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A Nuclear Nightmare

February 15, 2016
tags:#Chernobyl, #Fukushima, #Hinkley, #nuclear power, #pressurised water reactor (PWR)
located:United Kingdom
by:Robin Whitlock
The regularly repeated claim that nuclear is too expensive a technology is supported by the ongoing Hinkley C debacle in the UK. A ridiculously expensive project with a long history of delays and rising costs. A background story

Nuclear power has a long history of opposition by determined critics pitching a multitude of sensible and well-argued critiques against it. Many of these involve the types of reactors commonly deployed at nuclear plants from the early days of nuclear power generation – such as the the pressurised water reactor (PWR), which constitutes the bulk of nuclear power reactors deployed in the west thus far. However, other criticisms involve nuclear power in general, including supposedly radical and insufficiently tested technologies such as fast breeders, fusion and thorium.

The risks and problems associated with PWRs with regard to waste and safety are generally well-known, such as how to dispose of radioactive waste, vulnerability to terrorist attack, dangers caused by reactor failure and breakdown and so forth. These risks have in turn have been graphically presented before a global audience in the form of actual catastrophic events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Yet, still, nuclear advocates continue to push the argument that nuclear can solve global energy problems and at limited cost. However, on closer inspection, these arguments tend to fall apart fairly rapidly. Leaving aside the waste and safety arguments then, other concerns could include length of time needed to develop new plants, rising costs – both of the plant itself and the electricity it generates, and the amount of energy plants provide in terms of a contribution to overall power generation. At present, there is no greater example of what can go drastically wrong, with regard to these particular issues, than the ongoing saga surrounding the proposed Hinkley C reactor at Hinkley Point, Somerset.

The UK government claims that Hinkley C will provide power for 6 million homes for 60 years while also delivering 25,000 jobs thereby boosting the UK economy. However, since the project was first announced in November 2005, the projected start date has been put back continuously while costs have steadily risen, reaching an estimated £18 billion. Initially expected to start generating power in 2017, the start-date is now scheduled for 2025. EDF itself has repeatedly delayed its final investment decision on the project and recently announced yet another delay after having been scheduled to make the decision at a board meeting on the 27th January. The company may choose to wait until February 16th, when it publishes its annual results, or it may choose to announce another date entirely.

A bottomless pit

Rising costs and repeated delays led to the withdrawal of Centrica from the deal in December 2013. This in turn forced EDF to bring in the Chinese company China General Nuclear Power (CGN) with a 33.5 percent stake. A review of the subsidy regime by the European Commission in 2014 led to its conclusion that the final cost of the project will rise again to around £24.5 billion at the current rate of progress. With the rising costs, so the projected cost of electricity generated by the plant has also risen. The government currently guarantees an electricity price of £92.50 per megawatt hour over a 35 year period, which is twice the current electricity market price.

The British government believes that EDF will stick with the project to its final conclusion, and there are two factors which support this. First, the company has already spent £2 billion on the project and may therefore be reluctant to risk this. Secondly, the French government owns an 84.5 percent stake in the company and is fairly keen to export its European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) technology.

However, equally, there are a number of concerns about the company’s ability to finance the project. Falling wholesale prices have put the company under increasing pressure, as has its decision to acquire a controlling stake, of 51-75 percent, in Areva’s reactor manufacturing business, Areva NP. Furthermore, according to the French newspaper Les Echos, the company has called on the French government to provide more funds and find more investors, hardly a promising sign. A number of French unions are also growing increasingly concerned about EDF’s involvement with Hinkley, worries that have been exacerbated by the loss of 6,000 jobs worldwide. Some of EDFs own managers and employee representatives are also worried.

“The worst deal of the British government”

These worries are nothing compared to the much wider criticisms of the project, right across the power sector and beyond. Peter Atherton for example, the energy analyst at Jeffries who in February 2014, writing for The Spectator, described the Hinkley deal as “one of the worst ever signed by a British government” and accused it of buying the “most expensive conventional power station in the world”. Mr Atherton isn’t the only one in the city who has slammed the project. Energy analysts at HSBC have written a key report outlining at least eight major challenges facing Hinkley including a declining demand for power in the face of energy efficiency programmes. Others include increasingly cheaper electricity prices delivered by a three-fold increase in interconnection capacity with Europe by 2022 and a woeful record of setbacks on the part of EDF with regard to its European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), which has been dogged constantly by safety concerns such as cracks in its reactor vessel. The HSBC analysts quite legitimately condemn the whole project as too big, too costly and still unproven which they recommend shoud be delayed or even cancelled altogether.

These criticisms are echoed by the economists at the Financial Times , former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull, who branded Hinkely a “bottomless pit and a big white elephant” and Paul Massara of RWE Npower, one of the UK ‘Big Six’ energy companies. Even Chancellor George Osborne’s father-in-law, Lord Howell, who himself is a former Conservative energy secretary, warned the Chancellor that the reactor design developed by EDF has never “been completed successfully”.

The government is blind to these criticisms. It is refusing to contemplate cancellation of the project, but, worse still, it is also attempting to get the Chinese building other UK nuclear reactors using their own Chinese designs, the CAP1400 and the ACPR1000. However, the effectiveness of Chinese nuclear power development is questionable with work on two reactors at Taishan having come to halt in 2014, the site remaining deserted ever since.

Not only a question of security

So if current nuclear technologies are unsatisfactory, what else is there? Nuclear power is a vast subject and a prolonged discussion of other technologies such as thorium and fusion would make for a very long article indeed. However, the most serious concerns about these other technologies can be summarised fairly briefly.

One of the utopian technologies routinely presented by nuclear advocates in discussions is the ‘fast breeder reactor’. David MacKay in his book Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air mentions that uranium can be used 60 times more efficiently in fast breeder reactors, because they burn up all the uranium thereby eliminating waste. The problem though is that such technology has been tried and tested already with some pretty alarming results. Neither of the two fast breeders deployed by the US reached the commercialisation stage and Congress stopped funding the technology in 1983. Trials with this technology were also abandoned by France, Germany and the UK long ago, leaving Russia, China, Japan and India as the only countries with operational fast breeder reactors. Currently, there are widespread concerns about the technology in India which mirror those expressed in other countries, particularly with regard to safety. The other major problem with fast breeders is that they are even more expensive than conventional PWRs, something that the Russians have been experiencing for many years.  

Fast breeders usually use sodium as a coolant and this is highly problematic in that leaks can result in highly dangerous sodium fires which are extremely difficult to extinguish given that it reacts with both air and water. The Japanese plant at Monju in Fukui Prefecture is a case in point. An accident in 1995 was covered up and also forced its shutdown. A second attempt to operate it was made in 2010 but in August of that year another incident caused a second shutdown. The plant has effectively been mothballed since 2013 with a complete ban on its operation. Although there are plans to construct a second Japanese FBR, this will only be a demonstrator project and won’t be available until 2025 at the earliest.

Thorium is a technology that is itself based on nuclear fission and this means that it has many of the very same problems associated with PWRs – uranium mining, waste, safety and cost. Unlike experiments with fusion, the reality of any reactor being developed based on thorium is highly implausible.

Experiments with nuclear fusion are ongoing in various parts of the world, but fusion involves working with plasmas which are extremely difficult to work with. For this reason, fusion research is still very much in its infancy so we won’t be seeing any nuclear plants for many a year yet.

In essence, although many people in government and industry continue to promise the benefits of nuclear technology, the reality seems to be that the lengthy trial period, since the end of World War 2, that nuclear has been given in order to try and prove its case, is proceeding steadily towards its inexorable end.    

Article written by:
Robin Whitlock
United Kingdom
Rising costs and repeated delays led to the withdrawal of Centrica from the deal in December 2013.
Although many people in government and industry continue to promise the benefits of nuclear technology, the reality seems to be that the lengthy trial period, since the end of World War 2, that nuclear has been given in order to try and prove its case, is proceeding steadily towards its inexorable end.
The Hinkley deal is described as “one of the worst ever signed by a British government”.
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