Friday, 22 April 2016

EDF postpones Hinkley C decision until next year

A report in the Independent says that the EDF Board of Directors has agreed to undertake discussions with the company consultative council before taking a decision, a process which is likely to take a long time ie until next year. However this could well be a cover for the numerous problems facing the project, not least EDF's own parlous financial position and the fact that it needs the French Government to bail it out even without going ahead with the Hinkley C project.

There has been a game of 'pass the decision' to abandon a project that no independent financial consultant would come within a light year of recommending for the go-ahead. The French Government has been faced with what seems to many to be the ludicrous prospect of heavily subsidising a power station to supply the British with electricity. This is despite the fact that the British themselves have promised to pay EDF around £100 per MWh in current prices for 35 years with the British Treasury agreeing to guarantee a £17 billion loan for the project! It is not as if even such a project could be a 'loss leader' for the French. Two versions of the same (EPR) plant design have been spectacular construction disasters already in Finland and France. Various engineers and managers, company unions and employee shareholders have pleaded for the project to be abandoned or put in deep freeze, and last month the Chief Financial Officer of EDF resigned in protest at the apparent determination of the EDF leadership to proceed with the project.

Earlier today Greenpeace announced a legal opinion which said that the French Government would need to apply to the European Commission for state aid for the billions of euros of money that they would need to throw down a probable Hinkley black hole. The Commission consented to the British state aid request in 2013, but a further consent could not be taken for granted - indeed, under the circumstances it would seem a bizarre request. In any even such an application (if it was ever made) would take a year or more to be resolved.

Certainly many nuclear experts have, in any case, been scratching their heads wondering how on Earth EDF could take a 'final investment decision' before the results of the safety tests being conducted on dodgy-looking EPR reactor vessels by the French safety regulators, the ASN, were known (they will not be known until next year). The suspicion must be that the directors of EDF, the French Government and the British Government are just stringing out the death-knell of a project that they know is not going ahead in the hope that a different member of this troika than themselves will take the blame. Who knows, maybe the troika have decided that they can take the matter to the Commission in the hope that they will refuse the state aid request and everybody can blame the EU! - As often happens for decisions that other people do not want to take themselves!

Thanks to 'Bristolboy' for pointing out to me the Independent piece; See

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

French Government obfuscates on Hinkley C as EDF managers predict legal action if EDF goes ahead

The insanity of the Hinkley C project for the French nation in general and EDF in particular was underlined today by two events. First, the French Government found itself unable to solve the gordian-like knot of problems facing EDF. Second a group of EDF managers wrote a letter warning  the directors that they could face legal action to make them take responsibility for taking on the Hinkley C project if, as they fear, the project goes wrong. This follows an earlier letter from engineers doubting the wisdom of proceeding with Hinkley C and the resignation, last month, of EDF's Chief Financial Officer who feared Hinkley C would undermine EDF's finances.

Yet again a high level political meeting of French ministers billed as giving a green light for the project has prevaricated. It is a wondrous testament to the trust we wrongly place in the press releases issued by EDF and its allies that we believe every one of the now dozens of times that the green light for the project is to be given for the project. Of course, if it is so certain, why the need for these repeatedly stated 'final investment decision' meetings that never resolve the issue? Why aren't they just building the damn thing!

Now of course with any privately owned company the merest hint that there were serious internal doubts about a project would send the shareholders scattering and the project would not be implemented. Indeed the employee shareholders have opposed the project and EDF's share price has plummeted. But this matters not to the directors who try and browbeat the Government, who own 85 per cent of the shares, to go ahead with the self-destruction, mainly it seems, to have one last gasp attempt to rescue the pride of the EDF leadership. Any notion that this is a vaguely competitive project - even with offshore wind projects, is rendered nonsensical by all of this, with some made-up price that the British would have to pay being paraded as the 'cost'. Now it seems the cost includes the French Government injecting billions of euros in various types of support even if all goes well. The chances are it will not, and the French state will be on the hook to pick up the pieces of EDF which will effectively collapse as a result - indeed the company could well go under even without the added weight of Hinkley C.

Then Amber Rudd comes out and says that EDF is taking the risk of the project according to the contracts. Well, legally, some risk maybe. Except that we are on the hook for may £17 billion worth of loan guarantees. And we're protected from paying this out are we because of the legal paraphernalia? Think again about what happens in the nuclear business, which is really not a business at all despite the made-up fantasy costs (as high as they may be) that are bandied around in government press statements.

Ultimately whatever the contract terms actually say, the politics are that if EDF runs out of money half way through (they already have!) because of cost overruns and says 'we can't complete it', of course the British Government will step in. Just as they did with Sizewell B post privatisation and declare it was now economically necessary to pour even more cash in.....

Strange attitudes are developing. Increasingly many pro-nuclear supporters are hoping that the project is cancelled for fear that the coming disaster will ruin the prospects of nuclear power in Europe forever. On the other hand anti-nuclear advocates are hoping that the project is actually attempted on the grounds that will finally destroy EDF and its nuclear power mission.

see also my earlier comment on the bleak prospects facing EDF at

Monday, 18 April 2016

Renewables 'too much power' problem is really nuclear's fault

Electricity nerds were getting excited (April 17th) as the national grid issued a 'negative reserve active power margin' notice, meaning that for North West Scotland there was too much power on the grid. According to the Daily Torygraph, who write for the renewable hating Tory hordes in darkest Surrey, this crisis is  the fault of renewable energy. The 'emergency' scenario is marked by the fact that the National Grid:
'could be forced to issue unprecedented emergency orders to power plants to switch off........Businesses will also be paid to shift their power demand to times when there is surplus electricity, as the UK energy system struggles to cope with the huge expansion in subsidised renewable power.'

Later on in the same article, there is an obscure mention to the fact that wind and solar farms may be encouraged to turn down their generation because of 'inflexible' generation, which of course is mainly nuclear power.

So let's get this right, the Torygraph is saying that nuclear power plant can't or won't turn down their power stations, so it's windfarms and solar farms that are the problem?

The strange thing is I often hear nuclear power industry representatives going on about how nuclear power is flexible and can turn up or down when required, except that in the UK it doesn't happen, not even with the newest station Sizewell B. There is confusion over whether future nuclear power stations will be able to vary their power, but I am pretty confident they won't.

Why will nuclear power stations never be turned down (voluntarily that is) in the UK? Well first, because nuclear are always given grid priority - that is the policy of the British state -  and renewables will get the blame as a result for any resulting 'emergency' measures. A few years ago EDF was busy arguing that renewables should be restricted to 25 per cent of electricity supply precisely because they didn't want or could get their nuclear power stations turned down. This is now more or less government policy is seems - fantasy nuclear will provide the rest of the required non-fossil generation. Second, of course, following on from this latter sentiment, I am confident that in future there is no chance of new nuclear power stations being flexible because there will probably be no new nuclear power stations (apart from some small failing 'smr' demonstration maybe) actually built!

A French Economy minister appeared on Andrew Marr's show recently to declare that a final investment decision for Hinkley C is only 'weeks or months' away - as it has been for the last 4 years! I suppose the delays in Hinkley C must be renewables fault somehow too!


NOTIFICATION OF INADEQUATE NEGATIVE RESERVE ACTIVE POWER MARGIN issued for the period from 13:35 hrs to 17:00 hrs on Sunday 17/04/2016 has been cancelled For North West Scotland 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Small Modular Reactors: wishful thinking on a grand scale

Take a large number of scientists who have grown up with the firm belief that nuclear power is the future of energy, face them with the fact that nuclear power is proving to be undeliverable in anything like the scale, time and cost that has been originally envisaged in UK Government plans, and what do you get? Wishful thinking about 'small modular reactors' or 'smrs'! You can see this in the article in the Times by Lady Judge at :

She says that:
'The plan to focus on building large reactors was originally conceived before Fukushima, while I was chairwoman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and when fossil fuel prices were expected to keep going up. Large nuclear plants, however, are expensive and take a long time to build. In the interim, one answer is small modular nuclear reactors. Being small is useful because they can be built in one place and transported to another, such as the site of one of the coal plants that we are in the process of shutting down, or even an industrial park. Modular, in this context, means that more plants can be added easily on an existing site. The flexibility and lower cost of small reactors is a way of getting greater private sector involvement, without the more complex financing arrangements needed for a larger plant'

The impression you get from this is that the idea of large nuclear reactors is some sort of fairly recent deviation, and that somehow there was some golden era when (presumably) smrs were abandoned through some mistake. The advantages of smrs are stated as if there is evidence for this.
There is no evidence at all for this, and indeed the notion that smrs would ever be cheaper than large reactors flies in the face of engineering logic.

Nuclear reactors in the UK (and in the rest of the world) have been steadily scaled up from around 200 MWe in size to begin with, up to around 500 MWe in the 1960s, and then up to over 1000 MWe in the 1980s and 1990s. Contrary to the impression given in Lady Judge's article, this was not a recent decision or trend. And there are sound engineering reasons for this, including one very simple one: for complex machines with moving parts and the need to ensure (safe) functioning of each unit each unit needs much the same input for design as a much larger unit.

By way of comparison, if you want to build a gas fired power station to generate, say, 500MWe of power, people don't lash together dozens of small gas turbines - that would be financial madness. You have smaller gas turbines when the circumstances demand it, you do not do it out of choice because they generate much cheaper power at much bigger scales. To minimise costs developers will prefer to build one large unit, and they can take several years to build, although of course there is much more certainty about the costs and timescale of building gas fired power stations compared to nuclear power plant. Given that nuclear reactor sets will need much more safety care compared to gas fired power plant, there is no way in this universe that the principles applied to gas turbines are suddenly going to be reversed in the case of nuclear reactors - indeed the reverse is likely to be the case - ie there is even more pressure to upscale nuclear reactors compared to gas-fired power plant.

Sometimes we hear talk about the nuclear powered submarines built by Rolls Royce. But these generate no more than a few MWe of power and whilst we don't know how much they cost exactly, the submarines cost billions of pounds each. Rolls Royce may well be keen to get down to earning money through doing research in smrs, but will they be able to contribute to a project that is cheaper than Hinkley C? I think not.

There is of course no comparison to be made with solar pv cells. They are very small, passive items, with no unit specific design costs. They can be assembled along massive production lines allowing big economies of scale and where you can also get very big supply chain economies of scale - on the basis of just 250-300 watts each. You can, and solar pv companies do, produce hundreds of thousands of units a year. This is simply on a different dimension to nuclear reactors.

The moral of this story maybe that it doesn't matter how clever people are, they can still have unlikely beliefs. The fact that so many scientists appear to subscribe to the nonsense about smrs says something about how being clever doesn't protect you from believing in rubbish, not that smrs are somehow a cost-effective prospect. Never in the history of humankind, (so far as I am aware) have so many clever people subscribed to such an inherently ludicrous concept before!