Posts Tagged DECC

The impact of Brexit on clean energy

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 27th, 2016

What will be the impact of Brexit on clean energy in the UK? Answer: nobody knows, because nothing is remotely clear in British politics now. Who will be prime minister? Will there be an early general election? What will be the relationship between the UK and the remaining EU member-states? Will there even be a UK?

However, some broad predictions can be made – and they are not optimistic.

In the short term, there will probably not be significant change in the policy framework. But there will be further slowdown in investment in energy infrastructure: potential investors do not like instability. Investment in renewables will be reduced because the UK will no longer be obliged to meet the 2020 legally-binding renewables target. Investment in new nuclear will also be reduced: progress on Hinkley looks even less likely this week than it did last. Investment in new  interconnectors will probably suffer less. Other countries’ governments may be very cross with Britain, but that will not stop them wanting to sell us more electricity.

In the medium- to long-term, some laws governing the energy sector will probably be revoked or weakened. The free market right of the Conservative party has been strengthened, and attacks on ‘Brussels red tape’ were frequent in the successful Leave campaign. There were criticisms of the EU’s 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive, which limits air pollution emissions from power stations and protects public health ( However, air pollution is quite high on the UK political and media agendas. So the Industrial Emissions Directive will probably remain in force post-Brexit.

Weaker climate policies

Climate policies look more vulnerable, because there is a significant overlap between Euroscepticism and climate scepticism. The UK’s Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent (from1990 levels) by 2050, was passed with all party support in 2008 – only five MPs voted against. There are more climate sceptic Conservative MPs now than there were in 2008, and likely to be even more following a general election called by the new prime minister. But the new government is not likely to repeal the Act. Instead, it will probably weaken it by adopting less ambitious ‘carbon budgets’. The Act requires governments to set such budgets for four year periods, on advice from a Committee on Climate Change. The Cameron government has yet to accept the Committee’s latest recommendation.

The 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government implemented an Emissions Performance Standard banning the construction of new coal power stations unless they have carbon capture and storage. The opposition Labour party tried to get this applied to existing coal as well (as Obama is doing with his Clean Power Plan). There is now little likelihood of this happening. And the promise made by energy and climate secretary Amber Rudd (a leading Remain campaigner) to close unabated coal by 2025 looks unlikely to be met. Rudd said in her speech announcing this target that it would only be implemented if consistent with energy security. The slow down in energy infrastructure considered above makes the target much more challenging.

The coalition also introduced a ‘carbon floor price’: emissions allowances under the EU Emissions Trading System are not sold in the UK if the auction bid is lower than £18 per tonne of carbon dioxide. This raises around £2 billion a year, ( ), so a Chancellor of the Exchequer will not want to abolish it. But making UK operators pay around three times the cost of allowances elsewhere in Europe does not help UK competitiveness, so the next Chancellor will come under considerable pressure to scrap it.

Advanced nuclear power

Post-Brexit, there will be less Europe-wide collaboration on energy R&D. This will hamper research. In the words of Universities for Europe:

“Working together, UK and European researchers can pool their resources, expertise, data and infrastructure to achieve more together than they could do alone. Many of today’s challenges are global, not national. In the EU, researchers can collaborate more easily to come up with solutions on an international scale, making the most of Europe’s diversity to achieve bigger and better results. EU frameworks, programmes and funding support collaboration are reducing the barriers to working across borders.” (

This additional barrier does not make energy R&D impossible. The UK must continue to invest in energy innovation. Chancellor George Osborne promised in his 2015 Autumn Statement £250 million over five years for nuclear innovation. In his March 2016 Budget he allocated £30 million to a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) competition. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently talking to potential SMR developers.  This is in line with our recommendations (see  However, the referendum result means that the UK government has less money than expected. And a competition does not guarantee that money will be provided. The UK ran a competition on Carbon Capture and Storage but then cancelled it without giving any awards. The top priority for Weinberg Next Nuclear in the coming months will be to try to ensure that the SMR competition continues and leads to financial support to developers.

Advanced nuclear initiatives in the UK

Posted by Stephen Tindale on December 18th, 2015

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently looking at the potential of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the UK, and the opportunities for the country to be a leader in this field. An SMR uses a series of small reactor cores, or modules, where the total reactor power output is the sum of the outputs from all of the small reactor modules. Because these reactors are modular, they can be prefabricated and easily transported, reducing many of the costs involved in construction. This means SMRs provide scale but cost less to build and can be built more quickly and easily. They are therefore a popular development in nuclear energy because of the combination of tried and tested design aspects in innovative configurations.


The techno-economic assessment, commissioned earlier this year by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, is considering a number of SMR designs, from both the UK and around the world. It is examining the benefits of these designs and how they could contribute to the UKs energy market, as well as the new industries that the development of these new reactors would support.


This comes alongside the announcement, in the Comprehensive Spending Review, of £250 million over five years dedicated to nuclear research and development, something that Weinberg Next Nuclear has been advocating. We are extremely pleased with this outcome, as these two government initiatives signal a promising commitment to advanced nuclear technologies in the UK. Although the announcement itself highlighted SMRs as a key technology development, there is clear potential for some of the £250 million to be spent on other advanced reactor designs.


This review of SMRs follows a previous feasibility study by the National Nuclear Laboratory, sponsored by the government, which indicated a clear market potential for these reactors and deployment within a ten-year timeframe. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that many of these designs could be safer because of their innovative use of passive safety systems and rolling maintenance programmes, made viable because of the modular design. SMRs will also be a lot more flexible, allowing them to be utilised in a number of ways other than just grid electricity, including heating and hydrogen production.


The designs being assessed are extremely varied, from smaller versions of classic light water reactors to modular forms of generation IV reactors, including molten salt designs. This means that the study is able to highlight advanced reactor designs that have potential in a full-size configuration as well as in modular form. The call for evidence from designers closed at the end of November; independent assessors are expected to produce a full review by spring 2016.


Weinberg Next Nuclear’s top priority for 2016 will be to ensure that the £250 million over five years is used to greatest effect. This study of SMR technology gives us a good entry point to the decision-making process. The government has not yet clarified how the nuclear innovation money will be spent; much will go on SMRs, but not all. Therefore, it will be our role to convince policy-makers of the potential of advanced nuclear designs, large and small.


Our November report was on why nuclear innovation is needed. We are now working on a report – due to be published in March – on how innovation should be supported in the UK. The review of Small Modular Reactors and the £250 million available funding will be central to our recommendations.



The UK embarks on its alternative nuclear venture, hat in hand

Posted by Mark Halper on March 29th, 2013

Beddington RoadmapAnnounce Halper

Chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington “cannot see a future” for UK energy without nuclear, but says that the new nuclear R&D programme will need more funding.

Watching a panel of top British scientists set the UK on the road to new forms of nuclear power this week looked a bit like a scene from an American film where an impoverished farmer puts his son on a bus with a five-dollar bill to start life anew in the big city.

There were plenty of wise words from the scientists – led by the government’s outgoing chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington – who were making public their year-long study and recommendations on nuclear research and development. There was that intriguing mix of promise and uncertainty.

As a bonus, there was even action, when over in a separate location government ministers announced they had taken some of the scientific advice to heart and were implementing measures to support new nuclear R&D.

But as with the underwhelming fiver handed over by the father, there was an unconvincing amount of money. The centrepiece investment was a £15 million starter kit to encourage industry, academia and government to work together – hardly an amount that will construct, say, a thorium molten salt reactor.

No doubt the vision and early groundwork was there, put forth by the scientists who besides Beddington included – among others – David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC); John Perkins, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS); and Robin Grimes, the chief scientific adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.


Beddington said at the London gathering that he “cannot see a future” for the UK energy sector without nuclear.

“If it’s going to meet its obligations for greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time have some degree of resilience in the system, there has to be a significant component for nuclear,” noted Beddington, before he revealed the recommendations of a study that goes by various names including “Nuclear R&D Roadmap.”

The roadmap helped shape the simultaneous government announcement led by BIS and joined by DECC of a nuclear “industrial strategy.”

The strategy included £15 million for research at three institutions that will bring together government, academia and industrial interests – key in a deregulated energy environment like the UK, where market forces rather than government runs the energy sector.

It also included the expansion of DECC’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) into a full-fledged central government research and advisory institution.

MacKay Roadmap Halper4

DECC’s David MacKay says that in the highest nuclear scenario, nuclear could contribute as much as 86 percent of Britain’s electricity, possibly through a variety of reactor types.

NNL is a government owned, commercially operated group that has primarily conducted contract research programs. Its chief science and technology officer Graham Fairhall was part of the 6-person panel that presented the roadmap. NNL’s managing director Paul Howarth was another of the roadmap’s authors, as was Andrew Sherry, the director of the Rolls-Royce-backed Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. Sherry participated on this week’s panel.

(For a full list of the report authors, click here and go to “Annex B”).

The scientists urged the development of alternative nuclear technologies if the country is to choose the more nuclear-intensive of the government’s proposed scenarios for cutting British CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050.

DECC’s MacKay said that in a high nuclear scenario with 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, nuclear could provide up to 86 percent of the UK’s electricity, providing 525 terawatt hours (tWh) per year out of a total of 610 tWh, a level he noted is “comparable to France.” Nuclear today provides about 18 percent of the UK’s electricity.

“Clearly I think that if we’re going to be thinking about a significant expansion of nuclear capacity as we move toward our goal in 2050 of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we need to keep options open,” Beddington said. “And part of those options is … having the R&D to think about taking it forward.”


That “R&D” includes the development of a number of unconventional nuclear reactor types, elaborated MacKay, who noted that, “there are a variety of ways of delivering 75 gigawatts of nuclear.”  Among the alternatives that he and others mentioned: reactors such as “fast” reactors that can burn nuclear waste in a “closed fuel cycle”, molten salt reactors, thorium-fueled reactors, and fusion.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because I broke the story of the then forthcoming roadmap here on the Weinberg blog nearly two months ago.  I subsequently tipped it in The Guardian and on my CBS SmartPlanet blog.

During the course of their year-long study, the Beddington crew gave ongoing advice to the government. That has already resulted in action, as BIS secretary Vince Cable and his DECC counterpart Ed Davey announced the £15 million for coordinated industry, academic and government nuclear research at NNL, Dalton, and at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford.

The government’s BIS-led “industrial strategy” announcement also noted that BIS has provided £18 million to 35 different nuclear R&D projects, including £6 million to OC Robotics, a Bristol, England company that makes a robot controlled laser cutting tool for decommissioning reactors (important for taking down old sites, but not a direct step toward new, alternative reactor technologies).

To further help coordinate industry, academia and government – a theme that the panel repeatedly emphasized – BIS and DECC announced an alphabet soup of agencies that will work under the government’s recently formed Nuclear Industry Council.

The new Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) carries on the work of Beddington’s ad hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board, which wrote the advisory report. Another new group, the Nuclear Innovation Research Office (NIRO), will reside at NNL to advance NIRAB’s work.

Perkins Roadmap Announce Halper

BIS’ John Perkins hopes for much more industry, academia and government collaboration, including between fission and fusion research.

The government stated in its BIS-led announcement that, “It is keen to explore opportunities to back future reactor designs, including the feasibility of launching a small modular reactor (SMR) R&D programme to ensure that the UK is a key partner of any new reactor design for the global market.”

On a related note, the Beddington advisory panel recommended that the UK join SMR development efforts with the U.S. where the Department of Energy (DOE) has a $450 million SMR development programme.

“There’s a potential synergy by working with the Department of Energy in the USA, which is actually setting up a fairly large programme with significant finance in it,” said Beddington.  “In a sense we can work with them, and that is rather attractive. It generates a potential for piggybacking on work that’s going to be done in working closely with the Department of Energy.”

SMRs provide utilities and other end users with lower cost options for adding incremental power, and provide cleaner and lower cost energy in remote areas, where dirty and expensive diesel generators typically serve.

While SMR designs come in conventional uranium-fueled water-cooled varieties, many of the alternative reactors such as molten salt, pebble beds and fast reactors lend themselves to small form factors. In fact various fusion companies are also trying to develop small fusion reactors.


BIS scientific adviser Perkins described fusion “as a long term opportunity, where the UK has a significant position,” given its research at Culham, which participates in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project in Cadarache, France. Perkins pointed out that, “there are crossovers in R&D between fusion research and fission research,” as both involve developing materials that can withstand intensive neutron bombardment.

At the scientific advisers’ press conference, Beddington said it is too early to choose any one SMR technology.

Other recommendations by the scientific advisers included that Britain:

  • Rejoin the international Generation IV International Forum on nuclear development
  • Participate in EU and other spent fuel recycling research
  • Invest in “closed fuel” cycles and reactors that don’t require constant replenishing of fuel as conventional reactors do
  • Work on nuclear development with other countries including key partners France, the U.S., China, India, Japan and South Korea. (Such as with NNL’s recently announced £12.5 million project at the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France)
  • Invest in nuclear fuel fabrication and infrastructure
  • Develop exportable nuclear expertise

Back to my farmer’s analogy.

That £15 million is a good start. But like junior’s five-spot, it’s barely a token in an industry that the government this week valued at £1 trillion globally.

Serious development of alternative reactors will require serious money. To single out just one example, anyone I’ve ever talked to about building a thorium molten salt reactor sets the ultimate development cost in the billions of dollars. The £15 million pales next to that. So does the £12.5 million that DECC’s NNL two weeks ago said it was investing in the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, which to be facetious, could buy some pumps and valves and several cases of Chateau Pétrus, but won’t come anywhere near getting the job done.

Grimes Roadmap Panel Halper2

Foreign Office’s Robin Grimes expects an additional £10 million next year for irradiation studies.

Nonetheless, these are undoubtedly significant developments.

Beddington called this week’s announcement “an important and exciting first step,” that “will reverse the years of decline in taking nuclear R&D seriously.”

And additional government funding appears set for next year, when Grimes anticipates another £10 million for irradiation studies.

At some point, though, those numbers will have to grow by an order of magnitude.

“We probably do need to up the investment in nuclear R&D,” Beddington said. “Unless we get that, I have concerns that there are issues around the nuclear program. But we’ve set out a fairly comprehensive R&D roadmap which I think will have an implication of additional money.”


Given that the UK handed over real control of its energy sector to the market 20-some years ago in Prime Minister Thatcher’s privatization movement, the hope might have to be that the newly strengthened industry-academia-government collaboration instigates more financial interest from industry.

To make up an example: How about if BP invests in SMR development? It’s not so far fetched. Oil giant Shell has shown recent interest in a molten salt reactor.

In what looks like another step to help catalyze industry involvement, BIS – the government’s business department – rather than DECC, ran this week’s nuclear industrial strategy announcement. Prime Minister David Cameron echoed that same business emphasis later in the week when he gave BIS’ business minister Michael Fallon the second job of energy minister within DECC (under secretary Davey), replacing former energy minister John Hayes, who is now an adviser to Cameron.

Fallon should encourage private investment across different energy sectors, including nuclear.

Until industry ponies up large sums for nuclear R&D, the government will continue to suffer from China envy, watching Beijing pour money into nuclear R&D, which it can do because it – not the market – controls the energy sector.

Once the real funding arrives in the UK, the ride could lead somewhere. Maybe even on an electric bus powered by nuclear.

Photos by Mark Halper

The government published a number of in-depth documents this week relating to the UK’s nuclear future: 



UK joins test reactor project in France with £12.5m commitment

Posted by Mark Halper on March 13th, 2013

Davey EmieFrenchAmbassador

Splitsville. UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey (r) and French Ambassador Bernard Emié at the London       signing of Britain’s £12.5 million commitment to the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, where the two countries and others will test new techniques and materials for splitting atoms.

The research and development of alternative nuclear technologies received a boost yesterday when the UK committed £12. 5 million ($18.6 million) to join a group of nine other governments and three utilities in a French test reactor.

The Jules Horowitz Reactor (JHR), under construction in Cadarache, France (the same southern city where the ITER fusion tokamak is rising) is scheduled for completion by 2016, at a cost of €750 million ($972 million). The JHR website says that the reactor will support the development of  “different power reactor systems” including those based on “existing and future technologies.”

“It will have the potential to look at thorium fuels, fast reactors, novel fuel designs for SMRs (small modular reactors), etc.,” explained Adrian Bull, director of external relations at the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in an email exchange.

NNL is the Sellafield, England-based privately run research lab owned by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is leading the UK’s involvement at JHR, where it joins government research groups from France, the Czech Republic, Japan, Spain, Belgium, India, Finland and Israel who were already active there.

The project also includes the European Commission, as well nuclear company Areva, French utility EDF, and Swedish utility Vattenfall.


“It’s vital that we cooperate on issues like safety and R&D,” said John Hayes, Minister of State for Energy at DECC, in a press release. “We are putting our money where our mouth is by confirming our contribution of £12.5m to the Jules Horowitz research reactor in France and guaranteeing the UK access rights to the project.”

NNL managing director Paul Howarth said the commitment to the JHR “is an important step towards returning the UK to the international ‘top table’ in the arena of civil nuclear R&D.”

The JHR will also supply hospitals with medical isotopes.

It is part of a fleet of six European Union “material test reactors” including the Halden Reactor in Norway, which will soon begin irradiating thorium fuel here, and which supplies heat to a nearby paper mill

JHR will replace the older Osiris Reactor, also in France. At 100 megawatts, it will be the largest of the European test reactors.  France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), a major backer at JHR, has also been involved in the others.


Also yesterday, the UK and 11 other EU nations in London announced a “Joint Ministerial Communique on Nuclear Energy in Europe” affirming collaboration on making nuclear “a part in the EU’s future low carbon energy mix.”

“It’s vital for our economy that we work with our European partners to make the EU a leading destination for investment in new low-carbon energy infrastructure,” said Ed Davey, the UK’s energy secretary (Hendry’s boss). “This communiqué signals a move to a stronger, better and closer working relationship between Member States on nuclear energy. By working together to enable low carbon energy projects to come forward we will go some way to reducing the EU’s carbon emissions and ensuring greater energy security.”

The 12 countries will hold their next ministerial meeting in the Czech Republic, a country where nuclear research includes a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor.

The 12 are the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Holland, Finland, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania.

Photo from UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, via Flickr

In Britain, the true meaning of ‘new’ nuclear

Posted by Mark Halper on March 4th, 2013

Nuclear warning. Member of Parliament Tim Yeo says that Britain needs to do more than just “cross its fingers” if it is to get the nuclear power it needs to meet climate goals.

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


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.”


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.”


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 via

Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has an idea that thorium and other alternative     nuclear technologies could be key to a low carbon future.

A key report by the UK government on the future of nuclear power will recommend a big increase in nuclear generating capacity by 2050, and will encourage the development of reactors that can burn waste and and breed fuel instead of leaving waste, the Weinberg Foundation has learned.

The “Nuclear Research and Development” report for 2050 and beyond, led by chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington in response to a query by the House of Lords, will come on the heels of scathing criticism today that the country’s nuclear waste maintenance operations operates over budget and has spent £67.5 billion ($106.4 billion).

The roadmap will lay out four possible low carbon energy scenarios for the country.

In three of the four, it will call for 75 gigawatts of nuclear output capability, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change told Weinberg in an email. (He did not describe the fourth scenario. See clarifications below).

That’s about 90 percent of the country’s current power capacity, of which nuclear currently comprises about 18 percent while fossil fuels dominate. In 2050, the total capacity will be higher, but 75 gigawatts should represent a significantly greater proportion than today’s 18 percent.


To get there, the country should consider adding technologies other than conventional nuclear reactors that leave waste by burning uranium in large water-cooled reactors – the same fundamental approach that the global nuclear industry has used for 50-some years, the report will recommend.

Instead, reactors that “close” the fuel cycle – breed new fuel – will be key, the report will suggest, as will new fuel cycles based on thorium instead of uranium, which can also run in a “closed” cycle in a molten salt reactor. The report will also call for advances in conventional reactors, or “LWRs” (light water reactors).

The DECC spokesman shared the upcoming recommendations with Weinberg following our story late last week in which we noted that DECC’s chief scientific adviser David MacKay is taking an interest in thorium and in other alternative nuclear technologies, and that he and Beddington would soon publish a report that could encourage those technologies. John Perkins, the scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, is also co-authoring the report.

We asked DECC to elaborate. After we published Friday’s blog, the spokesman alerted us to the 75 gigawatt target.  He said the report’s findings to date note that:

“In order to potentially deliver against the upper end of this scope it is likely that more advanced and diverse options will need to be explored by the market. Such options may include: development of newer fission technologies such as evolutionary LWR’s, small modular reactors (SMRs) or Generation IV ; options for closing the uranium fuel cycle and reprocessing spent fuel; progressing the development of fusion; and consideration of alternative fuel cycles such as Thorium.

“Ensuring that these options are not foreclosed or essential skills lost will be an important long term objective and the R&D Roadmap element of the work will set out a number of pathways and key decision points for any future R&D programmes to consider.”

The DECC spokesman said that Beddington has shared a number of his recommendations with government ministers, and that the government expects to publish the roadmap “within the next few months.”


The timing of the pre-release of findings is fitting, given a separate report today that was highly critical of rising costs and delays at the U.K.’s nuclear waste storage facility, called Sellafield.  That assessment, by Parliament’s House of Commons, claimed that Sellafield’s storage, run privately for the government by a company called Nuclear Management Partners, spends £1.6 billion ($2.5 billion) and has ponied up a total of £67.5 billion  ($106.4 billion).

Sellafield has the world’s largest stash of plutonium with about 100 tons, and stores other waste including highly radioactive substances in vitrified glass blocks.

Some of that waste, like the plutonium, could be used in new style reactors. Alternative reactors would also minimize waste and thus greatly reduce the need for waste facilities like Sellafield.

In Britain’s privatized energy sector, scientific advisers like Beddington, MacKay and Perkins would be hoping that industry – the “market” as the pre-report says – would help fund development of the alternatives.

What’s not known is how much – if any – the government might provide for research and development.

Photo  from UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, via Flickr, of  Sir John Beddington at the UK’s Big Bang Fair, a science gathering for young people.

Clarifications and correction: After this story appeared, DECC clarified that the report does not recommend “a big increase in nuclear generating capacity” per se, as stated in the opening paragraph. Rather, it recommends development of alternative nuclear if Britain is to meet the more more nuclear intensive of four low carbon energy scenarios set out in the government’s Dec. 2011 Carbon Plan aiming for 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. Only one of those scenarios – not three as stated above –  envisages 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2050, which would represent 68 percent of projected total capacity. The other scenarios call for 28, 20 and 10 percent nuclear. 

A government report expected soon on nuclear research and development strategy could help spread the word about alternative nuclear through the long halls of Parliament.

Things got a bit feisty earlier this week in committee room 19 of Britain’s Houses of Parliament, where vocal supporters and opponents pulled no punches as they debated the country’s nuclear power future.

“I just can’t bear all this dodging and ducking and diving – it’s frankly treating us all as if we’re fools,” declared Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MP. She accused the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition government of a masquerade  that would provide subsidies to the nuclear industry including French utility EDF, despite the government’s assurances that it won’t subsidize nuclear.

“This, frankly, as a proposition, stinks,” agreed Tom Burke, a visiting professor at University College London’s Centre for Law and Environment, and founding director of sustainability think tank E3G.

Both Lucas and Burke were referring to measures in the government’s proposed Energy Bill aimed at assuring sustainable power. Burke lambasted the government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) not only over likely subsidy violations, but also for a duplicitous role in which, he said, DECC is supporting nuclear by betting on rising energy prices while actively trying to drive down prices through a program called the Green Deal.


Lucas, Burke and other critics assailed the government and EDF for negotiating behind closed doors – a practice Burke suggested was unconstitutional. DECC and EDF are discussing  a “strike price” – a guaranteed rate that EDF would receive for electricity from two new nuclear reactors it is ready to build at the Hinkley Point site in southwest England – under the proposed Energy Bill and its “contracts for difference” provision. It is this strike price that many say constitutes a subsidy, in violation of EU law that prevents state aid to nuclear. The government desperately wants the reactors. EDF says it won’t proceed until it has assurances.

For their part, DECC and EDF couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about.

Memory lane. Ed Davey, Secretary of State for the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change,         strolls through Dounreay, a decommissioned reactor in Scotland, last October. Davey, second from left, is pushing for price guarantees for nuclear. As he walks toward the future, he should also keep an eye on alternative nuclear technologies like thorium and molten salt reactors.

Hergen Haye, DECC’s head of new nuclear and strategy, called the discussions with EDF “legally robust” and said that Parliament will have a chance to fully review the Energy Bill’s proposals for electricity market reform once details like the strike price are worked out, and that the public will be able to scrutinize it.

But Haye said that at the current juncture, “What you don’t do is obviously have negotiations back at the tea hall with the public.  That doesn’t’ work for commercial reasons. We would never ever come to any conclusion.”

The strike price will also hold up to EU subsidy laws, he said.


Likewise, Nigel Knee, EDF’s head of nuclear policy noted that the so-called contract for difference has to be “robust” and has to provide “confidence to investors that there will be a return.” And, he added, “It’s not about subsidy. We’re shovel ready (at Hinkley Point). We’d like to see the legislation finished so that we can make the financial commitments.”

And so on and so on went the back-and-forth debate, which you’re probably assuming was a meeting of the energy committee or of some nuclear power subcommittee within Parliament.


This was a gathering put together by the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, which invited speakers to present on the pros and cons of nuclear, and on the nuclear aspects of the government’s Energy Bill. (It was co-organized by a group called the Nuclear Consulting Group, which, despite its name, comprises members from the nuclear and renewables industry, including anti-nuclear individuals, and which at the time of this writing was prominently featuring pictures of wind turbines on its website).

Of course nothing was settled in the lively hour steered deftly by chairwoman MP Joan Walley, who is also chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, which looks after environmental protection. But one of several things that impressed me among the intermittently compelling and convenient arguments by both sides was that this donnybrook was hosted not by the energy crowd per se, but by those tending to the scourge of climate change.

In other words, nuclear keeps escalating in the “low carbon future” discussion, joining the mindshare that solar and wind and other renewables have traditionally occupied. It reminded me of how environmental group Greenpeace applauded last autumn when the heads of Britain’s nuclear, renewables and carbon capture industry groups joined together to insist that the government write low carbon measures into its then unpublished Energy Bill.


“Climate change is really the central interest of this All Party Parliamentary Group. We’re all here because we’re interested and conerned about climate change,” EDF’s Knee reminded everyone.

“I agree with Nigel about one thing,” said E3G’s Burke, a former Friends of the Earth executive director and an environmental adviser to mining giant Rio Tinto. “Energy policy is our climate policy. My problem is if we get the wrong energy policy we have the wrong climate policy. And I think where he and his company want to take us gives us the wrong energy.”

And plunge we did back into the debate, which for many simply boiled down to nuclear vs. no nuclear.  (Not so simply for the Liberal Democrats, I should add.  As Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told the gathering, “We are a party opposed to nuclear.” That’s a paradox, to say the least, for a party that’s part of the governing coalition that’s pushing for eight new nuclear plants. And it is a Liberal Democrat, Ed Davey, who heads DECC and is overseeing the Energy Bill and the nuclear strike price proceedings. Some opposition.)

The packed room grilled EDF’s Knee and DECC’s Haye about how they were going to assure safe handling and storage of nuclear waste, and how they were going to pay for it. Lydia Meryll from the Socialist Environment and Resources Association, a Labour Party affiliated group, pointed out that nuclear decommissioning already takes up more than half of DECC’s annual budget.

Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, questioned the competence of EDF, citing huge cost and schedule overruns at the company’s reactor construction site in Flamanville, France, where an originally five year, €3.3 billion project is now estimated at nine years and €8.5 billion.

All good and fair questions.


But what all the back and forth really failed to address was a third way, and one that could bridge the gap between the “for” and “against” crowd: Alternative nuclear.

As we are always pointing out here at Weinberg, the nuclear industry has been fundamentally running on the same technology for 50-some years – solid uranium fueled, water cooled reactors. (The pressurized water reactors that EDF wants to build at Hinkley Point are among the latest and improved versions).

While these have a sound safety record, there are other fuels and reactor types that could outperform them in efficiency, safety and in the mitigation of waste.

Reactor designs like molten salt, pebble bed and fast neutron all run at higher temperatures than today’s reactors, which is good from an efficiency standpoint. Some of them can breed their own fuel and use waste as fuel – minimizing the worrisome challenge of what to do with waste.  A molten salt reactor that runs thorium fuel can reduce the risk of producing waste suitable for weapons. And let’s not forget fusion.

Many of these will come in small or “modular” forms, auguring lower upfront costs for utilities or industrial users that can’t afford to add the gigawatt-plus sizes of conventional reactors. Smaller reactors can also potentially be fabricated in less expensive “assembly line” type procedure, reducing costs and attracting investors.

These alternatives are making nuclear believers out of non-believers. Weinberg patron and House of Lords member Baroness Bryony Worthington, for instance, is a former Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner who is now the West’s most vocal politician advocating thorium use.

Just a thought, but perhaps they could also help any Liberal Democrat trying to square their party’s opposition to nuclear with their coalition-tied backing of it. And that includes Energy Secretary Davey himself.

I didn’t really expect to hear a lot about alternative nuclear at this week’s All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group. And to be clear, alternative fuels and reactors are not currently a market  option. You couldn’t install and run one at Hinkley Point anytime soon, if for no other reason it would take at least seven years to get regulatory approval. And that can’t even begin to happen until research and development on these reactors is complete, which will require funding.


But some countries, like China and India are indeed pursuing these alternatives.

It is imperative that others do the same. None of the designs are altogether new – many go back 50 years, but for various political and other reasons, lost the technology race. An R&D push with government backing could help polish them into working order. We have certainly identified various current initiatives around the world in this blog, and will continue to do so.  I invite you to scroll down through our archives (and I apologize that we don’t have a search feature to offer – we’re working on it!).

But before you do, here’s an encouraging word I picked up in the hallway chatter after Tuesday’s gathering: DECC’s chief scientific adviser, David MacKay, is taking an interest in thorium and other alternatives which might soon become more clear.

MacKay, a Cambridge physics professor and author of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, is a level headed thinker with a practical view of energy costs, and is preparing a report on nuclear R&D strategy that should  address alternative nuclear. I’m told he’ll publish it within the next few months. I assume it is the same nuclear roadmap strategy for 2050 and beyond that, last I knew, he was co-authoring  with the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington and with the scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, John Perkins.

They began working on the report as part of the government’s response to a House of Lords query into nuclear’s future.

I will be queuing up for a copy and will let you know as I find out more. So watch this space, right honourable reader. And do speak up with any thoughts, in the comments section below.

Photos: Parliament by Tony Moorey via Wikimedia. Ed Davey at Dounreay from DECC via Flickr.


In a letter seen by the Guardian, UK energy minister John Hayes left no doubt about his skepticism on the country’s onshore wind future despite being publicly reprimanded by his boss at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), Ed Davey, last month for saying that “enough is enough” for wind farm growth.

In the letter, written to a regional council in July this year, Hayes stated “…wind by nature is intermittent and cannot generate a steady output of energy to supply constant demand, even thousands of wind turbines won’t replace gas or nuclear power generation.”

Banding nuclear with gas in competition to renewables is a divisive and underhanded tactic – the government must take action, and be heard to do so, to back wind, solar and nuclear to generate zero carbon emitting energy to urgently tackle the impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, investment in cleaner and safer nuclear technology seems a long way off.

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.


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: via Wikimedia

Prime Minister David Cameron addressing an international summit of energy secretaries in London earlier this year. That’s UK Dept. of Energy (DECC) boss Ed Davey next to him, followed by U.S.chief Steven Chu and DECC minister Greg Barker. Thorium is slowly entering DECC’s clean energy radar.

Welcome again to the Weinberg Foundation blog, aka The Thorium Trail, where as we announced here yesterday, we will provide a steady stream of updates on the future of energy: Safe, peaceful nuclear power that cuts the CO2 cord and eases climate change. We will trot the globe looking at developments in thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and many other alternative nuclear technologies that are safer and more efficient than the uranium, water-cooled designs that have defined the industry for half a century.

Our first full post comes from the UK, where earlier this month the government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change published a curious report on thorium – a fuel that did not, at first glance, seem to impress DECC as a promising replacement for uranium.

A quick read of DECC’s Comparison of thorium and uranium fuel cycles looks almost dismissive.

“Thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk,” the executive summary states. “While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often over stated.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fuel that could minimize long lived dangerous waste, mitigate weapons proliferation, eliminate meltdowns, and run more economically than today’s uranium reactors.

The muted assessment, prepared for DECC by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) – a privately run vestige of the defunct uranium stalwart British Nuclear Fuels Limited – notes that “the thorium fuel cycle at best has only limited relevance to the UK.” It concludes that the claim that thorium is inherently safer than uranium  “is not sufficiently substantiated and will not be for many years, if at all.”



But here’s the curious bit: We know here at the Weinberg Foundation that NNL is indeed more open to thorium than its conclusions suggest. We recently visited NNL at their headquarters in Sellafield, England, where they were clearly interested in learning more about thorium technologies, such as those under development in China including a molten salt thorium project.

And as we read beyond the report’s headline coolness, we spot plenty of encouragement. While downplaying thorium, the summary points out that “Nevertheless, it, is important to recognise that world-wide there remains interest in thorium fuel cycles and as this is not likely to diminish in the near future. It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle R&D by involvement in international collaborative research activities.”

Judicious indeed!  Because as DECC/NNL itself spells out, thorium, while having “limited relevance,” also proffers many advantages over uranium.For instance, the report says thorium can operate more efficiently than uranium. “The thorium fuel cycle is in principle capable of achieving higher conversion ratios in thermal reactors than uranium fuel, which is advantageous for resource availability,” it states, adding that thorium “converts” into fissile material at nearly twice the rate that occurs in the uranium process.

Out with the old, in with the thorium? With Cameron’s government struggling to find backers to replace reactors such as this relic at Oldbury-on-Severn, now’s a good time to consider alternatives like thorium.


It notes that thorium leaves behind much less nasty waste, pointing out that it “generates only trace quantities of plutonium and higher actinides, which can reduce the long term radiotoxicity of spent nuclear fuel.”


DECC even begins to describe how difficult it can be to fabricate a bomb from the thorium fuel cycle, thus giving credence to claims by thorium supporters who say that thorium can eliminate the weapons proliferation risk. DECC notes that the thorium process includes traces of uranium 232, a substance so full of gamma ray emissions that no terrorist would survive contact with it in the first place.

Certain alternative reactor designs would draw out these advantages more than conventional water-cooled nuclear plants. DECC is particularly keen on very high temperature gas reactors (VHTRs), which tend to be gas-cooled. It also notes that thorium fuel could mix with plutonium and help the UK dispose of its troublesome stash of that deadly stuff.

So how is it that despite acknowledging all these benefits, DECC concludes that the thorium case is generally “overstated” and of limited relevance to the UK?

In part, by issuing a few specific refutations. For instance, on proliferation, DECC says that an intrepid bomb maker can circumvent the deadly U232. It concludes that the justification for thorium reducing proliferation risks “is not very strong.” (Of all the claims for thorium’s advantages, the proliferation argument is perhaps the most debated, and we welcome your comments and feedback on this or any other aspect).


But each time we read through the report, it strikes us that the main impediment to tapping thorium’s potential is, as DECC sees it, economics – the lack of funding to advance thorium development into a commercial state.

Or to put it another way, the entrenched British (read Western) nuclear industry – the half a century year-old uranium value chain – will not make the necessary investments to migrate to a superior technology when iterative improvements on conventional reactors will suffice.

That’s the sort of ossified thinking that got Big Media and Telecom in trouble as the Googles and Skypes came along.

To be clear, DECC did not exactly phrase it that way.  “While economic benefits are theoretically achievable by using thorium fuels … in current market conditions the position is marginal and insufficient to justify major investment by utilities,” it says.

“The thorium fuel cycle is disadvantaged because all the supporting infrastructure would have to be established from scratch,” it adds. “Furthermore, 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.”


Meanwhile, China has no such investment reluctance. It has a bevy of alternative nuclear research projects underway, including several thorium initiatives. In one, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics has committed 400 experts and $350 million to building a small test thorium molten salt reactor by 2017 (we’ll bring you more about this in another post soon).

The DECC report can be read as an endorsement of thorium, but as a carefully worded, reluctant one in the face of a dominant uranium industry and in light of the government’s efforts to rescue plans to build new reactors with money from the uranium industry.

It’s no wonder then that DECC recommends at least “a low level of engagement” with international thorium efforts. “This will enable the UK to keep up with developments, comment from a position of knowledge and to some extent influence the direction of research. Participation will also ensure that the UK is more ready to respond if changes in technology or market forces bring the thorium fuel cycle more to the fore,” it says.

Or as someone recently commented,  it might also leave the country in a position to one day – soon even –  have to license thorium technology from the East.

Photos: Cameron et al, from DECC. Oldbury nuclear plant from David Bowd-Exworth via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: An earlier version of this story referred to NNL as “privatized.” NNL is “privately managed” by Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, services firm Serco and the University of Manchester. The UK government owns it.

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