ROSS CLARK: Why aren't we building low-carbon atomic energy plants?

Time to embrace the nuclear option: Coal’s too dirty, gas too costly, wind and solar too unreliable. So why, asks ROSS CLARK, aren’t we building more low-carbon atomic energy plants instead of closing them?

A final 40-second rapid release of steam into the cold January air — and then the Hunterston B nuclear power station quietly stopped feeding electricity into the national grid after 46 years.

With the closure of the vast edifice on the Firth of Clyde last week, Britain instantly lost more than two per cent of its electrical generating capacity.

While Hunterston’s passing went largely unnoticed, the truth is it could not have come at a worse time. Gas prices are being forced up worldwide due to an imbalance of supply and demand as the global economy recovers from the Covid pandemic.

At the same time, Britain has experienced months of winds that have been lighter than usual — playing havoc with the wind farms on which we are becoming increasingly reliant for our power.

With an energy crisis looming, now is the time to reject the German approach and commit to a second nuclear age

That said, things could be worse. Just take a look at Germany. On New Year’s Eve it shut down three of its nuclear power stations.

By the end of this year, Germany’s three remaining nuclear facilities will be closed, too — meaning the end of a form of power that was producing 12 per cent of the nation’s electricity as recently as 2020.

As a result, Germans can expect astronomical bills as their country becomes ever more dependent on expensive gas from Putin’s Russia — a supply which could even be cut off unilaterally if, for example, the West responds to any invasion of Ukraine with punitive economic sanctions.

They also face the prospect of living with dirtier air as coal plants are revived to take up the slack. Berlin has committed itself to reaching net zero carbon emissions in 2045, five years earlier than Britain, but thanks to its reversion to coal, at the moment it is going backwards.

Indeed, it is truly bizarre that, just as the world is committing itself to eliminating carbon emissions, Europe’s largest economy is turning its back on the most reliable form of low-carbon energy we have, one that the European Commission is considering granting a ‘green’ label.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder first announced the phasing-out of nuclear power in 2002 as a response to widespread concern about nuclear waste and fear of catastrophic accidents.

There appears to be little chance of any backsliding on this commitment now that there are five anti-nuclear Green politicians in the Cabinet of Olaf Scholz’s new coalition government.

By the end of this year, Germany’s three remaining nuclear facilities will be closed, too — meaning the end of a form of power that was producing 12 per cent of the nation’s electricity as recently as 2020

While policy in Britain is not driven by the same concerns, we have allowed our nuclear industry to atrophy — just when we should be investing in it heavily.

True, we have one long-delayed nuclear power station under construction: Hinkley C, in Somerset, which is scheduled to start feeding electricity into the grid some time in 2026. Yet the industry as a whole is in sharp decline.

Nuclear power in Britain reached its apogee in 1998 when it generated 90.5 terawatts per hour (TWh) of electricity. By 2020 that had halved to 45.6 TWh — 16.1 per cent of all energy generated in Britain. But of our remaining six nuclear power stations, every single one of them is scheduled to reach the end of its life by 2035.

Hinkley C will not get anywhere near to replacing the electricity they generate and, while other plants have been proposed, none is yet under construction.

The Government is still working out how to fund another nuclear plant at Sizewell in Suffolk and there are discussions about a new power station at Bradwell, Essex. But Hitachi has abandoned plans for a new plant on Anglesey, North Wales, and Toshiba has pulled out of a proposed plant in Cumbria.

If you think the energy crisis now is dire, it is nothing compared with what is looming in 2035.

That is the year in which the Government has pledged to decarbonise Britain’s electricity grid, which will mean the end of all existing gas-fired power stations. Gas currently generates a third of our electricity.

We are hugely reliant on gas as a back-up when, as happened for much of December, the sky was overcast and the atmosphere calm so solar and wind farms were unable to provide much power.

If we lose gas as well as much of our nuclear capacity, we really will be in trouble. It would force us to store vast quantities of energy at huge cost. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the U.S. puts the cost of storing energy in large lithium battery installations, for example, at £260 megawatts per hour — which is five times the wholesale price of electricity in the middle of last year.

Moreover, that is what we have to pay on top of the cost of generating electricity in the first place.

We may well find in future that we are charged for electricity at vastly different rates according to the amount of wind and solar power available, with prices soaring as the wind drops and the sun goes down.

The problem will be compounded by the drive to turn our homes and cars electric — which could double the demand for electricity by the middle of next decade.

Nuclear energy provides a solution to the intermittency problem of solar and wind power because it is very good at providing a steady baseload. So why doesn’t it form a greater part of the Government’s plans for reaching net zero by 2050? It is true that nuclear energy has never fulfilled the potential it seemed to offer in the early days of the industry.

We may well find in future that we are charged for electricity at vastly different rates according to the amount of wind and solar power available, with prices soaring as the wind drops and the sun goes down

In 1954, Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in the U.S., infamously said: ‘It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.’

That is a long way from Hinkley C, whose builders, the French company EDF, has been guaranteed a price of £92.50 per MWh of electricity (at 2013 prices, rising with inflation) for the expected 35-year life of the plant.

At the time of negotiation, that was almost twice the price of gas-generated electricity but the wholesale price of electricity today is around £120 per MWh, a little more than the £106 per MWh which Hinkley would be earning if it were generating electricity.

Hinkley — in which the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group took a 20 per cent stake — has proved so expensive because it employs a novel design of reactor. It is hoped future plants could be built for less and without investment from any Chinese investors due to growing concerns over the security implications.

It is also true that nuclear energy brings with it environmental problems of its own. Nuclear plants produce hazardous waste which must be carefully handled and stored for many hundreds of years after the plant that generated it has been decommissioned.

There is also the small chance of a serious accident. Britain’s nuclear plants are of a much safer design than the one at Chernobyl which exploded in 1986, contaminating areas of Ukraine and neighbouring Russia and Belarus. A 20-mile radius exclusion zone around the plant is still in force today.

But while Chernobyl was an ageing Soviet-run facility a much more modern plant at Fukushima was flooded by a tsunami triggered by Japan’s most powerful ever earthquake in 2011.

The authorities set up an exclusion zone which grew larger and larger as radiation leaked, forcing more than 150,000 people to be evacuated. But these are isolated incidents.

France generates 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear and has done for decades — yet has never suffered a major accident. Moreover, there is a way we can make nuclear power safer — and possibly cheaper, too. That is to reduce the size of nuclear power stations and build them in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs).

They would be at less risk of overheating, and could be built underground to reduce the gravity of the consequences for the surrounding area in an accident. Rolls-Royce is working on designs of SMR which it hopes might be producing power by 2029.

Each would have a core the size of a lorry and produce between 220 MW and 440 MW of power — between a tenth and a fifth of the size of Hinkley C and equivalent to 150 wind turbines (when the wind is blowing strongly).

If the Government is going to have any hope of fulfilling its commitment to decarbonise electricity by 2035 it is going to have to throw its faith into this technology rather than carry on as it has done for the past two decades: building ever more wind turbines without the means to store their intermittent energy.

Britain was the first country to open a civilian atomic energy plant, at Windscale, Cumbria, in 1957. With an energy crisis looming, now is the time to reject the German approach and commit to a second nuclear age.

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