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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where now for nuclear power?

The terrible and on-going tragedy in Japan has raised some fundamental questions about what the UK Government is going to do about its own power needs and in particular the further development of nuclear power.

Until now it had been widely expected that, subject to the rather substantial caveat that there would be no public subsidy, the Energy and Climate Change Minister would be prepared to sign off new nuclear power stations, not least a replacement for Wylfa B in Ynys Mon, however, as this article in today's Observer makes clear, that is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Chris Huhne told the paper that Britain may back away from the use of nuclear energy because of safety fears and a potential rise in costs after the Fukushima disaster:

In an interview with the Observer, Huhne insisted that he would not "rush to judgment" until the implications of the disaster were known and a report into the safety of UK nuclear plants by the chief nuclear officer, Dr Mike Weightman, was complete. The interim findings are due in May.

"I am not ruling out nuclear now," said Huhne. But he said events in Japan could have profound long-term implications for UK policy, which is based on a three-pronged "portfolio" approach: a commitment to nuclear energy; the development of more renewable energy, such as wind and sea power; and new carbon-capture technology to mitigate the damaging environmental effects of fossil fuel-fired power plants and industrial facilities.

Huhne, a Liberal Democrat, said that Britain was in a very different position from Japan, which was vulnerable to strong earthquakes and tsunamis. The UK also used different types of reactors. But he conceded that the Japanese disaster was likely to make it more difficult for private investors to raise capital to build the eight new reactors planned by the government. "There are a lot of issues outside of the realm of nuclear safety, which we will have to assess. One is what the economics of nuclear power post-Fukushima will be, if there is an increase in the cost in capital to nuclear operators."

He said that after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US 32 years ago, it became more difficult to raise money for nuclear investment. "After Three Mile Island in 1979, nuclear operators found it very hard to finance new projects.

Huhne said he remained wedded to the "portfolio" approach, but added that nuclear energy's future, as part of the mix, had become more uncertain as leaders of other nations, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, openly questioned its future. "Globally, this undoubtedly casts a shadow over the renaissance of the nuclear industry. That is blindingly obvious," he said.

It is not an easy choice to make. Personally, I would welcome a move away from new nuclear power stations in the UK but I also recognise that we cannot entirely depend on renewables and that there needs to be a baseload of reliable heavy duty power generation to meet demand. How we achieve that whilst reducing carbon emissions I do not know.
I hope this debate is not defined by old nuke reactor designs such as those used in Japan which I think are Mark 1s dating back some 40 years especially given the pressing need to plug the pending energy generation gap that is facing the UK.

Imho, due in large part to our population size and current aging power station tech the UK has no choice but to build new generation plant. Methane and oil is running down (In re North Sea), but we have coal, nuclear, and renewable energy sources like wind turbines (which are proving to be unreliable and more than a 'blot on the landscape' - see, e.g., Glyn Davies comments on this issue).

There are alternatives to large nuke reactors. Smaller ones based on designs such as those very successfully used in subs and aircraft carriers. Modern subs use nuclear fuel designed to last the lifetime of the nuke reactor. So no refueling - hence no stored spent or partially spend fuel rods, and hence no risk of a nuclear fire incident which is the main cause of concern in the Japanese nuke disaster - stored fuel rods catching fire due to diminished water cooling.

Smaller nukes are much easier to deal with than their big sisters and they are designed to cope with major malfunctions including going down to the sea bottom! They are designed to be a tomb in the event of cataclysmic failure.

The new small reactor designs are amazing - they burn the nuke material they generate thus they are very efficient nuke eaters.

One such effort is called the traveling wave design; as one news article put it: "[T]his traveling-wave reactor creates the simplest nuclear energy fuel cycle and "breeds its own nuclear fuel, where it needs it, when it needs it." Bill Gates has put up hard cash to back the new design.
Chris Wood, PhD (chemistry)
Sorry, forgot to give a URL:


The Bill Gates small nuke reactor is a spin-off project from a patent orientated IP company - of the kind I have been arguing for in Wales. Sadly, no body at WAG is interested in the idea and appear to be largely content with a Welsh GVA rating in the mud in part due to an appalling ability to turn academic ideas into patents into commercial spin-offs.
Chris Wood PhD (Lost in "France" ... actually, America)
People fail to acknowledge that some form of nuclear power must be used to bridge the gap when we transition from power generation based on fossil fuel to one based on renewables.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors have provided power for over 30 years to one of the largest economies in the world, but the focus is now on how this plant reacts after being hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a once every 1000 years tsunami event.

As an observer has stated, what if the news coverage was instead "The coal-fired Daiichi plants are still burning, releasing toxins into the atmosphere. Respiratory issues for many." This would be happening if there had been a earthquake/tsunami or not.

As much as everyone wants 100% of the world's power needs supplied by renewables, it can't happen unless the governments of the world put their money where their press releases are and massively invest in the sector. And it would also need people to not block planning applications for wind turbines due to 'spoiling their view' for instance.

It's either renewables or nuclear power, or likely, both. I'm still a proponent of nuclear fusion, but unfolding events in Japan will likely scare away government support to this sector.

We're in a post-peak-oil world, and the government needs to be forward looking and brave when deciding how we are going to supply a power-hungry population.

~ J Clarke, Skewen
Be careful, Peter. There does not need to be "a baseload of reliable heavy duty power generation". Baseload is generation that operates 24/7, but it would be perfectly possible for us to use some power plants that were designed for baseload generation as "load following" power stations instead. This would enable us to ramp up the use of intermittent forms of renewable generation, like wind. In other words, we fire up these stations as back up when the wind isn't blowing. The gas fired power stations we have just finished (such as SevernPower in Newport) or are currently building (such as Pembroke) provide us with the capacity to do this. Coal can't be used in this way, because it is much less responsive. Of course gas stations aren't as efficient when used in load following mode, and will still produce CO2 whenever they are used, but wind power is generally available more than 80% of the time, so we would be using the back up less often and therefore producing that much less CO2.

As such, this provides a transition phase, say for about 20 years. What we need to develop in that 20 years are more reliable forms of renewable generation (tidal in particular, because we have abudant potential, but there are other important sources too) and a larger, more extensive grid with Ireland, Scandinavia and mainland Europe, so that the effects of intermittency are smoothed out more evenly.

I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon that nuclear power is unsafe. The risks are low, and lower for Britain than Japan, but they can never be zero. However the consequences of even our low risk being realized are and always have been extremely serious. In my opinion, the bigger problem is that even when nuclear works "as it should" we still haven't answered the question of how we deal with the waste ... waste that will be much more radioactive than with previous generations of nuclear plants, and will (at least as planned) now be stored locally.

My view is that because the UK, and especially Wales, does not need nuclear, it is foolish to spend such huge sums of money on the safety regime necessary to reduce the level of risk. For one thing is certain, even if the Weightman Report concludes that nuclear is safe enough (as of course it will) it will have to recommend better safety precautions as a result of Fukushima ... and that will add even more to the cost. Nuclear may well be an answer for countries which do not have our renewable energy resources, but we are in the fortunate position of having a better answer.
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