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The Nuclear Story So Far (with a quick look to the future) by Lord Stunnell

March 6, 2021 9:05 PM
By Andrew Stunnell in GLD Challenge magazine 2020-21

Family Time photo from GLD Photography Competition 2020 (Joanne Barton)The Nuclear Story So Far (with a quick look to the future)
by Lord Stunnell

The idea of building New Nuclear was down and out in the early '90s as electricity privatisation made its huge cost much more transparent, and the embarrassing failure to find any way to store nuclear waste, let alone recycle it, became acute as decommissioning of the first generation of plant began.
Meanwhile any justification for it 'making fuel for weapons' had ended with over 90 tons of Plutonium already stockpiled just in case.

The nuclear revival came in the 'noughties because many existing nuclear plants were becoming time-expired, creating a gap in so-called 'base load' provision of electricity just at the time when replacement investment in carbon-based fuels was coming under close scrutiny._

The nuclear industry reinvented itself as the carbon-neutral fuel of choice._ It has always been a well-motivated and resourced lobby with the ear of decision-makers.
Back then only Lib Dems advocated renewables as a solution, and it certainly needed faith to predict the cost reductions and expansion of wind power since, whilst energy policy makers saw solar power as intuitively silly or trivial for Britain.
So much for intuition.

About ten years ago we reached the cross-over point on costs of Renewables v Nuclear, so their argument changed to latch on to the impossibility of running a major economy on intermittent energy sources.
But there was and is still no solution to the long-term storage of nuclear waste, and the industry's pitch that unit costs of construction were now well-controlled and much lower than before has been destroyed by massive overspends on every nuclear plant currently under construction in the world, including at Hinckley Point C.
As a result commercial firms are pulling out and the main investors left are state-backed, and even the French (EDF) and Chinese will only invest if they are given guarantees on price/megawatt 'strike prices' that are eye-wateringly out of line with the far lower cost guarantees given for Off Shore Wind schemes (and On Shore would be even cheaper)._

In the Coalition Agreement we successfully imposed a 'no subsidy for capital costs of construction' rule on the Tories.
This is still government policy despite huge counter pressure from the nuclear lobby and its friends in the senior ranks of both Labour and Tories._
The alternative guaranteed price/megawatt deal struck by the Tories for Hinckley Point C looked far too high compared to the then cost of renewables, and took no account of predictable further cost reductions of renewables.
That price discrepancy will cost consumers an extra £50bn as a result*. Any justification that it is worth it to cover the cost of decommissioning or to guarantee Base Load is mistaken.
There still no solution to the waste problem, and in any case as excess profits don't have to be retained for dealing with decommissioning they can be distributed to share-holders like the French Government without restraint.
When decommissioning time comes the company can go bankrupt, and the cost dumps back onto the public. The model is so broken it is unlikely to be reused.

Meanwhile Rolls Royce who make small nuclear reactors for submarines are leading a consortium advocating a network of small reactors based on their experience. Retention of skills and jobs is very attractive to Labour (and Red Wall Tories)._ Allegedly it will come at a far lower cost because it is a well-tried technology and a repetitive design is inherently cheaper, and has lots of export potential._ It is worth noting that none of the decommissioned nuclear submarines have yet had their engines taken out._ There is still no solution to the waste issue._ Nor has the appetite of the public to having one built on their local brown field site been tested.

Once again the supporting arguments are (a) 'base load' capacity and (b) carbon neutrality._

Base Load capacity sounds quite plausible: there has already been a day this year when the sun didn't shine and the wind didn't blow, and capacity was stretched.
As the percentage of renewables rises, isn't the risk of energy starvation increased?__
Yes, but there is more than one way to overcome the problem.

Here are 3 obvious non-nuclear ones:


1. Demand reduction._ We are already using electricity more efficiently each year and demand has persistently fallen lower than the projections of the energy industry.
However there are big extra loads coming - electric cars and ASHPs for instance (Air Source Heat Pumps).
Nevertheless it has been true for decades that the most cost effective way to reduce carbon burn is to reduce energy use: for the cost of a Hinckley C you could retro-fit enough homes to save all the energy it will produce (and not just for its 60 operational years but for the rest of the lifetime of the home)._
We should be investing in energy reduction not energy production.


2. Demand repositioning.
Electricity consumption is very cyclical with daily peaks and troughs and annual swings.
The assumptions about maximum peak load drive the capacity built, much of which is not needed most of the time.
There are already tariff incentives to drive repositioning, and it will be crucial for the age of electric vehicles._ ((Imagine if fuel duty on petrol was fully rebated if you refuelled between 9pm and 6am how quickly the new normal would happen!)).
Smart meters and the IOT (Internet Of Things) mean that many more devices than now can be tuned to top-up or run in the troughs._ The timescale to achieve this is very comparable with the timescale needed to bring a nuclear plant on line (a decade or so)._ It will be almost painless to do (bearing in mind normal appliance lifecycles) and you could reliably reduce peak consumption by at least as much as the nuclear plant was intended to provide at that moment, for a lower cost.
3. Energy storage and release.
Even when peaks and troughs have been smoothed there will be times when not all capacity will be used._ That's when storage capacity becomes a saleable commodity. _Pumped hydro storage schemes have been around for 70 years, but the scope for more is quite limited. Fortunately we are in the process of putting several million batteries into cars, and the technology already exists to exploit the fact that even in rush hours less than half are on the road**._
This multi-point storage system can, with the right incentives, absorb and release energy at trough and peak times.
That's without coupling ASHPs and batteries to domestic solar generation (coming very soon).
There is also a developing 'green hydrogen' industry: using electricity (from renewables at times of low demand) for electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen.
The gas can be used to fuel vehicles and industrial plant, and to power turbines to generate electricity when needed at peak times, exactly as current gas-fired power stations do.

The energy industry's argument for the need to invest in base load capacity is (deliberately) far too narrowly based.
For a lower cost we can invest in a package of better solutions with greater all round social and economic benefits, and completely by-pass nuclear.

Carbon Neutrality of nuclear is certainly better than that for an equivalent coal-fired plant.
But the carbon pay-back period of a 10MW off-shore wind turbine is at least as good as that for an equivalent 10MW slice of Hinckley Point C.
And that's without accounting for the CO2 used to dig a nuclear waste repository 1km deep, and build a secure compound above it with a lifespan of 90,000 years.


Andrew Stunell

Ref * National Audit Office estimate at 2019 prices of 'strike prices' of renewables and nuclear
Ref ** RAC Foundation: 35m cars in UK, 16.7m people drive themselves to work - the average car is parked at home for 80% of time.


Family Time photo from GLD Photography Competition 2020 (Joanne Barton)

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