Science in Society Archive

A Dangerous Nuclear White Elephant

The UK government is bound and determined to build a power station that even supporters of nuclear power say is far too expensive; meanwhile renewable energy generation is streaking ahead with flexible energy storage technologies making both fossil fuel and nuclear energy redundant Prof Peter Saunders

It looks like the £24.5bn nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is going ahead. The UK government has agreed a strike price of £92.50/MWh – more than double the current wholesale cost of electricity – with the supplier Electricité de France (EDF). It has somehow convinced the European Commission that the £17bn subsidy will not distort the market, though Austria has filed a legal challenge with the European Court of Justice. While other western investors have refused to get involved, two Chinese state energy companies are collaborating with EDF.

The government claims to believe this is a good deal but almost nobody else does, apart from EDF and the Chinese government. EDF only decided to go ahead when the government broke its promise to UK taxpayers and consumers that there would be no subsidy and agreed an eye-watering strike price. China too expects to profit from favourable terms including a £2 bn UK government loan guarantee for its investment [1]. China also sees the project as opening a way into western markets because part of the deal is that China will be allowed to construct a second reactor on its own; a sort of a loss leader, except that any loss will be picked up by the British taxpayer.

Almost everyone who has looked carefully at the project recognises it as a bad deal for the UK. That includes banks like HSBC, energy suppliers such as RWE Npower (and Centrica and E.ON who backed out long ago), and individuals such as Lord Howell of Guildford, a former conservative energy secretary (and the father in law of George Osborne, the Chancellor). Even George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have written to the Guardian to oppose the new reactor [2].

The Labour Party, which began the current push for nuclear power when in government under Tony Blair and still supports it in general, now agrees with the majority view that Hinkley Point is far too expensive [3].

All those mentioned are in favour of nuclear energy, despite all the evidence to the contrary (see below) and still believe it essential for UK to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets. They are unmoved by the experience of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and also of the Windscale fire of 1957 and the overall poor safety record of Sellafield. Their objection is simply that Hinkley Point is a very bad deal.

Advantages of nuclear?

Let’s look at some of the arguments being put forward to justify nuclear energy in general and Hinkley Point in particular.

Only nuclear can keep the lights on

This is the traditional argument for nuclear power, and it is simply not true. We have shown in detail how renewables could both supply the UK’s energy needs and satisfy our greenhouse gas reduction targets ([4], Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, ISIS publication), and of course Germany has already committed itself to doing just that. What is more, in its 2011 “Pathways” report, the UK government included 16 scenarios each of which could achieve the required 80% reduction in emissions while supplying sufficient energy. Of these, 6 involved no new nuclear build [5].

Not only is nuclear power not essential, the government has known this all along, though it carefully avoided drawing it to the attention of the MPs when they were voting for the new nuclear fleet [6].

We need to replace the present generating capacity

One of the justifications given for building a new nuclear fleet was that it was the only way of replacing the old nuclear stations that are reaching the end of their operating lives and coal-fired stations that emit too much greenhouse gas.

It was generally agreed that there was a problem, but we and others doubted it would be possible to build enough nuclear stations quickly enough to solve it. That was in 2008 when it was expected that the first of the new fleet would be producing electricity by 2019. That date has already been put back to 2023, and recently Jean-Bernard Levy, the chief executive of EDF, has confirmed that the new date too will not be met [7]. He did not say when he now expects it to be completed, but experience of the similar reactors at Olkiluoto and Flamanville is hardly encouraging.

In contrast, renewables could start to close the gap now. For example, in 2014 the Department of Energy and Climate Change estimated that by 2017 there could be 11.3GW of solar photovoltaic power being produced – over three times the 3.2GW capacity of Hinkley Point and available years sooner [8]. (We can’t say how many years sooner because no one knows when Hinkley Point might be completed.)

Base Load

The nuclear lobby seems to be quietly giving up on the claim that without nuclear it will not be possible to supply enough low-carbon energy. So they now use a slightly different argument. Because neither solar nor wind is available 24/7 they insist, we need nuclear power stations to provide a base load supply. This assertion is false at least since 2013. Renewable energy is rapidly making fossil fuel, and perforce, nuclear energy redundant (see [9] Age of Oil Ending, SiS 65).

Renewables and energy storage a happy marriage

There are, of course, other renewable sources of energy that do not have the same problem of being intermittent, among them biogas, biomass, hydroelectric and tidal. For this reason cables are being laid to link the complementary German and Norwegian systems (the former depending largely on solar and wind, the latter on hydroelectric) [10]. Furthermore, Germany has been actively transforming its national grid into an organic structure that makes a virtue of local generation and storage [11] (Renewable Ousting Fossil Energy, SiS 60) since 2013, the year that renewables started to out-compete fossil fuels globally.  

A familiar way to store electrical energy is in batteries. In the past this was only practicable for small amounts, but recent developments have changed the picture completely [12] (Distributed Grid Energy Storage Comes of Age with Renewables, SiS 65). Distributed energy storage is becoming a new grid asset as ideal companion to renewables, offering demand response, flexibility, energy efficiency, stability and resilience of supply, replacing costly ‘peaking’ power plants and other conventional infrastructure requirements.  There are now lithium-ion batteries that can give electric cars the same performance and range as those powered by petrol or diesel. They are also being sold for domestic use. Together with smart meters, they allow you to store electricity when there is an ample supply and use it when you would otherwise have to buy from the grid at a high rate. This works out well for the householder and helps level out the load on the grid.

Very large capacity lithium-ion batteries are also coming on to the market. AES Southland has just announced that it will deliver to Southern California Edison a lithium ion battery that can provide 100MW of power for a total of four hours [13].  Another new alternative is flow batteries. These can be very large capacity because the charge is stored in large tanks of liquid rather than on the plates as in the more common lead-acid batteries [14] (Going With the Flow Battery, SiS 62).

Storage can be important even if all generation is based on fossil fuels because while production may be more or less level, demand is not. It is not economical to produce at the maximum required rate all the time, and even gas-powered generators cannot be switched on and off quickly. That’s why batteries capable of levelling out the supply are already being developed and installed; the technology did not have to wait for the growth of solar and wind before it became commercially important.

In recent years the electronics on which renewables depend have been rapidly becoming more efficient and much cheaper. The typical pattern is that the first practicable systems are based on expensive materials, generally metals and semi-conductors. As they become commercially important, scientists and engineers soon discover how to use much cheaper materials. Solar cells can be made from the common mineral perovskite instead of expensively purified silicon. Flow batteries can use an easily synthesised organic molecule instead of vanadium. Solid state batteries can use sodium instead of lithium; not only is sodium cheaper, sodium-ion batteries do not present a fire hazard [15]. But while new materials are getting to proof of concept remarkably quickly, devices using the old ones are improving so rapidly that they are mostly remaining competitive.  Either way, costs continue to fall.

Renewables are already a much better bargain than nuclear. Experience shows, however, that in time, renewables get cheaper and cheaper and nuclear gets more and more expensive. Hinkley Point is a bad deal today; it will look even worse in 35 years’ time when our children and grandchildren will be obliged to buy electricity from EDF at a price far above what other providers will be charging.

To conclude

Why is the government still so firmly committed to Hinkley Point? Why have they kept pushing the project as the cost rose from the £5.6 bn in the 2008 White Paper (p61)  to the current estimate of £24.5bn? As late as 2013 they still believed – or said they believed – that there wouldn’t be a subsidy [16], yet the very next year they were offering a subsidy of £18 bn, later reduced to £17 bn at the insistence of the EU. Even that doesn’t include the agreement to limit EDF’s liability for an accident to £1 bn; when Fukushima is expected to cost at least £47 bn and probably a lot more [17]. Why did they agree a strike price of £92.50/MWh in 2014 when EDF had said in 2008 [18] that it could produce nuclear power at £45/MWh? Why have they slashed support for renewables and surrendered without a fight to some of their backbenchers’ objections to onshore wind? Not only does this leave the UK with no plan B, it put it in a very weak bargaining position because the suppliers, realising that the government cannot walk away, were free to negotiate very favourable terms for themselves, and they did. (For more on the increase in cost, see [19] Spiralling Cost of Nuclear Power Station, SiS 66.)

None of this has had any effect on the government, at least not yet. Though it may be that whatever they say in public, there are those in Westminster and Whitehall who are coming to realise that Hinkley Point is an exceptionally bad deal. It’s encouraging not just that the Labour opposition recently changed its stance but that this was not opposed by those MPs, possibly the majority, who had backed Hinkley Point up until then. Perhaps the next major setback, say another increase in cost or serious technical problem, will cause the government to think again. And from the experience of Olkiluoto and Flamanville, we can be confident that there will be another major setback.

Update

Things have indeed got worse, and much sooner than we expected. On 21 October, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)  issued a Departmental Minute announcing that it proposes to change the terms of the contract for Hinkley Point with neither debate in Parliament nor public discussion. The subsidy could now be as much as £20bn and there will be further guarantees for insurance and the disposal of nuclear waste. Should the UK or the EU force Hinkley Point to close early, EDF and the Chinese government could receive up to £22bn compensation. The plant’s owners can make a profit of more than 11% before any share of the gains have to be shared with customers, more than double the level for subsidised renewable operators [20].

We know about this not because the Minute was made public – it was not – but because the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, put down an Early Day Motion [21] objecting to it. The government will still get its way, but at least it has been forced to acknowledge its latest handout to the nuclear industry. No wonder they feel they have to cut the subsidies for wind and solar: they need the money to pour into the bottomless pit of nuclear.

On 21 October, the DECC issued a press release with the title “Hinkley Point C to power six million UK homes” [22] The second sentence in the fourth bullet point in the Notes to Editors at the end of the document is: “The Government confirms that it is not continuing the ‘no public subsidy policy’ of the previous administration.” Note that it doesn’t say there has been a policy change, only an admission of what everybody knew all along.

The government is doing its utmost to conceal its policies from the public. They are clearly ashamed of what they are doing, but would rather waste billions of pounds of our money than admit they were wrong.

Article first published 05/10/15



References

  1. “Hinkley Point deal closer after Osborne’s £2bn guarantee.” The Week, 21 September, 2015. http://www.theweek.co.uk/60778/hinkley-point-deal-closer-after-osbornes-2bn-guarantee
  2. “We are pro-nuclear but Hinkley C must be scrapped.” George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall, The Guardian, 18 September, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/18/we-are-pro-nuclear-but-hinkley-c-must-be-scrapped
  3. Hinkley Point response – Lisa Nandy. Labour Party press release, 21 September, 2015. http://press.labour.org.uk/post/129560286814/hinkley-point-response-lisa-nandy  2/10/15
  4. “Nuclear power plants in ‘culture of denial’ over hacking risk.” Sam Jones, Financial Times, 5 October, 2015. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b5f0df54-6aa1-11e5-aca9d87542bf8673.html?ftcamp=crm/email/2015105/nbe/CompaniesBySector/product#axzz3ngN2T5DQ
  5. Baylon C, Brunt R and Livingstone D. Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities. Chatham House Report, September 2015.
  6. Ho MW, Greaves S and Saunders PT. Death Camp Fukushima Chernobyl, ISIS Special Report, ISIS, London, 2012, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Announcing_Death_Camp_Fukushima_Chernobyl.php
  7. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GreenEnergies.php
  8. Department of Energy and Climate Change (2010). 2050 Pathways Analysis. http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/what%20we%20do/a%20low%20carbon%20uk/2050/216-2050-pathways-analysis-report.pdf
  9. Bailey R and Blair L (2012). A Corruption of Governance? Association for the Conservation of Energy and Unlock Democracy. http://www.ukace.org/publications/ACE%20Campaigns%20%282012-01%29%20-%20Corruption%20of%20Governance%20-%20Jan%202012 3/05/12.
  10. “Hinkley Point nuclear plant delayed, says EDF.” Roger Harrabin, BBC News, 4 September, 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34149392
  11. “Push for solar power that could cover a hundred Olympic parks.” Edward Malnick and Robert Mendick, Daily Telegraph, 22 June 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/solarpower/10136576/Push-for-solar-power-that-could-cover-a-hundred-Olympic-parks.html 5/10/13
  12. Ho MW. Age of oil ending? Science in Society 65, 2-5, 2015.
  13. “Norway to become Germany’s energy reservoir. Gero Reuter, DW, 16 February 2015. http://www.dw.com/en/norway-to-become-germanys-energy-reservoir/a-18256802 1/10/15
  14. Ho MW. Renewable ousting fossil energy. Science in Society 60, 32-35, 2013.
  15. Ho MW. Distributed grid energy storage comes of age with renewables. Science in Society 65, 18-21, 2015.
  16. “The World’s Largest Lithium-Ion Battery is Coming to Southern California Edison” Timon Singh, Inhabit, 26 November 2014. http://inhabitat.com/the-worlds-largest-lithium-ion-battery-is-coming-to-southern-california-edison/
  17. Saunders PT. Going with the flow battery. Science in Society 62 48-49, 2014.
  18. Sodium-ion batteries ‘set to challenge’ dominant lithium-ion technology. Stuart Nathan, The Engineer, 15 May 2015. http://www.theengineer.co.uk/energy/news/sodium-ion-batteries-set-to-challenge-dominant-lithium-ion-technology/1020369.article
  19. Nuclear Industrial Strategy: The UK’s Nuclear Future. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 2013, p3.
  20. “Japan: Fukushima bill could skyrocket.” International Business Times, 2 June, 2011. http://m.ibtimes.com/japan-fukushima-bill-could-skyrocket-155970.html  20/07/11.
  21. “EDF chief Vincent de Rivaz's nuclear vision aims to inspire a generation.” E Gosden, Daily Telegraph, 12 August, 2012.. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/9470555/EDF-chief-Vincent-de-Rivazs-nuclear-vision-aims-to-inspire-a-generation.html    19/4/13.
  22. Saunders PT. Spiralling cost of nuclear power station. Science in Society 66 42-43, 2015.

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There are 5 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Todd Millions Comment left 6th October 2015 21:09:58
The Elephant balloon is good. But it might be time to fly a pig with the prime minister "mounted" on it-over and by the Battersea plant again.With the anti nuke message blazed on the only creature depicted in the tableau with the wit too make the necessary connections.I'm sure J. Waters &Co will waive their copy right. Renewables International.net in the comments section of various posts is informing me via links that some times translate(mainly) that all French nuke components over the last 20 years are constructed with defective steel-and were known too be when they were approved. I thought this was neutron embrittlement showing up.Nope-its slag voids and -Sulphur! The new nuc nymph-S.Royal seems too be using a blackmail strategy for the closing of old plants.But only when the new (also slaggy) ones are operating! While EDF is soaking up goverment subsidy for wind and solar projects in the Dumbinion of Canaduh -I've no doubt that this will be most useful too subsudies her expanded slaggy bomb projects.Bob Nichols-'Your radiation this week' is reporting radiation counts up too 2200-1000 CPM all over the continental US- I can't make sense of the dispersion.Omerta rules on the cause.Atom and Oil mafias in the US are also 'superb'on this subsidy game.

Theresa Comment left 7th October 2015 16:04:03
Watch out.... http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/science-and-technology-committee/news-parliament-2015/evidence-science-budget-final-session-15-16/

algimantas k bronisas Comment left 8th October 2015 06:06:43
has anyone bothered to calculate what 24.5 billion would buy in renewable solar,wind or tidal energy .....without the necessity of dealing with life destroying nuclear substances or leaving a large piece of mother earth unusable for a thousand years(nuclear plant site and its environs).......its not the "government"thats firmly committed to hinkley point....its certain sociopathic individuals in government and the the multinational industrial,nuclear,military complex ....a sinister web of influence that habitually feeds in the pig trough of public funds.....(i.e.Osbornes 2 billion guarantee)with patience they can all be uncovered and named....these powerful parasites from experience know THE BIGGER THE PROJECT THE GREATER THE GRAFT....AND IF YOURE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIT IN COST OVERRUNS AND PROJECT DELAYS ...ITS A CASH COW THAT PAYS BENEFITS NEARLY FOREVER....of course nuclear projects are the biggest projects of all(exceeding even military graft)....hence their desirability.....the arcane technology doesn't allow close scrutiny of costs for technology,methodology or materials.....nuclear plants are public money free for alls.......the free electric sun in the sky should be the obvious solution for earths energy needs....but that requires consciously evolved leaders.....alas

Todd Millions Comment left 12th November 2015 16:04:01
Should we form a 'coop' and counter bid with a proposal that has guarantees robbing the British taxpayer of a mere 11 Billion? And after having received it Not- built anything? Surely a win win all around! My compliments too Ms. Lucas .Adroitly done. Our Green leader hasn't managed anything so skilled. Worse, when she's drunk-she speaks the truth! As we all know one of those items is completely beyond the pale and unacceptable under the Westminster tradition. Thanx for this important update and sorry for calling you Surely.(Wry)

Todd Millions Comment left 14th November 2015 21:09:26
Bob Nichols Your Radiation this Week (Veterans Today)#30 reports a new unacknowledged 'Pulse' on Nov 13. This one showing a center of Denver CO. With 2700cpm of combined Gamma & beta. "Similar Rad Signature to Sept 30 pulse centered on Champlain Illinois."(Para). Again Omerta rules.No reports showing for Spokane Wa. My upwind station.But Billings Montana and Bismark ND are up with this pulse.Perhaps the build up and continued support both federally and provincially for Saskatchewan's extensive uranium industry was- Regrettably misplaced? My parents were asking that question. It seems such a good deal-If you count like an inbred Mennonite!For such, the genetic defects take(slightly) longer too become obvious. So we again hit Gore Vidal's postulate(from;Creation)-"If you can't count properly,you shouldn't go to market.Or to war."

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