This just in: Three white knights on their way to Britain to rescue a troubled, conventional nuclear project have turned around and gone home. The development raises the question – isn’t it time to consider something else?
The answer, of course, is “yes.” With the UK struggling to attract investors to build two new huge nuclear stations, the moment is more suited than ever to bring on alternative nuclear – technologies like thorium fuel and molten salt reactors that can operate safely and efficiently and help assuage post-Fukushima public sentiment against atomic power.
This all came to light overnight as the Financial Times reported that three large companies – all of which were expected to bid to take over Britain’s Horizon nuclear initiative – walked away, failing to submit anything by the Friday deadline.
An anticipated joint proposal by France’s Areva and China’s Guangdong Nuclear Power Group did not materialize, the FT said. Another Chinese company, State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. also dropped out. SNPTC was to have teamed with Westinghouse Electric, the U.S. nuclear company owned by Japan’s Toshiba.
The withdrawals left Horizon with just two bids – one by a GE Hitachi-led team also including Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, and the other by Westinghouse, sans its Chinese partner.
Horizon is not bereft of bidders. It simply failed to attract a certain level of interest, despite the government’s proposed “Contracts for Difference” policy to guarantee long-term returns to utilities.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
Thus, one wonders how competitive the efforts will be to build the two nuclear plants, abandoned earlier this year by Germany’s E.ON and RWE, the two utilities that are selling the project.
The two nuclear stations in Oldbury-on-Severn, England and Wylfa, Wales are an important part of the government’s nuclear ambitions. Together, using several reactors, they would provide about 6 gigawatts of generating capacity to the country by 2025, replacing old reactors in the same areas.
Horizon has “conventional” nuclear written all over it. Nothing suggests that bidders or the government have anything in mind at Oldbury or Wylfa other than uranium fuelled, water-cooled reactors, even if they are the improved, modern “passive cooling” versions.
As evidenced by the low bidding volume, interest is low in carrying on with convention.
Wouldn’t the UK be wise to declare Oldbury, Wylfa, or some place like them, as a testing ground for alternative nuclear? If the big money isn’t rushing in to build the big plants based on the old ways, why not try something refreshing like, liquid thorium fuel in a molten salt cooled reactor? Start small – thorium molten salt reactors can be deployed in “modular” sizes of, say 200 megawatts, that would defer large upfront costs.
The benefits don’t stop there. Thorium MSRs can’t melt down, because they have failsafe freeze plugs that give way and allow fuel to drain safely away into tanks in the unlikely event of a problem. They operate at safe, normal atmospheric pressure, not at the highly pressurized levels of many conventional reactors. They function more efficiently than conventional reactors, in part because they can run safely at much higher temperatures. They leave less waste. To some debatable extent they also mitigate weapons proliferation risks (comments, please!).
As noted in a recent post here (below), a new report by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) downplays thorium. It acknowledges the potential benefits, but points out that utilities simply won’t invest the money to develop technologies that optimize the fuel.
“Since the energy market is driven by private investment and with none of the utility companies investing or currently developing either thorium fuels or thorium fuelled reactor concepts, it is clear that there is little appetite or belief in the safety or performance claim,” DECC concluded.
Well, wake up and smell the spent fuel! Given the lacklustre bidding response at Horizon, you could equally say that investors have little taste for the performance of conventional nuclear.
So why not change? Why continue to bang one’s head against the same old reactor walls that line the fortresses of the status quo?
When I think of alternative versus conventional nuclear, comparisons to the world of new media and information technology automatically spring to mind.
I can’t help but recall how a guy named Jobs once implored the world to, in his words, “think different” and adopt a superior way of computing (replete with an Apple ad campaign picturing iconic individuals who transformed art, science and politics – clues in last paragraph).
It’s time for nuclear to do the same.
That’s enough from me for the moment. I’m going to go put on a MIles Davis record and flip through some old clippings of Martin Luther King’s great speech.
Photo: Geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia