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Hinkley Point
Image: Richard baker

A monument to human stupidity

There are some things that you simply cannot say without producing howls of outrage.  Here’s one of them: you will not solve the problem of climate change even if you generate all of the world’s electricity from renewables.  The truth of this statement is self-evident if you take the trouble to look out of your window at the street outside your home.  Just look at all of those cars carrying people to work, ferrying the children to school and taking people shopping.  Look at the occasional delivery van that passes by.  If your street is large enough, look at all of those big articulated lorries that transport all of the food, goods and raw materials that we depend upon for our way of life.  Beyond this, think about the number of diesel-powered trains that our rail system still depends upon.  Look up and notice all of those aeroplanes that are key to the global economy.  Notice the giant container ports – like the London Gateway – that mark the destination of the fleets of ships that move the food, goods and raw materials that we depend upon for our survival.

When a headline proclaims that this or that country just generated 100 percent of its energy from renewables, it is being highly misleading.  In most developed countries, electricity accounts for 20-25 percent of the energy we use.  The remaining 75-80 percent is equally divided between transport and household heating/air conditioning/cooking.  What this means is that it is not enough just to replace the electricity we currently use.  We must also massively extend our electricity generation to replace the oil used in transportation and the gas used in our homes.

The problem is that we cannot deploy sufficient renewables in the time available to us even to replace the ageing coal and nuclear plants that are due to close by 2025.  The reason for this boils down to “energy density” – the amount of energy per kilogram or per litre that a particular energy source provides.  Crude oil provides around 37 mega joules per litre.  Water in a 100 metre high hydroelectric dam, by contrast, provides just 0.001 mega joules per litre.  Wind, wave and solar are so diffuse that they do not register.  Put simply, you have to deploy an awful lot of hydroelectric plants and wind and solar farms even to begin to replace the energy we get from a concentrated liquid fuel like oil.

Ten years ago, all eyes were on hydrogen as the answer to our transport and heating/cooling/ cooking needs.  This is because compressed hydrogen is a far more energy dense liquid fuel than petrol, diesel or aviation fuel.  Whereas crude oil has an energy density of 37 mega joules per litre, compressed liquid hydrogen can provide more than 140 mega joules per litre.  Harnessed correctly, hydrogen could easily replace much of the oil that the global transport system depends upon.  In particular, unlike battery power, compressed hydrogen could power all but the biggest trucks and machines that our economy depends upon.

So why are we not living in a hydrogen economy?  And why, despite most of the vehicle companies developing prototype hydrogen cars are we desperately looking to lithium ion batteries as a solution to our problems?  In a word, expense!  The cost of separating hydrogen gas from natural gas or water, then compressing and storing it has proved far greater than almost anyone is prepared to pay.  Countries with small populations and excess energy – notably Iceland and Norway have gone further than most.  But those countries with dwindling energy and increasing dependence on imports – like the UK and USA – cannot afford the additional cost of hydrogen.

For the UK to have any realistic chance of meeting its climate change targets – and, incidentally to mitigate the expense of becoming increasingly dependent upon imported oil and gas – we face the unenviable option of either dramatically reducing our transportation and household consumption or seeking an alternative energy source to oil, gas and coal.  That alternative source of energy can only come from one place – an energy source that offers an energy density far in excess of compressed liquid hydrogen.  That is, it cannot come from any of the renewable energy technologies currently available to us.

There is a technology available to us that can provide a staggering 929,214,000 mega joules per litre (i.e. it is more than 25 million times more energy dense than oil).  If deployed alongside the renewables needed to replace our ageing power stations, it would provide enough spare energy to allow us to separate and compress hydrogen, produce sufficient quantities of methanol, or even suck carbon, hydrogen and oxygen out of the air and convert it into diesel to fuel our transportation system.  Unfortunately, it is an energy source with huge popularity problems.  It is, of course, nuclear power.

It is not, however, ordinary bog-standard nuclear bomb-making nuclear of the kind we currently have.  It is what is called “fourth generation nuclear”.  It includes some important benefits that do not apply to the kind of reactors we currently use.  First and foremost, it uses almost all of the fuel (current nuclear reactors burn less than 0.5 percent of the fuel, with the remainder having to be disposed of as waste).  Second, it is low-pressure, high temperature making it much safer than the high pressure water reactors that we currently use.  Third, it can burn a large part of the waste that we have already produced from the 1950s reactors that are now coming to the end of their lives:

“Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest. There is already enough nuclear waste on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with scarcely any carbon emissions. IFRs need be loaded with fissile material just once. From then on they can keep recycling it, extracting ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains. Its components have half-lives of tens, rather than millions, of years. This makes them more dangerous in the short term but much easier to manage in the long term. When the hot waste has been used up, the IFRs can be loaded with depleted uranium (U-238), of which the world has a massive stockpile.”

Fourth, it is built to shutdown without human intervention – that is, in the event of an emergency, even if human operators do nothing, fission will cease automatically.  Fifth, it is designed to be modular, so that the cost per GW of building and operating it is significantly cheaper than today’s nuclear plants.

This is not to suggest that fourth generation nuclear is without its problems.  It still produces waste (although far less of it), and it is still possible to use the fuel to make bombs (although there are far cheaper and easier ways of doing so).  Some of the elements involved in the fuel process – especially in breeder reactors – are highly radioactive, and would kill anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with them.  And, of course, we’ve heard the promise of “energy too cheap to meter” before.  The point, however, is that all of the problems with fourth generation nuclear pale into insignificance when compared to pressurised water reactors of the kind that we have been using and that the UK government has just bought into for generations to come.

The white elephant that has just been approved by the UK government at Hinkley Point has just about all of the downsides of nuclear power with none of the potential benefits.  It is an updated version of the pressurised water reactors that have a propensity to explode in an emergency.  Just like the first generation nuclear plants, it only burns 0.5 percent of the uranium fuel; the remainder having to be stored somewhere (we know not where) for thousands of years.  For safety reasons, the massive containment vessel has to be encased in an outer containment building in a way that has been described as having to build a cathedral within a cathedral.

Then there is the price, which was agreed upon back in the days when oil was trading three times higher than today; when renewables were expensive; and when fourth generation nuclear was still on the drawing board.  The £92.50 per MW price tag (in the unlikely event that the project is delivered on budget) will impoverish UK households and undermine UK businesses for generations to come.  And it isn’t as if that money will circulate back into the UK economy.  Rather, the Chinese and French governments will be able to subsidise their businesses and households on the back of British bill payers for decades to come.  As Climate campaigner and author George Monbiot notes:

“I suspect that May’s unintelligible decision to build the new plant at Hinkley will kill nuclear power in Britain, including technologies far more promising than the proven formula for chaos she has just chosen.

“You might welcome that prospect. If so, you should ask yourself what else should be done about our mountain of nuclear waste.”

Even if we chose not to invest in future nuclear power at all – a decision that will require some dramatic changes to all of our lifestyles – the £18bn and rising price tag for Hinkley Point C represents a massive wasted opportunity to install household solar panels and insulation, and to build the tidal lagoons and offshore wind that would replace our current fossil fuel energy generation.

Given the current economic trails in Europe and China, it might even prove to be money thrown down the drain.  Last year, EDF’s finance director resigned rather than be responsible for delivering the Hinkley Point C project – arguing that EDF is too small to bear the costs.  That was before the current precarious state of the European banks (from which EDF will need to borrow) became apparent.  At the same time, China’s GDP has been dropping like a stone as a result of the global slowdown and their own misallocation of capital to now unwanted industrial capacity.

The problem is that the further the Hinkley Point C project is allowed to progress, the more likely it is to become ‘too big to fail’.  Intended to meet more than 10 percent of the UK’s electricity need, once the money has been spent there will be no alternative to take up the slack.  Ministers will have no option but to continue throwing public money into the project while dumping the increasing future price onto Britain’s beleaguered businesses and households.  Indeed, this consideration may well have informed the government’s decision to proceed.  £203 million has already been sunk into preparing the site; not to mention the human and political capital involved in bringing the various partners on board, and securing the finance for the project.  Faced with the choice between proceeding or writing this capital off, government blinked.

The result is that the UK will get the very worst of all worlds.  We will depend upon nuclear, but will be in no position to deploy the cheaper, leading edge fourth generation nuclear technologies.  At the same time, the 3.2GW output from Hinkley C – if it is ever built – will be insufficient to meet our full energy needs (including transport and household use).  It will be far too expensive; most likely accelerating the “energy death spiral” feared by today’s energy company CEOs.  And, because it is insufficient to meet our transport and household needs, it will have little impact on climate change – not least because two or three tidal lagoons just a few miles away in the Severn Estuary would produce the same amount of power at about a third of the price.

Perhaps the real killer blow, however, is that Hinkley Point C will not produce a single watt of electricity in time to meet the UK’s need for low carbon energy.  When the project was first mooted by the Blair government, In 2007, EDF’s CEO boasted that UK consumers would be cooking with Hinkley Point C electricity by 2017!  By 2011, this had slipped to 2019.  With an optimistic 7-8 year build time it is unlikely that any electricity will be generated by 2025 – and if the deployment of the same design of power plant in Finland and Normandy is anything to go by, this is likely to be wildly optimistic.

For once, climate campaigners find themselves on the same side of the argument as a high profile climate change denier:

“Former Chancellor and ex-Energy Secretary Lord Lawson said every independent energy expert thought it a ‘thoroughly lousy deal’. He said EDF only had two similar reactors under construction in France and Finland – both of which were ‘hopelessly behind schedule and in deep, deep trouble’.

“He called for an assurance that if Hinkley appeared to be getting behind schedule the Government would have ‘no hesitation in ending this contract whatever penalties… because it is a lousy contract and the sooner it is ended the better’”.

The worst case scenario – one that is all too plausible – is that Hinkley Point C is started but never completed.  £18bn of clean renewables, and perhaps some leading edge fourth generation nuclear technology, will never be built.  The UK will be left so short of power that we are obliged to turn to imported oil and gas, and even to reopening domestic coal in order to keep the lights on.  Meanwhile, the unfinished building on the North Somerset coast will stand as a monument to everything that is wrong with Britain’s approach to energy.

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