Friday, November 2, 2012

No Fukushimas here!

The UK is to host a series of new nuclear plants of the same basic type as at Fukushima- Boiling Water Reactors, following Hitachi’s take over of the Horizon nuclear programme, which aims to build coastal plants at Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Anglesey in Wales  E.ON and RWE had previously pulled out. 

The new plants will be Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR), with improved safety features, some of which have already been built in Japan. But, following the  Fukushima accident,  the Japanese government has decided to phase out all nuclear capacity ‘in the 2030s’.   All its nuclear plants were shut down for testing after the accident, but two have now been restarted and work had recommenced on one part-built plant. Despite massive pubic opposition, further restarts may follow.  However, it seems unlikely that any new ones will be ordered, whereas in the UK there is strong government support for new nuclear.

The most common type of nuclear plant in the world is the Pressurised  Water Reactor (PWR)  in which pressurization raises the boiling point of water enabling  more efficient high temperature cooling. The disadvantage is that, to maintain the high pressure in the sealed reactor unit, heat transfer requires a secondary heat exchange circuit.  In Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) this is avoided- the water boils unpressuried inside the reactor fuel core, with the steam passing straight through to the turbines. That makes them more efficient in heat transfer terms and perhaps a bit more economic. The disadvantage is that the external turbines can become exposed to radioactive contamination, and since cooling is less efficient, BWRs need more water throughput, a key issue at Fukushima.

Hitachi are talking of building at least four reactors, and perhaps six, by around 2025, in which case that would be nearly 8GW total capacity. In addition EDF is planning to build two EPRs, Areva’s  upgraded version of the PWR, at  Hinkley  in Somerset –and  possibly two more at  Sizewell. In addition NuGeneration is still developing proposals for a plant near Sellafield and other bids may be forthcoming. In all there might be 19GW of new nuclear, much more than the 10GW of nuclear capacity than the UK currently has.

However there is a way to go! There have been major problems with the EPRs being built in France and Finland-  the Finnish project now looks like being six year late and as a result almost twice over budget and the French EPR is also very behind schedule.  EDF says it can learn form these problems with the UK versions, but it is far from clear whether they will be economically viable. The UK government is developing a new funding mechanism to try to help, but to avoid being seen to provide subsidy just to nuclear,  the new ‘Contracts for a Difference’ (CfD) system will also apply to renewable energy projects. The problem then is that it’s been estimated that nuclear plants would need a subsidy of at least £95-105/MWh, but more likely £120/MWh and possibly up to £165/MWh, whereas at present on land wind projects are getting £92/MWh, offshore windfarms £135/ MWh and  Solar PV £160/ MWh.  It would be somewhat provocative for nuclear to be getting more than wind or even PV!

The nuclear lobby says that it can get prices down, but so does the renewables lobby- it’s been claimed that offshore wind could get down to £100/MWh by 2020 and some studies have PV solar  reaching grid price parity by around then.  For its part the UK government now seems to be taking about  setting a CfD set strike price of around £100/MWh. That could mean that EDF and the others would have to get additional support through other means. It's all still in flux…
EDF does have the advantage that the EPR has gone through the UKs lengthy Generic Design Acceptance procedures, something that the Hitachi APWR will now have to start. The ABWR has also had a somewhat checkered history, with technical problems and low load factors:  So a 2025 completion date may be optimistic.

And that’s without taking account of any local objections. The new planning regime makes it hard for local people to object to anything except detail, but given the prospect of a large scale expansion of nuclear projects, with spent fuel to be stored at each site as well, opposition may grow and not turn out to be so easy to sidestep.   After all, the current programme is only the start.  The Energy Research Partnerships ‘Nuclear Fission Technology Roadmap’, produced by the UK National Nuclear Labs at Sellafield, talked of a 40GW nuclear follow up programme and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, at University of Oxford, headed up by Prof. Sir David King, looked at a 90GW 2050 nuclear scenario: see Towards a Low Carbon Pathway: and

It is true that the UK is one of the few places in the world where nuclear power has a degree of public support. An Ipsos-MORI Poll in August 2011 for the Nuclear Industry Association asked respondents ‘do you support or oppose building new nuclear power stations to replace the existing fleet’, 36% supported- 28% opposed, but we are now moving well beyond just a replacement programme,  to one that could undermine the rapid development of renewables, which most polls have found are much more strongly supported than nuclear. 

Now that we are actually facing major new projects, the balance could tip. In the most recent Poll for DECC, published  in September, 29% of respondents said they thought the benefits of nuclear energy outweighed the risks, while 30% thought the contrary, and 32% said the benefits and risks were evenly balanced.  By contrast 83% supported solar power, 76% backed offshore wind, 75% supported wave and tidal and 66% were in favour of onshore wind farms.

Germany amongst others is pushing ahead towards a non-nuclear renewable future. Several studies have indicated that the UK, which has much better renewable resources than Germany, could reach its climate targets without nuclear, and with the Hitachi BWR  intervention, the slogan ‘No Fukushimas here’ may take on a new meaning.

My new book ‘Fukushima: impacts and implications’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their new Pivot e-book initiative.

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