If you’re a supporter of nuclear power, then you’ll probably like the warning issued today by the UK Parliament’s House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.
And if you’re a fan of alternative nuclear technologies like thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and fast reactors, you’ll probably appreciate the nod the committee gave to alternative forms of nuclear. But you might be left wondering when the nod might turn into a more vigorous, positive shaking of the head up and down.
First, a quick review for those of you not following the blow-by-blow travails of nuclear power in Britain: Nuclear currently supplies about 18 percent of the UK’s electricity, and has a capacity of about 10 gigawatts. However, all but one of the country’s nuclear plants are scheduled to close by 2023. The government wants a new fleet of nuclear stations that would have a capacity of about 16 gigawatts by 2025
WHO’S GOING TO PAY?
The problem is, the UK privatized its energy sector a long time ago, so the government no longer outright builds these plants itself. That’s the job of companies like France’s EDF, Japan’s Hitachi, and other candidates – Chinese, Russian or Canadian companies could play a role, as could, theoretically others.
Generally speaking, these companies are balking at the chance to invest the billions of pounds required to build a nuclear plant. The closest to committing at the moment is EDF, which says it’s “shovel ready” with two new reactors totaling over 3.3 gigawatts at the Hinkley Point site in southwest England, where costs are estimated at around £14 billion ($21 billion) – £7 billion ($10.5 billion) for each reactor.
But EDF is waiting for guarantees from the government that it will receive a minimum amount in electricity fees – believed to be around £100 per megawatt hour once it starts operating – a condition that many critics say represents an illegal “subsidy.”
With those challenges in the way, the House committee, chaired by Member of Parliament Tim Yeo, today effectively warned the country to get its act together and build the 16 gigawatts of nuclear by 2025.
Otherwise, it warned of falling well short of its national commitment to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
“Without these power stations, it will be extremely difficult to meet our low-carbon obligations, and potentially more expensive too,” the committee stated in its report, Building New Nuclear: the challenges ahead. “A failure to deliver nuclear new build would pose less of a threat to energy security, but there could be some indirect security risks as a result, such as increased reliance on imported gas.”
WAITING FOR THE NUCLEAR FAIRY
The committee accused Prime Minister David Cameron’s government of merely “crossing its fingers” and hoping that private industry comes up with the nuclear goods.
“Crossing one’s fingers is not an adequate or responsible approach when the UK’s legally binding climate change commitments and energy security are at stake,” the report stated. “For a department whose principal priorities are to ensure energy security and carbon reductions, DECC appears to be overly reliant on aspiration and hope. While we share the Minister’s hope that new build will be delivered as planned, we nevertheless recommend that DECC begins exploring contingency options as a matter of urgency.”
Those “contingencies”, or the “Plan B” as the media was calling it today, would include energy efficiency and other energy sources.
We shouldn’t really have to talk about “contingencies.” And some of those Plan B measures – energy efficiency and a reasonable mix of renewables – should certainly be part of an energy future – and one that includes a solid dose of nuclear.
But the committee warned that Britain’s nuclear future sits on its own version of a fiscal cliff, because “if this tranche of new nuclear projects is not successful, it could undermine investor confidence in the sector, making it difficult (or impossible) to finance any subsequent attempts at nuclear build.”
THE NEW ‘NEW’
That could, in turn, spell disaster, for any significant research and development of the type of nuclear technologies that ought to really carry the country’s nuclear future – alternatives like thorium, molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors and fast reactors. Between them, they offer a bevy of advantages over the behemoth conventional water cooled, solid uranium fueled reactors that will cost an estimated $10.5 billion each at Hinkley Point.
I’ve enumerated these benefits many times here on the Weinberg blog, so I’ll simply summarize them now. Each offers some degree of: safer, meltdown proof, more efficient, of producing less waste, of using existing waste as fuel, and of being less expensive. Most of them fit readily into smaller “modular” forms that cut manufacturing costs and make it more affordable for utilities to add power incrementally.
Today’s Commons report acknowledges that thorium molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors could start making energy contributions after 2030. It acknowledges that fast reactors such as General Electric Hitachi’s PRISM could burn existing nuclear waste. But it pretty much discounts all three from the current discussion for the reasons that they are not getting funding, are not yet ready or not yet commercialized.
It is good to see these alternatives entering the mainstream nuclear discussion in Parliament. It is discouraging to see them pushed to the margins for what feels like convenient, self-defeating reasons. The current challenge of funding nuclear in Britain is an opportunity to shout loudly about these alternatives, to help rebrand nuclear and win over public support.
As I reported last month, a separate government report, due out this month by top scientists including the chief government scientific adviser Sir John Beddington, is expected to encourage the alternatives.
It is phrases like “thorium” and “molten salt” – not “$10.5 billion giant reactor” – that should start to define “new nuclear.”
Image from timyeo.org.uk via sodburypeople.co.uk