We feel like we have been here many times before.
The troubled history of Britain’s replacement nuclear power station Hinckley Point C (HPC) will have received scant, if any, coverage in the U.S.
But the story is an illustration of the blind alley in which nuclear power finds itself. The debate is one that is being (or will be) enacted in many other countries that rely on nuclear power as part of their energy mix.
Eight years behind schedule, HPC should have come on stream by the end of this year, but is not now likely before 2025 at the earliest (and probably later even than that distant date).
In the meantime, repeated delays have added to the costs.
A Rising Price Tag
Now estimated at £19.6 billion ($26 billion), it would be one of the most expensive structures ever built in the U.K. Last year, the British government pushed the financial risk onto French power generator and owner-to-be of the plant EDF Energy as part of a deal that has already settled on an eyewatering £92.50/MWhr fee for power produced, index linked for 35 years, the Financial Times reported.
Since that part of the agreement was made in 2013, inflation has pushed that figure to over £100/MWhr, the Financial Times reported, compared to offshore wind at £60/MWhr and unsubsidized new natural gas generation at even less.
Never mind the rights and wrongs on how an inept series of U.K. government politicians and civil servants got lobbied into agreeing to such a position. The fact remains no one, probably not even EDF themselves — and certainly not their shareholders — really wants the project to go ahead.
Fortunately, alternatives are emerging.
Part of the rationale for HPC was that in an age of growing but variable renewable power sources, such as wind and solar, the country needed a reliable, always on, low carbon base load power supply.
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Nuclear isn’t zero-emission and estimates of the energy needed to build the massive plants suggest the carbon footprint of the site is substantial before a single KW is produced. However, such numbers are not counted in the estimates so much like the massive hidden CO2 footprint of biomass – deforestation, pelletizing and transportation costs – they can be ignored or conveniently overlooked when lauding environmental achievements.
Lower carbon power sources are emerging and finally governments, in the U.K. and elsewhere, are giving them some semblance of recognition.
A New Kind of Nuclear
Rolls Royce has made reliable mini-reactors for submarines for decades and China has a model called the Nimble Dragon, designed by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), that a recent Reuters report suggested could be produced commercially now and gain licensing within a couple of years. The small modular reactor (SMR) is initially seen by developers as a solution for more remote sites, where its cost is more competitive than extending power grids.
But as factory line manufacturing becomes more automated and unit volumes rise, costs per MWhr will fall. SMRs typically have a capacity of less than 300 megawatts (MW) — enough to power around 200,000 homes — compared to at least 1 gigawatt (GW) for standard reactors and the 3.2 GW planned capacity of HPC.
Supporters suggest multiple SMRs could be sited together at pre-existing nuclear sites as old facilities reach the end of their life. This makes use of existing distribution infrastructure, a local skilled workforce and a receptive local community.
SMRs and Beyond
Rolls Royce and China’s CNNC are far from alone. Related: OPEC Producers Unmoved By U.S. Shale Threat In Asia
In the U.S., Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox have been developing their own SMRs, along with smaller start-ups, like the Bill Gates-backed Terrapower, Reuters reports. Surely, the U.K. government should have had the courage to hold off from signing off HPC to put support into new technologies like SMRs, even if in the interim it meant supporting a natural-gas-powered plant like Drax’s planned expansion — which we reported on earlier this week — coming in at a fraction of HPC’s cost.
Many feel a combination of huge cost and public fears, justified or otherwise, post-Fukushima are sounding the death knell for major nuclear reactor plants, even in places previously enthusiastic about nuclear energy, like China.
That doesn’t mean the power source itself is dead. Nuclear could well have a more flexible future as multiple simpler, cheaper and distributed SMRs play a vital role balancing renewables’ contribution to the energy mix.
By AG Metal Miner
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And the most ironic part of all this? EDF - the company behind the high costs of nuclear in the UK forms part of the consortium that submitted this very $17.90 MWh bid for solar. In other words, they like to milk UK tax payers for insanely expensive electricity prices and know how to get cheap electricity when no subsidies are to be gained...
The fuel chain would therefore require costly and dangerous transport of those nuclear waste products, requiring much expensive security. The SMRs themselves would require expensive security, and still would leave toxic wastes .
Economically, SMRs would not be even considered without mass production, requiring mass orders beforehand, - a highly dubious risk.
It is revealing that they are touted as "SMRs" - leaving out that unpopular word "nuclear". Without a massive publicity campaign and tax-payer funding, these SMNRs have no hope of getting off the ground. I suspect that it is only the need of the military machine for continued nuclear expertise that really requires the development of gee-whiz new nuclear (of any kind)
The article barely mentions renewable energy - as an alternative in itself. Renewables have no real need for nuclear back-up
All that said, his support of SMRs is welcome. I also have come to believe that the large reactor model is not the path forward; not in the developed world anyway (which lacks the rapidly increasing demand which helps the case for large reactors). Outside of China, demand is insufficient to require a large enough number of large reactors for the industry to ever get good at building them.
We need large volume fabrication of small (identical) modules. We need those modules to be delivered to users as a *product*, as opposed to having nuclear companies and local utilities getting together to perform a long-term, large scale *project*. At the site, they need to be able to simply put in place the delivered reactor module, much the same way that they simply put in place a delivered gas turbine. That business model as worked well for the renewables industry, as well as most industries in general, as the way to steadily reduce costs, and deliver products reliably, on time and on budget (price).
If solar is the panacea it's claimed to be, why is Saudi Arabia also pursuing nuclear? 16 reactors, I'm told. Could it be that the sun doesn't always shine, or that there are additional costs (or subsidies) not included in those low quotes per kW-hr costs?
Yes, SMRs would run on low-enriched uranium. Not plutonium. (Some would use thorium.) That is, the same fuel that large reactors have always used. How is it that large reactors are required to generate their fuel??? We would just mine and enrich uranium ore, just like we always have.
As SMRs are incapable of inflicting any significant public harm, they would NOT require expensive security (if we were sane, anyway). In the near term, SMRs can be built on existing reactor sites, thus making use of existing security. The nuclear fuel chain is not costly; it amounts to a fraction of a cent/kW-hr. Nuclear waste transport costs are completely negligible (< 0.01 cent/kW-hr), in part due to the tiny volume of material. Nuclear waste disposal costs a 0.1-0.2 cents/kW-hr, and is already included in the price.
Yes, most designs would produce the same wastes; the same old negligible problem that has always been many orders of magnitude smaller than the problems caused by the waste steams and pollution of other energy sources (even solar's waste stream is much larger and lasts longer than nuclear waste). Fossil fuel wastes/pollution have killed millions and are the cause of global warming. Nuclear power wastes have never harmed anyone.
Yes, the SMR model relies on large-volume production of small units. It's just like the renewables industry in that regard. Solar and wind would not have been economically considered in small volumes either. Oh wait, maybe they would. After all, they've always enjoyed massive subsidies and/or outright mandates for their use, regardless of cost. In the past, Germans paid over 50 cents/kW-hr for solar. Perhaps a mandate for a certain fraction of power be provided by SMRs! What do you think?
Renewables have no need for nuclear backup?? Intermittent sources need backup. You must be referring to the fact that they don't need nuclear backup because they can use fossil backup instead (which is what they've been doing). Well, you're right, they can use fossil backup instead. As a result, renewables will likely lock us into a large amount of fossil fuel use. Also, when renewables subsidies/mandates have caused nuclear plant closures, they've actually caused emissions to rise, as the nukes are invariably replaced with either all fossil or (at best) a combination of renewables and fossil.
The fundamental problem is that whether through ulterior motives or profound ignorance, our decision makers are making the wrong decisions on nuclear energy and have been for decades.