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Britain’s final energy gamble

Image: Vattenfall

These days, the UK government’s Business Secretary, Greg Clarke has the appearance of a man who has stared into the Abyss and seen the impermanence and futility of existence.  Just two years ago, when he was given a business brief that included the old department for energy and climate change, Clarke was bright eyed and bushy tailed.

Like most business types, Clarke began as a firm believer that Britain’s looming energy crisis could be overcome with a combination of entrepreneurial zeal and technological innovation.  So it was that Clarke embarked upon a review of UK energy that would demonstrate how Britain could replicate the hydraulic fracturing miracle (sic) that had brought renewed prosperity (sic) to the USA.  Clarke’s choice of Supremo to head up the review – pro-fracking economist Dieter Helm – did not bode well.  My expectation at the time was that:

“Given his previous work, it is impossible to imagine that Helm will not recommend a full-speed ahead dash for UK shale gas as the best means of lowering carbon emissions, securing supply and keeping costs down.”

I – and almost everyone else who commented – was wrong.  When the review was finally published, fracking was only mentioned once; and then only in a global context:

“What seems to have changed is that rose tinted spectacles fell from ministers’ eyes after the fracking industry approached them for financial support last year.  As it became clear that, aside from a handful of sweet spots, the US fracking industry was never going to turn a profit, so the fantasy that an immature UK industry could be anything other than loss-making disintegrated.  With Institutional investors like Barclays pulling their funding, and with geologists warning that the UK has the wrong kind of shale and geographers pointing out that most of it is inaccessible, the UK government looks to be turning its gaze instead to its last best hope of keeping the lights on – next generation renewables.

“That the Helm review has turned out to be a proposal to create a market place that allows the development of renewables, smart regional and national grids, and the research and development of storage technologies, gives the lie to the idea that gas has more than a secondary part to play in Britain’s energy future.  While in the short term we will continue to utilise North Sea gas and gas imported from elsewhere in the world, it seems increasingly clear that UK hydraulically fractured shale gas is not going to be part of even that energy mix.”

The remit given to Helm by Clarke was supposed to be simple enough – how does the UK government meet the threefold aim of combatting climate change, keeping the lights on, and keeping energy prices low.  It was this third imperative that forced Clarke to look into the Abyss.  Helm put it as gently as is possible:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

There is no combination of supposedly green technologies that can keep the lights on and reduce carbon emissions without triggering the kind of people’s revolt that no post-Brexit politician could hope to survive.  Helm retreated into the last refuge of all economists: more research.  Since no current energy configuration will allow business as usual to continue, some new, yet-to-be-invented technology will have to be plucked out of thin air by clever people somewhere else.

Clarke responded with a multi-million pound research prize for anyone who could come up with a battery that can (without randomly exploding) store enough energy to balance the intermittency of wind and solar power.  The other winner from the review’s call for more research was so-called fourth generation nuclear.  Even before the review had officially published, there were reports that new nuclear would be treated favourably.

With the North Sea in steep decline since 1999, fracking too expensive, and renewables too intermittent, it was inevitable that sooner or later the government would be obliged to go down the nuclear route.  One of the two compelling reasons why (for anyone committed to economic growth and the maintenance of business as usual) was given this week, with the decision to block the proposed tidal energy scheme in Swansea Bay.  For while the tidal energy scheme had all of the superficial greenwash of a solar roadway, a hyperloop or a Waterseer, it would – quite literally – have required mountains to be moved in order to build it… and at best it would have returned a maximum power of 300MW.  An offshore windfarm could have provided the same output for half the price; although with even less predictable intermittency.  In contrast, a nuclear plant requires a fraction of the resources to generate ten times the power, 24 hours a day; 365 days of the year.

The main drawback with nuclear power is that nobody really knows how to do it properly.  For all of their apparent complexity, even the most state of the art reactors are little more than glorified pressure cookers designed to allow water to be boiled to more than 350oC – in the same way that a kitchen pressure cooker allows water to be heated above the normal (at sea level) 100oC.  As anyone who has ever left a pressure cooker unattended for too long will tell you, this is a potentially explosive way of generating steam.

The remainder of a nuclear power plant is no different to the turbine hall in a coal-fired power station.  However, whereas coal and gas plants can optimise the energy of their respective fuels, their steam turbines barely scratch the surface of the energy potential of nuclear.

A kilogram of coal contains around 35 mega joules of energy.  Diesel fuel contains around 48 MJ per Kg.  A kilogram of uranium has an energy density of 80,620,000 MJ per Kg.  It is this energy potential that makes it inevitable that politicians determined to maintain western civilisation will all turn to yet-to-be-invented nuclear technologies eventually.

Clarke certainly has.  In an announcement on Wednesday, he promised:

“An ambitious deal with the nuclear sector to ensure that nuclear energy continues to power the UK for years to come through major innovation, cutting-edge technology and ensuring a diverse and highly-skilled workforce…

“The deal, worth over £200 million, follows the government’s recent announcement that it is to enter into negotiations with Hitachi over the Wylfa Newydd project. The deal will spearhead Britain’s move towards cleaner economic growth, while promoting new opportunities in the sector including a focus on innovation to develop the technology and skills needed to maintain the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading nuclear countries.”

The only vaguely “conventional” nuclear project in this scheme is the promised “small modular reactor” – a scaled down version generating around300MW that can be manufactured and fuelled in a factory; with standardised components theoretically driving costs down to more affordable levels.  An even smaller mini-reactor providing 4MW or 750oC of heat is also being proposed.

Two unconventional reactors that build on earlier successful prototypes have also been approved.  The Arc-100 is a molten sodium-cooled design that is an updated version of the EBR-II that was operated by the US government’s Argonne National Laboratory between 1965 and 1994.  The Moltex Energy molten salt-cooled reactor is an updated version of the molten salt reactor operated at the US Oakridge National Laboratory in the 1960s.  A third reactor – the Leadcold liquid lead-cooled reactor – is entirely new, but mirrors the molten sodium reactor.  All three are, as it were, over-the-horizon technologies.  That is, they have been demonstrated in laboratory conditions and may prove scaleable in the course of the next decade or so.  They offer three important potential advantages over conventional nuclear power:

  • They can use nuclear waste as fuel, and they consume almost all of the fuel (no spent rods lying around in cooling ponds for decades)
  • Their high temperature coolants do not require high pressure operating and allow for vastly greater power output
  • They are passively safe.

Whether they can be delivered at a cost that can be borne by a fast-failing economy is another matter.

The final reactor in the package is almost certainly a dud.  The Tokamak Energy small fusion reactor is an attempt to realise the energy Holy Grail of nuclear fusion – something that was twenty years away when I was born and will be twenty years away long after I am dead and gone.  However, if you are the energy minister of a country that is fast running out of power, I guess you’ll give anything a try.

Clarke employed the usual spin about jobs and prosperity to sell nuclear power to what I suspect will be an unenthusiastic public:

“Nuclear energy not only fuels our power supply, it fuels local jobs, wages, economic prosperity and drives UK innovation. This Sector Deal marks an important moment for the government and industry to work collectively to deliver the modern Industrial Strategy, drive clean growth and ensure civil nuclear remains an important part of the UK’s energy future.”

It is more likely that Clarke has seen the future that awaits industrial civilisation as the cost of energy spirals out of control; and is terrified.  Gas – including fracking – is at best no more than an expensive stop-gap; carbon capture and storage is too expensive; biofuels are almost as environmentally destructive as fossil fuels; and renewables are simply not powerful or reliable enough both to meet our electricity needs and provide sufficient additional power to produce synthetic liquid fuels (without which our petroleum-dependent civilisation is doomed).

No doubt next generation nuclear looks very much like the last straw in front of a minister who already feels the cliff edge crumbling beneath his feet.  For all the positive spin in his announcement, I cannot help but think that experimental nuclear power is the end of Britain’s energy road.  If it fails, we are done… and Britain is just the first developed economy to embark on this journey.

As you made it to the end…

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