Monday, 12 August 2019

Government in cynical ploy to boost northern election hopes with fanciful smr power plant

In what must count as one of the most cynical election ploys on record the UK Government has attempted to link a faltering and unlikely 'small modular reactor' (SMR) nuclear programme with target seats which the Conservatives hope to win in the North in the forthcoming General Election. The (so-called) SMR programme seems highly unlikely on financial grounds alone as it would require a massive Government commitment, and and on top of that engineering questions undermine the credibility of the programme.

The Government has issued a press briefing mentioning 'Sheffield City, Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire' as sites for the SMRs. Like many of Boris Johnson's schemes, this particular promotion has little grounding in reality and the promotion of these sites seems to have more to do with a cynical election ploy than serious planning of a nuclear power programme.

The UK's SMR programme, such as it is, is neither modular or small or, for that matter, much in existence. The Government are backing plans by Rolls Royce, and have promised an initial £18million, but in reality even to build one prototype plant would require Governmen to commit to spending over a billion pounds. This is because even if the cost of the reactor were to turn out close to what Rolls Ryce claim (£500 million) it would require an additional several hundred £million for the rector design to go through the required 'General Design Assessment' (GDA) required of all new reactors (by the Office for Nuclear Regulation). As if this was not enough, I understand that Rolls Royce have demanded, as the price of going through a GDA, a Government commitment to effectively underwrite several reactors requiring a Government commitment to raise several £billions before there is any chance of any power ever being generated.

This financial background alone suggests that this SMR plan is a fantasy that is even less credible than Boris's plans for a Thames Estuary airport or even a bridge between Scotland and Ireland.

However, basic engineering questions also suggest that that the SMR plans will go nowhere very slowly. The idea of building what is, in historical terms, a medium sized nuclear power plant (440 MW), defies the logic of nuclear power development since WW2. This has involved building steadily bigger reactors in order to, apart from anything else 'calculate down' (in the words of Mycle Schneider) the costs of nuclear safety measures. Smaller(er) reactors may (or may not) reduce expensive delays in construction time, but they are counterbalanced by the lack of economies of scale. Indeed the size of the proposed Rolls Royce SMR is roughly the size of the UK's first grid connected 'Magnox' reactors. The number and scope of safety measures required for new reactors has increased dramatically since the 1950s (extra containment, redundancy in primary and secondary safety injection systems, back up diesel generator sets etc), so intuitively a smaller reactor does not seem the way to go.

Ordinary engineering rules suggest that costs will not be lower per kW. eg you still need to make the same number of many of the parts (eg reactor pressure vessel) even thought the parts may be smaller; hence savings in cost do not reduce propritionately to size. Rolls Royce plans, whose own projections of cheap generating costs must be treated with a wagon-load of salt, are highly unlikely to go very far, apart from that is in terms of uselessly soaking up a few tend of millions of pound of Government funds.

We can expect a lot more of this bull and fantasy in September when Boris's notion of 'green energy' is launched. Like many of his other pronouncements they are oriented to to seduce people by their apparent simplicity, but in reality are fatally undermined by their impraticality. Such is the dark allure of populist politics.

Rolls Royce plans:
https://www.rolls-royce.com/~/media/Files/R/Rolls-Royce/documents/customers/nuclear/smr-technical-summary.pdf

7 comments:

  1. "...He [Dr David Toke] has consistently argued that the UK's proposed nuclear power programme is......uneconomic compared to renewable energy..."

    But 'He' won't be dealing with the ramifications of his vociferous anti-nuclear activities. It will be the younger members of his extended family.

    Do you have the bottle to discuss this with them, Dr Toke, and Blog on what they have to say?:

    bwrx-300-nuclear-uk.blogspot.com/2019/08/young-family-members-will-abhor.html

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    1. According to opinion surveys young people are the age cohort that is most supportive of renewable energy as an alternative to nuclear power

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    2. Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if they were to support using renewables as an alternative to *fossil fuels* instead of also non-emitting nuclear? Do we care about global warming or not?

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    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. √Člectricit√© de France was a massively successful French government agency and nuclear power operation, and in spite of onslaughts from the European fossil fuel industry, their reactors still provide the most reliable, inexpensive, clean power in Europe.

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  3. There's some truth in the story of the relative efficiency of the French nuclear construction programme, but that came to an end after Chernobyl with the need to change the designs to fit in with enhanced safety requirements. Things have not gone well with efforts to continue the programme

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    1. Of course critics of the french nuclear programme say that the original costs (underwritten in effect by the French state) do not include much allowance for winding down the power plant at the end of their lives, including decommissioning. The French are having to start to grapple with this prospect now

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