Archive for November, 2016

Switzerland reject rapid nuclear phase out

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on November 29th, 2016

On Sunday the people of Switzerland were offered a choice in a referendum as to whether to accelerate the shut-down of their nuclear power stations. With a result of 55% to 45%, the public showed a clear support for maintaining their nuclear fleet.

Following the Fukushima incident, the Swiss government committed to a nuclear phase out leading to a 100% renewable economy, but the timescales were vague. The proposal to accelerate nuclear closures, put forward by the Green Party, would have resulted in three of their five plants being shut next year, the fourth in 2024 and the last in 2029. However with nuclear providing almost 40% of Switzerland’s power, the risks of compromised energy security, consequential pressures to bills and the economy, and the potential increasing reliance on fossil fuels to meet shortages were more important to voters than the Green’s concerns over ageing plants.  

The results of the referendum mean the current Swiss nuclear plants should continue to operate for approximately 60 years, with the first plant closing as previously planned during the 2030s. Other country’s reactions to Fukushima have been more extreme, with Germany closing all reactors and pushing their energiewende program. Although this has increased renewables, it has also increased coal and thus compromised Germany’s decarbonisation leadership. 

Switzerland also gets a large proportion of its power from renewables with approximately 60% coming from hydroelectric power. Combined with low-carbon nuclear power this means it has a very clean power sector. Swiss nuclear is not just used for power, but also for heat, an example that other reactors should follow. The BBC reported that, “Environmentalists have said no nuclear reactors should be allowed to operate for longer than 45 years”. However it is incorrect to argue all environmentalists, in Switzerland or elsewhere, are anti nuclear power. Hydropower has some severe consequences to biodiversity and also can have significant methane emissions and other renewables also have their impacts. Nuclear may not be renewable but pragmatic environmentalists would argue it is low-carbon, reliable power with no impact on air quality and little impact on biodiversity. Keeping existing plants is a good first step for nuclear and it is encouraging to see that in some areas the technology has public support. But a continued commitment to phase out nuclear could risk the environmental and economic benefits that nuclear provides Switzerland. Reuters have reported that the entire phase out plan is now being questioned, with the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest in parliament, aiming to challenge it with a separate referendum on the grounds it is too expensive. Hopefully this referendum could represent a turning point for nuclear power in Switzerland and around the world, a very timely one considering the accelerating imperative of decarbonisation. 

Nuclear fear and the recent Japanese Earthquake

Posted by John Lindberg on November 25th, 2016

The last few weeks have been marked by earthquakes, especially if you live around the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. New Zealand and Japan, both countries well accustomed to these violent forces, have been hit by magnitude 7.8 and 7.4 shocks respectively. Whilst the media drew our attention to a couple of cows being stranded in New Zealand, the reaction in the Japanese case was markedly different. If one followed the live broadcasts, or tapped into social media, the spectre of nuclear catastrophe was making an appearance again.

Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, very few would ever take notice of the countless earthquakes that shake Japan, at least from a nuclear perspective. Yes, some would always argue that placing nuclear power plants in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions might not be such a good idea. However, in terms of engineering the Japanese nuclear power stations are shining examples of how to overcome obstacles. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was the most powerful earthquake to have struck Japan, but thanks to the engineering of the nuclear power stations, not a single one was damaged by the earthquake itself, and they were all shut down in a safe manner. Placing emergency cooling systems in basements – as was the case at Fukushima – was not a very good idea. It was this oversight in regards to a secondary system that made the Fukushima nuclear power plant vulnerable to tsunamis, and problems like this should no longer occur with stricter regulation.

The earthquake earlier this week only reaffirmed the strength of Japanese engineering, with no reports of damage at any of the nuclear power plants. The reactions, and direct attempts of trying to revitalise the memories of Fukushima, are, however, symptomatic of a wider fear of nuclear. It seems the very coupling of earthquake and Japan reawakens the imagery of Fukushima. Recycling images from the 2011 accident, especially the hydrogen explosions, was common.

The Japanese overreaction after Fukushima has seen the country’s greenhouse gas emissions increase extensively as it shut down all its nuclear power stations and replaced it with coal and gas. A few nuclear power stations has started to come back online, but the costs – both to the environment and in financial terms – has been considerable. At Weinberg Next Nuclear, we hope to see more of the Japanese nuclear power stations to come back online during 2017

However, the global fallout from this has been significant. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power stations out of fear that similar accidents could happen in there. The replacement was not just the renewables that propelled Germany into international fame and awe, but also lignite, the most polluting of coals. Germany is not alone in this anti-nuclear trend. In 2012 a replacement nuclear power plant in Lithuania was rejected in a referendum, and this weekend the Swiss people will decide the future of nuclear in Switzerland in a referendum. The fear of nuclear severely undermines efforts on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and reducing the detrimental impacts of coal (waste etc). The fear of nuclear and radiation are issues of very high importance, and necessitate changes in how nuclear power is being marketed. This is one of the key challenges moving forward for proponents of nuclear.

Weinberg Next Nuclear welcomes UK nuclear funding

Posted by John Lindberg on November 10th, 2016

On November 3rd the UK Government announced further funding plans for advanced nuclear research in the UK – part of the £250m over 5 years promised by previous Chancellor George Osborne. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy promised £20 million for an initial phase of a new nuclear research and innovation programme. The priority areas of research were recommended by the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) and cover advanced fuels, materials and manufacturing (including modularisation), advanced recycling for waste and a strategic toolkit compromising models and data that can provide evidence for nuclear policy making.

We agree with Dame Sue Ion, Chair of NIRAB, who said “The research will […] plug gaps in UK current activity [and] begin to equip our universities, national labs and industry with world leading skills and capability and act as a stimulus for national and international collaborative working”.

The increase in materials research is very welcomed as it will play an essential part in ensuring a nuclear renaissance. This is especially the case because future nuclear energy should and probably will move away from conventional (thermal) reactors towards different fast-spectrum reactors. In order to facilitate this, materials research will be important, because these reactors will operate in very different, high-neutron, environments.

The UK is well placed for nuclear materials research. Last year the UK Atomic Energy Authority opened the Materials Research Facility as a part of the wider National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF). This new facility is an important step in gearing up research into advanced materials essential for advanced nuclear technologies. NNUF is part of the UK Government’s Nuclear Industrial Strategy which seeks to provide greater accessibility to world leading nuclear technologies held by four nuclear centres around the UK. Increased materials funding also provides a good opportunity for the nuclear fission and fusion communities to further collaborate, something that we would regard as highly desirable.

Identifying and then implemented sustainable waste management practices is also essential. Waste is one of the main concerns of the general public. The risks of nuclear waste are often exaggerated, but it does need to be managed responsibly. £2 million of the funding announced is designated towards waste management. However, it seems that the UK Government is falling short of the innovative spirit it is seeking to reinvigorate. The funding released is conditioned, aiming to refine current reprocessing techniques (aqueous), rather than broadening its scope to include pyroprocessing and other, non-conventional approaches. (Early next year Weinberg Next Nuclear will publish a research report on nuclear waste management, outlining the need for a break with the status quo.)

The government is proposing research into different aspects of nuclear fuel. This is integral to the potential success of advanced nuclear energy. We very much welcome research into using plutonium as a fuel, since the UK has the largest stockpile of civil plutonium in the world. A broad approach is necessary, however due to waste management issues, we remain unconvinced about the suitability of coated particle fuels. It is also noteworthy that there is no reference to molten salts or metallic fuels, both widely used in cutting-edge nuclear reactors. This is regrettable and we hope that the UK Government in a near future will dedicate funding for further nuclear fuel research.

Whilst being a an important step in the right direction, this should only be first of many steps in the long journey that would see the UK re-emerging as a leading nuclear innovator. What we need is an ambitious research programme into a wide range of different technologies, especially those that has been deemed viable by the Generation IV Forum.

For further information about the funding, see here.

Energy Policies Betray Future Generations

Posted by John Lindberg on November 2nd, 2016

Weinberg Next Nuclear’s technology officer John Lindberg has published an article in Swedish publication NyTeknik. The following is a translation of the original article.


Why do we accept that modern nuclear power is equated with the ancient technology of Chernobyl? To opt out of modern reactors because of prejudice means that future generations will live with the radioactive waste. Only nuclear power can quickly phase-out fossil fuels, writes John Lindberg of Weinberg Next Nuclear.

Imagine that you buy a tub of ice cream, take a scoop and then throw the rest. Obviously a wasteful behaviour. Believe it or not, but this is happening right now in Sweden, and it is time for a change.

Today, we use about 2 percent of the energy used to extract the nuclear fuel, despite the fact that modern technology can take advantage of the vast majority. This failure is unethical in a world where 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity, and a betrayal of future generations when the spent nuclear fuel will remain for hundreds of thousands of years.

One of the answers to this problem is called Integral Fast Reactors, IFR. This type of reactors can use all uranium as fuel, not just the 2 percent that Swedish reactors do today. They can also use so-called transuranic elements, such as plutonium, as fuel. This multiplies the carbon-free energy that nuclear power can generate, but also dramatically reduced the amount of waste from nuclear power.

The reactors could also use waste from conventional reactors, thereby reducing the total amount of spent fuel awaiting disposal. To bury the spent fuel when there is a technical solution is nothing but a betrayal of future generations.

Isn’t the risk too high? No one can deny that the meltdown at Chernobyl was a horrible event, especially for the hundreds of thousands who had to abandon their homes.

The type of reactor used at Chernobyl was commonly known as unstable and dangerous and Fukushima reactors were subjected to a most serious natural disaster never designed for.

You would never compare the first mobile phone with a modern smartphone and claim that they are the same thing. Why do we accept then that modern nuclear power is equated with the ancient technology that we saw in Chernobyl? IFR has been designed so that accidents like those in Harrisburg, Chernobyl and Fukushima should be impossible according to the laws of physics. The concept is extremely safe, both from accidents and the less peaceful nations and groups in search of material for nuclear weapons.

Einstein said, “The world we have created is a product of our thinking, and it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

It is time to change the mind-set. We need an energy revolution. Our goal should be to kill the fossil fuel sector. Unfortunately, the traditional renewable sources of energy cannot lead the revolution. They are inefficient both production-wise and financially. The sun is not always shining and the wind does not blow every day. Only nuclear power can quickly phase out fossil fuels, and the time running out.

To opt out fast reactor technology because of prejudice would also mean that all future generations will have to live with a threat from radioactive waste, which we instead can use to extract carbon-free electricity. To ignore this technology is illogical and short-sighted.

Nuclear innovation must be part of the climate and energy solution

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on November 1st, 2016

Director Stephen Tindale has written a piece for Bright Blue, the independent conservative think tank. Find the original article published here:

Nuclear is a necessary part of the UK’s energy system. It currently provides about a fifth of UK electricity. Reactors are expensive to build, cheap to operate, then expensive to decommission. So it makes sense to run them for as long as regulators say it is safe to do so. Angela Merkel’s decision to close Germany’s reactors early makes no economic sense.

However, the UK has not opened a new nuclear reactor since 1995. (Labour was, for most of its 13 years in power, anti-nuclear.) So most UK nuclear plants are reaching the end of their design life. If we are to meet the legally-binding carbon budgets of the Climate Change Act, new nuclear will be needed, alongside energy efficiency, renewables and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

Amber Rudd promised, while Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, that there will be no coal generation without CCS after 2025 – but only if this is consistent with energy security. By this she presumably meant ‘only if there is enough non-coal generation capacity to keep the lights on’. In the broader energy security sense, ‘where does the fuel come from?’, nuclear clearly is consistent: the uranium comes from friendly countries like Australia and Namibia.

The Coalition Government did well to make progress on new nuclear, which the Conservative Government has continued. Prime Minister May has now given final approval to EDF to construct Hinkley Point C. The reactor EDF will build, the European Pressurised Reactor, is a very complicated design – with additional safety features added to an old design. This complexity increases costs. EDF’s efforts to build such reactors in France and Finland have been beset with difficulties, delays and budget overruns.

Nevertheless, now the decision has been made Hinkley should be supported. So should new build proposals on Angelsey and in Cumbria. These projects will use less complex reactor designs, so will very probably be cheaper to build. But they are again not the most modern reactor designs. So the Government should also promote nuclear innovation.

Last year, the think tank I work for, Weinberg Next Nuclear, called for public investment in nuclear innovation. In his Autumn Statement, George Osborne promised £250 million for nuclear R&D. Earlier this year, the Government launched a competition to develop and demonstrate small modular reactors, which can be made in factories. They are then delivered to sites, where the modules can be combined to provide a power station as large as desired. This will almost certainly cut construction costs.

The Government should go further on nuclear innovation, as Weinberg argued in our April report Next Steps for Nuclear Innovation in the UK. Britain has an enormous legacy from past nuclear activities: spent fuel and the largest plutonium stockpile in the world. Burying it in a very deep – and very expensive – hole has been the favoured option of successive governments. A much better approach would be to use the legacy to provide clean energy. Most of the energy that was contained in the uranium remains unused in spent fuel, so the fuel should be re-used, not thrown away. Plutonium can also be used as fuel. Advanced molten salt and fast reactors could deal with the nuclear legacy as well as providing clean energy. Because safety is built into the design, they will be cheaper to construct than the Hinkley design will be.

Why can’t energy policy, including technological innovation, simply be left to the market? Because there is not a proper carbon price, so the market delivers dirty energy, not clean energy. A carbon price set in the UK alone damages competitiveness. There could in theory be an international carbon price at a respectable level (so unlike the EU Emissions Trading System). But this debate has been going on for 30 years, with little progress. We cannot afford to wait longer. As Christine Lagarde has pointed out, climate change is the greatest economic threat of the twenty-first century.

Chancellor Hammond should therefore continue Osborne’s investment in nuclear innovation. He should reverse one of his predecessor’s mistakes and re-start a UK CCS programme. And he should support innovative renewable energy technologies: tidal lagoons, floating offshore wind farms, bioenergy from seaweed. Innovation, like energy policy generally, must include a diverse portfolio.

The Conservative Party has – as the name suggests – a strong commitment to conservation. It has a proud record on climate change: Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the Royal Society helped shape the global climate agreement reached three years later in Rio. Theresa May and Greg Clark now have the opportunity to build on this record by publishing, then implementing, a clean industrial strategy.

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