Beware of the Elephants

Figure 1: There's a reason why the domes of Hinkley C are white.......

Figure 1: There’s a reason why the domes of Hinkley C are white…….

The term “White Elephant” is often used to refer to a project that is drawing in far more money and political capital than its worth. Yet such a project is often difficult if not impossible to simply cancel, usually because there’s so much riding on it, or the cost of cancellation would exceed the cost of completing it. It refers to the practice in Asia in which vast amounts of money would be spend buying and maintaining a white elephant, that in of itself, has no real value.

It is therefore quite an appropriate term used to describe the government’s troubled Hinkley C project. As the Guardian’s Damian Caraington points out, you can tell how badly things are likely to go by the long list of enemies the project is gathering. And this is before they’ve even started building it!

While inevitably, the Green groups are against it, but there are a lot of opponents who are anything but fluffy tree huggers. Energy analyst Peter Atherton for example describes it as “one of the worst ever deals signed by a British government”. A view shared by HSBC analysts, their colleagues at Citigroup and the Financial Times. Even fellow big six boss Paul Massara of Npower seems to see Hinkley C as a bit of a shit sandwich, which he has no intention of biting into.

All point out that there are far cheaper ways of providing low carbon energy and that the price of Hinkley C has already crept up from £17 billion to nearly £25 billion and the date of completion has slipped further. This trend of spiralling costs and a pushing back of dates mirrors other recent nuclear energy projects. Olkiluoto in Finland is now likely to be 13 years late and 4 times more expensive than its original estimate. And the lawsuits are likely to be flying for much longer after that. Flamanville in Normandy is facing similar delays and a three fold increase in costs.

Indeed, one of the other issues is the fact that, perhaps somewhat ironically, the UK is having to increase its pump storage capacity to cope with a sudden power loss from a future Hinkley C. Of course, supporters of Hinkley C will often try to claim that wind energy isn’t a viable alternative “because wind is intermittent” (nuclear has its own issues in this regard of course) and that storing it all is somehow impossible (really?), which merely serves to demonstrate how naive and ill-informed they are about how electricity grids function (i.e. the difference between available power (Watts) and stored energy (kWh’s), the grid’s reserve power availability has to be sized according to the largest domino, which will be Hinkley C).

Enter the Three Stooges

Indeed speaking of tree huggers, three pro-nuclear, green turncoats, Paul Goodall, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have now published an open letter reversing their prior support for Hinkley C and calling for it to be scrapped. No doubt alarmed at the recent cuts to UK renewable subsidies, and perhaps it dawning on them that such cuts were inevitable (as I’ve long feared) in order to make sure renewables are not in a position to compete against Hinkley C.

They also point to the fact that this slipping of the schedule pushes the date at which the plant can start up is now past the crucial threshold of 2023 – the date at which all but one of the UK’s existing nuclear plant’s will have had to shut for safety reasons. As I’ve long pointed out, once we slip past that date either lots and lots of renewables will be needed to fill the resulting energy gap, or (given recent subsidy cuts) more likely all efforts to curb carbon emissions will be abandoned with a mad dash for gas and coal. Already, one could argue much of the renewable capacity added worldwide has not been replacing fossil fuels, but replacing ageing nuclear capacity instead.

While our three stooges mumble something about still being pro-nuclear and propose modular nuclear reactors as an alternative, this merely demonstrates their lack of knowledge regarding nuclear energy (its kind of the equivalent of them saying Amen or Hallelujah!). As I have pointed out on this blog, modular nuclear reactors would in all probability be more expensive per kWh than large single reactors like Hinkley C (haven’t they ever heard of economies of scale? I mean if small reactors are cheaper, don’t you think we’d be building them?). This is a view shared by the NNL (the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratories).

The fact is, there are good reasons why the nuclear industry is pushing for large LWR’s – its the only viable option they have that’s currently even vaguely market ready. Alternative’s to the LWR paradigm do hold certain advantages, notably in the matter of safety and reduced nuclear waste. But all the evidence points to them being more expensive again, both to build and decommission and crucially these alternatives will likely have even slower build rates.

Put rather bluntly, Hinkley C is shaping up to be the hill on which the UK nuclear industry may well chose to die on. The trouble is, they may take down the whole of the UK energy industry with them…..anyone got an elephant rifle handy?…..

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About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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11 Responses to Beware of the Elephants

  1. There is also the sea surge factor. The need for expenditure on maintaining and improving sea defences to keep up with changes in sea-levels and likelihood of freak waves that cannot be protected against and which are becoming more frequent. In the time-scale you mention, such waves become inevitable.

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  3. Paul Baars says:

    Hi, First sorry for my English, it is not my mother tonque but I suppose you will understand what I mean.

    I like to read your energy blog, keep up the good work. One request however. You are always very critical about everyone (politics, designers, manufacturers etc.) but can you write a blog some day that advises people what they should do instead? What should nuclear firms do at this time? Should we continue to develop gen III+ and gen IV reactors or should we wait for fusion to come online? Or adopt solar and wind and wait for the technology to store the energy? Or just keep using oil and gas perhaps? Best regards from the Netherlands, Paul Baars

    • daryan12 says:

      I would argue that the nuclear industry needs to be realistic about what they can and cannot do. While it has its advantages, it has its limitations (notably cost and a slow build rate) and they need to be realistic about that. If the next generation of reactors turns into a slow roll out of white elephants, then they’ll be digging their own grave, whether fusion is developed or not will not matter, hostile taxpayers will never give them the opportunity to find out.

      And these cut to renewables subsidies is creating a lot of enemies, which means should an anti-nuclear government get into power in the UK they will almost certainly pull the plug at the first opportunity. If I were EDF I would refuse to build Hinkley C until the subsidies to renewables were restored, as reneging on them allows a future government the excuse to do the same to nuclear.

      We need to get away from this idea that “solar doesn’t work because you can’t store it” red herring. Similarly, nuclear has its own issues with intermittency when you understand how energy grids work and the need to deal with fluctuations in energy demand on a daily or annual basis. Some level of energy storage is still needed for a nuclear heavy grid to function, but fortunately, as I point out in a prior post there are options available.

      Also there seems to be an implicit assumption that Fusion energy will be cheap. This is based on the false assumption that the major cost of nuclear power is long term waste disposal. I would argue that the current evidence is that instead the major costs are building and then dismantling a reactor. Assuming once thro fuel use and deep geological storage, the costs of final waste disposal, while not “low” (£100 billion for the UK, $500 billion for the US), they are certainly going to be “small” compared to the other two bills. Unfortunately, when you think of what a fusion reactor will entail the balance of probability is that a large hi-tech gizmo made out of exotic materials with extreme operating parameters will be even more expensive than existing reactors, cancelling out the cost benefits of reduced nuclear waste.

      Again, there are still good reasons to develop fusion power, and it will certainly have its uses, but its no silver bullet. And if there’s any advice I would give to politicians its accepting the fact that there are no silver bullet nor quick fixes. There’s lots of little things we can do (renewables, energy efficiency, recycling, reducing material consumption and reckless consumerism) which should all add up to a solution, but no simple easy answers.

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