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Crunch time for nuclear

By any rational analysis, nuclear fission should be one of the major energy sources of the 21st Century. Its advantages are considerable: uranium is plentiful and only small quantities are needed to generate large amounts of energy, electricity is generated with essentially zero carbon dioxide emissions, and there is more than half a century of proven safe and reliable use.

To set against that, of course, there are some negatives. In particular, there have been a handful of high-profile accidents, particularly at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Of which, more later, but suffice it to say that there have been few fatalities and predictions of disaster have been very wide of the mark. The other problem unique to nuclear is the need to store highly radioactive waste for long periods in a safe way. But perhaps its biggest downside is its association with highly destructive atomic and thermonuclear weapons.

Nuclear fission is a perfect example of an intrinsically neutral technology, which can be used for both good and ill. Nuclear reactors for civilian power supply post-dated the Manhattan Project and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so it perhaps little wonder that a mushroom cloud comes to mind as readily as clean, reliable electricity.

Countries such as France, Sweden, Germany, the USA and UK all have a significant proportion of their total generating capacity in the form of nuclear reactors. France in particular set an example of how to make a success of this, with about three quarters of total electricity demand coming from nuclear. On the face of it, this fits in perfectly with today’s agenda of low-carbon energy; France’s per capita emissions of CO2 stand at 5.2 tonnes, compared to 7.1 in the UK and 8.9 in Germany (World Bank figures for 2011-15).

However, EU policies include not just an emissions goal but also a target for the contribution of renewable energy. The current definition of renewables specifically excludes nuclear, hence the world’s largest and most successful fleet of nuclear power stations will be run down over the next decade to reduce its overall contribution to 50% of demand.

This lost capacity will be replaced by renewables: wind and solar. As should have become very clear in recent years, these cannot be relied upon to meet demand; in the vocabulary of the energy industry, they are not despatchable sources of energy. One of the key characteristics of nuclear, on the other hand, is that it is very good at providing a constant base load but not at ramping output up and down quickly.

Inevitably, then, installation of more wind turbines and photovoltaic panels will need more gas-fired power stations as backup. These are efficient when run at full capacity and their output can also be changed rapidly to balance the grid, but their use as backup will see then run relatively inefficiently. In any case, the replacement of nuclear by wind and solar will result in a net increase in CO2 emissions, as well as being more expensive. Rationality is being sacrificed on the altar of dogma.

In earlier decades, the French and British approaches to nuclear power were radically different. In France, a single design was arrived at and rolled out after a strategic decision to rely primarily on atomic power after the oil crises of the 1970s. Building tens of reactors to a given blueprint meant that the overall cost was minimised and maintenance could be standardised. The French government also decided that fuel reprocessing was the order of the day, so minimising the problem of radioactive waste.

In the UK, a range of reactor types were built, primarily Magnox and AGC (Advanced Gas Cooled), with only the most recent (Sizewell B, coming on line in 1995) using the now-standard pressurised water reactor. While technically advanced, each reactor was a ‘first of kind’ with corresponding high construction costs and unique maintenance issues.

Given the falling out of love with nuclear in the UK – the public inquiry before it was approved took evidence over three years and needed a full five years to publish its positive recommendation – the core of expert knowledge inevitably evaporated, compounded by the Labour government of the day selling Westinghouse (then owned by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) to Toshiba.

However, despite its apparent world-leading position, the French nuclear industry is also a shadow of its former self, because it was run down considerably after completion of the vast programme of domestic construction. Areva, the state-owned nuclear power company, had a reasonable order book, but the Fukushima disaster of 2011 led to a loss of confidence in nuclear generally, most notably illustrated by Germany’s knee-jerk decision to phase out its own significant fleet of reactors.

In any case, although Areva is one of the few companies in a position to build new power plants, its EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) design has been dogged by problems, with completion of new reactors in both Finland and France delayed by many years and with costs escalating. With problems like this, this is not an easy time for the sector.

Briefly coming back to the issue of accidents, and looking at the most recent – Fukushima – the problem in this case was not of reactor failure, but poor civil engineering design which allowed backup diesel generators for the cooling system to be swamped by the tsunami, leading to the meltdown of three reactors.

Despite this, and the release of radioactive material, there were no fatalities, in contrast to the nearly 16,000 deaths caused by the tsunami itself. In contrast, the earlier Chernobyl and Three Mile Island incidents were caused by poor design of safety systems for these reactor types. The real risks from nuclear are being overstated, fuelling public concerns.

Against this background, nuclear in Europe is at a crossroads. There are about 60 new reactors being built worldwide, mainly in China, India and elsewhere in Asia, but the EU fleet is shrinking. The Hinkley C project in the UK remains in the balance. The troubled French-owned EDF is leading the project, and additional finance is coming from China, but there is no certainty that the EPR design will be built on time and to budget. In addition, the relatively high strike price of £92.50 per MWh has been widely criticised, despite it being good value compared to wind energy.

Nuclear energy has many benefits, but needs some political will and encouragement to develop further. In the longer run, alternatives to the EPR from Hitachi and others may prove more viable and new generations of design may lead us ultimately to the use of thorium as the primary fuel. An objective analysis would come down in favour of nuclear rather than putting faith in renewable energy plus the elusive goal of energy storage on a vast scale.