The Life and Death of nuclear power plants

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Hunterston A (above) and Hunterston B (below) Photograph Magnox NDA

By Peter Rowberry with additional reporting by Newsroom

It seems that the policy to build new nuclear power stations has caused some friction at the heart of the cabinet, with the Prime Minister trying to get the agreement of the Chancellor to spend at least £100 billion on eight new nuclear power stations. This didn’t stop the government issuing its energy security strategy last week.

Such a huge commitment merits careful scrutiny. Hinkley Point C was one of eight announced by the British government in 2010 with a nuclear site licence granted in November 2012. EDF’s board approved the project in July 2016 and on 15 September 2016 the UK government approved the project in principle. Construction work on-site began by late September 2016. Completion of the reactor bases was completed in June 2019 for reactor 1 and June 2020 for reactor 2. The two bases required a total of 633,700 cubic feet of concrete.

Hinkley C is the only one of the 2010 eight designated sites to have commenced construction. The UK government strategy paper calls for 8 further new nuclear plants but does not name locations. This is similar to the Brown government’s announcement in 2008 which the coalition government pinned down in 2010. With only 1 of 8 since 2010 actually under construction the conclusion is the new 8 suggested could be decades from coming online.

Earlier costs for Hinkley C were estimated at around £18 billion. The current cost estimate is around £22 to £23 billion, and the first reactor will not be complete until June 2026 at the earliest, and the second at least six months later.

Hinkley Point UK Government Sept 2015 Creative Commons CCO

This timetable is currently being reviewed, with a fault found in similar nuclear reactors in China meaning the design may need to be changed. EDF have not commented on whether this will affect the timescale for completing the project. These delays, and the consequent impact on other nuclear projects, such as Sizewell C and Wylfa, have resulted in serious failures to meet the government obligations to move to low carbon generation and taken up time, time which we are now desperately short of if we are to meet our target of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.

The building of the two reactors that form the Sizewell C project is still not fully financed. Nor has the planning process been completed. All the work in progress so far is on vast quantities of paper and construction cannot commence until Sizewell C plant receives planning permission. There remains considerable opposition to Sizewell C over the high cost of nuclear energy and environmental issues. The cost of a plant that is over 10 years away from generating power will start hitting electricity bills sometime soon. The BBC reported “Legislation allowing construction and financing costs to be added to customer bills, as Sizewell C is built over the next decade, is due for a second reading in the House of Commons next month.”

“Legislation allowing construction and financing costs to be added to customer bills, as Sizewell C is built over the next decade, is due for a second reading in the House of Commons next month.” BBC News Business 27th March 2022

BBC News Business 27th March 2022

The UK government and EDF have pledged 20% of the cost each, but the additional 60% is yet to be found. Some of that is a levy on our electricity bills for a decade before Sizewell generates a single Kwh. The government’s plans to have eight nuclear reactors up and running by 2030 seem naively optimistic. New nuclear is not a quick fix, as our near neighbours will attest. The Finnish reactor, Olkiluoto 3, was started in 2005, but only went onto the grid seventeen years later, on 15 March this year.

Of the eight nuclear power plants announced back in 2010, Hinkley Point C might be generating by 2026 (16 years) and Sizewell C by 2032, subject to planning permission (22 years) None of the other 6 proposed nuclear plants are anywhere near getting off the ground.

France, a country which historically generates a large percentage of its electricity from nuclear, is in the process of building only one new reactor, a third at the Flamanville site. EDF, the state-owned energy giant, began work in December 2007 and the cost was estimated to be €3.3 billion. It is now expected to cost more than €12.7 billion and it is yet to generate a single kilowatt of power.

In contrast, according to the European Wind Energy Association, once planning permission is given, construction of a small-scale wind farm, 10MW or less, could take less than two months. A larger 50MW facility may take six months, although considerably smaller in scale, this is substantially quicker than any new nuclear. This has not stopped president Macron from announcing that his government will support the building of between six and fourteen new reactors.

A further elephant in the room is that the costs of new nuclear are highly “back loaded”, i.e., that by building them you commit to high levels of expenditure at the end of their working life, to remove the fuel rods, decommission, remove and store nuclear waste. The UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority currently spend around £3 billion a year for Site Licence Companies to make the current decommissioned reactors safe.

The Nuclear Provision is the best estimate of how much it will cost to clean up 17 of the UK’s earliest nuclear sites over a programme lasting over 120 years.

The life and slow death of a nuclear plant

A nuclear plant will operate for around 45 years followed by a lengthy decommissioning period. This tends to take around 20 – 30 years with the cleared site monitored for at least 50 years. As noted (below) above surface Intermediate Level Waste is left stored on site for 120 years.

From the time a nuclear plant shuts down, a period of 150 years follows, around 3 times operational life for a nuclear site in Scotland.

The condition, treatment and disposal of the ILW will then need to be decided by a Scottish Government around 2142 in the case of Hunterston A which closed in 1990. This will continue to be a responsibility of future Scottish governments in respect of the other nuclear plants left behind from the nuclear age until well into the third quarter of the 22nd century.

The High Level Waste sent to Sellafield has a minimum radioactivity lethal time frame of 100,000 years. As it is Easter we can give perspective to that time frame by noting this is 50 times longer than the period from the crucifixion to Good Friday last week.

Nuclear waste

There are three main categories of nuclear waste. Low Level Waste (LLW) stored in shipping containers at Sellafield, Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) stored in containers on the site of the former nuclear plant with a radioactive life of 120 years under Scottish policy and High Level Waste (HLW) sent to Sellafield pending an permanent solution. Newsnet covered this in relation to Chapelcross nuclear plant in Dumfries and Galloway: Nuclear Decommissioning: Chapelcross a timeline.

The Financial Times produced a detailed article on nuclear energy in the UK and France noting that Sellafield has the largest stock of untreated nuclear waste in the world which includes 140 tonnes of plutonium. The article also raised the unanswered question of what to do with “thousands of metric tonnes of high-level nuclear waste, some of which can remain radioactive, and thereby lethal, for up to 300,000 years.”

First Package of Higher Activity Waste from Wet Intermediate Level Waste, Encapsulation Plant Hunterston A January 2017. Photograph Magnox NDA

The energy strategy remains silent about this issue. Previous Westminster governments have said their preferred option would be a deep level disposal facility. UK guidance on the disposal of nuclear waste was published in March 2013, and it is understood that local authorities were asked to nominate their areas for the site, but none volunteered.

In Scotland the strategy is to keep Intermediate Level Waste waste in specially constructed units on the surface near to where it was created to minimise the risks of accidents when moving it. Following the shutdown of Hunterston B, Scotland only has one working nuclear reactor at Torness. That is due to close by 2030, but the timescale may be shortened if cracks in the graphite core found at Hunterston B are also found at Torness.

EDF told Newsnet at the time Hunterston B’s last reactor shut down on 6th January this year: “We carry out inspections of the graphite cores every time we take the units offline for maintenance. To date, we have not observed any keyway root cracking though we know all AGR stations, includng Torness, will develop it as they approach the later part of their operating life. We will continue to inspect the reactors regularly.”

All of this will be less significant if nuclear could deliver low carbon electricity at an affordable price. The biggest issue on the cost of nuclear energy is the so called “strike price”, the price which the government has agreed to pay the owners, EDF, for electricity from their nuclear stations. Originally EDF said that electricity from nuclear could be produced at around £24 per megawatt hour. The strike price is now set at £92. It has also been agreed that the strike price should rise in line with inflation, which as we know has reached a thirty-year high and is likely to continue to be high for the foreseeable future.

Power Transmission Photograph Russell Bruce

Although the cost of the raw materials for building wind turbines has increased, copper and steel in particular, the cost of generation by renewables has steadily decreased over time. The latest strike price for offshore wind is around £40 per megawatt hour and less for onshore wind. There have been several missed opportunities and poor decisions by both the Labour and Conservative parties and both party’s obsession with new nuclear have put us in a position where we need urgent action. In February 2004 the Labour party undertook a £40 billion project to update schools, but, despite intense lobbying, energy efficiency did not form part an integral part of that plan.

The Conservative party made changes to the planning system to make it virtually impossible to get permission to build onshore wind farms, although that policy has now been reversed. They also brought an end to the “feed in tariff (FITs)” for local solar power and increased VAT from 5% to 20% on solar installations – now VAT is zero as part of Sunak’s Spring statement.

Although FITs were replaced by the Smart Export Guarantee, this was significantly less financially attractive and has reduced the incentive to install Solar photovoltaic cells.
It has now become urgent to move from our dependence on fossil fuels to renewable sources. There are 27 million households in the UK. It seems the government is prepared to pay around £370 per household to support nuclear power. In comparison, loft insulation will currently cost around £1250 for a four-bedroom house but is likely to save around £250 per year in heating costs. Insulation is now mandated for all new house building but does not cover the existing estate. Houses are expected to be occupied on average for more than 70 years, so replacement of inefficient homes with newer housing stock will be slow, far too slow to meet our climate change targets.

In September 2021, the UK government announced £265 million to subsidise renewable energy, £200 million for offshore wind and £55 million for emerging technologies, including tidal. The remaining £10 million will be used for onshore wind and solar. The budget for building the HS2 railway project is around £95 billion. The budget for purchasing an updated Trident missile system will be at least £100 billion, and depending on who you believe, may be up to £205 billion.

Should not some of this money be diverted to secure our renewable low carbon energy future more rapidly?

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