Can Europe Make It?

Time to move beyond nuclear tribalism

"Question: Is nuclear power good or bad?

 Answer: No. Some nuclear is good, some is bad. For example, the Govt. should support an IFR."

Stephen Tindale
1 October 2015
Demo at Hinkley Point on first anniversary of Fukushima disaster.

Demo at Hinkley Point on first anniversary of Fukushima disaster. Demotix/Adela Nistora. All rights reserved.Technology tribalism is one of the continuing frustrations of the energy policy ‘debate’: my technology is better than yours, so I will oppose yours. Many renewable energy supporters oppose nuclear, and vice-versa. There is even tech tribalism between supporters of different renewable energy technologies. Solar, wind, biomass, hydro, marine renewables cannot even agree to be part of the same trade association.

The climate crisis is now so great that all low-carbon energy sources are required, along with dramatic progress on energy efficiency. The challenge is not to expand nuclear or renewables, but to expand nuclear AND renewables, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) too.

A transformational movement needs a clear opponent, but climate campaigners already have one: coal. The coal industry is a powerful enough global opponent to keep us busy for several decades. Arguing among ourselves about whose technology is best leaves the field clear for the worst energy technology – coal without CCS – to carry on destroying climate stability and so threatening the survival of humanity.

I spent 20 years campaigning against nuclear power, including a stint as Executive Director of Greenpeace UK. Then I decided that I had been wrong, and said so. Friends and former colleagues (and some of them former friends…) advised me to keep quiet. But, having been a fairly prominent nuclear opponent, I felt an obligation to speak out. And I’m not a politician, so don’t have to worry about admitting mistakes and performing u-turns.

If challenged, I can always quote John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?” Having been director of an anti-nuclear campaign group, I’m now director of the UK’s first pro-nuclear charity, Weinberg Next Nuclear. At least this means that I’m familiar with both sides of the argument. An MSR was constructed and operated successfully in the US in the 1960s by Dr Alvin Weinberg (after whom my organisation is named), but then closed down by President Nixon because an MSR does not provide plutonium for nuclear weapons.

I’m now pro-nuclear. However, supporting nuclear power as part of the energy mix does not mean supporting all nuclear proposals, any more than supporting wind power means supporting all wind farm proposals. With wind, location must be assessed. With nuclear power, the key issue is reactor design. The UK needs new nuclear power stations. New nuclear power stations will require subsidy, as all low carbon energy sources do.

But the Government should drop the plan to subsidise a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) at Hinkley. The EPR is an old-fashioned, overly-complex design. The EPRs under construction in Finland and France are many years over time and vastly over budget. Even in China, where infrastructure is usually delivered on time and on budget (the Chinese government doesn’t worry too much about NIMBYs…) EPRs under construction are running late and costing more than expected.

Instead, the British government should support the simpler reactor designs proposed for Wylfa on Anglesey and Moorside in Cumbria. It should also invest around £20 million (small beer in nuclear economics terms) to get prototypes of advanced nuclear reactor designs built in the UK. One of these should be a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). An MSR was constructed and operated successfully in the US in the 1960s by Dr Alvin Weinberg (after whom my organisation is named), but then closed down by President Nixon because an MSR does not provide plutonium for nuclear weapons.

An MSR uses liquid fuel, so the core cannot melt down. It can also re-use spent nuclear fuel. Fuel that has been through a nuclear reactor is referred to as waste, but in fact still contains over 80% of the energy that was in the original uranium.  And an MSR can use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, the legacy of two decades of reprocessing at Sellafield. Plutonium can be mixed with uranium into Mixed-Oxide (MOx) fuel, then used in conventional nuclear reactors.

But, like the European Pressurised Reactor, this approach fails the economic test. The Mox plant constructed at Sellafield in the 1990s was an economic fiasco and has been closed down. The Government is now considering what to do with the plutonium stockpile (as it was when I worked for a previous government in 1997-2000 – discussions about plutonium do not move rapidly…) and is quite widely expected to decide on a radical and innovative approach – another MOx plant.

A much more sensible approach, in economic, industrial and environmental terms, would be to built an advanced nuclear plant which could use the legacy of past nuclear activities – ‘waste’ and plutonium – as fuel. Several companies are working on MSR proposals which they will submit to the UK’s nuclear regulator for assessment in the next couple of years. If the regulator finds that a design meets regulatory requirement, the Government should support it. The UK has the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, the legacy of two decades of reprocessing at Sellafield. 

The Government should also support an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Like an MSR, an IFR can use waste and plutonium as fuel, does not provide plutonium for bombs and uses liquid fuel so cannot melt down. An IFR is a fast reactor but not a fast-breeder reactor, which means that it does not ‘breed’ new fuel from the fuel put into it. The UK has tried a fast-breeder reactor at Dounreay. This was a scientific and technological success, but an economic failure.

GE Hitachi have submitted a proposal for an IFR, called PRISM, to the nuclear regulator for assessment. Again, if the regulator finds that the design meets regulatory requirement, the Government should support it.

IFR and MSR developers need three things from government. First, an indication that the regulators should give priority to assessing these technologies. The Government must not – and in the UK will not – tell the regulator what the assessment should conclude. But in this age of austerity regulators do not have enough resources or personnel to do everything that is within the portfolio. They have to set priorities, and it is consistent with the notion of independent regulation for a government to indicate what the priorities should be. They do not require uranium enriched to weapons grade, and do not produce weapons-usable plutonium. So what’s not to like?

Second, sites for prototype construction which already have nuclear licences. This should not be a difficulty in the UK – given our history there are plenty of licenced nuclear sites. Third, some money. A small government grant would leverage substantial quantities of private sector investment. Private capital is available, and many potential investors have shown significant interest. A public grant would, on the ‘money where your mouth is’ principle, be a strong signal that the Government is serious in its support for advanced nuclear power.

Given their designs, IFRs and MSRs could provide cheaper electricity than existing nuclear reactors do. But until one has been built and demonstrated, we do not know, and the nuclear industry should be very careful about any claims about price. In the 1950s the industry was claiming that atomic power would be ‘too cheap to meter’. That went well. Instead, the industry should emphasise that all forms of low-carbon energy will require subsidy until there is a meaningful price on carbon emissions, about ten times as high as the existing EU price. Which will not happen any time soon. 

Advanced nuclear reactors could generate low-carbon electricity while using up the legacy of past nuclear activites. They could generate electricity even more safely than existing nuclear reactors do (though in terms of deaths per amount of electricity generated, nuclear power is already the safest electricity source). They do not require uranium enriched to weapons grade, and do not produce weapons-usable plutonium. So what’s not to like? 

The answers from many greens is that renewable energy is best, so we should go all out for renewables, as the German government is doing since Chancellor Merkel’s post-Fukushima u-turn and promise to close all German nuclear stations by 2022. If I had to choose, I would also go for renewables over nuclear power. But I don’t have to choose and - more importantly - neither does the UK. We need both. 

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