The Winners of the SONE Jubilee Essay Prizes

Posted by Wade Allison on 19 September 2023 in Articles

Tagged with: Anniversary, Essay competition, Jubilee, Sir Bernard Ingham, Sir William McAlpine.

The Winners of the SONE Jubilee Essay Prizes

Contestants for the essay were invited to imagine:

The date is 2073 and your essay tells the story of what has happened in the fifty years since the British Government finally started to take on board the superior benefits of nuclear energy. You describe what has happened to the energy supply, the climate and society in general. What other challenges have been faced? How have some of these been overcome? You may also look forward to 2098 and imagine what new problems might then be worrying the British people and their friends abroad, and how nuclear energy might contribute to their solution.

Both prizes, for those up to 38 and up to 18, attracted strong fields. Entries showed evidence of significant reading and productive imagination. All were reviewed and discussed by a small committee of SONE who were unanimous in selecting the two winners.

The winner of the Sir Bernard Ingham Prize is Harry Anders from High Wycombe.

His essay is an imagined address delivered in 2098 by the then Energy Secretary who begins by quoting a letter, supposedly written to him in 2073 by his father with advice that follows developments in UK energy between 2023 and 2073.

Unfortunately, the leadership that Harry sees the UK providing in 2023 seems already to have taken second place to a supposed popular preference for short-term renewables. Nevertheless, we hope that Members of SONE and others will join Harry in looking further ahead to the end of the century, as we must.

The winner of the Sir William McAlpine Prize for those up to 18 is Ruben Davies from East Finchley.

Ruben, like Harry, is commendably optimistic. He tells of strong international development based on Sellafield and a GDF due for closure (in 2076). The grid is now (in 2073) 65% powered by nuclear energy, efficient, reliable and cheaper than in 2023. As a leader in climate change and an exporter of energy, Ruben sees a bright path for the UK. Since he and his contempories will be in control, we wish them such success.

The text of the two essays follow.

An address by the UK Energy Secretary in 2098 by Harry Anders

The Minister begins by quoting a letter written to him by his father and dated 31st August 2073.

“To my son

“I was born in 2023, and in my 50 years on this Earth, I could not have imagined the changes that I would see. I want you to understand what has enabled these changes, as you embark on your PhD. The single greatest factor, oft forgotten in Britain’s great renaissance, is the proliferation of peaceful fission power in our nation, and the multiplicity of benefits and opportunities this quiet revolution has had.

“This letter is both a reflection and a warning. You will be my age in the year 2098. In these next 25 years, the future will present to you and your generation a beckoning hand. I implore you not to refuse it. And I fear that many will.

“I must remind you of an immutable reality: energy is life. And there is no greater source of energy for the world than fission. Today, we live in the fission diamond mine: in every area of our civilisation, fission surrounds us, and all the while it is invisible to us. You must do everything in your power to protect it.

“First, a reflection: I am reminded of the words of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in 1931: ‘In a future which our children may live to see, powers will be in the hands of men altogether different from any by which human nature has been moulded… It is therefore above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions’. Some of his predictions in that speech are startlingly accurate. 20 years earlier he made a remarkable decision: to move the British fleet onto oil power. I cannot understate the gravity of such a choice. Churchill understood that hard science must inform politics, and the truth that dense energy is better than diffuse energy. With that knowledge, recognising that oil was more energy dense than coal, he enabled the British Navy to maintain dominion over the seas heading into the Second World War. And I believe, had he been our Prime Minister in 1998, 25 years before my birth when oil production in Britain peaked, he would have recognised that the path ahead was steepening, and the ground beneath our feet more uncertain. Instead, in the comforts of a Western World when energy was so abundant, in the early 2000s, our politicians forgot the scientific foundations of our civilisation, and for a generation let us sleepwalk towards energy scarcity. The great defect of moral philosophy of our leaders in that era was complacency towards the science that enables our modern world.

“I am grateful that in 2023, the ruling Conservative party legislated the Energy Security and Strategic Infrastructure Act, committing to 3 key policies to adopt fission power as the bedrock of our nations primary energy. First, ESSI had supremacy over local planning regulations, meaning that councils could not block nuclear power plant construction, in either the public or private spheres. Second, ESSI gave fission projects a unique exempt status in the capital commitments fund of the Treasury, allowing the funding of plants to be backed by ‘Power-bonds’ which guaranteed a return to investors on a per-TWh basis once the plants began producing. This had the effect of accelerating investment as projects came closer to completion, preventing overruns from impacting short term Treasury budgets. Thirdly, private enterprise was given broad licence to innovate and bring to the market individual fission energy products. Together, it was not long before fission power accelerated and the fortunes of our nation began to turn. I note ESSI involved minimal reform of existing safety standards, and this is to our credit.

“Ironically, the earliest adopters of local ‘microreactors’ were oil and gas companies, seeking to reduce the emissions of their extraction activities. Tiny reactors were constructed on ships, sailed to drilling platforms, and hooked up to the operations.

“This inspired a Churchillian pivot to nuclear-powered shipping fleets. After constructing these microreactors on ships, why could the ships not be powered by fission themselves? The rejuvenation of Sunderland and Plymouth as the two shipbuilding powerhouses of the nation followed soon after. It took time- the cost of bunker fuel cratered, and by extension the cost of traditional shipping- but for the past two decades, the world’s commercial shipping has been delivered by a fission fleet, many of which fly the British flag. This industry remains a boon to the working people of these cities.

“In tandem, Britain led the way in the decarbonisation of cement production. Once engineering challenges were surmounted and heat from fission could be conveyed to rotary kilns economically, Britain was placed at the forefront of the carbon-neutral cement industry.

“In the 2040s, oil became more expensive as easy-to-access resources were depleted, and petrol and diesel for vehicles skyrocketed in price. British fission rose to the challenge: using hydrolysis for hydrogen and direct air capture for carbon, synthetic hydrocarbons were produced that steadied the fuel market without the need for wholesale changes to engines. To this day, the internal combustion engine remains supreme, and now it is carbon-neutral thanks to our innovations.

“All of this contributed to the dramatic stabilisation of the Earth’s temperature, which was a source of deep consternation at the time I was born and throughout my childhood. The changes Britain made were followed by many other nations, including the US and China, which were two of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. The incredible energy surpluses that fission is able to provide was used for further direct air capture to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and by extension help to regulate the temperature of the Earth. More acute were the effects to nations that burned coal as their primary source of fuel, where air quality improved and illness from atmospheric pollutants plummeted.

“Along with these reflections, I promised you a warning. I fear a great deal of complacency permeating our political class regarding our energy security, just as it did at the beginning of this century, and as Mr Churchill portended in his timeless speech. Our nuclear fleet is aging, and some of our large grid-level reactors require significant maintenance. As a nation, we talk about supporting businesses if the price of uranium rises, but there is scant discussion about where that uranium is sourced. Some of our critical supplies are from countries of uncertain political stability.

“Moreover, new environmental challenges are on the horizon. Desertification is likely to take hold, even in areas of Europe, with water tables becoming more stressed by the year. We must again turn to fission, to aide our allies before the crisis hits. But our politicians are not planning for an expansion of desalination plants, and they are continually delaying much needed refurbishments to our fleets. These issues are small today, but in a quarter-century may snowball into a calamity that would threaten Britain’s energy security and the security of our friends.

“The future is rife with potential, and with danger. If we accept the hand the future extends, it will guide us forward. If we refuse it, then the hand will wrap around us, and we will find ourselves unable to escape its grip. Remember this letter, and refer to it often, my son, as you help to shape the world ahead.”

My father wrote that letter to me 25 years ago. I thought I would share it with you all today, given the reference he made to 2098. As we stand here at the precipice of the 22nd Century, we rose to the challenge in some ways, and in others we have fallen awfully short. Today, as Energy Secretary, I am delighted to announce our investment into thorium reactors. The promise of these reactors has been vaunted for over a hundred years, now brought to fruition through British innovation into replacing Hastelloy N with a material durable enough to withstand the effects of the molten salts and resist embrittlement from irradiation. The new material, developed in our Universities, will result in thorium-fuelled reactors capable of lasting for hundreds of years. As our old fleet is decommissioned, we are now once again at the forefront of the world’s fission grid solutions, offering electricity and fuel to our nation from a source yet denser in energy than uranium. My government hopes to meet the challenges we face. We must assist and support our friends in Europe, as they battle environmental challenges that even my father underestimated. And as food security has diminished, so too have relations between nations. As Sir Winston said, ‘once more the choice is offered between blessing and cursing.’ Let us use the blessing of fission to deliver ourselves, and the world, from the curses we may face.

The New Atomic Age by Ruben Davies, aged 15

It was on this day in 2023, 50 years ago, that Britain chose change. On that day, we committed to atomic energy. Over the next few years, the UK developed one of the most efficient grids on Earth. Ever since, Britain has nearly eradicated its carbon footprint, and has some of the world’s lowest electricity bills. It has become a world leader in atomic innovation, a pioneer in the drive for change. Now that 50 years have passed between that day and this, we can look back on the achievements of nuclear fission power, and the challenges we still face in the next 25 years.

Of course, the first step in this endeavour involved the building of over 50 new nuclear reactors of various types and capacity, to be fitted into 18 plants. All new reactors were Pressure Water Reactors (PWRs) due to their international standardisation, and therefore high availability of suppliers and expertise. Despite budgeting fears, the government used the novel approach of converting many disused coal and gas-fired power plants into nuclear ones. This reduced costs by using existing infrastructure and buildings. Now, where gas and coal power stations once stood, stand nuclear power plants. PWRs require enriched uranium, so additional enriching facilities were constructed at the existing Capenhurst and Sellafield facilities. Enriching plants also reduced the reliance on imports. Given PWRs’ popularity, Britain became a leading exporter of enriched uranium, producing exports worth over £1 billion.

The next, and possibly most important, stage in the UK’s transition was the construction of a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), where high-level nuclear waste produced by nuclear reactors is safely stored deep underground. The site selected for the GDF was Mid-Copeland, near the Sellafield nuclear site, where all nuclear waste had been temporarily stored. The GDF is 600m underground, and will contain waste safely for over 100,000 years. Site selection was finished in late 2023 and waste started being transferred in 2036. The site remains open and holds all our unusable waste. It will be closed and sealed in 2076.

However, not all nuclear waste is condemned to a GDF. In fact, close to 96% of spent nuclear fuel can be recycled into mixed oxide fuel (MOX), and reused in reactors, but the UK lacked a reprocessing plant. After Copeland, the government reopened 2 reprocessing plants closed in previous years. Subsequently, 25% of nuclear power in Britain today is generated using recycled fuel. These facilities are both located at the Sellafield nuclear site, putting a GDF, temporary storage facility, and 2 reprocessing facilities in close proximity to one another. Today, Sellafield is a hub of the British and European nuclear industries, where many of its vital processes take place. These created over 15,000 jobs for the local economy. Such a high concentration of nuclear facilities in one location, and the site’s expansive history, made Sellafield a hotbed for nuclear innovation. For example, Rolls Royce used the site to build 16 Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), at the time a brand new reactor design. These 16 SMRs are now distributed across the country and have a capacity of 470 MW each, powering low demand areas.

The questions being asked after 50 years of the new atomic age are, how has the climate benefitted? And, what is our grid like now?

In terms of the climate, nuclear power has fulfilled the British commitment to Net-Zero; ridding the grid entirely of carbon. Britain stripped itself of well over 182.55 million tonnes of yearly carbon emissions from energy production alone, by transitioning to an entirely green, National Grid. As a result, British emissions more than halved. Plus, the extra production capacity nuclear power provides has invited widespread adoption of electric cars; charging them is no longer a major added cost to the average energy bill. Emissions from cars have since been nearly eradicated, further lowering the British carbon footprint. Benefits of nuclear power do not stop at cars; reduced electricity costs have made high-speed rail far cheaper to build than in the 2020s: it has become abundant across the UK, with relatively low fares. This, in turn, reduced the nations reliance on cars, electric or otherwise, a further emissions cut. Benefits have also been local: trams and light rail are now present in most large towns in Britain, with higher ridership figures and lower fares than ever. It was Britain in 2050 that could call itself one of the first carbon neutral countries; leading the globe into a carbon-free world armed with an arsenal of nuclear power stations; a pioneer in slowing the effects of climate change. We set an example to the world of how to not only reduce emissions, but eliminate them. Many countries followed our lead: Germany reopened many of its retired nuclear power plants, and a new wave of nuclear power started in the USA - a key achievement for the biggest historical emitters.

In regards to the National Grid, what hasn’t changed? The Grid is now powered on average 65% by nuclear reactors, 20% by wind turbines, 10% by solar panels and 5% by hydroelectricity. The most impactful change has been to the generation capacity of the Grid. In 2023, UK generation capacity was at 76.7GW, after decades of decline due to rising prices. That trend has been reversed, and Britain’s capacity now stands at nearly 140GW. This increase is largely due to the high efficiency of nuclear power plants, and their tendency to create an excess supply of energy. This surplus is not useless; the UK has become one of the world’s leading exporters of energy. The value of these exports to the British economy is estimated to exceed £3 billion per year. The efficiency of nuclear power plants, and the money earned from exports has another benefit: price. The average monthly electricity bill for a British household has fallen from over £100 in 2023 to around £70 today. Further, energy bills fluctuate less as prices no longer depend on that of gas, and so aren’t affected by geopolitical events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition to being efficient, nuclear power is “firm”, so energy production levels don’t change unpredictably based on the weather, as solar and wind power so notoriously do. As a result, no infrastructure is needed to store or redistribute energy from renewable sources because nuclear power covers any gaps in the grid.

Despite the extraordinarily positive effects of nuclear power in the past 50 years, there are a number of challenges to be faced in the next 25 until 2098. One that is often overlooked is the low capacity factor that results from a nuclear-based grid. Britain’s plants have a capacity factor of ~70%, which means they only produce 70% of the electricity they could. This is because many are run on demand, not flat out, leading to frequent shutdowns and restarts. However, nuclear power stations were not designed for that; they were designed to run flat out at all times, bar refuelling, partially because running nuclear power plants like this recoups their construction costs faster, but the main reason is the complicated (and risky) process of shutting down a nuclear reactor with fuel inside. When this is done, an isotope,xenon-135, is produced which inhibits the reactor’s ability to run. So, once a reactor is shut down, it can’t easily be restarted for up to 2 days, a major inefficiency. It is also dangerous because the xenon-135 transmutes into xenon-136, which allows the reactor to restart. If control rods are not inserted further immediately at this point, reactivity can reach dangerous levels; this is partly what led to the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore, using nuclear power plants as peaking plants is an inefficient and possibly dangerous practice. Large batteries in power plants could solve this problem. While waste has been a challenge of nuclear power, the construction of the Copeland GDF has near-solved it for the UK. Though it is nearly full, it’s likely another GDF will not be needed due to Britain’s high fuel recycling capacity. Further, if fuel is recycled many times, the half life of its waste goes from 100,000 years to as low as 200, meaning only short-term storage is needed. GDFs may become a thing of the past.

It is hard to overstate the effects nuclear power has had on the UK, and the world. While challenges are still present, it has eliminated our reliance on fossil fuels, effectively eradicating the UK’s carbon emissions. It has turned Britain into a leader in energy exports, supplying many countries. It has reduced energy bills in Britain to a record low, a load off Britons’ backs after the turbulence of the 2020s, inviting an age of unprecedented new infrastructure projects. It has transformed not only the way energy is generated, but the way we live our lives. If this can be accomplished in just half a century, the challenges we face now are trivial: the atomic revolution has only just begun.