Pressing the nuclear button

Between 2021 and 2050, as well as a resolution for the Covid-19 crisis, the UK must create a net zero carbon society to meet the growing climate change emergency. Enormous amounts of clean green energy will be needed. Is going nuclear avoidable? Jon Herbert reports.

With the pandemic war possibly part-won, the Government — and world — are making increasingly urgent plans for the next major global battle.

Total decarbonisation to limit the impacts of climate change is now a policy priority — removing damaging greenhouse gases out of society as far as possible and offsetting any unavoidable remainder. In other words, net zero.

But will achieving net zero in the next 29 years to the mid-century point mean squeezing out other environmental concerns?

COP26, global leadership and beyond

As the Government focusses on low-carbon leadership at this year’s international decision-making UN COP26 (conference of the parties) climate summit in Glasgow from 1 to 12 November 2021, clean energy is a central issue.

There simply isn’t enough of it. And filling the gap is likely to be extremely difficult.

The Prime Minister spoke in autumn 2020 of expanding offshore wind power capacity to 40GW by 2030. However, December’s 10 Point Plan outlined plans for at least one new large-scale nuclear power station to make up any energy deficit.

Not everyone is keen. Greenpeace’s vision of “shedloads of cheap renewable” is at odds with the Government bottom-line of “clear value for money for consumers and taxpayers” (www.greenpeace.org.uk/challenges/renewable-energy).

But nuclear could be part of a future mix that will see cosy gas-fired central heating replaced by innovative heat pump technology, larger radiators and much more insulation!

Going nuclear

Solar and wind energy are intermittent but have become commercially viable. Other green energy sources, such as geothermal, wave, tidal, biomass and carbon capture technologies to “clean” fossil-fuel burning, have not. Battery and other energy storage technologies are still expensive. A clear capacity gap exists.

Opinions are divided as to how to fill it, even when smart technology allows household and business-based micro-solar and wind power producers to sell spare energy to the grid on demand.

Green advocates say more renewables is the only sustainably acceptable answer. The Government thinks uninterrupted bulk energy from at least one new nuclear plant is essential to hit net zero.

Powering up

But nuclear is no straightforward option.

The existing UK nuclear fleet produces 16% of our power but will close in 2030 except for Sizewell B and Hinkley Point C. Hinkley Point C and a new Sizewell C could potentially supply some 14% of UK power.

As old reactors move towards decommissioning, six new candidates were proposed. However, Wylfa on Anglesey, Moorside in Cumbria and Oldbury on the Severn have fallen by the wayside as contractors pulled out.

The only project under construction is Hinkley Point C on the Somerset coast (www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/hinkley-point-c/about). The Government has been talking to French nuclear specialist EDF about a near-exact copy as Sizewell C in Suffolk (www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/sizewell-c/about). Any decision will be subject to the planning process. Again, there are strong pros and cons.

Yes and no

Sizewell C would provide a handy 3.2 GW. Trade unions say 10,000 jobs and specialist skills would be transferred from Somerset to Suffolk; EDF puts the figure at 70,000 direct and indirect jobs across the UK.

But there are downsides. Hinkley Point C is reported to be some £2.9 billion over budget and six months late. The technical and security relationship with China General Nuclear Power (CGN) would need to be resolved too.

CGN owns a 33% stake in Hinkley Point C; EDF has two thirds. CGN also took a 20% holding in Sizewell C development to gain a construction role. The extra sweetener was that it would design and build a future reactor at Bradwell in Essex.

However, although nuclear stations are seen as huge power sources from relatively small land takes, there is stiff opposition at Sizewell on a natural amenity basis and Net Biodiversity Gain (cieem.net/i-am/current-projects/biodiversity-net-gain).

Follow the money

Another problem might be finance. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) (www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net zero-the-uks-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming) says the cost of reaching net zero by 2050 is £1 trillion (roughly 1.5% of GDP).

Hinkley Point C electricity will cost £92.50/MWh because constructors carried the budget overrun risks. Complex technologies, heavy upfront investments and the long time taken to reach the grid, make large nuclear plants expensive. EDF says the Sizewell C could cost £40 to £60/MWh.

To limit costs, the Government is considering taking part ownership, with consumers charged a small premium to push down financing costs for the £20 billion project as it is built over 10 years.

There are concerns this would transfer delays and cost overruns to consumers and taxpayers. However, a second reactor at Hinkley Point C has been built 30% faster than the first. EDF may need to reassure the Government that risks can be controlled.

But costs could have a brighter side. To meet net zero, some 25 million gas boilers may need to be replaced. Cheap bulk electricity could ease this burden. It could also be used to produce green hydrogen as a natural gas replacement.

Thinking small

Not everyone is thinking big in the same way.

The Government has also committed £385 million to the Advanced Nuclear Fund (www.gov.uk/government/publications/advanced-nuclear-technologies/advanced-nuclear-technologies). Around £215 million will go to designing Generation III water-cooled small modular reactor (SMR) and £170 million to Generation IV advanced modular reactor (AMR) research and development with innovative technologies to lower costs. A further £300 million of private capital could be attracted.

The SMR and AMR global market could be £250 billion to £400 billion by 2035; Greenpeace says risks are the same as conventional reactors.

Away from the weather

The idea is that instead of constructing huge reactors in muddy fields, smaller plants made from hundreds of factory-made modules shipped to site is a better way forward, especially if you get really good at making them in large numbers.

Rolls Royce believes small is beautiful and expects to build 16 mini-nuclear plants in the UK and more for export (www.rolls-royce.com/media/our-stories/innovation/2017/smr.aspx); each of its proposed 440MW SMRs could power Sheffield. Costing £2 billion each, the first could be up and running in 10 years; each would then take two years to build and install.

Fusion rather than fission

Some £400 million will also be invested in UK fusion (joining atoms together) rather than fission (splitting atoms) and the development of the Spherical Tokomak for Energy Production (STEP) reactor (ccfe.ukaea.uk/research/step and step.ukaea.uk) by 2040 which is presently advertising for a new UK home.

Fusion is a long-term hope for an as yet undeveloped technology that is regularly described as being “30 years into the future”.

Fusion heats superhot hydrogen isotopes up to more than 15 million degrees C. This creates the fourth state of matter — plasma — which is compressed in a magnetic field to produce helium and high-speed neutrons as an immense source of energy. The challenge is engineering, not science.

An end to con-fusion

Fusion science started in the 1930 and aims to copy nature where gravity compresses matter at the heart of stars and the Sun until it fuses and releases energy — with minimal radioactive waste.

Unfortunately, to date fusion reactors need more energy to get going than they create. The aim is to reverse this and release thermal energy to drive steam turbine generators.

One plan is to retro-fit a small STEP fusion reactor into an existing fission power station’s infrastructure to cut costs. However, removing exhaust heat is a key challenge — plasma must not touch the walls! However, exit temperatures are expected to be similar to those in car engines.

Floating nuclear

Danish start-up company Seaborg Technologies (www.seaborg.co) want to take low-cost seaborne mini-nukes to customers without grid infrastructure. The first of its kind started generating power for the Russian port of Pevek in the East Siberian Sea in December 2019.

Energy islands

Taking the offshore concept a step further, Denmark has decided to build two energy islands the size of 18 football pitches with 200 wind turbines 80km (50 miles) out in the North Sea that will export enough power for three million homes to mainland Denmark and neighbouring countries.

Probably sites are off the Jutland coast although no details have been released as yet (ens.dk/en/our-responsibilities/wind-power/energy-islands).