Posted by Mark Halper

Bidding to build replacement nuclear reactors at Wylfa, Wales (above) and Oldbury-on-Severn has been subdued. Thorium, anyone?

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!).

WAKE-UP CALL

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

Comments

  1. John McGrother says:

    The prospects may look bleak for at least one of Horizon’s two remaining bids, the one from GE Hitachi. Jeff Immelt the chief executive of GE in the FT last week said that it is just hard to justify nuclear, really hard. He was referring to current economics driving a second dash-for-gas, and it is fair to observe that GE do have major interests in turbines, both gas and wind. But when major suppliers in the conventional solid-fuelled reactor business take such a negative view of one of their own sectors, then it seems that the UK government is in denial, and head-in-the-sand is not an easy position to defend.

    GE’s own publicity is currently seeking to exploit the operational flexibility of gas, compensating for the intermittency of renewables. This approach paints both coal and solid-fuelled nuclear into the inflexible base-load corner. But liquid-fuelled reactors are, with fossil-fuelled gas, in the flexible corner, being automatically load-following, as the molten-salt expands and contracts. This flexibility would complement renewables, not only operationally but also in contributing to meeting our carbon reduction targets.

    Both economically and environmentally, it seems that the pendulum is swinging towards molten-salt reactors.

  2. Toby Thatcher says:

    A dash for gas will be a disaster for both the planet and the economy. Aside from the CO2 issues, fossil fuels have trebled in price over the last decade, in turn driving up electricity prices and pushing the economy to the brink of collapse. There is no guarantee that gas prices will not rocket further still.
    It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the private sector lacks the ability (or will) to pioneer the step to MSR’s in time to prevent the technology becoming chinese intellectual property. What is needed is a state run project to develop and deploy the technology rapidly to safeguard Britain’s future access. Follow this with a large scale plant at Sellafield (>10GW scale), use it to dispose of the Pu stockpile and sell the energy produced onto the grid in quantities that are capable of stabilising electricity prices and thus providing a stabler economic environment for the private sector. This in turn would generate vast revenues which can in turn be used to pay down the national deficit thus also returning the public sector economy to health. In the end Britain can go this way and future electricity bills pay her own treasury, or continue to dilly dally and end the bills will eventually pay China in licence fees.

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