I previously commented on the dire straits the UK’s plans for a new generation of reactors is in, due to the collapse of the Horizon deal earlier in the year. I also previously highlighted how it is unlikely any sane business will invest in nuclear energy without a substantial and generous subsidy from the taxpayer, or indeed through our electricity bills via the government’s proposed Contracts For Difference scheme.
A “white knight” of sorts has now come to the rescue of the Horizon deal in the form of the Hitachi corporation. They have agreed to buy out the company and begin the process of building nuclear reactors in the UK. However, buried within the propaganda are a lot of question marks, many of which prove right much of my skepticism about nuclear power…leading me to wonder whether term “black knight” (of Monty Python fame) would be perhaps a more appropriate term!
A marriage of convenience….again!
This is not Hitachi first foray into the UK nuclear industry. They’ve previously proposed the S-PRISM for the UK and as I reported back then, this was largely a shotgun wedding enforced by the fact that they were desperate to sell the reactor to somebody (as everyone else, even the Japanese government had turned them down) and BNFL were also desperate to do something or face the prospect of Selafield operations being wound down.
In a similar vein, Hitachi again finds itself desperate for business, but manages to find a government out of step with reality and willing to sub them some cash.
There is a proposal in Japan for a referendum on Nuclear energy with three options on the table . Option one is 30% of Japanese electricity from nuclear (essentially business as usual but with a cap on future nuclear growth). Option two is 15% (many older reactors near fault lines closed, some new reactors later but only as a replacement for plants taken out of service and not on a like for like basis) and option three is 0% (a phase out of nuclear energy completely, which as I’ve previously shown is feasible). The Japanese government seems to favour the middle option but opinion polls suggest that it might be the zero nuclear option. Either of these last two would mean a massive cut in nuclear reactor orders in Japan, if not a complete halt.
So naturally Hitachi are having to hedge their bets and look overseas for buyers of they’re wares. This would explain the choice of reactors. While previously the Horizon deal had focused on French or American designed PWR‘s (Pressurised Water Reactor), Hitachi seem to be keen on BWR‘s (Boiling Water Reactor), notably their own brand ABWR reactor or the as of yet untested ESBWR. However, these reactors have never been certified for use in the UK. It will take a few years to get that paper work cleared and redesign the reactors as required. There have also been some technical problems with the ABWR‘s which has led to them providing a much lower level than expected level of reliability and on-grid availability (as this table from the IAEA illustrates).
Also, the UK engineering firms will need time to plan for this change in reactor. While the bulk of reactor cores world wide might well come from the Japanese Steel Works (JSW) on Hokkaido Island, the majority of any UK based ABWR (the steam turbines, heat exchangers and auxiliary equipment) will be build by other contractors many here in the UK, notably companies such as Forgemasters and Rolls Royce. They need to be given time to retool and book spots on the production line before any plant can be built. Also there is a waiting list in JSW and by switching reactor types the UK may have just lost its place in the queue.
A Looming Energy Gap
This will explain why Hitachi are talking about a delivery date of the first new plant in the mid to early 2020’s. However, by this date the UK nuclear fleet will be down to between 1 and 3 reactors (Torness and Heysham retire in 2023, further Torness is in Scotland which may not be part of the UK by that date!) and a capacity of between 1,200 – 3,700 MW, from a present capacity of 10,500 MW and a former peak of 14,000 MW. While Hitachi seem to be proposing 6 reactors, it will take at least a decade or two (or three!) to bring this capacity online and even 6 ABWR’s would still fall well short of the historical maximum installed capacity (about 40% short in fact).
Incidentally, despite the Tories best efforts, its likely UK onshore wind energy output will hit at least 13,000 MW by 2020’s, or possibly higher (18,400 MW are in built or in planning and one assumes more will come along between now and then, so this 13 GW figure is a fairly conservative estimate). And of course this is just onshore wind, neglecting the much larger offshore wind potential (generally considered in terms of 100’s of GW’s) or indeed Tidal capacity (the Severn alone can support 9 to 17 GW’s worth of Tidal energy).
Further unless the government is proposing we sit in the dark for a decade or two waiting for these reactors to be delivered, inevitably something else will have to be built in the mean time. Given that the Tories are ideologically opposed to renewables, then one has to assume it will be Gas Fired IGCC stations that will plug the UK nuclear gap. Of course one has to question whether it would be sensible to build a IGCC plant with a 50 year operating life and then turn it off after 10-20 years to make way for nuclear. I’m therefore highly skeptical that all of these 6 reactors will be built. My guess is between 2 to 4 (best guess 3) reactors will be built, with the rest of the “nuclear energy gap” filled by Gas or coal fired stations.
In short, much as I’ve always feared, its not so much of a nuclear renaissance but a case of nuclear delivering too little power too late and at great cost to us the bill payers. And ultimately it is a policy tied to the idea of less renewables and more gas fired power stations, likely built in a hurry without any CCS capability, quite the opposite of what cheerleaders the industry would have us believe.
And it gets worse. One of the arguments constantly put forward against renewables is wailing over “intermittency”. As I’ve previously discussed in detail, in reality the situation is a bit more complicated here as nuclear reactors have they’re own issues with “intermittency” and are thus often used for baseload power not “loading following” electricity and can’t be used to “back up” renewables (indeed they actually get in the way of renewables and other things such as CHP plants and limit the number of these can be installed on the grid).
Now while some LWR’s can be utilised for load following electricity, traditionally the ABWR’s have primarily used (like many nuclear plants in Japan) for baseload. While in theory they can undertake load following, there is a world of a difference between “theory” and practice and them doing so 24/7, especially when we’ve a large surplus of gas fired plants on the grid (which will have been built to close the nuclear energy gap) which are much more cost effective at supplying load following electricity. Noting that IGCC plants can also perform the crucial “peaking power” load as well. In short, these ABWR’s will need “backing up” by IGCC plants (those back up plants in Japan proving crucial when many reactors were forced to turn off post-Fukushima), the very reason the Tories often argue against renewables!
Now as I’ve previously pointed out the economic justification for the government’s proposed nuclear subsidy, the CfD system (Contract’s for Difference) does not stand up to rational scrutiny. Furthermore, if its being used to provide primarily baseload electricity (and as I’ve demonstrated, these new nuclear plants will likely be used to perform just that role) then surely anything else that can supply a similar quantity of baseload electricity (biomass CHP, Solar PV, Tidal energy, Wind) must also be entitled to a similar level of subsidy. The bad news for the nuclear industry is that if the contract price were set fairly (and all effort seems to be being made to prevent that!) its likely that they’d be squeezed out by its cheaper renewable competitors, as I previously discussed on the issue of energy subsidies.
More Barmy British Stuff
So again, hidden within the optimistic and rosy propaganda there is the reality that all this announcement shows is that the nuclear industry is desperate. That nuclear power cannot function without substantial government subsidy and it will only succeed in getting in the way of renewables, as inevitably the government will now keep a wedge clear for nuclear at the expense of renewable energy and other low carbon options. This will also mean that UK’s energy policy will essentially remain in limbo for a another few years all but guaranteeing potential problems with security of supply within the next decade and in all likelihood a dash for gas and coal to fill the “nuclear gap”.
It is often said that madness can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. What does that say about the UK government and its pro-nuclear tendencies?