SONE Newsletter 292 – December 2023

Posted by Wade Allison on 7 December 2023 in Newsletters

Tagged with: COP28, Germany, Great British Nuclear, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, SMR, Westinghouse.

This month

Early news of policy changes at COP28 in UAE

Controversial decisions at these UN meetings usually appear on the last days after deadlines are extended. However, although not a unanimous decision of all countries present, the early announcement from the UAE was very positive for nuclear energy.

Rod Adams posted: “Today, Dec 2, 2023, 81 years after the very first demonstration of a self sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction, representatives from 20 countries signed a declaration establishing a goal of TRIPLING global nuclear energy production by 2050. For France, Romania, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Belgium, the head of state was the representative that signed the document.”

Ryan Pickering listed “22 nations and counting, including USA, Ghana, France, UK,, Mongolia, Canada, UAE, South Korea, Japan, Belgium, Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechia, Finland, Czech Republic, Moldova, Mongolia, Netherlands and Morocco. China, India, and Russia are independently advancing nuclear expansion efforts. The question is: What other countries will add their names to this pledge by the end of COP?”

Germany could freely sign since three times zero is zero, as noted by retired EDF Engineer, Francois Perchet. Then Italy, Spain and Norway might join too, but Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand are still riddled with last-century angst.

Opportunities abroad

Since climate change is important to everyone on Earth, so is the best reaction to it. An appetite for nuclear development is growing in places that were not previously considered as suitable locations on security or economic grounds. In particular, it is in the interest of the whole world that Africa be weaned off burning fossil fuels. A nuclear Africa presents huge educational, economic and political challenges that will take a considerable time to meet. For the most part their appetite is for SMRs rather than GWe-scale plants. UK domestic politics seems to place curiously little interest in the importance of export opportunities, just as it does in a future 80 year strategy at home. Nuclear plants of modern design can be maintained for 60 to 80 years, between 2 and 3 times longer than their wind and solar competitors. This is ill matched to the attention span of politicians – three to five years, at best. Meanwhile, it is true that the UK nuclear industry itself with its overseas allies is more aware of the need to compete against Russian penetration in African and other markets, even though they are late engaging the opportunities. This is not the 19th C. and the UK will not dominate the action as it did then, but our industry should be able to get a good slice of export jobs. Young people in the UK are motivated and educated – and developers are attracted to base themselves here on the assumption that regulators will accept them.

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission dragging its feet

The Breakthrough Institute complains “Waiting on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Eight Months After Receiving Proposed Advanced Reactor Licensing Rule, Commission Has Not Acted”.

It seems that, even when US Congress acts and issues a bipartisan directive to the US NRC as a branch of the executive, it fails to act. At stake is the regulation of SMRs that is still being assessed against the criteria applied to large PWRs, that are themselves out of date. The rest of the world does not need such failures of leadership by the United States.

The Institute complaint continues:

It’s been almost eight months now since the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission forwarded its proposed new framework for licensing advanced nuclear reactors to the NRC’s five (now four) commissioners last March. Four years in the making, the proposed framework, in the estimation of the nuclear industry, the NGO community, and a broad bipartisan majority in Congress, was a non-starter, largely applying the same baroque licensing and regulatory framework that has so hobbled the legacy nuclear industry for decades to new advanced nuclear technologies, in fairly obvious and direct contravention of direction from Congress in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act of 2019 to modernize nuclear licensing.

In March, the commission’s chair, Christopher Hanson, promised commission action by the end of May. That deadline has since been pushed back to August and now the end of the year. In the interim, over 60 members of Congress, including majorities of both the Senate Environment and Public Works and the House Energy and Commerce committees, which oversee the NRC, have written the commission, urging it to fix fundamental flaws in the proposed framework regarding overly conservative radiological risk standards, overly prescriptive regulatory requirements, and a failure to account for the full range of new technologies that the commission will likely need to license and regulate. The letter also asked the commission to consider previous and ongoing efforts by public stakeholders.

Learning to live with a Million

As a child I remember games that started with an invitation,
“Think of a number!”.
“A million?” I would suggest.
“No, be sensible” I was told.
For most people a sensible number should be not too big and not too small – on a scale comfortably close to Number One. Thinking about the impact of big numbers on their lives easily frightens people, even if they are technically familiar with them. This is especially true of energy – a large energy, they imagine, might overpower them. Our animal heritage has conditioned us to avoid what seems too big and powerful. (Ironically, it is often the very small, such as a virus, to which we are most vulnerable.) But what energy seems too big compared to normal? A hundred, or even a thousand times, might be faced with equanimity, perhaps. But a million times? That would seem hard to grasp – and anyway too scary to almost everybody.

But in 1931 Winston Churchill wrote an article in the Strand Magazine that included the observation,
The coal a man can get in a day can easily do five hundred times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still….. The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam-engine four generations ago.”

In those days, nobody had a clue how to build a technology to realise and control that energy in a safe way. But by the mid-1950s such control was achieved, and the experience gained with civil nuclear energy in the seventy years since then has confirmed this. The technology of fission, at least, has revealed several options and no insuperable challenges. More of a surprise was the realisation that biology, in particular human life, could cope in an environment where this huge factor held sway. But nuclear activity and its ionising radiation are part of the natural world and were present when life began. Biology had to learn how to live safely with low and moderate levels of radiation. Otherwise, it would not have survived.

The problem is with neither the physics nor the biology, but with ourselves. While like all animals we are naturally protected and have no need to worry about immersion in moderate radiation, we have learned how to build instruments and make measurements that scare us! We put regulations in place that are designed to protect us from risks that nature has already covered. The wild animals that today live happily in the radioactive evacuation zone at Chernobyl are innocent witnesses – this is the zone that our meters and their readings persuaded us should become a wasteland, uninhabitable for thousands of years. While biology was preconditioned to cope, we have allowed our collective imagination to run wild on big numbers and “what-ifs” that have precipitated waves of regulations, bureaucratic hurdles and related increased costs. These should be swept away. Then we should enjoy the extraordinary benefit that Churchill foresaw. Changes in culture and broader education will do the trick, but these will take time to complete – a generation or two.

Report from The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy
The MPs make a clear recommendation. “When Great British Nuclear make their decision, they should standardise on the single most successful SMR design after the initial deployment phase. This will concentrate investment efficiently on the required capabilities, allowing swifter introduction of UK content and more competitive exports”. Let us hope that this is acted upon and not set aside by short-term pre-electoral party-political considerations.

Heating as well as electricity

Basic thermodynamics ensures that, although the electrical energy that produced by a nuclear plant has a limited efficiency, the rest of the energy available is released as heat. Utilisation of this for district heating, industrial processes and for horticulture is important, especially where the infra­structure for heat distribution exists or can be built. This is relevant in Finland, for instance. But is it too easily dismissed as uneconomic in UK urban environments? It is interesting to read that in China new nuclear reactors are providing domestic heat for 400,000 people in 12.5 square kms.

A related story, perhaps, is the development of the Westinghouse e-Vinci micro reactor. No reference to this has appeared in this Newsletter before. History may record that this was a serious omission! The reactor is not just modular, but really small, so that the whole reactor, fully assembled, can be transported easily by road. It outputs 5 MWe with a lot of heat 13 MWth. It uses TRISO fuel with HALEU enrichment, but only needs to be refuelled after 8+ years, at which point the whole unit is returned to the factory. It is ideal for use on a heavy industrial site that can use the heat as well as the electricity. Like many other developers Westinghouse has its eye on the UK. So we should watch the progress of this, the smallest in a crowded field!

Oil and gas executives

They are not stupid and most of them can see the writing on the wall “Nuclear is coming”. The question is one of timing and sustainability. When and how fast can we make the transition while sustaining the world economy? The switch from fossil fuels to nuclear is about resources, in particular human resources. It is refreshing to read opinion revealing the development of thinking in the oil and gas sector. When enough bright young graduates shift their ambitions from oil and gas, the battle will be won. That will take time. Some investors will be hurt while others will make fortunes.

Germany realises it needs nuclear
translation: ‘Federal Congress of the CDU’s Local Political Association (KPV). November 25th, 2023 Carsten Linnemann announces the renaissance of nuclear energy. “We need at least 15 years to produce hydrogen reasonably economically. That’s why we can’t ignore the issue of nuclear energy.”’

So, it seems they are only interested in nuclear because they want hydrogen! Still, it’s a step forwards. Having fostered a passionate Green movement, it will take some years before nuclear energy becomes a vote-winner in Germany in its own right.

Wade Allison, Hon. Sec.
4 Dec 2023, Oxford