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:

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