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Britain goes nuclear

The UK government looks set to embrace a new fleet of nuclear power plants as the solution to Britain’s growing energy predicament according to Alan Tovey at the Telegraph:

“Ministers are ready to approve the swift development of a fleet of ‘mini’ reactors to help guard against electricity shortages, as older nuclear power stations are decommissioned.

“The new technology is expected to offer energy a third cheaper than giant conventional reactors such as the ongoing Hinkley Point in Somerset.”

A consortium including Rolls-Royce, NuScale, Hitachi and Westinghouse claim that new Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) can generate electricity at £60 per megawatt hour, allowing them to out-compete conventional nuclear power stations like the massive EDF development at Hinkley Point:

“Whitehall sources confirmed that ­officials from the Department for Business were whittling down proposals from consortia keen to work with government to develop SMRs, with an ­announcement on the final contenders for funding expected soon.”

SMRs will be even more competitive if, as expected, the government’s energy reviewer, Oxford University professor Dieter Helm, recommends that intermittency costs be included in the price of electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar.  Indeed, were the government to adopt that policy, renewable energy companies would be obliged to purchase baseload electricity from new nuclear operators.

The UK energy predicament is such that the options open to government are narrowing fast.  Coal power is shutting down faster than government anticipated ahead of a ban from 2025.  Renewables like wind and solar are not being deployed on anything like the scale need to make up the gap.  Conventional pressurised water nuclear reactors like the giant EDF project at Hinkley Point are simply too expensive and take too long.  Meanwhile, the solution embraced by David Cameron’s government – UK shale gas – looks set to be an expensive failure.  For the time being, Britain depends upon gas; primarily from its own and Norwegian North Sea fields.  However, as the North Sea depletes, the UK is increasingly dependent upon supplies from Libya, Russia and Qatar – countries that have little incentive to be friends with Britain.

SMRs will no doubt be touted by both government and the mainstream media as leading-edge technologies.  For example, in a Forbes article about NuScale – the company that developed the first SMR – James Conca writes:

“This nuclear reactor is something that we’ve never seen before – a small modular reactor that is economic, factory built and shippable, flexible enough to desalinate seawater, refine oil, load-follow wind, produce hydrogen, modular to make the power plant any size, and that provides something we’ve all been waiting for – a reactor that cannot meltdown.”

Of course, there is still that niggling problem of waste disposal.  Less obviously, global uranium production is expected to peak in the mid-2030s (much sooner if nuclear power is used to replace fossil fuels).  These issues might theoretically be overcome if liquid metal and liquid salt SMRs are developed in future, since these burn far more uranium than a conventional reactor (which consumes just half of one percent of the fuel, leaving 99.5 percent as waste).  Liquid molten salt SMRs also have the potential to utilise thorium – an abundant waste product from mining – as a fuel.  However, for the time being, government plans to press ahead with nuclear power will inevitably meet public resistance.

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