No to pro-nuclear at any price?

The Hinkley Point nuclear project in the UK is at risk threatened with sinking beneath waves of controversy driven by the rising winds of excessive costs for construction and the price of electricity that would be delivered to customers.

(Update: Breaking news coverage in New York Times; UK to provide L 2 billion in loan guarantees for Hinkley Point.)

greenlightThree leading environmentalists in the UK, who once stunned their green colleagues by embracing nuclear energy as a solution for reducing carbon emissions, have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to excessive costs for new reactors.

The broadside comes from George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, and Chris Goodall who, writing in an OP ED in the Guardian in London, say the {L}24.5 billion cost cited by EDF to build two 1600 MW Areva EPRs, and the price customers would have to pay for the electricity generated by the plant, have gone over the top.

They say it is time to stop the project, and point to as evidence to EDF’s inability to execute on time and within budget at the increased delays and rising costs of the Flamanville project. It hasn’t helped that the other Areva EPR under construction in Finland is mired in disputes over costly delays.

“As committed environmentalists, our conversion to the cause of nuclear power was painful and disorienting. All of us carried a cost in changing our position, antagonizing friends and alienating colleagues. But we believe that shutting down – or failing to replace – our primary source of low carbon energy during a climate emergency is a refined form of madness.

Because atomic energy provides a steady baseload of electricity, it has great potential to balance the output from renewables, aiding the total decarburization of the power supply. The dangers associated with nuclear power have been wildly exaggerated, all too often with the help of junk science. Climate breakdown presents a far greater hazard to human life. The same goes for the air pollution caused by burning coal.

Now, however, we are about to antagonize a different faction, by arguing that the UK’s only proposed nuclear power plant, Hinkley C in Somerset, should not be built.

Hinkley C bears all the distinguishing features of a white elephant: overpriced, overcomplicated and overdue. The delay that was announced recently should be the final straw. The government should kill the project.”

The OP ED is a major turning point for the three men who having embraced nuclear energy now face the unthinkable task of having to say no to nuclear projects at any cost.

Cameron’s Chinese Option

What’s startling about the OP ED is that it comes at a time when David Cameron’s government is trying to do two things to break ground. The first is to tie down investment in the project with a 30-40% equity stake from two Chinese state-owned nuclear firms.

The second is to lock-in a government commitment to nuclear energy overall. The UK is facing multiple “existential threats” in terms of energy. They include declining North Sea oil and gas supplies,. a fleet of nuclear reactors built in the 50s and 60s that is coming to the end of its service life, and the need to build new energy infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions.

To sweeten the deal, when a top-level Chinese delegation visits London next month, Cameron is holding out the prospect of offering that country the chance to build a 1000 MW Hualong One in the UK, assuming it can pass the rigorous generic design review process.

EDF defends the project

Criticism of the Hinkley Point project has generated a strong response from EDF.  The company’s CEO, Vincent de Rivaz, calls it “the right technology, at the right price, at the right time.”

He says that short-term price comparisons to current market conditions are not fair. However, he acknowledges there have been delays and unexpected costs at the two EPRs under construction in Finland and France. He also says that the two EPRs under construction in Taishan, China, are going according to plan.  This fact alone may be a major factor in whether the two Chinese nuclear firms considering a significant investment in two EPRs in the UK will sign off on the deal.

And Rivaz points out that other large infrastructure projects, like the tunnel under the English channel from the UK to France, faced critics over cost issues at every turn. And yes, Rivaz says, these large projects do run into problems, but they were solved, and the “Chunnel” is a commercial success.

The Hinkley Point project is the first of two sites in the UK’s 19.3 GWe new nuclear build that will involve Areva EPRs. The Sizewell site is also slated to host two units.

UK planned nuclear reactors

UK New nuclear build by site and reactor type. Table courtesy of World Nuclear News.

The UK new nuclear build posts a schedule that shows the Hinkley Point site coming online in 2024.

EDF is stepping up to an enormous challenge. It must bring the project in on time and close as possible to the projects cost. Another experience like the ones in Finland and France could not just jeopardize that project, but might also put all the reactors that follow it at risk. The result for the UK could be an electricity supply crisis of national proportions.

The three newly critical voices of the nuclear energy point to this haunting vision saying that if Hinkley Point fails, the result will be more fossil plants with a “panicked scramble” to gas and coal.

The Hinkley Point project is expected to provide 7% of the electricity needs for the UK’s homes. Here’s hoping that EDF delivers on that promise. Failure is not an option.

UK commits {L}2 billion to Hinkley Point

The AFP wire service reports from Beijing that Britain pledged £2 billion on Sept 21 for the Hinkley Point nuclear plant.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the funding during a visit to China, saying the Hinkley Point plant was necessary to meet Britain’s energy needs as older coal and nuclear plants are retired.

The Chinese companies are expected to largely finance and get a stake of 30-40% in the project, which will have two Areva 1600 MW reactors that authorities hope will generate 7% of Britain’s electricity.

The announcement came during a five-day trip by Osborne during which he is pushing for closer trade ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

The final decision on investment in the plant could come during a visit to Britain by Chinese President Xi Jinping next month.

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Dan Yurman ~ For breaking nuclear news follow me on Twitter @djysrv or http://www.twitter.com/djysrv ~ Welcome Page for Neutron Bytes Blog ~ https://neutronbytes.com/2014/08/31/welcome-post/ Email me: djysrv@gmail.com ~ Mobile via Google Voice 216-369-7194 ~ Header Image Credit: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110904.html ** The content of this blog is protected by copyright laws of the U.S. "Fair use" provisions apply. The RSS feed is for personal use only unless otherwise explicitly granted **
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3 Responses to No to pro-nuclear at any price?

  1. The 12-year schedule from groundbreaking to service for Flamanville does not inspire confidence.

    If the EPR is taken off the table, why not substitute a trio of AP1000s?  Even the FOAK Vogtle units are only expected to take 7 years, and by the time anyone would be ready to break ground at Hinckley the canned pump issues should be long settled.

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  2. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a talented engineer who worked on the US EPR project for five years.

    The engineer’s opinion was that the design could not be constructed. It includes too many unproven components and construction processes. Many of those were the result of management intransigence.

    Corporate leaders may be stubbornly defending the design because there is so much investment and “face” involved, but I live in a city full of former US EPR engineers who painfully realized that they would never see the machines operating.

    I like nuclear energy and believe it is a technology that needs to be deployed more rapidly. That doesn’t mean I need to be a cheerleader for every project or design. Some are better than others and some organizations are better equipped for success.

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  3. Thanks for this post, Dan. As you mention, the AREVA EPR is benefiting from continued application of lessons learned on earlier projects to the more efficient completion of subsequent construction. The two EPRs being built in Taishan, China, are clear examples of this progress and successful business strategy; both reactors’ design and construction benefited from challenges resolved at projects further ahead in the development process.

    In AREVA’s portfolio of nuclear reactors, the EPR fulfills a specific role. Investment in the singularly powerful and robust EPR nuclear reactor helps countries ensure significant energy availability, achieve low carbon power generation targets, limit the amount of geography used for electricity generation, and develop physically secure energy sources. These are goals we support through not only our product portfolio, but also in the many quality services we provide utilities to sustain and enhance the existing nuclear fleet.

    Nuclear energy matters, and we remain committed to its role in the U.S. energy vision and worldwide.

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