Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Atomic woes

Letter sent to the Financial Times:

Your energy editor Andrew Ward’s Big Read  (“Nuclear’s Hazard,” February 5; https://www.ft.com/content/8307c266-066b-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5) contains series of contentious assertions from the author and nuclear sector advocates.
Let me challenge just three.


The new UK chief executive of French reactor vendor, EDF Energy, the Italian Simone Rossi, (who has 14 years working experience with EDF) is reported as suggesting that “experience from previous projects will allow EDF to build another  [nuclear] power station […] at Sizewell in Suffolk, eastern England, with 20 per cent  lower  costs than Hinkley [C nuclear plant]


The problem with Mr Rossi’s view is history ( which he experienced first-hand inside EDF) demonstrates the opposite experience, with the very nuclear-experienced EDF demonstrating  almost uniquely in  large-scale industrial construction,  a ‘negative learning curve ” ie matters get worse, not better, with experience, in its nuclear fleet.


Professor Arnulf Grubler, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, (where he is currently Programme Director of  Transitions To New Technologies), has exposed this disastrous situation in his detailed assessment ‘The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing’, published in the internationally respected journal Energy Policy, in September 2010 (Volume 38, Issue 9, Pages 5174-5188)

The paper reviews the history and the economics of the French PWR programme. Drawing on largely unknown public records, the paper reveals that even this most extensive nuclear scale-up by a most experienced owner/operator, was characterized by a substantial “escalation of real-term construction costs.”

Secondly, it is misleading to suggest that “nuclear power plants  typically have an average utilization rate above 90 per cent”  without pointing out what happens when a significant accident occurs.

After the economically catastrophic Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in March 2011, the entire Japanese nuclear fleet of 54 reactors was closed down for four years, with a load factor of zero, becoming a hugely expensive collective stranded asset. Only five reactors have restarted to date, with the first two back online in August and October 2015.

Finally, it should be pointed out that Calder Hall, the nuclear plant at Sellafield, was not, as Mr Ward writes, “the first commercial reactor.”

Calder Hall’s four Magnox reactors were not built or designed primarily to industrially generate electricity. Here is what the UK Atomic Energy Authority official historian, Kenneth Jay, wrote about Calder Hall, in his short book of the same name, published to coincide with the opening of the plant by Queen Elizabeth in October 1956. [He referred to] “major plants built for military purposes, such as Calder Hall.” (p.88) Earlier, he wrote: “… The plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant, to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power.” (p.80).(emphasis added)

Accuracy is important in this highly charged  strategic energy investment policy. decision.

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