Monday, 14 March 2016

Nuclear Plan B

Total UK primary energy consumption is the equivalent of around 2200 tw/h per year, of which electricity accounts for around 350 tw/h. This illustrates our reliance on fossil fuels and the mountain we face if we want to reduce and eliminate them.

We have two models in Europe we can already compare on how we might go about trying.

France has low cost (12p kw/h), low CO2 electricity,  75% of which is supplied by nuclear power plants.

Germany on the other hand shows that even a limited penetration of wind and solar (3.5% of total primary energy consumption) leads to high electricity prices. Getting on for double that of France at 23p kw/h. It’s energy companies have also been suffering record losses.

Energy taxes and subsidies more or less cancel themselves out. Graph above taken from Euan Mearns

The system costs incurred by dispersed , intermittent wind and solar rise with market share. So, if fossil fuels are to be reduced in any meaningful way, wind and solar will be a cripplingly expensive way of doing it.

Only nuclear can power a modern economy at reasonable cost free from fossil fuels.  But due to the large upfront capital costs it has to be planned and financed in the way the French did. Settle on one design, build lots of them quickly, and finance them from Government bonds.

French nuclear supplies electricity at a wholesale price a third of what Hinkley Point C is being offered. It also exports £3bn a year of it at profit.

There is no reason whatsoever that we should ever pay a penny more for our energy than the French are now. That means a reduction in our current bills.

Areva took an existing design, and added more systems and defence in depth. This has proved difficult to build, and it the reason why EDFs finances are in such bad shape.

As reported recently, the Hitachi ABWR could come in at £70 mw/h, when privately financed. Good, but we can do better.

GE-Hitachi have taken that design and gone in the opposite direction of Areva by simplifying and modularising it. The ESBWR has been approved by the American regulators, and is reported to be the safest reactor to get such approval. Designed to be easier to construct, it also has the lower operating costs.

If the UK built twenty of these, over 15 years, financed by bonds, we can benefit from learning curve cost reductions in exactly the same way the French did.

Having a standardised fleet, rather than the nuclear zoo we are currently on course to build, would have other cost and safety advantages too.

Furthermore, there is new fuel technology currently undergoing regulatory approval that can further cut costs and increase safety.  For example Lightbridge all metallic fuel rods can increase power by 30% in a new build reactor, while reducing the fuels operating temperature.

Reactors can make hydrogen from electrolysis or thermochemistry, to power fuel cells or existing gas turbines. High temperature reactors(FHRs), being developed and commercialised in China and the US, can substitute for natural gas using the air Brayton cycle(NACC), thereby reusing existing CCGT infrastructure. This also gives them faster ramping up rates than any current available technology, making them the perfect partner for the limited load following of BWRs.

High temperatures can make CO2 neutral synthetic fuels, using the existing infrastructure for internal combustion engines.

And all nuclear power stations produce lots of hot water as waste, which could instead be used as district heating, making use of the hot water systems most UK households have for gas central heating.

We cannot afford the costly grid and infrastructure upgrades needed in order to accommodate a wind, solar and battery economy.

France has shown us that cheap CO2 free energy is doable. We should copy their example, just don't buy their EPR reactor.


James Higham said...

Go nuclear, young man.

Mark Wadsworth said...


Mark Wadsworth said...

Bayard said...

"Having a standardised fleet, rather than the nuclear zoo we are currently on course to build, would have other cost and safety advantages too."

Standardisation is something the French are good at, mainly thanks to Napoleon, but the UK? Don't make me laugh! Just count the number of different railway gauges (loading and track) and canal lock sizes in the UK.

H said...

Totally right and spot on.

Mike W said...

I agree,
Even some leading Greens, I think, have given qualified support to nuclear. George Mountbot at the Guardian I seem to remember? My qualified view: Nuclear core part of the mix for the next 25/30 years give the applied physicists and engineers time to come up with something better, more efficient, safer for the next generation!
For those that are interested in this area, I am puzzled: why did we go straight from hydrogen test rigs to family cars and miss out heavy freight locomotives on the railways as a tested ‘system’. Railway infrastructure (energy refuel stops), for example, answering most of the criticism levelled at the H car?

Bayard said...

"For those that are interested in this area, I am puzzled: why did we go straight from hydrogen test rigs to family cars and miss out heavy freight locomotives on the railways as a tested ‘system’."

Probably because replacing fossil fuels in railway locomotives isn't as politically advantageous as replacing it in cars. Talking of "tested systems", the concept of the hybrid power train had been around in railway locomotives since the 1950s, yet when it came to hybrid cars, the engineers seem to have started from scratch and come up with a different answer.

Mike W said...

Bayard above,

Thanks, Dam that Dr Beeching :)

I googled around the subject Yep, UK involvement is very depressing from my perspective.A handful of buses and proposed boat!

Stephen Stretton said...

I've always opposed building the EPR design first compared for example to the AP1000. Think about it:
You have one design (EPR) that uses defence-in-depth (i.e. multiple redundant safety systems a.k.a. increasing the complexity of the design) and so-called economies of scale (i.e. make the problem bigger).
Alternatively, you have a design (AP1000) that is an evolution of the existing Sizewell design and uses simplification to achieve the same sorts of ends. Westinghouse used to be owned by BNFL.

Next, it's obvious (and I've always pointed out) that the first reactor will be expensive and over-budget. That's because nobody until recently has built a reactor in Europe. Nuclear has 'learning curve' too, but it's a learning curve associated with each design that is built - the first one is expensive and then you learn how to build it. That's why it's almost always uneconomic to build just one plant - you should be building a series of them. It seems unfair not to take account of this, and the way that it works which is a little different from renewables.

It seems that it's worse than this - the EPR is an engineering failure. Furthermore, EDF does not have huge financial strength at present - another megaproject will give it big financial problems. I'm sure they are playing for time, and learning from the Finnish and Normandy builds before going forward.

In terms of financing, Hinkley is also quite expensive for the UK taxpayer. I think the UK government should look at many options for new nuclear (including R&D) and also look for zero-cost policy. One such policy is to provide a premium 'prize' minimum price (for carbon OR electricity) - but only for a few years - and then concretely plan to increase carbon prices to meet that minimum cost. Starting small would be a good option.

Another option is government debt plus project finance or just for the government to simply plan to build a lot. Remember, the first one is always going to be over-budget - that's the way it works.

None of this has really changed since I've written about it 10 years ago.
Nuclear is important but we shouldn't be doing down either it or renewables. There's plenty of space for both, and even wind in moderate quantities especially. The goal is a fully electric energy system, so it's likely the UK needs slightly more than 100GW (average use) for all our energy needs.

Globally, massive solar in deserts plus some modular, mass produced reactors. The Chinese government has a massive savings surplus in tens of trillions of dollars to spend over the next few decade. They could do worse by spending their saving surplus on engineering a solution to climate change.

Stephen Stretton said...

Apologies a correction. My own estimate was actually 160GWh/h (1400Twh/year) total electricity generation, of which 100GWh/h (880Twh/year) would be nuclear. See: Spreadsheet

Mark Wadsworth said...

SS, good correction but I don't think many people will have notiiced the original typo.

Most people including me get hopelessly confused when multiplying up electricity usage or generation.

Stephen Stretton said...

What units do you think about energy in, Mark?

Mark Wadsworth said...

SS, I understand that a kettle uses 2 kWh, and I can multiply up and I know how many units show up on my bill, it's just that total consumption is in kWh or MWh etc but power stations are quoted in thousands of MW, which is per hour, so to get total amount generated you have to multiply by hours they are switched on etc. And then you have to remember kW, MW, GW and TW etc.

Bayard said...

Mark, I think you are getting confused. Your kettle has a power rating of 2kW. If you boiled it continuously for an hour, you would have used 2KWh. Power is measured in KW, consumption is measured in kWh.

Mark Wadsworth said...

B. I'm not that daft.

My 2 kW kettle boils a cup of water in (say) 2 minutes, so it uses 2 kW x 2/60 hours = 1/15 of a kWh each time. A kWh costs me (say) 10 pence so each time I boil the kettle, it costs me a bit less than a penny. Running an oven for an hour costs 10p etc.

That's not the problem, the problem is multiplying up all this stuff by 28 million households and million of businesses, expressing the result it kW, MW, GW and TW and kWh MWh, GWh or TWh as appropriate. You can't guesstimate those results, you have to look them up or know them off by heart.

Stephen Stretton said...

The easiest numbers for me are personal average consumption rates for uk citizens - slightly less than 1kW electricity (including all infrastructure) average per person usage and 5kW (or 5 kiloJoules per second if you prefer) of all primary energy. (Food is about 100W). Multiplying this by 60 million we get 60gw of electricity (somewhat over the true figure which was more like 40-50GW last time I checked) and 300GW of all energy.

Stephen Stretton said...

The other factor is number of hours in a year which is 365*24 or 8800 roughly. So if you have to multiply GW into TWh per year, multiply by 8.8

Bayard said...

"B. I'm not that daft.

My 2 kW kettle boils a cup of water in (say) 2 minutes, so it uses 2 kW x 2/60 hours = 1/15 of a kWh each time."

Well then, why did you say "I understand that a kettle uses 2 kWh"? You can see why I thought you were confused, or was that a typo?

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, fair point.

Lola said...

SS. I totally agree about building more than one design of anything, especially something as complex as a nuclear power station. And in such projects versions 2 to n are always slightly improved each time as well. A little bit of extra refinement each time.