Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Energy’

Nuclear power: renaissance or nightmare?

The thing with nuclear power is that while the risk of a serious accident may be small the consequences are monumental. Is this something we just have to live with or are there things we can do to minimise the risk of accidents and/or their severity if they happen? I think there are.

The physics involved is well understood and is NOT a problem, not even the disposal of high level waste (although antis like to pretend it is). What IS a problem is the regulation – by which I mean regulation in the widest sense covering design and operation plus the entire supervisory system from formal government agencies to the management company.

My introduction to this came in the late 1980s when I attended a series of conferences for my then employer (we sold into the civil nuclear business). At the first of these conferences a paper was delivered by someone developing an advanced reactor design. Among the advantages claimed for the new design was that it was failsafe.

What! That’s an advantage? You mean existing designs AREN’T failsafe?

That, unfortunately, turned out to be precisely what he meant. And that in turn precisely explains my thesis. It is and always was possible to design better, safer reactors but somehow no one involved in design or regulatory approval thought to insist on that. Nuclear safety is not about difficult physics; it’s about about managing people and organizations and priorities to eliminate, or at any rate minimise, risk.

On another occasion, conference delegates went on a visit to a reactor – Heysham near Morecombe in Lancashire. A senior manager from a continental utility asked about planning for the evacuation of people in the area in the event of an accident as mandated by international guidelines. He was puzzled how it could be done given the large population in the area. After some embarrassed foot-shuffling the locals admitted that there was no plan because it wouldn’t be possible to evacuate so many people.

Heysham is one of the sites where a new reactor is planned.

On yet another occasion, a few of us stayed behind to chat informally after one of the formal sessions. One of those present, the highly respected technical director of a major European nuclear utility, opined that some western countries shouldn’t host reactors. Someone asked who and why. He replied, “Oh! Britain. There isn’t a culture of engineering integrity and in any case Britain’s regulatory apparatus just isn’t up to the job”.

He was spot on about regulation as subsequent event have proven in many sectors – from the abysmal performance of the FSA prior to and after the financial crisis, to hospitals, to the examination boards and many more. He was also right about engineering integrity; it is the ultimate backstop for regulatory failures. Where it exists, a mid level engineer who spots a problem can expect to be taken seriously and not brushed off. In Britain the corporate and/or political context dominates and he will be told not to rock the boat. Everyone has someone higher up the chain on their backs wanting solutions, not problems. Messages pass down the line but not nearly so well up it so the engineering voice is not reliably heard in the boardroom.

Good luck and happy job hunting to anyone brave enough to suggest that, just perhaps, Heysham isn’t a suitable location for a new reactor. And by the way, tsunamis do happen in Britain but just not as often and not from the same causes as at places near subduction zones.

Our culture of confining engineers (and other technical disciplines) to the engine room below decks is part of the reason that engineers and the like don’t punch their weight in Britain. In all the years I worked in large companies I never came across a senior engineer (or whatever) right up to board level who told the accountants what management reports he wanted. Invariably, it was the accountants who decided – even when the accountants concerned were emphatically in the wet-behind-the-ears category.

Another part of the problem is the hostile framing and bad-mouthing of ALL regulation in some political circles. Propagandists for this view may never have intended it to be applied to reactor safety but the chances are that it will be sooner or later. Not every regulator at the coal (or reactor) face is as adept at getting the context right as the agenda-driven politicians who spout this nonsense so it’s a racing certainty that some will imagine that what they are supposed to do is deliver regulation-lite. After all that’s happened in banking, there are many regulators who still don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) that they should be enforcing the law (itself a type of regulation).

Then there is the question of the operating company’s ultimate objective. Is it ‘to keep the lights on’ or is it ‘to make a profit and keep the lights on’? Introducing a single additional objective can completely transform the outcome as anyone who saw last week’s Dispatches about Branson’s Virgin Care will know. Despite all the safeguards and regulations many patients of Virgin Care now find it very difficult to see a doctor despite a blizzard of justification from the company. I’m sure it’s not what Branson (or Andrew Lansley who drew up the enabling legislation) intended to happen but, like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, it’s in the nature of things that it does. Lansley and his fellow travellers put the health of the nation at risk by ignoring that simple fact. We must not make the same mistakes with nuclear.

In conclusion then, we can have safe nuclear power but only if we get the regulation right. That will require swimming against the current of established UK practice which is going to be immensely difficult for government to deliver. But we must try.

Cameron’s 2% nuclear deal

The Prime Minister has just been to Paris to sign a deal with France to, as the BBC puts it, “strengthen co-operation in the development of civil nuclear energy” with much happy talk of, “our shared commitment to the future of civil nuclear power, setting out a shared long-term vision of safe, secure, sustainable and affordable energy, that supports growth and helps to deliver our emission reductions targets“.

Translation: we have agreed a deal to buy a number of nuclear reactors from the French nuclear company Areva.

And this is a BIG deal.  According to Radio 4’s Today, the first four reactors will cost a total of £20 billion and will create 1,500 UK jobs.

But enquire a little and it doesn’t start to look too clever.  Interviewed by Evan Davis on Today, the boss of ‘New Build’ for Areva in the UK, was gushing about the potential, “the UK is the most exciting new build opportunity in Europe; it’s one of the most exciting in the world….”   He explained (above link) that, “Rolls-Royce will become our prime manufacturing partner to supply some £100m of key critical components of the reactor for each EPR [next generation nuclear power plant] that’s constructed in the UK“.   Apparently Rolls Royce will build a factory in Rotherham to fill orders flowing from the deal and this will include supplying equipment for orders in other countries.


Do the numbers.  Rolls Royce is to get £100 million out of £5 billion per reactor – that’s just 2%.  Other companies will be involved but the Rolls Royce deal alone accounts for 80% of the £500 million identified so far.  And, according to their website, Rolls Royce already supplies “safety-critical instrumentation and control systems to all 58 operating nuclear power facilities in France …”  so it’s not clear how much of this work is actually extra.

And yet we have it straight from Areva’s senior man that this is “the one of the most exciting [opportunities] in the world“.  With that much buying power 2%, is a truly pathetic result.  The percentage will inevitably rise during the construction phase but much of that will be the modern equivalent of navvies.   The strong implication is that most of the high-tech value-added bits are coming from France.

This looks very much like a replay of the trains affair where a £1.4 billion contract was awarded to Siemens with one crucial difference.   This time as a result of years of dithering and confusion in Whitehall there is no domestic competitor;  we built the world’s first commercial reactor but no longer have a fully capable civil nuclear supply industry because the UK simply doesn’t provide a suitable ‘habitat’ for complex, technology companies headquartered here (Rolls Royce is a very rare exception).

£20 billion (and that’s just for the first phase of a bigger programme) is enough to make a big difference to the economy as any Keynesians would point out – indeed that new energy investment would do just that has been the constant refrain from governments over many years (although they normally prefer to talk more of renewables than nuclear).   The trouble is that the economic boost in this case is going largely to France.

Politicians have been grandstanding about how the latest technology was going to ‘jump start the economy’ since Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech (and probably long before that) but we are slowly and steadily going backwards.   It’s a good idea in principle but they just don’t know how to do it.

And yet the how of it is perfectly discoverable; any number of Asian countries, starting with Japan and later South Korea, Taiwan and others have worked out how to do it.   We could too – I don’t even think it’s terribly difficult – but first we would have to start asking the right questions and as far as I can see no political party is yet doing that.  Why not?



Britain: an Economic Sahel

Gordon Brown used to trumpet his success in banishing the ‘stop-go’ economy though he’s been strangely quiet on this recently.  Could it be that the difference between real fitness and pumping up with credit steroids is now painfully obvious to all?

Actually, even in his glory years there was another story in the real economy, happening largely beneath the media radar and so mainly unseen.

A friend is a robotic engineer.  He used to be part of a world-beating team of decommissioning experts working for British Nuclear (or whatever it was called at that stage).  His particular expertise was in robots that could decommission old nuclear facilities, going where no human could live – expertise that just has to be transferable to marine, space and goodness knows what other sectors.  I thought that he was well positioned career-wise and told him so only to be proven (temporarily) wrong when he was made redundant in one of the govt’s periodic cost-cutting drives.  The team is now split up and he works abroad.

The govt meanwhile is wondering why it is that young people don’t seem to want to go into science and engineering.  Could it be because they have more sense?

My friend’s experience is only one tiny part of what has happened to the entire UK nuclear industry on both the building and decommissioning sides with the inevitable result that the whole lot has slid into foreign hands.  As the BBC puts it:

…both clean-up and new-build will be dominated by large French companies, which are themselves controlled by the French state.

Something similar happened to railway rolling stock manufacturers under the Conservatives.  During all the prevarications, delays and changes of tack during the privatisation process, orders for new rolling stock dried up causing one of our oldest manufacturing industries to close. 

That is why when Virgin wanted new trains it had to go to Italy to buy the Pendolinos.

I could go on but already the pattern is clear.  Whatever is happening to the economy as a whole, individual sectors have all too often experienced unsurvivable swings in demand that are the industrial equivalent of repeated long droughts.  And it is these frequent draughts that make places like the Sahel so chronically impoverished.

My conclusion: govt needs to raise its game dramatically.  It talks the talk but doesn’t actually deliver.  Am I wrong to think that there are lots of votes in this and that people are far better at detecting BS than the politicians give them credit for?

Nuclear Policy all at Sea

The Government wants to build a new generation of nuclear power plants in Britain – but where?

It’s a fairly open secret that they favour putting them at existing nuclear sites which are almost all around the coast and there are indeed good reasons for this, including:

  • Public acceptance is likely to be easier to win; existing plants are typically an important part of the local economy and people have got used to having them as neighbours.
  • Grid connections already exist.  Creating connections for new sites would be a substantial additional cost and probably strongly contested through the planning process.
  • Cooling water is readily available.

There is just one small problem: global warming and any associated sea level rise.

The obvious (but wrong) assumption about this is that if sea level rises by, say, one metre then the coast will retreat to the one metre contour.  It won’t; the position of the coast at any moment in time is the result of a finely-balanced equilibrium between land and sea and even the smallest perturbation can upset this balance so that a given rise in sea level can cause the cost to retreat up to 20 times as much depending on local conditions.  Areas where the coastline is low-lying and formed of soft sediments (like Sizewell, Bradwell and Dungeness) are those most at risk.

Of course we don’t know when, or even if, melting icecaps will casuse significant sea level rise.  Some scientists fear that we are near a tipping point where the Greenland ice sheet starts to melt although others are less concerned.  For myself, I am increasingly sceptical of the extent of anthropogenic global warming though climate change caused by entirely natural processes is clearly ongoing.  However, the fact is we really don’t know for certain either way.

The complete break up of the Greenland ice sheet would add around 7 metres to sea level but would take centuries even in a worst-case scenario (think of how long it takes to defrost your freezer).  It could still potentially cause significant sea level rises over the next few decades with powerful implications for the stability of low-lying coastlines.

According to an edition of BBC R4’s ‘Home Planet’ back in February this is why the IPCC recommends that new nuclear power stations are NOT built in exposed coastal locations.  I have been unable to verify this but it’s clearly the prudent approach.

Let’s not play Russian roulette.