricity. The other 82% is fossil liquids and gas. Of the 18%, the only source which is low-carbon and will still be operating in 2050 is SZB [Sizewell B]. Basically have to build the electricity system again. Then 4 times as much to replace the (other) fossil. Meanwhile, about ⅓ of total energy is delivered down a gas pipe. So ⅔ may have to be electrical in origin. The grid was designed to move power from coal fields to manufacturing centres, neither of which we now have. There is currently no plan - as the NAO have just pointed out. So grid has no basis for its own system plan.

The repowering of homes and businesses will be a colossal challenge. Transmission and distribution need major, major overhaul and the average house has a 60A fuse and wiring to go with it. If you’re charging a car and running a heat pump your house will need some material input and wiring work. The capacity of the distribution system down your street needs major work.

On the positive side, that’s a vast number of good jobs and investment, with returns spanning generations in the end.

In the (slightly misused…) words of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”

Getting started, “Action this day” – the words of Winston Churchill

Some people who were wary of nuclear are beginning to think for themselves and willingly talk about it too:


Meanwhile, a financing model from Poland has been suggested for funding infrastructure that ends up costing less to consumers, assuming that risks have been overestimated, as for nuclear power.​355212173_Role_​of_the_state_​in_implementation_​of_strategic_​investment_​projects_​The_SaHo_​Model_for_​nuclear_power. Certainly the ability of the current RAB model alone is in doubt. The Financial Times reports “Sizewell C nuclear plant funding drive likely to take until end of 2024”. That would be unacceptable.

Wade Allison
Hon. Sec.
4 March 2023