What a nuclear future used to look like.

Nuclear Closures

The scheduled closures of nuclear power stations in the UK. The vertical scale shows the generating capacity in GWe - the UK needs around 60 GWe. The horizontal scale runs from 2003 to 2035. The very earliest a nuclear power station could be opened would be in around 2022 - a decade from now. (Click for Larger version)

I may be wrong, but my impression is that the UK has no electricity generation strategy. I do not doubt that everyone in government wishes fervently for an electricity supply which is sustainable and affordable. But wishing is not enough: they need to make sure that it happens. Achieving ‘sustainable electricity generation’ and ‘affordable electricity’ is a really difficult engineering problem – let alone any political dimension.

Listening to energy minister Charles Hendry talking today (Sunday 29th April 2012 – listenable for 1 week) I was struck by his utter failure to address the engineering challenge we face. In contrast Sue Ion – a nuclear enthusiast – was completely on the ball even on the magnitude of the renewable commitment we needed to make. I decided to find out who she was.

Sue Ion

Professor Sue Ion OBE FREng

In 2009 i.e. pre Fukushima – she gave a talk at the Royal Academy of Engineering in which she presented her vision of how we could build a nuclear-powered future in the UK. It is interesting to listen now and see how much things have changed. As I mentioned recently, I am skeptical that we will build even one more nuclear power station – and doubly skeptical that the nuclear future she outlined could ever come true. But this is one of the clearest presentations I have yet seen of the case for nuclear power. I am sure not everyone will agree with her views, but they are well expressed. Take a look and see what you think.

With three years of hindsight two excerpts struck me as significant. In the first, she pointed out that nuclear fuel was only a small fraction of the cost of a nuclear electricity. The largest component was the repayment of the capital borrowed for construction of the plant. Since the financial crash of 2008,it has become considerably harder to find anyone willing to lend the £10 billion required for each power station. The second salient point arose in the Q&A session at the end in which she summed up our problem in one sentence:

What is required is a stable situation in which investors will place their orders

We don’t have that stability, and I see no prospect that it will return in the near future.

Useful notes (from which the figure of the head of the page was taken) can be found here


5 Responses to “What a nuclear future used to look like.”

  1. Bernard Naylor Says:

    The electricity industry was privatised about twenty years ago. At that time we were told that ‘the market will ensure the continuing supply of electricity’. That is of course absolute nonsense. There is no way that a fragmented industry, looking only at the market place, can ever ensure that ‘the lights don’t go out’. So the government gets drawn in – but in this case rather late in the day, when the spectre of supply failing to meet demand ( = the lights going out) is looming ever closer.
    You can see the same thing happening with the railways. HS2 (the high speed rail line to the North) has required (for better or worse) government intervention and a government decision. And even then we are seeing ‘too little too late’. Compare our pathetic plans for HS2 (not to be completed until after 2030!) with the rapid expansion of a complete high-speed rail system in Spain – not to mention the French TGV.
    The story with water supply or gas supply is very similar. If an industry is nationally strategic, privatisation makes it difficult or impossible to carry out the necessary strategic planning. Watch out for the same thing happening with education and health care!
    It is not in the nature of private industry to do things ‘because it is good/necessary for the nation’; they quite rightly do things for the good of their shareholders and for the good of their balance sheet.
    We are reaping what we have sown!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      I agree absolutely. The discipline that competition brings is that if a company does something badly, it will go bust. So if we are happy for an electricity company to just shut down because it can’t make a profit, then great. But if we consider the supply of electricity to be essential, then I don’t think we should run that activity privately.

      As you say, strategic planning on a 25 to 50 year time scale simply cannot be carried out by private industry. One story I hope to write about soon is the shutting down of gas-fired electricity generators because the profit is so small. Strategically we need more gas and less coal – at least for the next few years.

      Bernard: the world is BONKERS!

  2. How the “greenest government ever” has conspired with global warming deniers to produce a 2nd dash for Gas? | daryanenergyblog Says:

    […] Figure 12, The closure plans for the UK’s nuclear fleet [Credit: De Podesta, 2012] […]

  3. Never gamble with George Monbiot | Green Blog Says:

    […] in the UK stood at 2.5 GW’s in March 2013. By contrast the UK’s nuclear fleet is in a state of terminal decline and even those who are pro-nuclear seem to accept the fact that new facilities cannot be built […]

  4. As US Nuclear Reactors decay… | Green Blog Says:

    […] problems faced by the UK nuclear sector and the near certainty that there will be a substantial “nuclear gap” during the next decade, given that all but a handful of UK nuclear reactors will be shutdown […]

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