Monday, 21 July 2014

Nuclear power: will it continue to fail as 'baseload' plant?

Nuclear power has a lot of the best Public Relations (PR) workers in the world, but nothing they can do can obscure the difference between the facts of UK nuclear performance and what is now wishful consensus thinking of the UK state. Should one get too annoyed with this? Or just smile? There is a cynical argument that one might as well not bother campaigning against nuclear power if you don't like it because its best enemy and destroyer is itself.

In Britain nuclear's recent record for availability is not outstanding - 65 per cent according to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics for the year 2008-2012. Remember this is for a technology that is supposed to be on for as much as the time as is possible, and the bulk of the downtime on the  figures is accounted for by unplanned, often sudden, outages that jeopardise electricity grid stability. At least you can usually make a reasonable prediction about wind output for particular windfarm, but you cannot predict sudden unplanned outages from nuclear. But we are told that nuclear is necessary as a 'baseload' plant. Well I suppose it is baseload as much as it operates some of the time, but not really if it often does not work when you want it to!

Of course the most modern plant, Sizewell B, has an average availability of around 83 per cent, and this is often held up as the comparator for the new nuclear developments planned by EDF. But Sizewell B was a very well known technology (PWR) when it was constructed, although despite that, it cost a lot more than was projected before construction started.

Hinkley C is a new, untried nuclear technology, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). It could well end up having at least some of the difficulties in operation as the British designed AGR nuclear plant. Ominously they took a long time to build (like the EPRs). The augurs are not good.

So we have a double risk - the usual likely outcome that nuclear construction costs will be even higher than those now projected (with the UK taxpayer guaranteeing to pick up a big tab of cost overruns) and the risk that the new power station(s) will struggle to generate much electricity, which will mean that the UK taxpayer will have to pay out even more money. Of course, without the effective UK Government blank cheque and the plant being built by a consortium of foreign state owned companies able to bear much greater risk than private companies we would  not have any Hinkley C deal at all.

It may well be that EDF will end up building only one (1.6 GW) of the twin reactor plant at Hinkley. There is, in reality, a very good chance that this will be the only one that will ever be built in the UK. By 2023 when the plant is supposed to be completed the project will no doubt be late, experiencing considerable financial difficulties, receiving more guarantees and more future support from UK electricity consumers than are planned at the moment. At the same time wholesale electricity prices will probably be less than they are now. Gas prices are sinking. This will make the Hinkley C deal look even worse than it looks now.

People complain now that renewable plant are being paid money that will increase electricity prices for many years. Yet the renewable plant funded by the Renewables Obligation cannot receive any premium prices beyond 2027. Future renewable projects will be on premium prices for only 15 years. On the other hand Hinkley C may have barely started operating by 2027 and will still have 35 years of premium prices to enjoy after that.

Of course you would think that the EPR programme is swimming ahead without problems. But all of the EPRs being built are increasingly behind schedule. The plants in France and Finland were begun in 2005, and the plant in China was begun in 2008. Yet the EDF PR teams manage to promote this is a success. The project, in China, at Taishan, receives glowing marks for progress. See

Yet, they say it is two years behind schedule. We can rely on it not taking any longer of course, because EDF says so! If they cannot get a nuclear power plant finished on time in a tightly controlled state like China, how are they going to do it in the UK?

Of course, when the Hinkley C plant proves to be uncompleted, financially ever more disastrous, and unnecessary by 2023 then we are unlikely to continue a policy of giving a blank cheque to nuclear power. And without that blank cheque it won't happen. But, I am not totally cynical. I think it is worthwhile campaigning against this, because otherwise resources could have been much better diverted elsewhere.

For some statistics and coverage see:

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