Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nuclear Power: UK out on a limb

While Germany has closed eight nuclear plants, the UK is busily trying to get eight new ones built. But it can’t do it alone. Fortuitously perhaps, France is keen to help. Indeed it could be the only way for the French nuclear industry to survive. A Franco-British Summit in Paris in February aimed to strengthened cooperation on civil nuclear energy between the two countries, with deals being announced in relation to EDF Energy's plans to construct two Areva’s European Pressurised-water Reactors (EPRs) at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

Politically it was important for Cameron to show that there would be some UK jobs in an otherwise French led programme , and for Sarkozy it was vital, given the upcoming election, to show that new nuclear was still possible, even if only in the UK. The French Court of Auditors recently concluded that a new French reactor building progamme was unlikely to be fundable, so, if France wanted to keep its nuclear capacity at a similar level to that at present, the only option was to extend the life of some of the existing plants.

Meanwhile though, the French Socialist Party, which has been winning in the polls, wants to close 24 reactors, nearly half of France’s nuclear capacity, by 2025. Instead they will push ahead with renewables. If they win, then the UK- Franco alliance will seem rather odd and may not survive. But nonetheless, Areva and Rolls-Royce have it seems agreed on the UK input. Rolls-Royce is to manufacture reactor vessel internals, heat exchangers, accumulators, coolers and tanks, and provide engineering and technical services for the first of two EPR units to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Rolls-Royce said, "Once contracted, the work could be worth a total of £400 million in revenue to Rolls-Royce for the four EPRs currently planned by EDF Energy in the UK." EDF also plan two more at Sizewell.

However the Rolls contract has to be put in perspective. The total EDF/EPR programme will cost maybe €24 billion, given that the present estimated cost for the two much delayed units being built in France and Finland is around €6 billion each. And it far from certain if their UK programme will go ahead- EDF and Areva’s finances are looking decidedly strained.

Given the delays and cost over-run in Finland and France, the EPR is also looking a bit ropey, with press reports that EPR Avera may look to other versions of this basically upgraded PWR design for any future plants, like the version being developed in China. Longer term they may move to completely new technology, like Astrid (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration), a fourth generation liquid sodium cooled fast neutron reactor. Rolls Royce have been invited to participate in that too.

The Astrid programme foresees a prototype operational by 2020 and ultimately aims for France to have in place all the necessary elements for industrial deployment of fast reactors starting from 2040. But who know what will actually happen. Technically it’s tough. France gave up with its Superphoenix Breeder years ago, so did the UK with its FBR at Dounreay. Japans Monju suffered a sodium fire and was shut. Certainly no-one has yet build a fast breeder that was viable commercially. And politically, it seems very unlikely for France to successfully revive this idea, given the recession and the changing politics- and the huge potential of renewables.

There are also large uncertainties in Japan. At present there are only three nuclear plants running, and they are scheduled to shut down in April for their annual inspections. However it is unclear if they, or any of the others, will be allowed to restart. Local municipal authorities have the final say in Japan, and they, like the population as a whole, are becoming increasingly anti nuclear. That is not surprising since the government has been trying to pass some of the vast clean-up cost for contamination from Fukushima on to them. The end result could be that Japan will become nuclear free by default.

That won’t happen in Germany until 2022, when the last of its nuclear plants closes, by which time three of Belgium’s 5 plants will have shut (the rest close in 2025) and it’s conceivably that some of the French reactors will also have closed, while some of the new UK reactors might have started up. What an odd situation- the UK out on a limb.

A then new report from the Energy Research Partnership/National Nuclear Lab suggests we could move on to have over 40GW of nuclear in place by 2050, including fast breeders!


If that’s all too gloomy, then come to AT@40, a conference at the Architectural Association in London on March 17th to mark forty years since the first big ‘Alternative Technology’ gathering at UCL in 1972. At that one disgruntled participant famously said ‘I came here to talk about wind mills, not politics’. They would hopefully be just as disappointed by AT@40.

You have to book in advance at:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fukushima still a mess

At the end of last year the Japanese authorities announced that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex's devastated reactors had been brought to ‘cold shutdown’, nine months or so after the disaster. But that just means that temperatures are now lower, not zero, thanks to continued cooling and reduced melted core activity levels. Much still needs to be done however to make the plants fully safe, and some reports say that, since no one really know exactly what happened inside the cores, it’s not clear how to move to the next set of issues, which include locating and stopping the flow of toxic water and removing the melted nuclear fuel and radioactive debris. Reuters noted that ‘Fukushima Daiichi is hemorrhaging enough radiated water each month to fill four Olympic-size swimming pools’ and quoted Hajimu Yamana, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyoto University, who heads a government committee studying how to decommission Daiichi: ‘We don't know what we should do. After all, we don't even know what's happening inside the plant.’ But they are doing their best, although its been claimed that it will take thousands of people, and decades to clear it all up: TEPCO’s current plan is for final full decommissioning of the site by 2041-2051.

Possible US Impacts

Joseph J. Mangano and Janette D. Sherman, writing in the International Journal of Health Services, (Vol. 42, No. 1, pp 47–64, 2012) note ‘an unusual rise in infant deaths in the northwestern United States for the 10-week period following the arrival of the airborne radio-active plume from the meltdowns at the Fukushima plants in northern Japan’. They say that ‘U.S. health officials report weekly deaths by age in 122 cities, about 25 to 35% of the national total. Deaths rose 4.46% from 2010 to 2011 in the 14 weeks after the arrival of Japanese fallout, compared with a 2.34% increase in the prior 14 weeks. The number of infant deaths after Fukushima rose 1.80%, compared with a previous 8.37% decrease.’ They add ‘Projecting these figures for the entire United States yields 13,983 total deaths and 822 infant deaths in excess of the expected’. They say ‘these preliminary data need to be followed up, especially in the light of similar preliminary U.S. mortality findings for the four months after Chernobyl fallout arrived in 1986.’ They suggest that while impacts in Japan will inevitably be much higher, the impact of exposure to low levels can also be significant elsewhere, especially for infants. See

This report was rubbished by the US nuclear lobby as being unreliable and based on dubious use of statistics and it may indeed be a little premature. Similarly the views of Prof. Chris Busby have also attracted a lot of criticism. He is ardent in his belief that low-level internally absorbed radioactive particles are more dangerous than is officially thought, but he has his detractors. Make up your own mind. For an overview see : http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Christopher_Busby. And then his web site: Also see and Then, from a hostile but anonymous source:
The most balanced overview of the issue I’ve seen is this:

Clearly there are conflicting views. Prof. Gerry Thomas at Imperial College told New Scientist that ‘not an awful lot got out of the plant – it was not Chernobyl.’

This seems wide of the mark. According to recent estimates, 770,000 terabequerels of radiation seeped from the plant in the week after the tsunami, more than double the initial estimate of 370,000 and about 20% of the official estimate for Chernobyl, rather than the 10% initially claimed. The amount of plutonium released is said to be 120 billion Becquerels, plus 7.6 trillion Becquerels of Neptunium-239. As neptunium-239 decays, it becomes plutonium-239.

But even that may be an underestimate. Nature noted that the Norwegian Institute for Air Research found that, in fact, the accident released more total radioactive material than did Chernobyl, though some was in the form of xenon which is less harmful. Even so it claimed that caesium emissions were in total about half that from Chernobyl.

It is perhaps not surprising then that there have been huge demos around the country, with a 60,000 strong gathering in Tokyo last Sept kicking off a whole spate of ‘Occupy Tokyo’ actions. In parallel, rail workers went on strike to resist the re-opening of the track from Hisanohama Station to Hirono Station, which they say is still highly contaminated by radioactive fallout from Fukushima.

Their concern is that rolling stock is contaminated- its been passing through the area reguarly. The Trade Unions have become increasingly active, organising an International Workers rally:

They are not the only ones worried about radioactive contamination. Local residents in Tokyo, unconvinced by government reassurances that all was well, have been measuring radiation levels themselves. The Tokyo citizens’ group, the Radiation Defense Project, which grew out of a Facebook discussion page, in consultation with the Yokohama-based Isotope Research Institute, collected soil samples from near their own homes and submitted them for testing. Some of the results were shocking: one sample collected under shrubs near a baseball field measured nearly 138,000 becquerels per sq meter. Of the 132 areas tested, 22 were above 37,000 becquerels per square meter, the level at which zones were considered contaminated at Chernobyl. Hot spots are of course different from full scale contamination as at Chernobyl, but Kiyoshi Toda, a radiation expert at Nagasaki University’s faculty of environmental studies and a medical doctor, told the New York Times ‘Radioactive substances are entering people’s bodies from the air, from the food. It’s everywhere. But the government doesn’t even try to inform the public how much radiation they’re exposed to.’…

There’s also been strong opposition to radioactive debris being brought to Tokyo by train to be burned and dumped in Tokyo Bay:

Studies by a US scientist Marco Kaltofen of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of air filters from car air-conditioning units sent from Japan, evidently show high levels on contamination by hot particles in Tokyo. Studies have also been made of shoe laces gathered from kids in Japan- they pick up dust.

Some of this may be unduly alarmist, and some may be unreliable, but given that few now trust official pronouncement, it’s understandable that fears mount and pressures for a nuclear phases out increase.

As you may have guessed from the above, I’m writing a book on Fukushima. Stay tuned!