Posts Tagged innovation

Leaving Euratom: the government should reconsider

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on January 27th, 2017

It has been confirmed that the UK intends to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of the Brexit process. Following their loss in the Supreme Court last week, the government has produced a bill on triggering Article 50 to put to a commons vote. As part of the explanatory notes of this very short bill, was the revelation that Britian will be leaving both the EU and Euratom. Euratom, a separate legal entity to the EU but governed by EU institutions, has controlled nuclear power in Europe since 1957.

The move has been met with shock by the industry, with Dr Paul Dorfman, honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London, calling it a “lose-lose situation” due to the potential for reduced competitiveness and reduced safety. There will be increased pressure on the already under-resourced Office for Nuclear Regulation to cover all of Euratom’s responsibilities including non-proliferation inspections, authorizing the sale of nuclear material and safeguarding power, fuel fabrication and waste sites. Alternatively the UK would need to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency for help with this new burden. The decision will likely impact the UK’s plans for new power stations, research, skills development and dealing with the waste legacy.

The decision will also likely mean the eventual loss of the world leading Fusion experiment based in Culham, Oxfordshire, involving 350 scientists and funding from 40 countries, to another country such as Germany or France. This loss could risk perpetrating across the nuclear research space, with the isolation from Euratom making the UK far less attractive for research and innovation leading to a funding and brain drain at the very time the UK is trying to reinvigorate its nuclear leadership through it’s Industrial Strategy.

A complex set of negotiations will now have to take place as most nuclear co-operation with the UK relies on safeguards provided through Euratom. It may not be possible to agree and ratify new agreements before Britain leaves the EU in 2019. According to Vince Zabielski, a senior lawyer at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, “current new build projects will be placed on hold while those standalone treaties are negotiated” meaning possible delays at Hinkley as well as Bradwell, Moorside and Wylfa.

The decision however is not just bad for the UK, but for nuclear as a whole. With the UK one of the last big supporters of the technology, weakening its strength in the field will give power to anti-nuclear camps across the continent.

Weinberg Next Nuclear is very concerned that the departure from Euratom could severely damage the UK’s nuclear industry, with impacts on energy security, industrial competitiveness and decarbonisation objectives. We find no reason why such drastic action needs to be taken. Article 50 deals with the two Treaties of Lisbon: the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. However the Euratom treaty is separate, not mentioned in either of the above treaties thus there is no reason for including Euratom in any part of Article 50 debate. As Jonathan Leech, a senior lawyer and nuclear expert at Prospect Law said, “there doesn’t seem to have been any real explanation as to why, because we are going towards the unknown at great speed. Legally we don’t have to [leave Euratom because the UK is leaving the EU],”.

Weinberg Next Nuclear thus urges the government to reconsider and avoid the highly damaging consequences this unnecessary withdrawal could have on the UK’s nuclear future.

New Report: The Case for a Clean Energy Alliance

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on January 23rd, 2017

23 January 2017: Clean energy sectors should set up an alliance to shape a supportive industrial strategy.

The British government is today publishing a consultative green paper on a new industrial strategy. It proposes to offer ‘Sector Deals’ to address sector-specific challenges and opportunities. These would “offer a range of support”, including supporting innovation.

The Government highlights that Britain has strengths in research and development of smart energy technologies. And one of the ten” strategic pillars” will be:

“Delivering affordable energy and clean growth. We need to keep costs down for businesses, and secure the economic benefits of the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

In response to the green paper, the Alvin Weinberg Foundation think tank has published a report on The Case for a Clean Energy Alliance. The report argues that:

 

“An Alliance would bring together like-minded organisations – those concerned with energy security, fuel poverty, economic competitiveness, environment, air quality and climate change – to work towards a common goal of decarbonisation. The renewables, CCS and nuclear sectors do already work together on specific issues, through their trade associations. An Alliance would add value by taking a strategic approach, to complement, not duplicate, the tactical co-operation that takes place between sectors already. The Alliance should not be an alternative public voice for clean energy, but rather unite existing voices.”

“The energy industry needs to offer strategic advice to governments on how best to facilitate clean energy. Some competition between sectors is inevitable: public money is limited. Nevertheless, there are significant questions on which competition is neither necessary nor helpful.”[i]

The criteria for judging what is low-carbon should include the full life-cycle of the technology, including land use change. Full members should be trade associations: companies and civil society organisations could become associate members.

Stephen Tindale, Weinberg director, said:

“An active industrial strategy offers a great opportunity for clean energy. To take advantage, different clean energy sectors should work together more strategically. With all the energy challenges of today, now is not the time for sectoral technology tribalism: it is the time for a Clean Energy Alliance.”

Contact: Stephen Tindale

stephen.tindale@the-weinberg-foundation.org

07941 433780

[i] Strategic questions that an Alliance could address include:

  • Should low-carbon energy technologies continue to receive public financial support into the 2020s?
  • If so, how should such support be delivered – through guaranteed tariffs or through grants?
  • Should public money to support clean energy be raised through taxation or through energy bills?
  • How can the operation of the Levy Control Framework be improved in order to increase investor confidence?
  • Is the Contract-for-Difference approach efficient and fair: should it be reformed or would the resulting regulatory instability undermine any potential benefits?”

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.

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:

http://green.brightblue.org.uk/blog/2016/10/28/nuclear-innovation-must-be-part-of-the-climate-and-energy-solution

 
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.

Turning away from turbines

Posted by Mark Halper on January 25th, 2013

Conversion factor. Matthew Simmons thinks his thermoelectric technology could replace turbines for converting nuclear heat to electricity. Here he addresses an October TED conference in Auckland, before heading to the Shanghai Thorium Energy Conference.

Look at any nuclear, coal, gas or geothermal power plant, and you will spot a turbine – a chunky rotary mechanical contraption full of moving parts that require serious maintenance and that can break down.  They convert heat – usually steam – into electricity, and in the inefficient process, they typically lose more energy than they transform.

So isn’t there a better way to morph all that warmth into electricity?

Matthew Simmons and his Hamilton, New Zealand innovation company, Arvus Group, believe there is.

“You convert the heat directly to electricity, with no moving parts,” says Simmons.

He’s working on a solid state thermoelectric technology he calls Thermagenz, which Arvus wll deploy first for geothermal power, but which Simmons believes could be a perfect match for the emerging “alternative” nuclear movement – especially for the high temperature reactors that could replace today’s conventional, lower temperature reactors.

RETHINKING NUCLEAR

“It’s all part of the rethink about nuclear,” says Simmons, who I spoke with via Skype today, and who I first met when he presented at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai last October. Many proponents of thorium fuel advocate using it in high temperature reactors like those using molten salt and pebble bed designs, in order to optimize superior performance and safety features compared to conventional uranium reactors.

The idea of Thermagenz is simple: eliminate turbines altogether by running steam or some other heat source through a bank of “hybrid peltier” semiconductors, and out comes electricity. Say goodbye to moving parts and all the potential malfunctions that go along with them, a development that as Simmons points out means “the maintenance is almost zero.”

Arvus’ first installation of Thermagenz will be a trial, 2-kilowatt geothermal demonstrator starting soon in Taupo on New Zealand’s North Island, where Simmons says they only have to dig a meter to hit 200 degree C heat. It plans a larger, 100-t0-500 kilowatt geothermal trial in southeast Asia later this year, where it hopes to operate at least one megawatt-plus installation by the end of next year in partnership with a utility.

In the geothermal deployments, Arvus sinks a proprietary thermal superconducting material that Simmons says loses practically no heat for up to a mile. The material – which he declines to name  – is  “30,000 times more conductive of heat than silver,” Simmons claims (silver is a well known as an effective heat conductor).

RAISING THE TEMPERATURE

That heat feeds the solid state device, which can handle temperatures of up to 300 degrees C and which converts about 5-to-6 percent of the energy to electricity. Although that is much lower efficiency than what a turbine delivers, Simmons says the thermoelectric system as a whole offers huge advantages, including much lower operating and maintenance costs, as well as eliminating the need for precious water.

“The clean energy revolution isn’t really about efficiency. It’s about viability,” says Simmons.

But 5-to-6 percent efficiency and 300 degrees won’t cut it for high temperature nuclear applications, especially when many developers of MSRs, pebble beds and other alternative reactors are targeting temperatures of around 700-to-1,000 degreees C. (The good news is that Arvus’ high temperature superconducting pipe can deliver heat of up to 1,200 degrees, and can carry  that heat up to a mile beyond the reactor, where it would hand it over to the semiconductors for conversion to electricty).

That’s not lost on Simmons, who spoke at the Shanghai thorium conference to help generate interest among the thorium crowd and to initiate the long process of collaboration to help advance Thermagenz for nuclear applications.

Simmons says that the threshold for Thermagenz to compete on a par with turbines is about 15 percent efficiency operating at between 700 and 1,000 degrees C.

POSITIVE REACTIONS

Are reactor developers interested? “Yes,” says Simmons who adds that he has several meetings coming up with nuclear companies in Europe and elsewhere. He’s also working with semiconductor companies and university research teams.

“We want to develop a semiconductor that can work at the higher temperatures so that we can potentially back our Thermagenz not only onto geothermal, but also on the back end of  high temperature reactors,” says Simmons.

Thermoelectric generation from nuclear heat is not a new idea. Spacecraft like the current Mars Curiosity use it, as did the Voyager from the 1970s. But those craft tap a highly costly and inefficient version which would not fly in commercial nuclear reactors.

Certainly plenty of technological and financial challenges lie ahead both with Arvus’ technology and with alternative reactor and fuel development.

“It’s a long arc,” says Simmons. “But it’s going to attract so many interesting companies, interesting problems and interesting people, and so it’s a really exciting hub of energy to be part of. Because this is a shift, a lot of people truly believe in the potential of thorium, and it’s giving rise to people to rethink about nuclear. “

It’s good to know that the blades of nuclear change are spinning not just on the fuel and reactor front, but in the generating room as well.

Image of Matthew Simmons is a screen grab from TED video via YouTube.

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