New Hands on DECC

So, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have a new top dog – Alex Chisholm – formerly the attack beast in charge of putting pressure on the electricity utility companies over their pricing rip-offs when at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

There’s a huge and dirty intray awaiting this poor fellow, including the demonstrable failings of the Energy Act that’s just been signed into law. I’d recommend that he call for the immediate separation of the department into two distinct and individually funded business units : Nuclear and The Rest. Why ? Because nuclear power in the UK has nothing to do with answering the risk of climate change, despite some public relations type people trying to assert its “low carbon” status. Plus, the financial liabilities of the nuclear section of DECC mean it’s just going to bring the rest of the department down unless there’s a divorce.

The UK Government have been pursuing new fission nuclear power with reams of policy manoeuvres. The call for new nuclear power is basically a tautological argument centring on a proposal to transition to meet all energy demand by power generation resources, and the presumption of vastly increasing energy independence. If you want to convert all heating and cooling and transport to electricity, and you want to have few energy imports, then you will need to have a high level of new nuclear power. If new nuclear power can be built, it will generate on a consistent basis, and so, to gain the benefit of self-sufficiency, you will want to transfer all energy demand to electricity. Because you assume that you will have lots of new nuclear power, you need to have new nuclear power. It’s a tautology. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sensible or even practical way to proceed.

DECC evolved mostly from the need to have a government department exclusively involved in the decommissioning of old nuclear power plants and the disposal of radioactive nuclear power plant waste and waste nuclear fuel. The still existing fleet of nuclear power plants is set to diminish as leaking, creaking, cracking and barely secure reactors and their unreliable steam generation equipment need to be shut down. At which point, this department will lose its cachet of being an energy provider and start to be merely an energy user and cash consumer – since there’s not enough money in the pot for essential decommissioning and disposal and DECC will need to go cap in hand to the UK Treasury for the next few decades to complete its core mission of nuclear decommissioning. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out why this department will remain committed to the concept of new nuclear power. It would certainly justify the continuing existence of the department.

The flagship DECC-driven nuclear power project for Hinkley Point C has run aground on a number of sharp issues – including the apparent financial suicide of the companies set to build it, the probably illegal restructuring loans and subsidy arrangements that various governments have made, what appears to be the outright engineering incompetency of the main construction firm, and the sheer waste of money involved. It would be cheaper by around 50% to 70% to construct lots of new wind power and some backup gas-fired power generation plant – and could potentially be lower carbon in total – especially if the gas is manufactured low carbon gas.

In order to stand a chance of making any new low carbon energy investment in the UK, the Department of Energy and Climate Change needs to split – much like the banks have. The risky, nuclear stuff in one team, and the securely certainly advantageous renewable energy stuff in the other team. We will have more wind power, more solar power and more of lots of other renewables in the next 10 years. We are unlikely to see an increase in nuclear power generation in the UK for the next 15. It’s time to split these business units to protect our chances of successful energy investment.

Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #3

When answering questions at last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), openly declared her belief that nuclear power is “very, very cheap electricity; with a marginal cost of generation”, completely ignoring the two white elephants in the room : the UK’s continued public finance obligation to dispose of radioactive and toxic waste from the last 60 years of the nuclear power programme; and the immensely subsidised framework for developing new nuclear power that the UK Government has had to underwrite.

But there is also a third elephant walking into the room : the increasing unreliability of ageing nuclear power plants, not only in Britain, but also in France, and all across Europe, and anywhere, in fact, where the nuclear building boom took place 30 or so years ago. And one unplanned downed nuclear power plant requires an awful lot of backup to keep power grids from collapsing. And in a very short space of time.

So the question has to be asked – even if I am the only person in the room asking the question (and I’m not) – why does the UK Government continue to insist that a new nuclear power programme is vital ?

Government officials claim that new nuclear power plants will be more secure – which is a claim that deserves in-depth scrutiny; and that the cost of decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive and toxic waste has to be provided for in the financing of the project. Except it is highly likely to be undervalued. Because the UK Government is planning to build one (or more) Geological Disposal Facilities (GDFs), perhaps under a National Park near you. Furnished from the public purse. And when they have finally done so, they will buy back the obligation to dispose of nuclear waste from the private nuclear power plant companies. One can easily predict that the public will have to pay more to dispose of the waste than those contracts of waste disposal obligation transfer will be worth.

The companies that want to build new nuclear power plants know that the UK Government will buy back their duty to decommission and their duty to safely dispose of nuclear waste. So they have a free hand to undercost these obligations in their own accounts. If you don’t have an idea of what I’m talking about, Google “European Commission nuclear waste transfer contracts”, and you will find this from 9th October 2015.

Just another nuclear subsidy, you might think. We have to pay a bit up-front to get lovely, juicy, reliable, always on “baseload” nuclear electricity, you might think. Well think this : the UK could get an equivalent, reliable supply of power from a carefully balanced combination of wind power, solar power and low carbon gas-fired power, at a third of the cost. Or less. Without subsidies or sweeteners, or long lead times to new project power.

Andrea Leadsom was also off the money when she responded to questions about the economic value of new nuclear power (and Carbon Capture and Storage), “[In nuclear] there are new opportunities in low carbon energy – and sequestering – huge opportunities for growth and jobs. We’re doing a lot on building solutions – [for example] new nuclear colleges…” She ignored the fact that nuclear power and other large construction schemes such as Carbon Capture and Storage facilities will inevitably be “front-heavy” or frontloaded – all the capital and labour will be needed at the start of the projects, but employment will tail off rapidly after main construction ceases. How pitiful a promise is that ? Not a permanent strengthening of the UK economy, but a temporary glitch. By contrast, investment in renewable electricity and various forms of Renewable Gas could really bolster the economy – for decades or longer – enabling a phased transition to a fully low carbon economy – without massive engineering projects – the very thing we cannot currently afford.

More questions came from the floor. “[Question from Bloomberg] : Is the Government planning to phase out coal by 2023 ? [Answer] : As the Prime Minister has said, we don’t want to rely on unabated coal. [But] all fossil fuels will remain part of the mix, particularly Natural Gas – the cleanest and greenest fossil fuel.” What the Minister did not admit was that Natural Gas had saved the day only the day before, when several coal-fired power plants were unavailable, and one appeared to break down (by analysis of the data), and National Grid put out a call for extra generation. Natural Gas was responsible for generating upwards of 40% of power during the peak on that calm Wednesday evening (according to some figures I’ve seen). It’s time the UK Government admitted that we are dependent on Natural Gas and the flexibility it provides – it offers both energy security and de-carbonisation.

“[Question from E1] : [Is the Government] considering an equivalent of Silicon Valley in the UK ? What is our core competency ? [Answer] : Our creative and engineering [competencies] are second to none… The National Nuclear Laboratory… Thorium reactors…”.

It was at this point that I had my second urge to leave the hall. Thorium ? Have you any idea how much time it will take to make and perfect higher generation nuclear reactor designs ? We just don’t have that time. We have about ten years to firm up energy security – not just of electricity, but heating and transport too. We don’t have time for fancy nuclear gizmo research to come to fruition – if it ever does.

Andrea Leadsom continued, “…new blade factory at Hull…”

I’m always amazed when a Minister cannot bring themselves to actually say the words WIND TURBINE.

“…We’ve got the shale…”

No, actually, you don’t have any shale gas yet.

“… onshore oil and gas college. The UK will lead the world on small scale… small [profile] pumps… Different initiatives in different areas. In DECC we keep a close eye on these technologies. When you want a mix, you don’t want to pick winners…”

But you already have picked winners : shale, coal-to-biomass conversion and nuclear.

“…see which become most useful to our consumers.”

“[Question from David Porter] In the power industry, decisions appear to be micro-managed by Government. […] like decisions to do with de-carbonisation. Wouldn’t it be better to have a European Union carbon price and leave things alone after that and let industry decide what to put in place ? [Answer] : We are committed to reform of the ETS [European Trading Scheme]. It hasn’t worked so far. […] make a level playing field… You’re obviously right : the ETS is a large part of that. Ofgem and National Grid are making decisions – not DECC – to power up and down plant. We’re not micro-managing daily electricity supply.”

So, it’s National Grid’s fault there have been few new Natural Gas-fired power plants and no new nuclear power plants to call on in the last five years ?

“You won’t see DECC saying ‘outsource it’. [Key direction] always stays with Government. [Question from Chartered Builders] : [Will there be] a coherent plan on energy efficiency ? [Answer] : Well, certainly, energy efficiency [is important to] the DECC and governemnt… DCLG [Department of Communities and Local Government]… hospitals and schools… Will there be a national efficiency framework ? [We] always keep [that option] under consideration.”

So there you have it. DECC are not in control of which electricity generation plant gets built, are only willing to push nuclear power and shale gas, and not pay the relatively much smaller costs of a national building insulation programme, and will blame National Grid if they don’t choose the correct low carbon mix of electricity generation – which won’t be available because DECC can’t bring themselves to properly support renewable energy.

Is the Government actually in charge of the direction of energy ? Well, they don’t appear to have a functioning energy policy, and they’ve “devolved” a lot of decision-making and responsibilities.

The new Infrastructure Commission will find it easier to build roads and airport runways than new power generation plant.

Now they’re committed to avoid spending any money on energy, I don’t have much hope that DECC can achieve much in terms of influencing decarbonisation, because persuasion is the tool they have left in the box, and they aren’t convincing me.


Into the valley of career death rode the junior 200… As Adam Vaughan reported on 10th November 2015, the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to shed 200 of its 1,600 staff as a result of the Spending Review, ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Second Lord of the Treasury. I wonder just where the jobs will be disappearing from.

Obviously, the work on nuclear power plant decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive nuclear fuel needs to continue, and it needs to be government-led, as the experiment in privatisation of these functions went spectactularly over-budget, so it had to be brought back into public hands. But would all this work be best handled by a government agency, rather than DECC ? We already have the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – should all work on decommissioning and waste disposal be delegated to them ? Shouldn’t DECC be concentrating on energy technologies of the future, instead of trying to fix problems from our nuclear past ? Should not the “policy reset” that many are hinting at address the advancement of renewable energies ? That, surely, should be DECC’s core activity.

There are many items of work that DECC could undertake, that don’t cost a penny in subsidy, that would advance the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Developing a model of energy transition that people believe in would be a good first move. Instead of depending heavily on new nuclear power, with its huge price tag, complex support arrangements, heavy public subsidy and long and ill-determined lead times for construction, DECC modelling could show the present reality, and the gradual dropping off of coal-fired power generation and nuclear power plants – revealing an integrated balance of variable renewable energy and flexible Natural Gas for both heating and backup/stopgap/topup electricity generation. New DECC modelling could show what a progressive transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas would look like, and how it would meet the climate change carbon emissions reductions budgets. DECC models of the future of UK energy could include the appearance of integrated gas systems – recycling carbon dioxide emissions into new gas fuels. When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and not all renewable power is consumed, the UK could then be making gas to store for when the sun sets and the sky is becalmed.

It may take a few years before DECC finally realises that there is no future for coal and nuclear power. Massive projects will fail, or go slow. Financing will be uncertain and backers will run away screaming. Coal-fired power plants are already being left aside in National Grid planning for electricity markets. It will not be long before coal goes the way of the dinosaurs. What we will be left with, if we are clever, is a massive improved network of solar and wind power assets, and Natural Gas-fired power generation to back them up – even if these need to be renationalised because they are required to run flexibly – so shareholders cannot be sure of their dividends. The loan guarantees that DECC tried to throw at new nuclear power will be diverted to Natural Gas power plant investment, possibly; but even then, building and operating a gas-fired power plant could not make an economic case.

It is time to recognise that “baseload” always-on power generation is dead, just as the departing chief of National Grid, Steve Holliday, has indicated. Hopefully, he’s not departing National Grid because he doesn’t believe in the future of coal or nuclear. The plain facts, as the data shows, existing coal and nuclear power plants are unreliable and insecure. Investment into new coal and nuclear plants is at best, uncertain, and for many, dubious. It is possible that gas assets will need to be renationalised. We must resort to a gas-and-power future, for transport as well as heating and power generation. And within 20 years, we must transition to low carbon gas. If only DECC could admit this.

Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #2

Last week’s Energy Live News conference on 5th November 2015 was an opportunity to hear Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) speak without notes, and she did a fine job of it. She must really believe what she said, or have been well-conditioned to rehearse what I considered to be a mix of practical reality and nonsense. The nonsense ? Well, for one thing, it appears that the UK Government still adheres to the crazy notion that nuclear power can rescue the country from blackouts.

After commenting on the previous day’s events in connection with the power grid, Andrea Leadom went on to discuss electricity transmission and demand side reduction measures. “Our policy mix is diversity.”, she said, “There is also the issue of transmission networks.” She didn’t say the word “electricity” before the word “transmission”, but that’s what she meant. She is clearly infected with the “energy is electricity” virus – a disease that makes most civil servants and government officials believe that the only energy worth talking about is electricity. Whereas, primary electricity providing energy for the UK amounts to less than 9% of the total. Compare this to the contribution of petroleum oil to the UK economy – at over 36% of primary input energy, and Natural Gas at 33%, and coal at just over 15.5%.

Andrea Leadsom admitted that – as regards electricity transmission networks went – “it was built for two generations ago, when you had a few [centralised] generators. Today, this has massively changed and [the grid] needs to continue to change, to enable local[ised] electricity generation. The other bit that’s vital is to look at our demand side. We’re not going to solve the energy problem by generating more power. Measures that the Government put in place very early to meet needs – demand reduction as well as energy efficiency…” I don’t know which government she was talking about, because the current Conservative Government have promised to support large industrial users of electricity with generous special assistance and the current organogram of DECC doesn’t even mention efficiency. The previous Coalition Government axed very successful home insulation schemes, and adopted the badly-formulated Green Deal, probably the worst policy for energy efficiency. Perhaps the Minister is referring to the efficiency of energy in use, rather than the reduction of energy use by efficiency ? There, I’d have to say that the government has done little to impact energy efficiency, as most of the initiatives that have been taken have been industry-led – commercial companies taking on projects like converting all their lighting. It is true however, that some public sector organisations have pursued energy efficiency, as, for example, the Government departments themselves have to show they are acting on energy use.

Andrea Leadsom continued, “The potential for domestic battery systems, and smart [meters], where it will be changes for you [the consumer]. We want technologies to be able to stand on their own two feet as soon as possible. Development policy needs to make sure that renewable energies succeed but at the lowest cost to consumers.” And here’s where the quadrilemma comes into focus : you need to spend capital, in other words, invest, in order to deploy new technologies. You can’t expect anything new to take off without support – whether that support comes from government subsidies or private or sovereign wealth funds or large independent investor funds. People talk about choice : if people want green energy, then green energy will be supplied. Most end users of energy say they want renewable energy, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the choice has been makde, and that renewable energy technologies will roll out without any market intervention. The problem is that if you keep thinking that the “consumer” in the new energies market is the end user of power, heat and fuel, you’re missing the investment point. The “consumers” of new energies in the economy are the energy distributors. And they won’t buy new technologies with their own capital if they can avoid it. The reason is they need to keep their bargain with their shareholders and provide the highest returns in the form of dividends as possible. Capital investment is set at a low priority. And with any capital invested, there is the downside that, for a while at least, that capital is locked up in development of new energy plant, so almost inevitably, energy prices for consumers will rise to compensate the shareholders. You don’t get something for nothing. The enabler of last resort in energy has been assumed to be the government – who have offered a range of subsidies for renewable energy technologies. This has essentially been a bailout of the energy companies, but it seems clear that, apart from the new nuclear power programme, subsidies are now to be terminated. What, one might be tempted to ask, will precipitate new renewable energy investment, now that the subsidy programme for green power is being abandoned (and the potential for a green gas programme has been contracted) ?

Andrea Leadsom answered critics next, “There hasn’t been a U-turn on onshore wind [power development]. There was a level of concern regarding onshore development – we want[ed] to let local communities decide.”, although they didn’t like it when people in communities protested shale gas development, “We can’t simply say that onshore wind is the lowest cost – or put the cost onto consumers.” Leadsom clearly hasn’t understood the lack of capital investment from the privatised energy industry. Any correction to unpick that lack of investment will inevitably raise energy prices for British consumers – and Brits already pay the highest amount for electricity in Europe. She continued, “The trilemma poses huge issues, but offers huge opportunities.”

Then it was time for questions from the floor : “[Question] : Do you get the impression that some feel let down – [by your government] cutting green energy support ? [Answer] : We’ve been completely clear about de-carbonisation at the lowest cost. In May 2015 there was the decision about the Levy Control Framework,” [the instrument that caps the total amount added to consumer bills arising from the impact of government policy in any one year – expected to be held to ransom by new nuclear power subsidies over the next decade or so], “Those policy costs must paid by consumers, and they were expected to significantly exceed the limits by 2020,” [due to new nuclear power development, rather than new renewable energy projects], “We had to act. We remain committed to de-carbonisation – but it must be at the lowest cost.”

“[Question] : Your government was part of putting in place sweeteners to the energy industry for the purpose of incentivising investment for the last four years. The evidence is this [has worked] to stimulate investment, and they are now being withdrawn from renewable energy. Do you understand the frustration ? [Answer] : You can’t simply take the view that because industry says ‘we’re almost there’ that you need to unfairly burden the consumer. Deployment has exceeded projections…” and this is where Andrea Leadsom demonstrated that she had failed to understand. The projections of renewable energy development required to meet decarbonisation targets were partly based on projections of new nuclear power development. Assumption were made about the growth of new nuclear, within the context of the Levy Control Framework, and so the projections for renewable energies were made to be dependent on that, and consequently, the ambitions for renewable energy deployment were arbitrarily low. There was no “Path B” calculated, which would have taken into account the failure, or problems with the new nuclear power programme and given another level of projection for renewable energy.

Andrea Leadsom continued answering, “We’ve had lots of constructive discussion with industry,” but one wonders which parts of the renewable energy industry she means, and whether that only includes the very large players – as she certainly hasn’t consulted voters or consumers, “looking at other ways rather than throwing money at it [renewable energy]. [Question] : At the start your government colleagues said ‘there will be no subsidies for nuclear’. Now, clearly, there are [loan guarantee payments, Contracts for Difference and so on]. [Answer] : No, there’s been no U-turn on that. Hinkley Point C is a private investment, being funded by partners,” [ignoring the financial ill-health of EdF and Areva], “There will be no cost to the British billpayer until it generates”, [which is not quite accurate, because if the project fails, the government will reimburse the financiers], “You don’t want project risk.” And it is here that I nearly left the room. The design of Hinkley Point C is inherently risky, from safety and construction points of view. And the permission for the project to go ahead should never have been given, as the design is unproven. For the project to never even get built, or if it does get built, never be able to generator power, is the ultimate in project risk ! We need to increase British energy security, not risk it with big new nuclear power plant projects !

Questionners in the room continued, “[Question] : Does Her Majesty’s Treasury now control DECC ? [Answer] : No. It’s fantastic to have a Conservative-led DECC…[for policy direction] I would say demand-led subsidies without cost to the consumer.” Well ? Wouldn’t a “demand-led subsidy without cost to the consumer” amount to a return to the original Renewables Obligation ? Where electricity suppliers had to guarantee that a certain proportion of their supply was green power, and provide the certificates to prove it ? And there was no subsidy support to get this done ?

“[Questionner hammering the point] : Are you [in DECC] saying this is what we want, and George [Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Treasury] says no ? [Answer] : All departments have to take cuts in public spending in order to get the economy back on track. We’re working constructively with the Treasury. [As far as past policies go it was a case of] if you throw money at it it will solve it – [but this is] not necessarily [so].” One of the reasons that subsidies for energy companies is a failed policy is because the situation has become one where the energy companies compete not to spend capital by blackmailing the government for subsidies. Nothing changes without subsidy, because the government has not stood firm and ordered mandated regulatory compliance with decarbonisation. In addition, it would need an agreement throughout the European Union to get change on this front – because energy companies would refuse to invest in the UK if the UK stop handing out subsidy candy for renewables.

“[Question from LSE] : Our students are considering careers in renewable energy. [Your government is] handing out £26 billion of fossil fuel subsidies. How will government develop at transition to renewables ? [Answer] : I disagree with you that the renewable energy section of the energy industry is cutting back. There is a massive pipeline of projects including offshore projects [in wind power”, [but smaller scale community and onshore projects have been rejected, which amounts to big energy companies winning all the rights to develop renewables], “What I would really like to see is [the development of] people moving between sectors. [The oil and gas industry has majored in] Aberdeen, [where there is also a] burgeoning offshore wind sector [so people could retrain].”

Then, Andrea Leadsom took a question about the costs of nuclear power, “[Question] : Hinkley Point C – when it finally operates – will be getting £92.50 per MWh [indexed with inflation]. Is this too much ? [Answer] : No. [Nuclear power is] absolutely reliable”, [not it isn’t – I’d recommend a look at performance of the current fleet of nuclear power plants in the UK], “It’s vital to the economy to have reliable sources of baseload power. It’s cheaper than offshore wind. Nuclear is absolutely key to it. France and our old fleets are now producing very, very cheap electricity…” Andrea Leadsom was clearly in a state of spiritual trance, because these are highly contestable factoids. The French government has just had to bail out their nuclear electricity industry, and their policy has turned away from nuclear for future power needs. Andrea Leadsom obviously doesn’t include the costs of decommissioning nuclear power plants and the disposal of the last 60 years of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive waste nuclear fuel when she talks about the costs of nuclear power. This is a public subsidy that will need to be continued, because nobody else will handle this as there is no profit to be made from it. Well, some companies have tried to make a profit from nuclear waste and waste nuclear fuel in the UK, but it has always ended badly. We cannot just leave radioactive waste on the beach to burn away. We need to actively manage it. And that costs money that isn’t even an investment.

The Great Policy Reset

Everything in the UK world of energy hit a kind of slow-moving nightmare when the Department of Energy and Climate Change stopped replying to emails a few months ago, claiming they were officially ordered to focus on the “Spending Review” – as known as “The Cuts” – as ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

We now know that this purdah will be terminated on 25th November 2015, when various public announcements will be made, and whatever surprises are in store, one thing is now for certain : all grapevines have been repeating this one word regarding British energy policy : “reset”.

Some are calling it a “soft reset”. Some are predicting the demise of the entire Electricity Market Reform, and all its instruments – which would include the Capacity Auction and the Contracts for Difference – which would almost inevitably throw the new nuclear power ambition into a deep dark forgettery hole.

A report back from a whispering colleague regarding the Energy Utilities Forum at the House of Lords on 4th November 2015 included these items of interest :-

“…the cost of battery power has dropped to 10% of its value of a few years ago. National Grid has a tender out for micro-second response back up products – everyone assumes this is aimed at batteries but they are agnostic … There will be what is called a “soft reset” in the energy markets announced by the government in the next few weeks – no one knows what this means but obviously yet more tinkering with regulations … On the basis that diesel fuel to Afghanistan is the most expensive in the world (true), it has to be flown in, it has been seriously proposed to fly in Small Modular Nuclear reactors to generate power. What planet are these people living on I wonder ? … A lot more inter connectors are being planned to UK from Germany, Belgium Holland and Norway I think taking it up to 12 GWe … ”

Alistair Phillips-Davies, the CEO of SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy), took part in a panel discussion at Energy Live News on 5th November 2015, in which he said that he was expecing a “reset” on the Electricity Market Reform (EMR), and that the UK Government were apparently focussing on consumers and robust carbon pricing. One view expressed was that the EMR could be moved away from market mechanisms. In other discussions, it was mentioned that the EMR Capacity Market Auction had focussed too much on energy supply, and that the second round would see a wider range of participants – including those offering demand side solutions.

Energy efficiency, and electricity demand profile flattening, were still vital to get progress on, as the power grid is going to be more efficient if it can operate within a narrower band of demand – say 30 to 40 GW daily, rather than the currently daily swing of 20 to 50 GW. There was talk of offering changing flexible, personal tariffs to smooth out the 5pm 17:00 power demand peak, as price signalling is likely to be the only way to make this happen, and comments were made about how many computer geeks would be needed to analyse all the power consumption data.

The question was asked whether the smart meter rollout could have the same demand smoothing effect as the Economy 7 tariff had in the past.

The view was expressed that the capacity market had not provided enough by way of long-term price signals – particularly for investment in low carbon energy. One question raised during the day was whether it wouldn’t be better just to set a Europe-wide price on carbon and then let markets and the energy industry decide what to put in place ?

So, in what ways could the British Government “reset” the Electricity Market Reform instruments in order to get improved results – better for pocket, planet and energy provision ? This is what I think :-

1. Keep the Capacity Mechanism for gas

The Capacity Mechanism was originally designed to keep efficient gas-fired power plants (combined cycle gas turbine, or CCGT) from closing, and to make sure that new ones were built. In the current power generation portfolio, more renewable energy, and the drive to push coal-fired power plants to their limits before they need to be closed, has meant that gas-fired generation has been sidelined, kept for infrequent use. This has damaged the economics of CCGT, both to build and to operate. This phenomenon has been seen all across Europe, and the Capacity Market was supposed to fix this. However, the auction was opened to all current power generators as well as investors in new plant, so inevitably some of the cash that was meant for gas has been snaffled up by coal and nuclear.

2. Deflate strike prices after maximum lead time to generation

No Contracts for Difference should be agreed without specifying a maximum lead time to initial generation. There is no good reason why nuclear power plants, for example, that are anticipated to take longer than 5 years to build and start generating should be promised fixed power prices – indexed to inflation. If they take longer than that to build, the power prices should be degressed for every year they are late, which should provide an incentive to complete the projects on time. These projects with their long lead times and uncertain completion dates are hogging all the potential funds for investment, and this is leading to inflexibility in planning.

3. Offer Negative Contracts for Difference

To try to re-establish a proper buildings insulation programme of works, projects should be offered an incentive in the form of contracts-for-energy-savings – in other words, aggregated heat savings from any insulation project should be offered an investment reward related to the size of the savings. This will not be rewarding energy production, but energy use reduction. Any tempering of gas demand will improve the UK’s balance of payments and lead to a healthier economy.

4. Abandon all ambition for carbon pricing

Trends in energy prices are likely to hold surprises for some decades to come. To attempt to set a price on carbon, as an aid to incentivising low carbon energy investment is likely to fail to set an appropriate investment differential in this environment of general energy pricing volatility. That is : the carbon price would be a market signal lost in a sea of other effects. Added to which, carbon costs are likely to be passed on to energy consumers before they would affect the investment decisions of energy companies.

The Ministry of Nuclear Defence ?

Regular as clockwork, almost, somebody wonders if Britain’s insane drive to build new nuclear power plants is linked to Britain’s “deterrent” nuclear weapons :-

“Query over UK’s civil and military nuclear links : By Paul Brown : Experts are asking whether the UK government’s determination to build more nuclear power stations is linked to its wish to maintain its nuclear deterrent : 13 September, 2015 : Electricity from proposed new nuclear stations in the UK will be more expensive than from any other nuclear reactors in the world, yet the government is pressing ahead with its plan to build 11 new installations, despite mounting criticism. […] The strange mismatch between Europe’s two largest economies, Germany and the UK, is puzzling experts, especially since the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency say in the 2015 Projected Costs of Generating Electricity report that Britain’s plans will make its nuclear electricity the most expensive in the world. […] The Conservative government, elected in May, lacks a coherent energy policy after cutting subsidies for on-shore wind and solar, but sticks to its line that nuclear power is essential for turning Britain into a low-carbon economy. […] Britain has much better renewable resources, yet has decided to opt for nuclear power, even though it is more expensive than on-shore wind or solar. Phil Johnstone and Andy Stirling, University of Sussex research experts in the nuclear policy area, have put forward the suggestion that the UK needs to continue to build and run civilian nuclear power stations to maintain enough nuclear expertise in the country to run its nuclear submarines independently, and so keep its status as a nuclear weapons state. This possible link between civil and military nuclear power has never been debated in public, although the British government has repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of young people entering the nuclear industry, and has spent millions of pounds on training programmes to attract them. Its declared position is that nuclear power is needed to combat climate change, and that there is no link between civil and military needs […]”

Several campaign groups have in fact regularly publicly aired the possibility of this very link between the UK’s military nuclear capability and its civil power programme. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) suggests that the UK needs to keep its civilian nuclear power programme in order to provide tritium for the Trident warheads (e. g.; This would be an important consideration if the UK “divorced” itself from the “special relationship” with the United States at some point in the near future, owing to differences over waging unnecessary and disproportionately vindictive warfare. In the past the UK has imported tritium from the USA, but would be unlikely to do so if military ties were cut, especially if there were questions about the UK’s continued full membership of NATO. In addition, even if the UK-US relationship were to continue, nuclear power plants capable of producing tritium on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean could all be decommissioned within something like 20 years, so without new nuclear power plant builds, the tritium necessary for Trident warhead propellant would simply not be available.

After over a decade of disagreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has signed an agreement with Kazakhstan for a nuclear material repository :-

At the current time this is only intended to be for LEU – low-enriched uranium – and would be used as a “third party” in the supply of “sensitive” states with the nuclear fuel needed for their civilian nuclear power programmes. Countries such as Iran…

However, if the repository in Kazakhstan became a global repository for nuclear waste and waste nuclear fuel as well as uranium fuel, then the UK might well wish to avail itself of this facility, as it is finding it expensive to manage the re-processing, storing and disposing of uranium, plutonium, mixed nuclear fuels, both spent and reprocessed, and vast barrel-loads of nuclear power programme irradiated waste :-

Even if DECC’s nuclear decommissioning and depository budget can be pared down, there remains the issue of the management of the nuclear warhead fissile material. Already the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Ministry of Defence are agreeing responsibility dividing lines :-

Without a significant new civilian nuclear power programme in the UK, nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers might need to be imported – leading to various national security questions. However, the most important problem would be in the maintenance and decommissioning of the Trident “independent” nuclear deterrent. It could become very costly indeed. The best option is to scrap it. We don’t need it anyway.

A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

So I met somebody last week, at their invitation, to talk a little bit about my research into Renewable Gas.

I can’t say who it was, as I didn’t get their permission to do so. I can probably (caveat emptor) safely say that they are a fairly significant player in the energy engineering sector.

I think they were trying to assess whether my work was a bankable asset yet, but I think they quickly realised that I am nowhere near a full proposal for a Renewable Gas system.

Although there were some technologies and options over which we had a meeting of minds, I was quite disappointed by their opinions in connection with a number of energy projects in the United Kingdom.

Click to Read More !

DECC Dungeons and Dragnets

Out of the blue, I got an invitation to a meeting in Whitehall.

I was to join industrial developers and academic researchers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a meeting of the “Green Hydrogen Standard Working Group”.

The date was 12th June 2015. The weather was sunny and hot and merited a fine Italian lemonade, fizzing with carbon dioxide. The venue was an air-conditioned grey bunker, but it wasn’t an unfriendly dungeon, particularly as I already knew about half the people in the room.

The subject of the get-together was Green Hydrogen, and the work of the group is to formulate a policy for a Green Hydrogen standard, navigating a number of issues, including the intersection with other policy, and drawing in a very wide range of chemical engineers in the private sector.

My reputation for not putting up with any piffle clearly preceded me, as somebody at the meeting said he expected I would be quite critical. I said that I would not be saying anything, but that I would be listening carefully. Having said I wouldn’t speak, I must admit I laughed at all the right places in the discussion, and wrote copious notes, and participated frequently in the way of non-verbal communication, so as usual, I was very present. At the end I was asked for my opinion about the group’s work and I was politely congratulational on progress.

So, good. I behaved myself. And I got invited back for the next meeting. But what was it all about ?

Most of what it is necessary to communicate is that at the current time, most hydrogen production is either accidental output from the chemical industry, or made from fossil fuels – the main two being coal and Natural Gas.

Hydrogen is used extensively in the petroleum refinery industry, but there are bold plans to bring hydrogen to transport mobility through a variety of applications, for example, hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

Clearly, the Green Hydrogen standard has to be such that it lowers the bar on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and it could turn out that the consensus converges on any technologies that have a net CO2 emissions profile lower than steam methane reforming (SMR), or the steam reforming of methane (SRM), of Natural Gas.

[ It’s at this very moment that I need to point out the “acronym conflict” in the use of “SMR” – which is confusingly being also used for “Small Modular Reactors” of the nuclear fission kind. In the context of what I am writing here, though, it is used in the context of turning methane into syngas – a product high in hydrogen content. ]

Some numbers about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) used in the manufacture of hydrogen were presented in the meeting, including the impact this would have on CO2 emissions, and these were very intriguing.

I had some good and useful conversations with people before and after the meeting, and left thinking that this process is going to be very useful to engage with – a kind of dragnet pulling key players into low carbon gas production.

Here follow my notes from the meeting. They are, of course, not to be taken verbatim. I have permission to recount aspects of the discussion, in gist, as it was an industrial liaison group, not an internal DECC meeting. However, I should not say who said what, or which companies or organisations they are working with or for.

Click to Read More !

Nuclear Power Is Not An Energy Policy

The British Government do not have an energy policy. They may think they have one, and they may regularly tell us that they have one, but in reality, they don’t. There are a number of elements of regulatory work and market intervention that they are engaged with, but none of these by itself is significant enough to count as a policy for energy. Moreover, all of these elements taken together do not add up to energy security, energy efficiency, decarbonisation and affordable energy.

What it takes to have an energy policy is a clear understanding of what is a realistic strategy for reinvestment in energy after the dry years of privatisation, and a focus on energy efficiency, and getting sufficient low carbon energy built to meet the Carbon Budget on time. Current British Government ambitions on energy are not realistic, will not attract sufficient investment, will not promote increased energy efficiency and will not achieve the right scale and speed of decarbonisation.

I’m going to break down my critique into a series of small chunks. The first one is a quick look at the numbers and outcomes arising from the British Government’s obsessive promotion of nuclear power, a fantasy science fiction that is out of reach, not least because the industry is dog-tired and motheaten.

Click to Read More !

Amber Rudd : First Skirmish

As if to provide proof for the sneaking suspicion that Great Britain is run by the wealthy, rather than by the people, and that energy policy is decided by a close-knit circle of privileged dynasties, up bubbles Amber Rudd MP’s first whirl of skirmish as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change : her brother Roland is chairperson of a lobbying firm, Finsbury, which is seeking to get state approval for a controversial gas storage scheme at Preesall, near Fleetwood, on behalf of the developers, Halite Energy of Preston, Lancashire.

Whilst some claim there is a starkly obvious conflict of interest for Rudd to take part in the decision-making process, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) could have denied it, but have instead confirmed that the potential reversal of a 2013 decision will be made, not by Rudd, but by Lord Bourne.

New gas storage in the United Kingdom is a crucial piece of the energy infrastructure provision, as recognised by successive governments. Developments have been ongoing, such as the opening of the Holford facility at Byley in Cheshire. Besides new gas storage, there are anticipated improvements for interconnectors with mainland Europe. These are needed for raising the volume of Natural Gas available to the British market, and for optimising Natural Gas flows and sales in the European regional context – a part of the EC’s “Energy Union”.

An underlying issue not much aired is that increased gas infrastructure is necessary not just to improve competition in the energy markets – it is also to compensate for Peak Natural Gas in the North Sea – something many commentators regularly strive to deny. The new Conservative Government policy on energy is not fit to meet this challenge. The new Secretary of State has gone public about the UK Government’s continued commitment to the exploitation of shale gas – a resource that even her own experts can tell her is unlikely to produce more than a footnote to annual gas supplies for several decades. In addition, should David Cameron be forced to usher in a Referendum on Europe, and the voters petulantly pull out of the Europe project, Britain’s control over Natural Gas imports is likely to suffer, either because of the failure of the “Energy Union” in markets and infrastructure, or because of cost perturbations.

Amber Rudd MP is sitting on a mountain of trouble, undergirded by energy policy vapourware : the promotion of shale gas is not going to solve Britain’s gas import surge; the devotion to new nuclear power is not going to bring new atomic electrons to the grid for decades, and the UK Continental Shelf is going to be expensive for the Treasury to incentivise to mine. What Amber needs is a proper energy policy, based on focused support for low carbon technologies, such as wind power, solar power and Renewable Gas to back up renewable electricity when the sun is not shining and wind is not blowing.

EdF Energy is not very forthcoming

Looking into the nuclear power industry can be like peering into a murky bucket – through a pail, darkly. Whilst I’m waiting for an answer to my Freedom of Information request about nuclear power generation in the United Kingdom, because EdF Energy won’t tell me themselves, I have been instead trying to get some information from EdF Energy about the St Jude’s storm of October 2013.

7th April 2015


You mentioned St Jude so to give you a feel of how we communicate information for something like this, we send out a note to newswires every time a station is offline, whether planned or unplanned.

In the case of St Jude, the station was taken offline due to debris from the storm causing a loss of power to the site. It was absolutely not connected to any form of flooding.

Our first statement is copied below
“Dungeness B automatically shut down both reactors after power to the site was cut off. The units are safely shutdown and the site’s own generators are providing power to the site post shutdown. The station is liaising with National Grid regarding returning the power supply.”

And we provided a further update here:

And later on another update here:

A few days later we issued a background note to explain in further detail what had happened.

Throughout the day on 28 October we gave numerous TV and radio interviews to explain the nature of what had happened. As above – it was not related to any flooding or water ingress – a piece of debris stopped power to the site and as a precautionary measure the reactors were taken offline.

There’s plenty of information available online. We publish regular updates on our website and I would recommend you exploring websites such as DECC and ONR who publish a quarterly update for any further information.

Good luck with your research


Thank you for your reply.

In the “background note” of 31st October 2013 :-

Most of the information given is background information, and does not
convey information about what happened between 27th October 2013 and
when the two nuclear reactors and their power generation turbines came
back online.

By the way, the use of the expression “single failure” in this
sentence does not make sense : “The on-site electrical distribution
systems are capable of performing essential safety functions even if a
single failure occurs.”

There is only one statement that indicates what actually took place :
“If loss of off-site power happens – as it did on October 28 – the
power station is capable of operating independently until grid
connections are restored.”

This is not the level of detail that answers my request for a formal
report of what happened.

(a.) Deliberate shutdown or “trip” shutdown ?

It is not clear from this background note whether the nuclear reactors
were shut down deliberately through intervention, or as a result of a
“trip” from rapidly changing power conditions experienced at the
“shared turbine house” (power island).

Just as there is safety control equipment which should start up
on-site diesel power generation automatically should the external
connection to the National Grid be lost (“There are several sets
(groups) of diesel powered generators designed to provide power to
safety critical systems, which will automatically start when the grid
connection is lost.”), I would expect safety control equipment should
be in place to shut down the nuclear reactors automatically should
power not be available or the power supply is fluctuating rapidly.

These two general statements are made, but it is not possible to
determine which was the particular case : “The decision is always
taken to shutdown the reactors if the site loses grid connection,
electricity is then provided by the on-site diesel generators which
power the essential on-site plant.” and “With delivery of consumables
to site, successful post trip cooling of the reactors can be
maintained indefinitely.”

So, what was the actual order of events ? I expect there were some
problems with the supply of power from the National Grid (owing to the
“debris” mentioned). I expect that what happened next was that the
emergency on-site diesel generation equipment started up
automatically. I don’t know, and I am not told in your “background
note”, whether all of this equipment started up correctly. I don’t
know, as your report does not say, whether the on-site power
generation was successful in generating enough power to keep the
carbon dioxide coolant pumps for both nuclear reactors in operation. I
don’t know, as your report does not say, whether the nuclear reactors
were shut down automatically, or as the result of a station management

(b.) Diesel and water supplies

The “background note” does not state whether there were sufficient
supplies of water and diesel fuel on site to last for 24 hours or
longer. It also does not say how much diesel fuel and water needed to
be brought on-site for the remainder of the shut down period until
first one and then the second nuclear reactor were brought back

(c.) Nuclear reactor start up

The “background note” does not state the reasons for the time it took
to get the nuclear reactors restarted. For example, were the coolant
pumps (the physical pumping equipment or the electrical equipment)
damaged in the incident ?

These details would be most useful to know.


The Nuclear Generation #2

Nuclear power is the favourite “silver bullet” to many UK Government officials in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) – a solution for climate change, energy security, and fingers crossed, for the price of electricity. So why isn’t the data on nuclear power generation more readily available ? Surely the future is predicated on the past ? Surely future assumptions need to be projected from past performance ? So why do we only hear stories of mythical unicorns (as yet unbuilt plant) rather than kilowatt hours per month, per nuclear power plant, per reactor/turbine combination, stretching back in time ? I mean, we get summaries, but not details; annual, not monthly, collected totals, but not specifics. This coarse-grained data is not sufficient for a decent analysis. We can compare year-on-year, but not power plant by power plant, month by month.

Time for another Freedom of Information request.

To: “Freedom of Information Requests, Department of Energy and Climate
Information Rights Unit
Department for Business, Innovation & Skills
5th Floor
Victoria 3
1 Victoria Street

31st March 2015

Request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change

Re : Nuclear Power Generation in the United Kingdom

Dear Madam/Sir,

I am researching the potential for existing and planned nuclear power
plants (NPPs) to contribute to the future electricity needs of the
National Grid.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, please
could you send me any and all electronic/digital documents, Internet
hypertext links to electronic/digital documents, or other
electronic/digital material bearing information relating to the
questions below :-

1. The history of atomic energy in the United Kingdom

Please could you provide me with month-by-month data of :-

(a) The actual electricity generation (in gigawatt hours (GWh)) and
(b) The power generation capacity (in megawatts (MW))

of each individual nuclear power plant nuclear reactor and each
nuclear power plant power generation turbine, for the years from first
power generated by the NPP to the present day. This data should
include NPPs and nuclear reactors that are shut down, and those in the
process of being decommissioned.

2. Lifetime extensions on nuclear reactors

Please could you provide me with a list of work done, or planned to be
done, to enable the lifetime extension of each nuclear reactor and NPP
in the United Kingdom.

3. Anticipated nuclear reactor decommissioning dates

Please could you provide me with up-to-date information about the
anticipated dates of final shutdown of each nuclear reactor at each
NPP in the UK.

4. New build

Please could you provide me with an up-to-date list of new nuclear
reactors and new NPPs that are under construction, and their
anticipated date for first power generation. The data should include :
the power generation capacity (in MW) according to design, the actual
electricity generation (in GWh) according to design, and the
anticipated date of final shut down and decommissioning.

Thank you for your attention to my request for information.


The Nuclear Generation #1

I am tired of repeatedly having the same conversation about nuclear power.

Them: “Nuclear power plants generate 20% of Britain’s electricity.”
Me: “But that’s less than 10% of all the energy consumed in the UK.”
Them: “Nuclear power is a reliable provider of electricity.”
Me: “But unplanned outages at nuclear power plants generally increase with age.”
Them: “Nuclear power is experiencing a renaissance.”
Me: “But globally, there are less than 75 nuclear reactors under construction, compared to a total world fleet of 435, and most of them are over 25 years old…”

Lots of people believe that nuclear power is “boom town” in Britain, and yet I know from looking at some of the numbers and projections that there is a risk that new nuclear reactors may only be replacing old nuclear reactors – at the end there would not be more nuclear power than there is now. And more : that there is also a risk that most of the current nuclear reactors could be shut down for decommissioning before their replacements could be ready.

What, I wondered, could I produce as a projection of nuclear power in the UK ? What numbers and figures would I need to plug into a model of nuclear generation in Britain ? It’s a bit pointless trying to uncover reality by looking at annual totals of electricity generation from nuclear power plants. To really understand what is happening, and what the trends are, and the prospects for the future, I would need to have more fine-grained data. So I set off in search of some. First port of call : EdF Energy (the UK wing of Électricité de France).

26th March 2015


I am an Associate Research Fellow with Birkbeck, University of London,
and I’ve just completed writing a work on low carbon gas – or
Renewable Gas, as I’m calling it.

I still haven’t worked out what my next project is, but in the
meantime, I’m looking at various numbers in the energy sector in
general, and blogging and Tweeting :-

With today’s announcement on Energy Trends from the Department of
Energy and Climate Change, questions are circulating about the
performance of various energy resources :-

So far, I have been able to find :-

1. Data about total electricity generation from nuclear power each
year (gigawatt hours (GWh), terawatt hours (TWh)) – for example in the
Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES), Table 5.1 “Commodity balances”

2. Data about the generation capacity of the total of nuclear power
plants, and individual nuclear power plants (GW, MW) – for example,
DUKES table 5.10 “Power Stations in the United Kingdom”, and the
current status of each EdF nuclear power plant online :-

3. Data about the total lifetime generation of power from nuclear
power plants that have been shut down – NDA “Lifetime Plans” series
from 2006, and overall plan from 2013 (TWh) :-

4. Historical data about nuclear power plant electricity generation
in the UK – DUKES Table 5.1.1 “Fuel input for electricity generation”
(Mtoe which can be converted to TWh) :-

What I cannot seem to find is historical data about the annual power
generation of individual nuclear power plants in TWh – in other words,
the annual electricity output for each reactor-turbine combination
over the last 25 or so years.

I’m wondering if EdF Energy could help point me to published data of
this nature.

Many thanks,


1st April 2015

Hi Jo

I just tried calling – XXXXXXXXX passed your query on to me. We don’t publicly release generation from individual power stations as that information is commercially sensitive.

Sorry we can’t help – you seem to have found all the data that I would have pointed you to anyway – but do get back in touch if there’s anything else.

Many thanks


1st April 2015


Many thanks for getting back to me on my question.

It seems strange to me that EdF Energy consider the productivity of
their assets as “commercially sensitive” – since almost every other
piece of data about the company is contained in corporate financial
accounts, generally available to the public. I would have thought this
data on generation would be very important to your shareholders, but
perhaps they are more concerned about dividends and profits than the
actual flow of electrons.

I am not going to speculate on what that could suggest or imply. EdF
Energy clearly need to report this data to HM Government, as the
annual total of nuclear generation is included in statistical reports,
although I need more fine grain for my research. I decided that I
might need a backup plan to acquire this data, so I need to let you
know I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to DECC.

I consider EdF Energy’s reply to my request as unhelpful, and I shall
be noting it to my colleagues.



Dear Jo

Thanks for your response and good luck with your research. Please keep in touch as I’m sure there is lots of information we can help you with if we have it available. I should have sent you this link to our monthly update to the stock market which gives total nuclear output for each month, but doesn’t break it down site by site.

Hope that helps


Thank you for the link to your monthly update to the London Stock Exchange.

I’m sure that would be useful for the average investor, but I need to
know about the performance and status of individual atomic reactors
and their generation turbines on a month-by-month basis, as I am
hoping to understand the viability of each nuclear power plant by
looking at trends, especially trends in outages (planned and

I am hoping to be able to find some data on outages (for example, due
to accidents) through the monitoring bodies, but this would not be
appropriate for understanding all outages and their underlying causes.
For example, I cannot find a detailed report on what happened at
Dungeness during the night of the St Jude’s storm in October 2013. The
only details I have been able to scavenge are one-liners from EdF
Energy and vague paragraphs from the press, plus circumstantial
evidence from other lines of enquiry. Considering the prior ONR [Office
for Nuclear Regulation] reports on water ingress at the power
plant, and the beach repair in the following months, I consider more
detail on this particular outage to be important to explain. If this
were not also “commercially sensitive”, it would be useful to me to
see an executive-style report of this outage.



We’ll see what happens next…

Zero Careers In Plainspeaking

There are many ways to make a living, but there appear to be zero careers in plainspeaking.

I mean, who could I justify working with, or for ? And would any of them be prepared to accept me speaking my mind ?

Much of what I’ve been saying over the last ten years has been along the lines of “that will never work”, but people generally don’t get consulted or hired for picking holes in an organisation’s pet projects or business models.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role in the British Government ? Short answer : no.

The slightly longer answer : The British Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) ? No, they’re still hooked on the failed technology of nuclear power, the stupendously expensive and out-of-reach Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and the mythical beast of shale gas. OK, so they have a regular “coffee club” about Green Hydrogen (whatever that turns out to be according to their collective ruminations), and they’ve commissioned reports on synthetic methane, but I just couldn’t imagine they’re ever going to work up a serious plan on Renewable Gas. The British Government Department for Transport ? No, they still haven’t adopted a clear vision of the transition of the transport sector to low carbon energy. They’re still chipping away at things instead of coming up with a strategy.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a British oil and gas multinational ? Short and very terse and emphatic answer : no.

The extended answer : The oil and gas companies have had generous support and understanding from the world’s governments, and are respected and acclaimed. Yet they are in denial about “unburnable carbon” assets, and have dismissed the need for Energy Change that is the outcome of Peak Oil (whether on the supply or the demand side). Sneakily, they have also played both sides on Climate Change. Several major oil and gas companies have funded or in other ways supported Climate Change science denial. Additionally, the policy recommendations coming from the oil and gas companies are what I call a “delayer’s game”. For example, BP continues to recommend the adoption of a strong price on carbon, yet they know this would be politically unpalatable and take decades (if ever) to bring into effect. Shell continues to argue for extensive public subsidy support for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), knowing this would involve such huge sums of money, so it’s never going to happen, at least not for several decades. How on Earth could I work on any project with these corporations unless they adopt, from the centre, a genuine plan for transition out of fossil fuels ? I’m willing to accept that transition necessitates the continued use of Natural Gas and some petroleum for some decades, but BP and Royal Dutch Shell do need to have an actual plan for a transition to Renewable Gas and renewable power, otherwise I would be compromising everything I know by working with them.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a large engineering firm, such as Siemens, GE, or Alstom, taking part in a project on manufactured low carbon gas ? I suppose so. I mean, I’ve done an IT project with Siemens before. However, they would need to demonstrate that they are driving for a Renewable Gas transition before I could join a gas project with them. They might not want to be so bold and up-front about it, because they could risk the wrath of the oil and gas companies, whose business model would be destroyed by engineered gas and fuel solutions.

Could I imagine myself building fuel cells, or designing methanation catalysts, or improving hydrogen production, biocoke/biocoal manufacture or carbon dioxide capture from the oceans… with a university project ? Yes, but the research would need to be funded by companies (because all applied academic research is funded by companies) with a clear picture on Energy Change and their own published strategy on transition out of fossil fuels.

Could I imagine myself working on rolling out gas cars, buses and trucks ? Yes. The transition of the transport sector is the most difficult problem in Energy Change. However, apart from projects that are jumping straight to new vehicles running entirely on Hydrogen or Natural Gas, the good options for transition involve converting existing diesel engine vehicles to running mostly on Natural Gas, such as “dual fuel”, still needing roughly 20% of liquid diesel fuel for ignition purposes. So I would need to be involved with a project that aims to supply biodiesel, and have a plan to transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas.

Could I imagine myself working with a team that has extensive computing capabilities to model carbon dioxide recycling in power generation plant ? Yes.

Could I imagine myself modelling the use of hydrogen in petroleum refinery, and making technological recommendations for the oil and gas industry to manufacture Renewable Hydrogen ? Possibly. But I would need to be clear that I’m doing it to enable Energy Change, and not to prop up the fossil fuel paradigm – a game that is actually already bust and needs helping towards transition.

Could I imagine myself continuing to research the growth in Renewable Gas – both Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane – in various countries and sectors ? Possibly. It’s my kind of fun, talking to engineers.

But whatever future work I consider myself doing, repeatedly I come up against this problem – whoever asked me to work with them would need to be aware that I do not tolerate non-solutions. I will continue to say what doesn’t work, and what cannot work.

If people want to pay me to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t working, and won’t work, then fine, I’ll take the role.

I’d much rather stay positive, though, and forge a role where I can promote the things that do work, can work and will work.

The project that I’m suitable for doesn’t exist yet, I feel. I’m probably going to continue in one way or another in research, and after that, since I cannot see a role that I could fit easily or ethically, I can see I’m going to have to write my own job description.

Renewable Gas : A Presentation #1

Last week, on the invitation of Dr Paul Elsner at Birkbeck, University of London, I gave a brief address of my research so far into Renewable Gas to this year’s Energy and Climate Change class, and asked and answered lots of questions before demolishing the mythical expert/student hierarchy paradigm – another incarnation of the “information deficit model”, perhaps – and proposed everyone work in breakout groups on how a transition from fossil fuel gas to Renewable Gas could be done.

A presentation of information was important before discussing strategies, as we had to cover ground from very disparate disciplines such as chemical process engineering, the petroleum industry, energy statistics, and energy technologies, to make sure everybody had a foundational framework. I tried to condense the engineering into just a few slides, following the general concept of UML – Unified Modelling Language – keeping everything really simple – especially as processing, or work flow (workflow) concepts can be hard to describe in words, so diagrams can really help get round the inevitable terminology confusions.

But before I dropped the class right into chemical engineering, I thought a good place to start would be in numbers, and in particular the relative contributions to energy in the United Kingdom from gas and electricity. Hence the first slide.

The first key point to notice is that most heat demand in the UK in winter is still provided by Natural Gas, whether Natural Gas in home boilers, or electricity generated using Natural Gas.

The second is that heat demand in energy terms is much larger than power demand in the cold months, and much larger than both power and heat demand in the warm months.

The third is that power demand when viewed on annual basis seems pretty regular (despite the finer grain view having issues with twice-daily peaks and weekday demand being much higher than weekends).

The reflection I gave was that it would make no sense to attempt to provide all that deep winter heat demand with electricity, as the UK would need an enormous amount of extra power generation, and in addition, much of this capacity would do nothing for most of the rest of the year.

The point I didn’t make was that nuclear power currently provides – according to official figures – less than 20% of UK electricity, however, this works out as only 7.48% of total UK primary energy demand (DUKES, 2014, Table 1.1.1, Mtoe basis). The contribution to total national primary energy demand from Natural Gas by contrast is 35.31%. The generation from nuclear power plants has been falling unevenly, and the plan to replace nuclear reactors that have reached their end of life is not going smoothly. The UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change have been pushing for new nuclear power, and project that all heating will convert to electricity, and that nuclear power will provide for much of this (75 GW by 2050). But if their plan relies on nuclear power, and nuclear power development is unreliable, it is hard to imagine that it will succeed.

Only Just Getting Started

In the last couple of years I have researched and written a book about the technologies and systems of Renewable Gas – gas energy fuels that are low in net carbon dioxide emissions. From what I have learned so far, it seems that another energy world is possible, and that the transition is already happening. The forces that are shaping this change are not just climate or environmental policy, or concerns about energy security. Renewable Gas is inevitable because of a range of geological, economic and industrial reasons.

I didn’t train as a chemist or chemical process engineer, and I haven’t had a background in the fossil fuel energy industry, so I’ve had to look at a number of very basic areas of engineering, for example, the distillation and fractionation of crude petroleum oil, petroleum refinery, gas processing, and the thermodynamics of gas chemistry in industrial-scale reactors. Why did I need to look at the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry when I was researching Renewable Gas ? Because that’s where a lot of the change can come from. Renewable Gas is partly about biogas, but it’s also about industrial gas processes, and a lot of them are used in the petrorefinery and chemicals sectors.

In addition, I researched energy system technologies. Whilst assessing the potential for efficiency gains in energy systems through the use of Renewable Electricity and Renewable Gas, I rekindled an interest in fuel cells. For the first time in a long time, I began to want to build something – a solid oxide fuel cell which switches mode to an electrolysis unit that produces hydrogen from water. Whether I ever get to do that is still a question, but it shows how involved I’m feeling that I want to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.

Even though I have covered a lot of ground, I feel I’m only just getting started, as there is a lot more that I need to research and document. At the same time, I feel that I don’t have enough data, and that it will be hard to get the data I need, partly because of proprietary issues, where energy and engineering companies are protective of developments, particularly as regards actual numbers. Merely being a university researcher is probably not going to be sufficient. I would probably need to be an official within a government agency, or an industry institute, in order to be permitted to reach in to more detail about the potential for Renewable Gas. But there are problems with these possible avenues.

You see, having done the research I have conducted so far, I am even more scornful of government energy policy than I was previously, especially because of industrial tampering. In addition, I am even more scathing about the energy industry “playing both sides” on climate change. Even though there are some smart and competent people in them, the governments do not appear to be intelligent enough to see through expensive diversions in technology or unworkable proposals for economic tweaking. These non-solutions are embraced and promoted by the energy industry, and make progress difficult. No, carbon dioxide emissions taxation or pricing, or a market in carbon, are not going to make the kind of changes we need on climate change; and in addition they are going to be extremely difficult and slow to implement. No, Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is never going to become relatively affordable in any economic scenario. No, nuclear power is too cumbersome, slow and dodgy – a technical term – to ever make a genuine impact on the total of carbon emissons. No, it’s not energy users who need to reduce their consumption of energy, it’s the energy companies who need to reduce the levels of fossil fuels they utilise in the energy they sell. No, unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, are not the answer to high emissions from coal. No, biofuels added to petrofuels for vehicles won’t stem total vehicle emissions without reducing fuel consumption and limiting the number of vehicles in use.

I think that the fossil fuel companies know these proposals cannot bring about significant change, which is precisely why they lobby for them. They used to deny climate change outright, because it spelled the end of their industry. Now they promote scepticism about the risks of climate change, whilst at the same time putting their name to things that can’t work to suppress major amounts of emissions. This is a delayer’s game.

Because I find the UK Government energy and climate policy ridiculous on many counts, I doubt they will ever want me to lead with Renewable Gas on one of their projects. And because I think the energy industry needs to accept and admit that they need to undergo a major change, and yet they spend most of their public relations euros telling the world they don’t need to, and that other people need to make change instead, I doubt the energy industry will ever invite me to consult with them on how to make the Energy Transition.

I suppose there is an outside chance that the major engineering firms might work with me, after all, I have been an engineer, and many of these companies are already working in the Renewable Gas field, although they’re normally “third party” players for the most part – providing engineering solutions to energy companies.

Because I’ve had to drag myself through the equivalent of a “petro degree”, learning about the geology and chemistry of oil and gas, I can see more clearly than before that the fossil fuel industry contains within it the seeds of positive change, with its use of technologies appropriate for manufacturing low carbon “surface gas”. I have learned that Renewable Gas would be a logical progression for the oil and gas industry, and also essential to rein in their own carbon emissions from processing cheaper crude oils. If they weren’t so busy telling governments how to tamper with energy markets, pushing the blame for emissions on others, and begging for subsidies for CCS projects, they could instead be planning for a future where they get to stay in business.

The oil and gas companies, especially the vertically integrated tranche, could become producers and retailers of low carbon gas, and take part in a programme for decentralised and efficient energy provision, and maintain their valued contribution to society. At the moment, however, they’re still stuck in the 20th Century.

I’m a positive person, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how stuck-in-the-fossilised-mud the governments and petroindustry are. What I’m aiming to do is start the conversation on how the development of Renewable Gas could displace dirty fossil fuels, and eventually replace the cleaner-but-still-fossil Natural Gas as well.

Shell Shirks Carbon Responsibility

I was in a meeting today held at the Centre for European Reform in which Shell’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon Henry, made two arguments to absolve the oil and gas industry of responsibility for climate change. He painted coal as the real enemy, and reiterated the longest hand-washing argument in politics – that Shell believes that a Cap and Trade system is the best way to suppress carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it’s not up to Shell to do anything about carbon. He argued that for transportation and trade the world is going to continue to need highly energy-dense liquid fuels for some time, essentially arguing for the continuation of his company’s current product slate. He did mention proudly in comments after the meeting that Shell are the world’s largest bioethanol producers, in Brazil, but didn’t open up the book on the transition of his whole company to providing the world with low carbon fuels. He said that Shell wants to be a part of the global climate change treaty process, but he gave no indication of what Shell could bring to the table to the negotiations, apart from pushing for carbon trading. Mark Campanale of the Carbon Tracker Initiative was sufficiently convinced by the “we’re not coal” argument to attempt to seek common cause with Simon Henry after the main meeting. It would be useful to have allies in the oil and gas companies on climate change, but it always seems to be that the rest of the world has to adopt Shell’s and BP’s view on everything from policy to energy resources before they’ll play ball.

During the meeting, Mark Campanale pointed out in questions that Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs are going to bring Indian coal to trade on the London Stock Exchange and that billions of dollars of coal stocks are to be traded in London, and that this undermines all climate change action. He said he wanted to understand Shell’s position, as the same shareholders that hold coal (shares), hold Shell. I think he was trying to get Simon Henry to call for a separation in investment focus – to show that investment in oil and gas is not the same as investing in Big Bad Coal. But Simon Henry did not bite. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report of 2013, Unburnable Carbon, coal listed on the London Stock Exchange is equivalent to 49 gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (gtCO2), but oil and gas combined trade shares for stocks equivalent to 64 gtCO2, so there’s currently more emissions represented by oil and gas on the LSX than there is for coal. In the future, the emissions held in the coal traded in London have the potential to amount to 165 gtCO2, and oil and gas combined at 125 gtCO2. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is only responsible for about 1.6% of direct country carbon dioxide emissions (excluding emissions embedded in traded goods and services), the London Stock Exchange is set to be perhaps the world’s third largest exchange for emissions-causing fuels.

Here’s a rough transcript of what Simon Henry said. There are no guarantees that this is verbatim, as my handwriting is worse than a GP’s.

[Simon Henry] I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and use notes. Building a long-term sustainable energy system – certain forces shaping that. 7 billion people will become 9 billion people – [many] moving from off-grid to on-grid. That will be driven by economic growth. Urbanisation [could offer the possibility of] reducing demand for energy. Most economic growth will be in developing economies. New ways fo consuming energy. Our scenarios – in none do we see energy not growing materially – even with efficiencies. The current ~200 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day today of energy demand will rise to ~400 boe/d by 2050 – 50% higher than today. This will be demand-driven – nothing to do with supply…

[At least one positive-sounding grunt from the meeting – so there are some Peak Oil deniers in the room, then.]

[Simon Henry] …What is paramount for governments – if a threat, then it gets to the top of the agenda. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes climate change…

[A few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks around the table, including mine]

[Simon Henry] …in the absence of ways we change the use of energy […] Any approach to climate change has got to embrace science, policy and technology. All three levers must be pulled. Need a long-term stable policy that enables technology development. We think this is best in a market mechanism. […] Energy must be affordable at the point of use. What we call Triple A – available, acceptable and affordable. No silver bullet. Develop in a responsible way. Too much of it is soundbite – that simplifies what’s not a simple problem. It’s not gas versus coal. [Although, that appeared to be one of his chief arguments – that it is gas versus coal – and this is why we should play nice with Shell.]

1. Economy : About $1.5 to $2 trillion of new money must be invested in the energy industry each year, and this must be sustained until 2035 and beyond. A [few percent] of the world economy. It’s going to take time to make [massive changes]. […] “Better Growth : Better Climate” a report on “The New Climate Economy” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the Calderon Report. [The world invested] $700 billion last year on oil and gas [or rather, $1 trillion] and $220 – $230 billion on wind power and solar power. The Calderon Report showed that 70% of energy is urban. $6 trillion is being spent on urban infrastructure [each year]. $90 trillion is available. [Urban settings are] more compact, more connected, there’s public transport, [can build in efficiencies] as well as reducing final energy need. Land Use is the other important area – huge impact on carbon emissions. Urbanisation enables efficiency in distributed generation [Combined Heat and Power (CHP)], [local grids]. Eye-popping costs, but the money will be spent anyway. If it’s done right it will [significantly] reduce [carbon emissions and energy demand]…

2. Technology Development : Governments are very bad at picking winners. Better to get the right incentives in and let the market players decide [optimisation]. They can intervene, for example by [supporting] Research and Development. But don’t specify the means to an end…The best solution is a strong predictable carbon price, at $40 a tonne or more or it won’t make any difference. We prefer Cap and Trade. Taxes don’t actually decrease carbon [emissions] but fundamentally add cost to the consumer. As oil prices rose [in 2008 – 2009] North Americans went to smaller cars…Drivers [set] their behaviour from [fuel] prices…

[An important point to note here : one of the reasons why Americans used less motor oil during the “Derivatives Bubble” recession between 2006 and 2010 was because the economy was shot, so people lost their employment, and/or their homes and there was mass migration, so of course there was less commuter driving, less salesman driving, less business driving. This wasn’t just a response to higher oil prices, because the peak in driving miles happened before the main spike in oil prices. In addition, not much of the American fleet of cars overturned in this period, so Americans didn’t go to smaller cars as an adaptation response to high oil prices. They probably turned to smaller cars when buying new cars because they were cheaper. I think Simon Henry is rather mistaken on this. ]

[Simon Henry] …As regards the Carbon Bubble : 65% of the Unburnable fossil fuels to meet the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is coal. People would stuggle to name the top five coal companies [although they find it easy to name the top five oil and gas companies]. Bearing in mind that you have to [continue to] transport stuff [you are going to need oil for some time to come.] Dealing with coal is the best way of moving forward. Coal is used for electricity – but there are better ways to make electricity – petcoke [petroleum coke – a residue from processing heavy and unconventional crude oil] for example…

[The climate change impact of burning (or gasifying) petroleum coke for power generation is possibly worse than burning (or gasifying) hard coal (anthracite), especially if the pet coke is sourced from tar sands, as emissions are made in the production of the pet coke before it even gets combusted.]

[Simon Henry] …It will take us 30 years to get away entirely from coal. Even if we used all the oil and gas, the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is still possible…

3. Policy : We tested this with the Dutch Government recently – need to create an honest dialogue for a long-term perspective. Demand for energy needs to change. It’s not about supply…

[Again, some “hear hears” from the room from the Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas deniers]

[Simon Henry] …it’s about demand. Our personal wish for [private] transport. [Not good to be] pushing the cost onto the big bad energy companies and their shareholders. It’s taxes or prices. [Politicians] must start to think of their children and not the next election…

…On targets and subsidies : India, Indonesia, Brazil […] to move on fossil fuel subsidies – can’t break the Laws of Economics forever. If our American friends drove the same cars we do, they’d reduce their oil consumption equivalent to all of the shale [Shale Gas ? Or Shale Oil ?]… Targets are an emotive issue when trying to get agreement from 190 countries. Only a few players that really matter : USA, China, EU, India – close to 70% of current emissions and maybe more in future. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America] [announcement] on power emissions. China responded in 24 hours. The EU target on 27% renewables is not [country-specific, uniform across-the-board]. Last week APEC US deal with China on emissions. They switched everything off [and banned traffic] and people saw blue sky. Coal with CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] we see as a good idea. We would hope for a multi-party commitment [from the United Nations climate talks], but [shows doubt]… To close : a couple of words on Shell – have to do that. We have only 2% [of the energy market], but we [hope we] can punch above our weight [in policy discussions]. We’re now beginning to establish gas as a transport fuel. Brazil – low carbon [bio]fuels. Three large CCS projects in Canada, EU… We need to look at our own energy use – pretty trivial, but [also] look at helping our customers look at theirs. Working with the DRC [China]. Only by including companies such as ourselves in [climate and energy policy] debate can we get the [global deal] we aspire to…


[Question from the table, Ed Wells (?), HSBC] : Green Bonds : how can they provide some of the finance [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] ? The first Renminbi denominated Green Bond from [?]. China has committed to non-fossil fuels. The G20 has just agreed the structure on infrastructure – important – not just for jobs and growth – parallel needs on climate change. [Us at HSBC…] Are people as excited about Green Bonds as we are ?

[Stephen Tindale] Yes.

[Question from the table, Anthony Cary, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission] …The key seems to be pricing carbon into the economy. You said you preferred Cap and Trade. I used to but despite reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – [failures and] gaming the system. Tax seems to be a much more solid basis.

[Simon Henry] [The problem with the ETS] too many credits and too many exemptions. Get rid of the exemptions. Bank reserve of credits to push the price up. Degress the number of credits [traded]. Tax : if people can afford it, they pay the tax, doesn’t stop emissions. In the US, no consumption tax, they are very sensitive to the oil price going up and down – 2 to 3 million barrels a day [swing] on 16 million barrels a day. All the political impact on the US from shale could be done in the same way on efficiency [fuel standards and smaller cars]. Green Bonds are not something on top of – investment should be financed by Green Bonds, but investment is already being done today – better to get policy right and then all investment directed.


[Question from the table, Kirsten Gogan, Energy for Humanity] The role of nuclear power. By 2050, China will have 500 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power. Electricity is key. Particularly coal. Germany is building new coal as removing nuclear…

[My internal response] It’s at this point that my ability to swallow myths was lost. I felt like shouting, politely, across the table : ACTUALLY KIRSTEN, YOU, AND A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG ON GERMANY AND COAL.

“Germany coal power generation at 10-year low in August”, 9th September 2014

And the only new coal-fired plants being built are those that were planned up to five years ago. No new coal-fired capacity is now being agreed.

[Kirsten Gogan]…German minister saying in public that you can’t phase out nuclear and coal at the same time. Nuclear is not included in that conversation. Need to work on policy to scale up nuclear to replace coal. Would it be useful to have a clear sectoral target on decarbonising – 100% on electricity ?

[Stephen Tindale] Electricity is the least difficult of the energy sectors to decarbonise. Therefore the focus should be on electricity. If a target would help (I’m not a fan) nuclear certainly needs to be a part of the discussions. Angela Merkel post-Fukushima has been crazy, in my opinion. If want to boost renewable energy, nuclear power will take subsidies away from that. But targets for renewable energy is the wrong objective.. If the target is keeping the climate stable then it’s worth subsidising nuclear. Subsidising is the wrong word – “risk reduction”.

[Simon Henry] If carbon was properly priced, nuclear would become economic by definition…


[Simon Henry] …Basically, all German coal is exempted (from the EU ETS). If you have a proper market-based system then the right things will happen. The EU – hypocrisy at country level. Only [a couple of percent] of global emissions. The EU would matter if it was less hypocritical. China are more rational – long-term thinking. We worked with the DRC. Six differing carbon Cap and Trade schemes in operation to find the one that works best. They are effectively supporting renewable energy – add 15 GW each of wind and solar last year. They don’t listen to NIMBYs [they also build in the desert]. NIMBYism [reserved for] coal – because coal was built close to cities. [Relationship to Russia] – gas replacing coal. Not an accident. Five year plan. They believe in all solutions. Preferably Made in China so we can export to the rest of the world. [Their plans are for a range of aims] not just climate.


[Simon Henry] [in answer to a question about the City of London] We don’t rely on them to support our activities [my job security depends on a good relationship with them]]. We have to be successful first and develop [technological opportunities] [versus being weakened by taxes]. They can support change in technology. Financing coal may well be new money. Why should the City fund new coal investments ?

[Question from the table, asking about the “coal is 70% of the problem” message from Simon Henry] When you talk to the City investors, do you take the same message to the City ?

[Simon Henry] How much of 2.7 trillion tonnes of “Unburnable Carbon” is coal, oil and gas ? Two thirds of carbon reserves is coal. [For economic growth and] transport you need high density liquid fuels. Could make from coal [but the emissions impact would be high]. We need civil society to have a more serious [understanding] of the challenges.

After the discussion, I asked Simon Henry to clarify his words about the City of London.

[Simon Henry] We don’t use the City as a source of capital. 90% is equity finance. We don’t go to the market to raise equity. For every dollar of profit, we invest 75 cents, and pay out 25 cents as dividend to our shareholders. Reduces [problems] if we can show we can reinvest. [ $12 billion a year is dividend. ]

I asked if E&P [Exploration and Production] is working – if there are good returns on investment securing new reserves of fossil fuels – I know that the company aims for a 10 or 11 year Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) to ensure shareholder confidence.

Simon Henry mentioned the price of oil. I asked if the oil price was the only determinant on the return on investment in new E&P ?

[Simon Henry] If the oil price is $90 a barrel, that’s good. At $100 a barrel or $120 a barrel [there’s a much larger profit]. Our aim is to ensure we can survive at $70 a barrel. [On exploration] we still have a lot of things in play – not known if they are working yet… Going into the Arctic [At which point I said I hope we are not going into the Arctic]… [We are getting returns] Upstream is fine [supply of gas and oil]. Deepwater is fine. Big LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] is fine. Shale is a challenge. Heavy Oil returns could be better – profitable, but… [On new E&P] Iraq, X-stan, [work in progress]. Downstream [refinery] has challenges on return. Future focus – gas and deepwater. [On profitability of investment – ] “Gas is fine. Deepwater is fine.”

[My summary] So, in summary, I think all of this means that Shell believes that Cap and Trade is the way to control carbon, and that the Cap and Trade cost would be borne by their customers (in the form of higher bills for energy because of the costs of buying carbon credits), so their business will not be affected. Although a Cap and Trade market could possibly cap their own market and growth as the sales envelope for carbon would be fixed, since Shell are moving into lower carbon fuels – principally Natural Gas, their own business still has room for growth. They therefore support Cap and Trade because they believe it will not affect them. WHAT THEY DON’T APPEAR TO WANT PEOPLE TO ASK IS IF A CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM WILL ACTUALLY BE EFFECTIVE IN CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS. They want to be at the negotiating table. They believe that they’re not the problem – coal is. They believe that the world will continue to need high energy-dense oil for transport for some time to come. It doesn’t matter if the oil market gets constrained by natural limits to expansion because they have gas to expand with. They don’t see a problem with E&P so they believe they can keep up their R/P and stay profitable and share prices can continue to rise. As long as the oil price stays above $70 a barrel, they’re OK.

However, there was a hint in what Simon Henry talked about that all is not completely well in Petro-land.

a. Downstream profit warning

Almost in passing, Simon Henry admitted that downstream is potentially a challenge for maintaining returns on investment and profits. Downstream is petrorefinery and sales of the products. He didn’t say which end of the downstream was the issue, but oil consumption has recovered from the recent Big Dip recession, so that can’t be his problem – it must be in petrorefinery. There are a number of new regulations about fuel standards that are going to be more expensive to meet in terms of petroleum refinery – and the chemistry profiles of crude oils are changing over time – so that could also impact refinery costs.

b. Carbon disposal problem

The changing profile of crude oils being used for petrorefinery is bound to cause an excess of carbon to appear in material flows – and Simon Henry’s brief mention of petcoke is more significant than it may first appear. In future there may be way too much carbon to dispose of (petcoke is mostly carbon rejected by thermal processes to make fuels), and if Shell’s plan is to burn petcoke to make power as a solution to dispose of this carbon, then the carbon dioxide emissions profile of refineries is going to rise significantly… where’s the carbon responsiblity in that ?

Man Who Eats Data

A key thing to know about Professor David MacKay is that he likes data. Lots of data. He said so in a public meeting last week, and I watched him draw a careful draft diagram on paper, specifying for a project engineer the kind of data he would like to see on Combined Heat and Power (CHP) with District Heating (DH). There have been a number of complaints about communal heating projects in the UK, but accurate information is often commercially sensitive, so urging the collection and publication of data is the way forward.

MacKay has been working on very large data indeed – with his 2050 Pathways Calculator. Although people may complain, in fact, they do complain, that the baseline assumptions about nuclear power seem designed to give the recommended outcome of more nuclear power, other parts of The Calculator are more realistic, showing that a high level of new, quick-to-build largescale wind power is practically non-negotiable for guaranteeing energy security.

Last year, there were some rumours circulating that MacKay’s work on biomass for The Calculator showed that biomass combustion for electricity generation was a non-starter for lowering net greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. We were told to wait for these results. And wait again. And now it appears (according to Private Eye, see below), that these were suppressed by DECC, engaged as they were with rubberstamping biomass conversions of coal-fired power plants – including Drax.

“Old Sparky” at Private Eye thinks that Professor MacKay will not be permitted to publish this biomass data – but as MacKay said last week, The Calculator is open source, and all volunteers are welcome to take part in its design and development…

Private Eye, Number 1365, 2 May 2014 – 15 May 2014

Keeping the Lights On
by “Old Sparky”

The company that owns the gigantic Drax power station in Yorkshire is cheekily suing the government for not giving it quite as much subsidy as it would like. But it should be careful : the government is suppressing a publication that would question its right to any subsidy at all.

Drax, built as a coalf-fired plant, is converting its six generating units to burn 15m tonnes of wood a year (see Eye 1325). Amazingly, electricity generated from “biomass” like this qualifies as “renewable energy”. It is thus in line for hefty subsidies and Treasury guarantees – several hundred million pounds a year of electricit billpayers’ money once all six units have been converted.

Having seen the even greater bungs proposed for EDF’s two new nuclear power plants, however, Drax thinks it deserves a similar deal and is suing for precisely that (which is what happens when firms subsidy-farming as their main line of business).

Drax’s greed is unlikely to be rewarded. In the Energy Act passed last year, ministers gave themselves remarkable powers to intervene in the electricity industry, project by project, and to do pretty much whatever takes their fancy.

Meanwhile, the chief scientific adviser [sic] at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the upright Professor David MacKay, is coming to the end of his five-year term. For more than a year he has been agitating for DECC to publish his “biomass calculator” which proves it is (in his words) “fantastically easy” to show that burning trees on the scale planned by Drax and other converted coal plants is likely to INCREASE CO2 emissions in the timeframe that matters.

Knowing the rumpus this will cause, DECC suppressed it last summer (Eye, 1348) and continues to do so while several large biomass projects get off the ground. Will the scrupulous professor simply return to academia and publish it anyway ? Perhaps : but don’t bank on it : it is usual for employment contracts to stipulate that the EMPLOYER retains intellectual property rights in ideas developed while “on the job”. Although MacKay did some work on the impact of biomass-burning before becoming chief adviser [sic], the “calculator” dates from his time at DECC.

This is just as well for Drax. But perhaps its owners should take the hint and wind in their necks.

On Having to Start Somewhere

In the last few weeks I have heard a lot of noble but futile hopes on the subject of carbon dioxide emissions control.

People always seem to want to project too far into the future and lay out their wonder solution – something that is just too advanced enough to be attainable through any of the means we currently have at our disposal. It is impossible to imagine how the gulf can be bridged between the configuration of things today and their chosen future solutions.

Naive civil servants strongly believe in a massive programme of new nuclear power. Head-in-the-clouds climate change consultants and engineers who should know otherwise believe in widespread Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. MBA students believe in carbon pricing, with carbon trading, or a flat carbon tax. Social engineers believe in significant reductions in energy intensity and energy consumer behaviour change, and economists believe in huge cost reductions for all forms of renewable electricity generation.

To make any progress at all, we need to start where we are. Our economic system has strong emissions-dependent components that can easily be projected to fight off contenders. The thing is, you can’t take a whole layer of bricks out of a Jenga stack without severe degradation of its stability. You need to work with the stack as it is, with all the balances and stresses that already exist. It is too hard to attempt to change everything at once, and the glowing ethereal light of the future is just too ghostly to snatch a hold of without a firm grasp on an appropriate practical rather than spiritual guide.

Here’s part of an email exchange in which I strive for pragmatism in the face of what I perceive as a lack of realism.

To: Jo

I read your article with interest. You have focused on energy, whereas I
tend to focus on total resource. CCS does make sense and should be pushed
forward with real drive as existing power stations can be cleaned up with it
and enjoy a much longer life. Establishing CCS is cheaper than building new
nuclear and uses far less resources. Furthermore, CCS should be used on new
gas and biomass plants in the future.

What we are lacking at the moment is any politician with vision in this
space. Through a combination of boiler upgrades, insulation, appliance
upgrades and behaviour change, it is straight forward to halve domestic
energy use. Businesses are starting to make real headway with energy
savings. We can therefore maintain a current total energy demand for the
foreseeable future.

To service this demand, we should continue to eke out every last effective
joule from the current generating stock by adding cleansing kit to the dirty
performers. While this is being done, we can continue to develop renewable
energy and localised systems which can help to reduce the base load
requirement even further.

From an operational perspective, CCS has stagnated over the last 8 years, so
a test plant needs to be put in place as soon as possible.

The biggest issue for me is that, through political meddling and the
unintended consequences of ill-thought out subsidies, the market has been
skewed in such a way that the probability of a black-out next year is very
high indeed.

Green gas is invisible in many people’s thinking, but the latest House of
Lords Report highlighted its potential.

Vested interests are winning hands down in the stand-off with the big

From: Jo

What is the title of the House of Lords report to which you refer ?

Sadly, I am old enough to remember Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
the first time the notion went around the block, so I’d say that
progress has been thin for 30 years rather than 8.

Original proposals for CCS included sequestration at the bottom of the
ocean, which have only recently been ruled out as the study of global
ocean circulation has discovered more complex looping of deep and
shallower waters that originally modelled – the carbon dioxide would
come back up to the surface waters eventually…

The only way, I believe, that CCS can be made to work is by creating a
value stream from the actual carbon dioxide, and I don’t mean Enhanced
Oil Recovery (EOR).

And I also definitely do not mean carbon dioxide emissions pricing,
taxation or credit trading. The forces against an
investment-influencing carbon price are strong, if you analyse the
games going on in the various economic system components. I do not
believe that a strong carbon price can be asserted when major economic
components are locked into carbon – such as the major energy producers
and suppliers, and some parts of industry, and transport.

Also, carbon pricing is designed to be cost-efficient, as markets will
always find the lowest marginal pricing for any externality in fines
or charges – which is essentially what carbon dioxide emissions are.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme was bound to deliver a low carbon
price – that’s exactly what the economists predicted in modelling
carbon pricing.

I cannot see that a carbon price could be imposed that was more than
5% of the base commodity trade price. At those levels, the carbon
price is just an irritation to pass on to end consumers.

The main problem is that charging for emissions does not alter
investment decisions. Just like fines for pollution do not change the
risks for future pollution. I think that we should stop believing in
negative charging and start backing positive investment in the energy

You write “You have focused on energy, whereas I tend to focus on
total resource.” I assume you mean the infrastructure and trading
systems. My understanding leads me to expect that in the current
continuing economic stress, solutions to the energy crisis will indeed
need to re-use existing plant and infrastructure, which is why I
think that Renewable Gas is a viable option for decarbonising total
energy supply – it slots right in to substitute for Natural Gas.

My way to “eke out every last effective joule from the current
generating stock” is to clean up the fuel, rather than battle
thermodynamics and capture the carbon dioxide that comes out the back
end. Although I also recommend carbon recycling to reduce the need for
input feedstock.

I completely agree that energy efficiency – cutting energy demand
through insulation and so on – is essential. But there needs to be a
fundamental change in the way that profits are made in the energy
sector before this will happen in a significant way. Currently it
remains in the best interests of energy production and supply
companies to produce and supply as much energy as they can, as they
have a duty to their shareholders to return a profit through high
sales of their primary products.

“Vested interests” have every right under legally-binding trade
agreements to maximise their profits through the highest possible
sales in a market that is virtually a monopoly. I don’t think this can
be challenged, not even by climate change science. I think the way
forward is to change the commodities upon which the energy sector
thrives. If products from the energy sector include insulation and
other kinds of efficiency, and if the energy sector companies can
continue to make sales of these products, then they can reasonably be
expected to sell less energy. I’m suggesting that energy reduction
services need to have a lease component.

Although Alistair Buchanan formerly of Ofgem is right about the
electricity generation margins slipping really low in the next few
winters, there are STOR contracts that National Grid have been working
on, which should keep the lights on, unless Russia turn off the gas
taps, which is something nobody can do anything much about – not BP,
nor our diplomatic corps, the GECF (the gas OPEC), nor the WTO.

Failing Narratives : Carbon Culprits

In the last few weeks I have attended a number of well-intentioned meetings on advances in the field of carbon dioxide emissions mitigation. My overall impression is that there are several failing narratives to be encountered if you make even the shallowest foray into the murky mix of politics and energy engineering.

As somebody rightly pointed out, no capitalist worth their share price is going to spend real money in the current economic environment on new kit, even if they have asset class status – so all advances will necessarily be driven by public subsidies – in fact, significant technological advance has only ever been accomplished by state support.

Disturbingly, free money is also being demanded to roll out decades-old low carbon energy technology – nuclear power, wind power, green gas, solar photovoltaics – so it seems to me the only way we will ever get appropriate levels of renewable energy deployment is by directed, positive public investment.

More to the point, we are now in an era where nobody at all is prepared to spend any serious money without a lucrative slap on the back, and reasons beyond reasons are being deployed to justify this position. For example, the gas-fired power plant operators make claims that the increase in wind power is threatening their profitability, so they are refusing to built new electricity generation capacity without generous handouts. This will be the Capacity Mechanism, and will keep gas power plants from being mothballed. Yes, there is data to support their complaint, but it does still seem like whinging and special pleading.

And the UK Government’s drooling and desperate fixation with new nuclear power has thrown the European Commission into a tizzy about the fizzy promises of “strike price” guaranteed sales returns for the future atomic electricity generation.

But here, I want to contrast two other energy-polity dialogues – one for developing an invaluable energy resource, and the other about throwing money down a hole.

First, let’s take the white elephant. Royal Dutch Shell has for many years been lobbying for state financial support to pump carbon dioxide down holes in the ground. Various oil and gas industry engineers have been selling this idea to governments, federal and sub-federal for decades, and even acted as consultants to the Civil Society process on emissions control – you just need to read the United Nations’ IPCC Climate Change Assessment Report and Special Report output to detect the filigree of a trace of geoengineering fingers scratching their meaning into global intention. Let us take your nasty, noxious carbon dioxide, they whisper suggestively, and push it down a hole, out of sight and out of accounting mind, but don’t forget to slip us a huge cheque for doing so. You know, they add, we could even do it cost-effectively, by producing more oil and gas from emptying wells, resulting from pumping the carbon dioxide into them. Enhanced Oil Recovery – or EOR – would of course mean that some of the carbon dioxide pumped underground would in effect come out again in the form of the flue gas from the combustion of new fossil fuels, but anyway…

And governments love being seen to be doing something, anything, really, about climate change, as long as it’s not too complicated, and involves big players who should be trustworthy. So, you get the Peterhead project picking up a fat cheque for a trial of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in Scotland, and the sidestep hint that if Scotland decides to become independent, this project money could be lost…But this project doesn’t involve much of anything that is really new. The power station that will be used is a liability that ought to be closing now, really, according to some. And the trial will only last for ten years. There will be no EOR – at least – not in the public statements, but this plan could lead the way.

All of this is like pushing a fat kid up a shiny slide. Once Government take their greasy Treasury hands off the project, the whole narrative will fail, falling to an ignominious muddy end. This perhaps explains the underlying desperation of many – CCS is the only major engineering response to emissions that many people can think of – because they cannot imagine burning less fossil fuels. So this wobbling effigy has to be kept on the top of the pedestal. And so I have enjoyed two identical Shell presentations on the theme of the Peterhead project in as many weeks. CCS must be obeyed.

But, all the same, it’s big money. And glaring yellow and red photo opps. You can’t miss it. And then, at the other end of the scale of subsidies, is biogas. With currently low production volumes, and complexities attached to its utilisation, anaerobically digesting wastes of all kinds and capturing the gas for use as a fuel, is a kind of token technology to many, only justified because methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it needs to be burned.

The subsidy arrangements for many renewable energy technologies are in flux. Subsidies for green gas will be reconsidered and reformulated in April, and will probably experience a degression – a hand taken off the tiller of driving energy change.

At an evening biogas briefing given by Rushlight this week, I could almost smell a whiff of despair and disappointment in the levels of official support for green gas. It was freely admitted that not all the planned projects around the country will see completion, not only because of the prevailing economic climate, but because of the vagaries of feedstock availability, and the complexity of gas cleaning regulations.

There was light in the tunnel, though, even if the end had not been reached – a new Quality Protocol for upgrading biogas to biomethane, for injection into the gas grid, has been established. You won’t find it on the official UK Goverment website, apparently, as it has fallen through the cracks of the rebranding to, but here it is, and it’s from the Environment Agency, so it’s official :-

Here’s some background :-

To get some picture of the mess that British green energy policy is in, all you need do is take a glance at Germany and Denmark, where green gas is considered the “third leg of the stool”, stabilising renewable energy supply with easily-stored low carbon gas, to balance out the peaks and troughs in wind power and solar power provision.

Green gas should not be considered a nice-to-have minor addition to the solutions portfolio in my view. The potential to de-carbonise the energy gas supply is huge, and the UK are missing a trick here – the big money is being ladled onto the “incumbents” – the big energy companies who want to carry on burning fossil fuels but sweep their emissions under the North Sea salt cavern carpet with CCS, whilst the beer change is being reluctantly handed out as a guilt offering to people seeking genuinely low carbon energy production.

Seriously – where the exoplanet are we at ?

Gain in Transmission #2

Here is further email exchange with Professor Richard Sears, following on from a previous web log post.

From: Richard A. Sears
Date: 24 February 2014
To: Jo Abbess
Subject: Question from your TED talk


I was looking back over older emails and saw that I had never responded to your note. It arrived as I was headed to MIT to teach for a week and then it got lost. Sorry about that.

Some interesting questions. I don’t know anybody working specifically on wind power to gas options. At one time Shell had a project in Iceland using geothermal to make hydrogen. Don’t know what its status is but if you search on hydrogen and Iceland on the Shell website I’m sure there’s something. If the Germans have power to gas as a real policy option I’d poke around the web for information on who their research partners are for this.

Here are a couple of high level thoughts. Not to discourage you because real progress comes from asking new questions, but there are some physical fundamentals that are important.

Direct air capture of anything using current technology is prohibitively expensive to do at scale for energy. More energy will be expended in capture and synthesis than the fuels would yield.

Gaseous fuels are problematic on their own. Gas doesn’t travel well and is difficult to contain at high energy densities as that means compressing or liquefying it. That doesn’t make anything impossible, but it raises many questions about infrastructure and energy balance. If we take the energy content of a barrel of oil as 1.0, then a barrel of liquefied natural gas is about 0.6, compressed natural gas which is typically at about 3600psi is around 0.3, and a barrel (as a measure of volume equal to 42 US gallons) of natural gas at room temperature and pressure is about 0.0015 (+/-). Also there’s a real challenge in storing and transporting gasses as fuel at scale, particularly motor fuel to replace gasoline and diesel.

While there is some spare wind power potential that doesn’t get utilized because of how the grid must be managed, I expect it is a modest amount of energy compared to what we use today in liquid fuels. I think what that means is that while possible, it’s more likely to happen in niche local markets and applications rather than at national or global scales.

If you haven’t seen it, a nice reference on the potential of various forms of sustainable energy is available free and online here.

Hope some of this helps.


Richard A. Sears
Consulting Professor
Department of Energy Resources Engineering
Stanford University

From: Jo Abbess
Date: 24 February 2014
To: Richard A. Sears

Dear Richard,

Many thanks for getting back to me. Responses are nice – even if they
are months late. As they say – better late than never, although with
climate change, late action will definitely be unwise, according to an
increasing number of people.

I have indeed seen the website, and bought and spilled coffee on the
book of Professor David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without The Hot
Air” project. It is legendary. However, I have checked and he has only
covered alternative gas in a couple of paragraphs – in notes. By
contrast, he spent a long chapter discussing how to filter uranium out
of seawater and other nuclear pursuits.

Yet as a colleague of mine, who knows David better than I do, said to
me this morning, his fascination with nuclear power is rather naive,
and his belief in the success of Generation III and Generation IV
lacks evidence. Plus, if we get several large carbon dioxide
sequestration projects working in the UK – Carbon Capture and Storage
(CCS) – such as the Drax pipeline (which other companies will also
join) and the Shell Peterhead demonstration, announced today, then we
won’t need new nuclear power to meet our 4th Carbon Budget – and maybe
not even the 5th, either (to be negotiated in 2016, I hear) :-

We don’t need to bury this carbon, however; we just need to recycle
it. And the number of ways to make Renewable Hydrogen, and
energy-efficiently methanate carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide with
hydrogen, is increasing. People are already making calculations on how
much “curtailed” or spare wind power is likely to be available for
making gas in 10 years’ time, and if solar power in the UK is
cranked/ramped up, then there will be lots of juicy cost-free power
ours for the taking – especially during summer nights.

Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide is a nonsensical proposition.
Besides being wrong in terms of the arrow of entropy, it also has the
knock-on effect of causing carbon dioxide to come back out of the
ocean to re-equilibrate. I recently read a paper by climate scientists
that estimated that whatever carbon dioxide you take out of the air,
you will need to do almost all of it again.

Instead of uranium, we should be harvesting carbon dioxide from the
oceans, and using it to make gaseous and liquid fuels.

Gaseous fuels and electricity complement each other very well –
particularly in storage and grid balancing terms – there are many
provisions for the twins of gas and power in standards, laws, policies
and elsewhere. Regardless of the limitations of gas, there is a huge
infrastructure already in place that can store, pipe and use it, plus
it is multi-functional – you can make power, heat, other fuels and
chemicals from gas. In addition, you can make gas from a range of
resources and feedstocks and processing streams – the key quartet of
chemical gas species keep turning up : hydrogen, methane, carbon
monoxide and carbon dioxide – whether you are looking at the exhaust
from combustion, Natural Gas, industrial furnace producer gas,
biological decomposition, just about everywhere – the same four gases.

Energy transition must include large amounts of renewable electricity
– because wind and solar power are quick to build yet long nuclear
power lead times might get extended in poor economic conditions. The
sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow (and the
tide is not always in high flux). Since demand profiles will never be
able to match supply profiles exactly, there will always be spare
power capacity that grids cannot use. So Power to Gas becomes the
optimal solution. At least until there are ways to produce Renewable
Hydrogen at plants that use process heat from other parts of the
Renewable Gas toolkit. So the aims are to recycle carbon dioxide from
gas combustion to make more gas, and recycle gas production process
heat to make hydrogen to use in the gas production process, and make
the whole lot as thermally balanced as possible. Yes. We can do that.
Lower the inputs of fresh carbon of any form, and lower the energy
requirements to make manufactured gas.

I met somebody working with Jacobs who was involved in the Carbon
Recycling project in Iceland. Intriguing, but an order of magnitude
smaller than I think is possible.

ITM Power in the UK are doing a Hydrogen-to-gas-grid and methanation
project in Germany with one of the regions. They have done several
projects with Kiwa and Shell on gas options in Europe. I know of the
existence of feasibility reports on the production of synthetic
methane, but I have not had the opportunity to read them yet…

I feel quite encouraged that Renewable Gas is already happening. It’s
a bit patchy, but it’s inevitable, because the narrative of
unconventional fossil fuels has many flaws. I have been looking at
issues with reserves growth and unconventionals are not really
commensurate with conventional resources. There may be a lot of shale
gas in the ground, but getting it out could be a long process, so
production volumes might never be very good. In the USA you’ve had
lots of shale gas – but that’s only been supported by massive drilling
programmes – is this sustainable ?

BP have just finished building lots of dollars of kit at Whiting to
process sour Natural Gas. If they had installed Renewable Gas kit
instead of the usual acid gas and sulfur processing, they could have
been preparing for the future. As I understand it, it is possible to
methanate carbon dioxide without first removing it from the rest of
the gas it comes in – so methanating sour gas to uprate it is a viable
option as far as I can see. The hydrogen sulfide would still need to
be washed out, but the carbon dioxide needn’t be wasted – it can be
made part of the fuel. And when the sour gas eventually thins out,
those now methanating sour gas can instead start manufacturing gas
from low carbon emissions feedstocks and recycled carbon.

I’m thinking very big.



But Uh-Oh – Those Summer Nights

A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.

Nuclear Flower Power

This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !

Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…

Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.

There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?

If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.

The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.

The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.

As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.

Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes

The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms […] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste […]

Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.

Politics Is Living In The Past

What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.

I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.

Together in Electric Dreams

Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?

1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.

What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.

Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium

A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire […]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?

My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.

Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights

With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.

With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.

It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount […]

Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.

District Heat Fields

The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.

Gas Is The Logical Answer

But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use […] )

The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.

The Age of Your Carbon

It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.

[…] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.

Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.

Young Carbon from Seawater

If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.

Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.

It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?

But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem […]

Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.

How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?

If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.

You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.

In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.

We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !

Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?

The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.

But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.

Choices, choices, choices

There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.

Capacity Payments

But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.

Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.

If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.

Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget

Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?

Curmudgeons Happen

I was talking with people at my friend’s big birthday bash yesterday. I mentioned I’m writing about Renewable Gas, and this led to a variety of conversations. Here is a kind of summary of one of the threads, involving several people.

Why do people continue to insist that the wind turbine at Reading uses more energy than it generates ?

Would it still be there if it wasn’t producing power ? Does David Cameron still have a wind turbine on his roof ? No. It wasn’t working, so it was taken down. I would ask – what are their sources of information ? What newspapers and websites do they read ?

They say that the wind turbine at Reading is just there for show.

Ah. The “Potemkin Village” meme – an idyllic-looking setting, but everything’s faked. The Chinese painting the desert green, etc.

And then there are people that say that the only reason wind farms continue to make money is because they run the turbines inefficiently to get the subsidies.

Ah. The “De-rating Machine” meme. You want to compare and contrast. Look at the amount of money, resources, time and tax breaks being poured into the UK Continental Shelf, and Shale Gas, by the current Government.

Every new technology needs a kick start, a leg up. You need to read some of the reports on wind power as an asset – for example, the Offshore Valuation – showing a Net Present Value. After it’s all deployed, even with the costs of re-powering at the end of turbine life, offshore North Sea wind power will be a genuine asset.

What I don’t understand is, why do people continue to complain that wind turbines spoil the view ? Look at the arguments about the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.

I have contacts there who forward me emails about the disputes. The yachtsmen of Poole are in open rebellion because the wind turbines will be set in in their channels ! The tourists will still come though, and that’s what really counts. People in Dorset just appear to love arguing, and you’ve got some people doing good impressions of curmudgeons at the head of the branches of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and English Heritage.

There are so many people who resist renewable energy, and refuse to accept we need to act on climate change. Why do they need to be so contrarian ? I meet them all the time.

People don’t like change, but change happens. The majority of people accept that climate change is significant enough to act on, and the majority of people want renewable energy. It may not seem like that though. It depends on who you talk with. There’s a small number of people who vocalise scepticism and who have a disproportionate effect. I expect you are talking about people who are aged 55 and above ?

Example : “Climate Change ? Haw haw haw !” and “Wind turbines ? They don’t work !” This is a cohort problem. All the nasty white racists are dying and being buried with respect by black undertakers. All the rabid xenophobes are in nursing homes being cared for in dignity by “foreigners”. Pretty soon Nigel Lawson could suffer from vascular dementia and be unable to appear on television.

The media have been insisting that they need a balance of views, but ignoring the fact that the climate change “sceptics” are very small in number and not backed up by the science.

Why does Nigel Lawson, with all his access and privilege, continue to insist that global warming is not a problem ?

Fortunately, even though he’s “establishment” and has more influence than he really should have, the people that are really in charge know better. He should talk to the climate change scientists – the Met Office continue to invite sceptics to come and talk with them. He should talk to people in the energy sector – engineers and project managers. He should talk to people in the cross-party Parliamentary groups who have access to the information from the expert Select Committees.

And what about Owen Paterson ? I cannot understand why they put a climate change sceptic in charge of the Department of the Environment.

Well, we’ve always done that, haven’t we ? Put Ministers in Departments they know nothing about, so that they can learn their briefs. We keep putting smokers in charge of health policy. Why do you think he was put in there ?

To pacify the Conservative Party.

But I know Conservative Party activists who are very much in favour of renewable energy and understand the problems of climate change. It’s not the whole Party.

We need to convince so many people.

We only need to convince the people who matter. And anyway, we don’t need to do any convincing. Leaders in the energy industry, in engineering, in science, in Government (the real government is the Civil Service), the Parliament, they already understand the risks of climate change and the need for a major energy transition.

People should continue to express their views, but people only vote on economic values. That’s why Ed Miliband has pushed the issue of the cost of energy – to try to bring energy to the forefront of political debate.

What about nuclear fusion ?

Nuclear fusion has been 35 years away for the last 35 years. It would be nice to have, because it could really solve the problem. Plus, it keeps smart people busy.

What about conventional nuclear fission power ?

I say, “Let them try !” The Hinkley Point C deal has so many holes in it, it’s nearly collapsed several times. I’m sure they will continue to try to build it, but I’m not confident they will finish it. Nuclear power as an industry is basically washed up in my view, despite the lengths that it goes to to influence society and lobby the Government.

It’s going to be too late to answer serious and urgent problems – there is an energy crunch approaching fast, and the only things that can answer it are quick-to-build options such as new gas-fired power plants, wind farms, solar farms, demand reduction systems such as shutting down industry and smart fridges.

How can the energy companies turn your fridge off ?

If the appliances have the right software, simple frequency modulation of the power supply should be sufficient to trip fridges and freezers off. Or you could connect them to the Internet via a gateway. The problem is peak power demand periods, twice a day, the evening peak worse than the morning. There has been some progress in managing this due to switching light bulbs and efficient appliances, but it’s still critical. Alistair Buchanan, ex of Ofgem, went out on a limb to say that we could lose all our power production margins within a couple of years, in winter.

But the refrigerators are being opened and closed in the early evening, so it would be the wrong time of day to switch them off. And anyway, don’t the fridges stop using power when they’re down to temperature ?

Some of these things will need to be imposed regardless of concerns, because control of peak power demand is critical. Smart fridges may be some years away, but the National Grid already have contracts with major energy users to shed their load under certain circumstances. Certain key elements of the energy infrastructure will be pushed through. They will need to be pushed through, because the energy crunch is imminent.

The time for democracy was ten years ago. To get better democracy you need much more education. Fortunately, young people (which includes young journalists) are getting that education. If you don’t want to be irritated by the views of climate change and energy sceptics, don’t bother to read the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the online Register or the Spectator. The old school journalists love to keep scandal alive, even though any reason to doubt climate change science and renewable energy died in the 1980s.

Although I’ve long since stopped trusting what a journalist writes, I’m one of those people who think that you should read those sources.

I must admit I do myself from time to time, but just for entertainment.

Hot Waste : Nuclear Unknowables

Could Hinkley Point C Creep Past Safety Limits And Overload Its Waste Storage ?
by Jo Abbess
24 November 2013

The use of high burn-up nuclear fuel in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, if it goes ahead, could lead to higher levels of waste than claimed in the design, owing to the increased chances of operating failures. It could also make power generation more prone to unreliability, due to unplanned outages. Added to this, safety measures do not rule out the kind of large scale and costly accident-by-design seen at Fukushima; nor the risk of a major disaster from mismanagement of the insecure spent fuel facilities, which would be wide open to a terrorist attack.

The Hinkley Uncertainty Principle

In the UK Government’s 2011 consultation on the management of plutonium, separated from spent nuclear fuel, their stated policy would be to “pursue reuse of plutonium as mixed oxide fuel [MOx]”, although they couldn’t yet determine whether MOX fuel would be produced in the UK [1]. Reprocessing abroad would involve highly secretive and dangerous transportation, so how and why did they come to this expert judgement ?

Some claim that using plutonium oxide to make fresh nuclear fuel would “eat up” highly toxic and militarily dangerous plutonium waste, however this is not true. Using MOX fuel in a nuclear reactor creates almost as much in plutonium as it consumes – so why have the UK Government decided to take the MOX route ? Possibly because it feeds into plans by EDF Energy to build a new nuclear power plant that would use some “high burn-up” nuclear fuel in its two reactors, burning up to 50% higher than at other working plants, and MOX is probably the cheapest fuel option.

Counter-intuitively, high burn-up fuel doesn’t get used up faster than other nuclear fuel. It produces more heat energy under neutron irradiation than the usual mildly-enriched uranium oxide, because it can split the atoms of a higher percentage of the fuel. It can “burn up” for longer, and be left in the reactor core for longer, before it needs to be changed out for fresh fuel. Or that is the theory, anyway.

Some of the products of nuclear fission are noble gases, one of which is radioactive xenon, and although this is gas produced inside solid nuclear fuel pellets, packed into a long sealed metal casing, “fission gas” shouldn’t cause the fuel rod to burst – although it might make it swell a bit, or become deformed. There is a tiny risk this could mean fuel rods burn up dangerously higher, or get stuck when being taken out of the reactor, or that control rods might be unable to go in, all of which would be problematic.

But back to the gas. Some radioactive xenon will make it out of fuel rods into the reactor coolant, because the integrity of fuel rods is not 100% guaranteed. If a fuel rod starts leaking badly, it ought to be swapped out for fresh fuel, because it could “dry out” and get precariously hot, and that could mean shutting down the reactor, which would affect its “always on” reliability.

In the Hinkley Point C Generic Design Assessment final report on “Gaseous radioactive waste disposal and limits”, it admits, “Reactors are designed to run until their next refuelling shutdown with a small number of fuel leaks and we do not wish to constrain operations when noble gas discharges have so little impact.” What they’re saying is, in effect, we know some of these fuel rods are going to be broken in a live, working reactor. What they can’t know is, which ones ?

It’s a little bit like Schrödinger’s Cat – you can’t know if a fuel rod is dead until you take it out of the box to inspect it. If xenon levels in the reactor coolant rise above the permitted levels, as a direct result of fuel damages from high burn-up, the plant operators would need to intervene, because it’s not just fission gas they should be concerned about. Leaking fuel rods could spit particles of uranium, or plutonium, into the reactor coolant, which could end up in the general environment, and that would have a significant impact [2].

It will be possible to do some inspection checks without removing fuel rods entirely from the core. But in all likelihood, with high xenon emissions levels, they would need to shut the reactor down, by inserting control rods into the core to moderate the neutron flow. With normal nuclear fuel rods, this is a low-impact operation, but laboratory experiments suggest that for high burn-up, stopping and restarting the reactor, cooling and then re-heating the rods, will cause significant damage to the nuclear fuel [3].

Cracked and crumbling high burn-up fuel could release more fission gas, so the very process of checking the integrity of fuel rods could damage the integrity of the fuel rods, and make xenon emissions worse, and mean more swaps for fresh fuel rods, meaning more radioactive waste to deal with. Because spent nuclear fuel will eventually need to be officially classified as radioactive waste, although currently it isn’t.

The design for this nuclear power plant claims to produce less waste than current models, but that all depends on how the plant operators can manage high burn-up nuclear fuel rods, and it’s too early to say, since there isn’t a working version of this reactor anywhere in the world yet.

So it’s a little like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics – you can’t know exactly how damaged your fuel rods are, and exactly how much spent fuel waste you’re going to produce, at the same time. The tempation, of course, will be to leave the fuel in and the reactor on for as long as possible, even though the statistical probability for loss of fuel integrity will just increase with time.

Hot rods could be good future business

I am still waiting for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to tell me where I’ve gone wrong on the maths, but from my preliminary calculations, I estimate that the radioactive waste and radioactive spent nuclear fuel from this one new plant will nearly double the amount of radioactivity in nuclear materials the UK has to dispose of. In terms of the physical size of the rad waste, it won’t add much to the total, but some of the spent fuel coming from Hinkley Point C will be very hot rods from high burn-up – and I don’t just mean radioactive, I mean literally hot, potentially far hotter than steam.

The design for the plant includes an essential “cooling off” pool of water, which would be like a “shadow” reactor core, but without the safety containment vessel. Because of the temperature of the fuel rods, a lot of water will be needed. The hot rods will have to stay in there being actively cooled for up to 10 years after they come out of the reactor, as they will be producing around 10% of the heat energy they produced when inside the active reactor.

And after they’re cool enough to come out of there, the fuel will have to sit under water in a storage pond, also actively cooled, for around about 80 to 90 years, until enough radioactive decay has taken place that the fuel then becomes reasonably safe for geological disposal. Although we haven’t got a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) yet. And some calculations suggest we might need two. If we don’t have the right volume of GDF, perhaps the Hinkley Point C hot rods could just have to sit in the on-site “interim” storage facility forever.

If the plant operators have to swap out more high burn-up fuel rods than they anticipate, perhaps the spent fuel storage facilities at Hinkley Point C will be too small for the full 60 years of waste designed for the plant. If it were only large enough for 35 years of operation, that would conveniently match the length of the very generous subsidies for the power the plant will produce. Thereafter, the plant operators could declare they cannot afford to keep the power plant running, and the state could be obliged to subsidise them simply to store the hot waste.

The transition business model for the operators of Hinkley Point C could be the service of the storage of hot radioactive spent fuel, perhaps, when it becomes obvious that nuclear power is simply too expensive compared to solar and wind power. Will Hinkley Point C end up like San Onofre, a high burn-up spent fuel waste facility, formerly a nuclear power plant, corroding its way towards being a serious liability ?

Going LOCA, down in Taunton

When asked, “Should we have nuclear power ?”, many gaze at the mid-distance, and, according to recent polls, muse vacantly, “I suppose so. I mean, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine.” They probably don’t realise that filling in the generation gaps of renewable electricity with power from Hinkley Point C would demand load-following power cycling which would cause temperature changes in the reactor core which could damage high burn-up fuel [4].

Plus, they choose to ignore the fact that it is always possible, when operating a nuclear reactor, for a major accident, such as a Loss Of Coolant Accident (LOCA), that could destroy, poison and injure people, livestock, forests, waterways and land, and not just in the local vicinity. They consign it to a remote theoretical possibility that something could go horribly wrong, but it probably won’t, so that’s all right then, somehow. Well, we’ve had decades of nuclear power, and not many serious accidents.

Ah, there was Chernobyl, of course, which the whole of the European Union is still paying to clean up and put under a massive steel dome shelter, and the costs of the meltdown and fallout arguably destroyed the economy of socialist Russia. And the ongoing, unfolding, rolling disaster shambles that is the Fukushima Dai-ichi make-safe operation, set to go on for at least a decade ? Well, the clean-up is eating into Japan’s GDP, and they will have to give up investment in cleantech and meeting their carbon budget targets, and burn coal, because, frankly, the country’s broke; but nobody really suffered, did they ?

We lost Pripyat, we almost lost Detroit, and we could still lose Tokyo, but who really cares about Taunton – the town near Hinkley Point ? No humane person would wish the citizens of Taunton to die a painful, lingering death, or suffer a lifetime of various cancers and degraded health, or be forced to relocate to Yarmouth or York, permanently. Somehow, the awfulness of this possible eventuality just cannot be captured.

Rudimentary statistics of human health and the social consequences of evacuation don’t really describe effectively what is happening in Fukushima Prefecture – there are some impacts of an nuclear power plant disaster you really cannot put a number on. OK, so there will only be a certain number of deaths and cancers, but what about the destruction of a community and the impaling of an economy ?

Remember 9/11 ? Aeroplanes were flown into the World Trade Center, not just the tallest buildings in New York, but symbols of the USA-led economy, which was then drained by the American obsession with warfare, since an entirely predictable kneejerk response to the attack was military counter strike, which nobody can really afford any more. The pilots of those planes were targeting economic dominance, not high rise office workers, and they succeeded.

Nuclear power plants can have costly accidents and are expensive to build and safely close down; but although nobody seems to have a handle on safe and effective spent fuel disposal, in some ways, these risks are calculable. In contrast, spent nuclear fuel ponds would be ideal targets for suicidal dirty bombers, and the threat of this is unknowable, because it doesn’t need the use of anything so obvious, large and noisy as an aeroplane to spring a leak.

Meltdowns are designed in – threatening economic security

Officials may deny that Fukushima Dai-ichi Reactor Unit 3 went LOCA when it melted down. Technically it was a LUHS – Loss of Ultimate Heat Sink, or an SBO – a Station Blackout – but it had pretty much the same outcome, as the water covering the fuel in the reactor probably vapourised, or got chemically converted into hydrogen gas, which then exploded and blew the roof off. It was part-loaded with “hot rod” MOX fuel, which makes it the one to watch during clean-up operations – that is, when it’s not so radioactive that only robots can get near it [5].

Can the multiple nuclear reactor unit meltdowns, explosions, radioactive plumes and leaks at Fukushima properly be counted as an “accident” ? Meltdown of a nuclear reactor core is always an anticipated possible outcome, that’s why they put it in a containment vessel, cast out of a single piece of steel [6]. So, it could be argued, these disasters are technically planned for, rather than coincidental, tragic failures. It was in the documentation : after an emergency shutdown, if all forms of reactor cooling became unavailable at a Fukushima unit, within a couple of hours there would be inevitable major core damage, and the risk of meltdown. It was part of the design. It’s part of the design documentation for Hinkley Point C, too.

If the Fukushima units had done their job, and contained the meltdowns, and the cooling systems had remained operational, then one could be reasonably confident that Hinkley Point C (HPC) could too; but they didn’t. The design of HPC has an extra thick concrete base under the reactor vessel, just in case nuclear fuel melts through, with channels grooved into it to steer any meltdown mess from accumulating in one place, thereby trusting it won’t become “critical” again.

But meltdown and melt-through is not the only kind of serious event HPC could suffer. Use of high burn-up fuel could contribute to warped fuel rods or control rods, higher build-up or leaks of fission gas. And its higher temperatures, together with the high pressure of the reactor coolant, could cause a range of high energy damage, or even prevent a safe shutdown; and until they permitted the plans to go ahead, the UK Government’s Assessment Findings had much to question as regards control systems.

In conclusion, there will always be the risk of a major, uninsurable accident with the UK EPR (TM) design for Hinkley Point C, and even without considering health and safety, the long-term costs of cleanup could wipe out everybody’s pensions. My opinion is that we cannot afford this risk, just as we can no longer afford warfare. Why do the UK Government persist in proposing that the people should bear the cost burden and risks of new nuclear power, when there is already an alternative suite of energy and energy management technologies that can be built in roughly half the time and three quarters of the cost ?


By Subject

[1] What do to with UK plutonium ?

DECC (2011). “Management of the UK’s Plutonium Stocks : A consultation response on the long-term management of UK-owned separated civil plutonium”, UK Government, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 1 December 2011.

Leventhal (1995). “Bury It, Don’t Burn It : A Non-Proliferation Perspective on Warhead Plutonium Disposal”, Paul Leventhal, President, Nuclear Control Institute, Presented to the U.S. Department of Energy Plutonium Stabilization and Immobilization Workshop, Washington, D.C., December 12, 1995.

Royal Society (2011). “Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance”, Royal Society, October 2011

USA (2000). “Agreement Between The Government of the United States of America and The Government of the Russian Federation Concerning the Management and Disposition of Plutonium Designated as No Longer Required for Defense Purposes and Related Cooperation”, 2000.

von Hippel et al. (2012). “Time to bury plutonium”, Nature, Volume 485, 10 May 2012.

[2] Fuel fragmentation and dispersal

Papin et al. (2003). “Synthesis of CABRI-RIA Tests Interpretation”, Papin et al., Proceedings of the Eurosafe Conference, Paris, November 25 – 26, 2003.

ONR (2011). “Generic Design Assessment – New Civil Reactor Build : Step 4 Fuel and Core Design Assessment of the EDF and AREVA UK EPR (TM) Reactor.”, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Assessment Report : ONR-GDA-AR-11-021, Revision 0, Section 4.9.2 Paragraphs 200 – 202, 10 November 2011.

NEA (2010). “Safety Significance of the Halden IFA-650 LOCA Test Results”, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations (CSNI), Document : NEA/CSNI/R(2010)5, 15 November 2010.

UB (2013). “Hinkley Point C : Expert Statement to the EIA”, Oda Becker, UmweltBundesamt (Environment Agency Austria), Wien 2013, Document Number : REP-0413.

[3] High burn-up fuel

Baron et al. (2008). “Discussion about HBS Transformation in High Burn-Up Fuels”, Baron et al., in Nuclear Engineering and Technology, Volume 41, Issue Number 2, March 2009, Special Issue on the Water Reactor Fuel Performance Meeting 2008.

Blair (2008). “Modelling of Fission Gas Behaviour in High Burnup Nuclear Fuel”, Paul Blair, PhD Thesis Number 4084, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), 2008.

CEN (2011). “Review and Assessment of the Key HBU Physical Phenomena and Models : Assessment of International Return of Experience on High Burnup Fuel Performance in Support of Licensing for Burnup Increases in Belgian NPPs”, Lemehov et al., SCK-CEN, Document SCK-CEN-R-4824, Project 10.2 – Report #1, November 2011.

IAEA (1992). “Fission gas release and fuel rod chemistry related to extended burnup”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Proceedings of a Technical Committee Meeting held in Pembroke, Ontario, Canada, 28 April – 1 May 1992, Document Number : IAEA-TECDOC-697, 1993.

IAEA (2001a). “Nuclear fuel behaviour modelling at high burnup and its experimental support”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Proceedings of a Technical Committee meeting held in Windermere, United Kingdom, 19 – 23 June 2000, Document Number : IAEA-TECDOC-1233, 2001

IAEA (2013). “Technical Meeting on High Burnup Economics and Operational Experience”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to be held at Buenos Aires, Argentina, 26 – 29 November 2013, Information Sheet, 2013.

ONR (2012). “Summary of the GDA Issue close-out assessment of the Electricité de France SA and AREVA NP SAS UK EPR (TM) nuclear reactor”, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Generic Design Assessment, 13 December 2012.

ONR (2013). “Nuclear Research Needs 2013 – Part 1: Summary of Nuclear Research Needs”, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Section 15, “Nuclear fuel Research”, 2013.

Rondinella and Wiss (2010). “The high burn-up structure in nuclear fuel”, Rondinella and Wiss, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, in Materials Today, Volume 13, Issue Number 12, December 2010.

[4] Nuclear Power Plant load-following

EDF (2013). “Load Following : EDF Experience Feedback”, EDF Energy, at IAEA Technical Meeting – Load Following, 4 – 6 September 2013, Paris.

IAEA (2001b). “Fuel behaviour under transient and LOCA conditions”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Document Number : IAEA-TECDOC-1320, Proceedings of a Technical Committee meeting held in Halden, Norway, 10 – 14 September 2001.

Lokhov (2011). “Load-following with nuclear power plants”, Lokhov A., Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA Updates, NEA News 2011, Issue Number 29.2

NEA (2006). “Very High Burn-ups in Light Water Reactors”, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, Document Number : NEA No. 6224, 2006.

NEA (2011). “Technical and Economic Aspects of Load Following with Nuclear Power Plants”, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, 2011.

Pouret and Nuttall (2007). “Can nuclear power be flexible ?”, Pouret, L. and Nuttall, W.J., Electricity Policy Research Group Working Papers, Number 07/10, 2007. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

[5] Mixed oxide fuel (MOX)

ANS (2011). “The Impact of Mixed Oxide Fuel Use on Accident Consequences at Fukushima Daiichi”, American Nuclear Society, 25 March 2011.

Kim et al. (2010). “Ceramography Analysis of MOX Fuel Rods After Irradiation Test”, Han Soo Kim et al., Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, 27 July 2010.

Lyman E. S. (2001). “The importance of MOX Fuel Quality Control in Boiling-Water Reactors”, by Edwin S. Lyman, Nuclear Control Institute.

Nakae et al. (2012). “Fission Gas Release of MOX Irradiated to High Burnup”, Nakae et al., in TopFuel 2012, Reactor Fuel Performance, Manchester, England, 2 – 6 September 2012.

Popov et al. (2000). “Thermophysical Properties of MOX and UO2 Fuels Including the Effects of Irradiation”, Popov et al., Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2000.

[6] Nuclear reactor containment

Large (2007). “Assessments of the Radiological Consequences of Releases from Existing and Proposed EPR/PWR Nuclear Power Plants in France”, John Large, Large and Associates, Document : R3150-3, 17 March 2007.

TEPCO (2011). “The Evaluation Status of Reactor Core Damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Units 1 to 3”, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), 30 November 2011.

TVO (2010). “Nuclear Power Plant Unit Olkiluoto 3”, TVO, December 2010.

Email exchange

There are several documents in the first bunch of references that suggest UK Government want to take the MOX route for “getting rid of” plutonium stocks [or rather “losing” it in the matrix of the final spent fuel]. For example, advice from the Royal Society, and the consultation from UK GOV. I checked with […] regarding high level direction, and it appears UK GOV are fixed on this course of action. They might open a new MOX production facility in the UK (although they just closed one down), and they might get MOX made abroad using UK plutonium, to use in UK reactors. The point to note is that EdF uses MOX elsewhere. Although EdF are currently denying they will use it, Hinkley Point C could :-

[ MOX fuel has been reported as being intended for the new PRISM reactor :- ]

I have tried to steer the conversation to the use of high burn up fuel generally (MOX is only one option for high burn up fuel). High burn up fuel could be made from different kinds of enriched uranium. There [seems to be] a clear move [drawn from the design documents] from EdF to use high burn up fuel at Hinkley Point C – in fact, the claims in the design that the plant will produce low volumes of spent fuel relies on them using high burn up fuel. For example :-

Of course, if EdF do not use high burn up fuel or MOX fuel, they will [in all likelihood] produce far larger amounts of spent fuel waste than they are claiming, so it adds to the argument that their rad waste claims could be unverifiable.

A recent statement in the House of Commons claims that spent fuel from Hinkley Point C will be :-

“The new build contribution to the Upper Inventory is estimated at an additional 25,000 m(3) [cubic metres] intermediate level radioactive waste (ILW), and 20,000 m(3) [cubic metres] Spent Fuel”

from all the new build reactors (16 GW) anticipated. But this could be an underestimate if they use standard enrichment levels in the nuclear fuel.


The design and safety documents for Hinkley Point C have a limit of burn-up set at 65 GWD/tU – and there are many other statements about the layout of the reactor – roughly 30% could be high burn-up.


Example from Pre Construction Safety Report (PCSR) :-

Sub-Chapter 4.2 Fuel System Design

“1.1. FUEL RODS : Fuel rods are composed of slightly enriched uranium dioxide pellets with or without burnable poison (gadolinium), or MOX (uranium and plutonium) dioxide pellets. The fuel is contained in a closed tube made of M5 [Ref-1] [Ref-2] hermetically sealed at its ends.”

There have been queries about the performance of the M5 (TM) Zircaloy (zirconium alloy) under high burn-up, and power/thermal transients, which have been largely quashed, for example :-

although the nuclear industry claim it’s all good :-


Section 7.2.3 “The key factors in demonstrating the minimisation of the production of radioactive waste are…”



3.2.1. Definition of Interim Spent Fuel Store (ISFS) Requirements Spent Fuel Quantity and Characteristics

The reactor core of a UK EPR would typically consist of 241 fuel assemblies providing a controlled fission reaction and a heat source for electrical power production. Each fuel assembly is formed by a 17×17 array of zirconium alloy (such as M5) tubes, made up of 265 fuel rods and 24 guide thimbles. The fuel rods consist of uranium dioxide pellets stacked in the zirconium alloy cladding tubes which are then plugged and seal welded. It is currently assumed that a maximum of 90 spent fuel assemblies (SFA) would be removed every 18 months of operation from each UK EPR. Taking into account the time allowed for planned maintenance outages over the anticipated 60 years operating life, a total of approximately 3,400 assemblies are expected to be generated by each UK EPR. The lifetime operation of HPC, comprising two UK EPRs, would therefore result in a total of around 6,800 spent fuel assemblies. Fuel cladding failures cannot be ruled out over this period and so the interim storage does need to be capable of receiving “failed fuel” within adequate packaging.

Fuel composition and burn-up is a very important parameter for spent fuel management since it determines the heat load and the rate at which this reduces after the fuel is discharged from the reactor. The ISFS needs to be able to store enriched uranium fuel at the maximum design burn-up of 65 GWd/tU in accordance with the fuel envisaged in EDF Energy’s Development Consent application. However, the EPR is capable of accepting mixed oxide fuel (i.e. fuel where plutonium instead of uranium oxide is used to provide some or all of the initial fissile material) and, whilst EDF Energy has no current plans to use MOX fuel, it is considered prudent to ensure that the ISFS design could enable fuel with higher thermal power or different composition to be stored (noting, of course, that this eventuality would be subject to the receipt of all relevant Government and regulatory approvals).”


SNEAKING SUSPICION :- I think that the UK Government […] might push for MOX to be used in the first nuclear power plant that becomes available that can do so.

Hinkley Critique

A critique of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant decision
by Jo Abbess
22 November 2013

This is a short position paper on the UK Government’s recent accouncement to go ahead and permit development of a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point (DECC, 2013a). The two atomic fission reactors and power generation plant are to be guaranteed an above-market rate for the electricity to be generated (Guardian, 2013a; WNN, 2013).

This paper has been prepared to support a proposal for an organisation to take a public position on this project decision. As presented here it is a draft for discussion.

Essential references have been given. Full references for the numbers and other data quoted are available by email.

1.   Expensive electricity from a minor energy provider

*   Power from Hinkley Point C is likely to be at least 50% more expensive than the average wholesale price of electricity.

*   Hinkley Point C would only produce around 2% of the UK’s total energy needs (excluding transport fuels).

The announcement on 21 October 2013 means that Hinkley Point C will be able to sell electricity energy at a minimum of £92.50 per megawatt hour (MWh) – the so-called “strike price” agreed (BBC, 2013a). If Électricité de France (EdF or EDF Energy), the energy company managing the project, also agree to build the planned nuclear power plant Sizewell C, the strike price would be reduced to £89.50 per megawatt hour (MWh), to reflect the understanding that building a second power plant of the same design should be cheaper than building the first (Utility Week, 2013a).

Ofgem’s Supply Market Indicator for Electricity indicates that for the average household consumption of 3,800 kWh (kilowatt hours) per year, the wholesale costs as of October 2013 are £225 out of the total electricity bill of £600, meaning that energy companies are buying electricity from producers at £59.21 per MWh (one megawatt hour is a thousand kilowatt hours) (CF, 2013; Ofgem, 2013a). This means that if Hinkley Point C were generating power now, the power would be £33.29 more expensive, adding roughly half to the cost of wholesale power.

The strike price for Hinkley Point C is to be index linked to consumer price inflation (CPI) (IET, 2013; IMechE, 2013a; NEI, 2013; Spinwatch, 2013; Utility Week, 2013b; UK Govt 2013); which means that even with subsidies, wind power and solar power should cost far less than this new nuclear power by the time Hinkley Point C comes online, around about 2023 (Utility Week, 2013d). One estimate puts the strike price at £121 per MWh for 2023, double today’s average wholesale price (Guardian, 2013b; Utility Week, 2013c).

For 2012, nuclear power plants provided just 7.4% of total energy supplied to consumers in the UK, and the average over the latest five years of figures was 6.8% (DECC, 2013b). However, nuclear power plants provided 13.88% of total primary electricity produced in the UK in 2011, averaging at 10.56% over the latest five years for which data is available (IEA, 2013). So, nuclear power is fairly significant within the production of electricity, but not so important when looking at the total energy the country consumes.

Efficiency in the use of electricity is an important policy direction in the UK, and a range of measures will be employed to rein in growth in power demand. According to official UK Government statistics, the UK consumed 376.241 TWh of electrical power in 2012 (DECC, 2013c). According to the recent announcement, Hinkley Point C should come into service in 2023 (UK Govt, 2013), by which time, UK power demand should have reduced. According to the National Grid’s UK Future Energy Scenario projections, for “Gone Green”, power consumption in 2020 will be 317 TWh, or under “Slow Progression”, 303 TWh, so an average consumption of 310 TWh (UKFES, 2013) .

The design for Hinkley Point C has two 1,750 MW steam turbines, one for each of two nuclear reactors, and so its theoretical maximum output capacity would be 3,500 MW or 3.5 GW (IMecHE, 2013b). However, the two reactors are each projected to be able to produce 1,630 MW of output energy, so the total capacity of generation would be closer to 3.26 GW (EDF, 2013). If Hinkley Point C operates at full power 90% of the time, it would generate 25.229 TWh on average each year. By 2023, this would represent roughly 8% of all the electricity that the UK consumes. However, the total power that reaches the customer would be less, because of losses in distribution and transmission.

The total gas and power used by end consumers in 2020, is likely to be in the region of 1,112 to 1,178 TWh, so taking the mid-point, 1,145 TWh (UKFES, 2013). Before system losses are accounted for, Hinkley Point C would be providing only 2.2% of the UK’s total energy demand (excluding transport fuels).

The National Grid anticipate that over time, more thermal comfort for buildings will come from electrical heating, which explains why the “Gone Green” scenario has higher power consumption than “Slow Progression”. However, this isn’t inevitable, and total power consumption in the 2020s could be considerably less than they anticipate. Thermal comfort in buildings could come from increasing levels of building insulation, rather than electrical heating, if measures such as the Green Deal and ECO (Energy Company Obligation) are improved; and efficiency in the use of electricity could lead to a much higher reduction in power demand than anticipated. Therefore it is necessary to ask the question whether power from Hinkley Point C would be needed by the time it starts generating. It seems likely that Hinkley Point C would not be built without the guaranteed price subsidy, but it can be questioned whether this expenditure is justified.

2.   Too late and uncertain to keep the lights on

*   Hinkley Point C would not be generating power in time to protect the National Grid from low energy supply margins in the next few years.

*   Despite claims that the EPR nuclear reactor design is inherently safer than current designs, there is currently no working EPR yet anywhere in the world.

*   EPR projects in Finland and France are late and over-budget, and there is no guarantee this would not happen in the UK.

Ofgem, the UK Government’s energy regulator has said that the margin between electricity demand and supply could become very slim in the next few years (Ofgem, 2013b). Hinkley Point C is only expected to be operational some time around 2023, and so cannot answer these short-term energy security concerns.

Professor David MacKay says that in order to meet the generation gap needs of the next few years as we close down coal-fired power stations (and some nuclear power plants will close too), we only need to build “a few more new gas power stations” (BBC, 2013b).

The EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) units of the Hinkley Point C plan are novel reactor designs, and are as yet untried anywhere in the world (Areva, 2013a; Greenpeace, 2012). The two projects to build EPR nuclear power plants in Europe are both dogged by delays (WNN, 2010; WNR, 2012) and cost overruns (Nuclear News, 2013; WNN, 2012). However, two EPR plants are under construction in Taishan, Guangdong province in China, and are expected to be running within four years’ time, and costs are apparently being kept to budget (Areva 2013b; FT, 2013; WSJ, 2013). Even so, there is no EPR power plant in production anywhere in the world as yet. And there are no guarantees that the British project will not cost more than expected and take longer than anticipated to build.

3.   Not responding to the demands of climate change at the right pace

*   New nuclear power cannot help us meet our carbon budgets in a timely fashion

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has the challenge of accepting and responding (UNFCCC, 2013) to the latest International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showing that the global “safe” carbon budget hasn’t slackened since 2007 with the evidence from more recent science – if anything, it’s got tighter (IPCC, 2013). The urgency for carbon emissions control means that adopting any strategy with a time-to-completion of more than five years runs the risk of overshooting our carbon budgets. This means that the ambitions for a nuclear power renaissance should not be pursued. We need guaranteed carbon control in a much shorter timeframe than the project lifetime of Hinkley Point C.

4.   The money could be better used elsewhere

*   The estimated £16 billion required to build Hinkley Point C could build 8 times as much generating capacity in gas-fired power stations.

*   The estimated £16 billion, could be used to build a mix of flexible, low carbon gas-fired production and power plant facilities, producing the same amount of power as Hinkley Point C, and still have money left over.

*   The estimated £16 billion, if used for an energy efficiency scheme in buildings, such as the former CERT, could save energy equivalent to 60 years of the output of Hinkley Point C, a plant with a reported lifetime of 60 years.

If the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant runs at 90% of its rating, and 5% of this power is lost in transmission and distribution, it stands to make electricity sales of something like £2.44 billion each year in today’s money (with a strike price of £92.50 per MWh), and some have estimated that this could amount to before tax profits of the order of £1 billion each year (Guardian, 2013b). It is not clear if this profit would be re-invested in new energy generation plant, or used in energy conservation projects.

The Hinkley Point C project was before 21 October 2013, said to be likely to cost £14 billion (Process Engineering, 2013). Since then, it is said that it will cost £16 billion to build (Reuters, 2013). What else could one get for £16 billion ? Norway have just agreed a plan to build a further 1.3 GW (gigawatts) of wind power for 20 billion kroner (crowns), around £2.1 to 2.3 billion, which would produce roughly 3,400 GWh (gigawatt hours) a year operating at 30% “load factor” – how much of the wind the turbines can turn into usable power. The developers claim 3,700 GWh (Energy Live News, 2013; Power Technology, 2013; WindPower Monthly, 2013). If this investment were repeated for 7 years, the total cost would be £14.7 to £16.1 billion and the amount of power from the new wind farms would amount to roughly 25.9 TWh (terawatt hours – a terawatt is a thousand gigawatts) per year, which can be favourably compared to the predicted output of Hinkley Point C of 25.229 TWh per year. The wind power would be fully available by 2020, at least 3 years before Hinkley Point C comes online, and it wouldn’t have end-of-life costs such as radioactive waste disposal and plant decommissioning hanging over the project.

Liberum Capital, the stockbrokers, said in a press release on 30th October 2013, that for the £16 billion that it will cost to build 3.2 GW of Hinkley Point C nuclear power capacity, the UK could build 27 GW of gas-fired power plant, “solving the ‘energy crunch’ for a generation” (Utility Week, 2013c). An alternative proposal would be to spend around £7 billion on new Natural Gas-fired power plant (12 GW) and £4 billion on low carbon substitute or synthesis gas (SNG) production and power plants, to provide the same amount of power as Hinkley Point C (25 TWh per year) and have £5 billion left over to pay for the difference between gas fuel and nuclear fuel. Gas-fired power generation is very flexible, and the capacity for flexibility in the electricity supply grid is going to become increasingly important as the amount of true renewable electricity increases, to fill in gaps in demand, because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.

Instead of spending the £16 billion on energy production, if the same capital were used on energy demand reduction, such as building insulation, it could permanently remove the need to purchase energy. The current Green Deal aims to help homes become lower carbon. The current Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme to help insulate hard to heat homes costs £1.3 billion every year. One of the predecessor policies, the CERT (Carbon Emissions Reduction Target) scheme was good value for money. The CERT scheme over its lifetime cost £5.3 billion and made lifetime energy savings of 500 TWh, and its parallel policy, CESP (Community Energy Saving Programme), 32 TWh, according to one calculation (Rosenow, 2012). If £16 billion were to be spent on energy conservation using similar methods, it would avoid the need to consume 1,509 TWh, equivalent to nearly 60 years of the anticipated output energy from Hinkley Point C, a plant scheduled to have a total lifetime of 60 years (although the subsidies will only last for 35 years).

5.   Inflexible generation from the largest generation units

*   As more renewable energy enters the grid, we need all new generators to be flexible, but nuclear power is not.

*   The Hinkley Point C design means that the National Grid will need to increase their amount of emergency backup, known as STOR.

*   The growth in wind power and the STOR mean that Hinkley Point C is redundant.

It is often claimed that we need nuclear power to act as “baseload”, that is, power generation capacity that is “always on”. However, as the amount of renewable electricity that comes onto the grid increases – wind power and solar power being the most important – other forms of generation need to be flexible to “fill in the gaps” for the variability in renewable generation – when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. With current nuclear power plants, it is not desirable to turn a nuclear power plant off or on too often, and it is expensive to reduce or increase the amount of power coming from a nuclear power plant – something that is done in France, for example. By contrast, gas-fired power generation is easy to turn off and on, and using gas to backup wind generation makes the sum total cost of power cheaper, as the wind power is essentially free. The amount of gas-fired generation capacity and other capacity used in emergency that we already have is plenty enough to cope with the UK’s projected growth in wind and solar power over the next 15 to 20 years. Just to note : renewable power is not the reason why we need spare capacity. Even if there were no renewable sources of power feeding the grid, as the operation of the National Grid becomes less energy wasteful and more “lean” in future, backup capacity will be essential in balancing the nation’s power supply.

The EPR is claimed to be designed to ramp up and down in power output, (WNA, 2013), but the costs and consequences of attempting this are not yet proven or disproven. Importantly, damage to the EPR nuclear fuel could be higher from cycling the power output down and up, if there is high burn-up fuel in the reactor cores.

If there is an emergency powerdown by a large electricity generator, either because of an accident or the need to service the units, the National Grid have a method of dealing with this, known as STOR – Short-Term Operating Reserve. It issues orders to spare generators standing by to start producing power within minutes, and others within hours. During the St Jude’s storm on the night of 27th / 28th October 2013, two units of the Dungeness B nuclear power plant were shut down owing to weather-related complications, adding up to a sudden loss of roughly 800 MW of power, during which time the STOR brought on hydroelectric power (HEP), pumped water storage power and open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) power, all standing by for just such an eventuality.

Currently, the largest power generation unit on used in the UK National Grid for power is Sizewell B, with one reactor and two turbine generation units nominally each at 660 MW, although total plant output since 2005 has only been at 1,195 MW (dependent on seawater temperature). In September 2013, one unit was operating at 600 MW and the other at 601 MW. The National Grid must have emergency backup for the combination of these two units, owing to the design of the electrical control equipment. If Sizewell B were to suddenly stop working, the National Grid would have to start up alternative power plant equivalent to the 1,201 MW lost.

The Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant design has two nuclear reactors, each projected to produce heat equivalent to 1,630 MW (megawatts) through conversion of the heat via two Arabelle steam turbines supplied by Alstom, each capable of generating 1,740 MW of electrical power. The total electricity that would be produced by the plant is reported to be in the region of 3,260 MW, although electrical power used within the plant itself – known as “parasitic load” – may bring the total available for supply to the National Grid down to around 3,000 MW from the two units.

If the Hinkley Point C power plant is completed, either one of the units going offline would require National Grid to provide emergency power of around about 1,500 MW, or perhaps more, ten times as much as any wind power outage could be. Having this nuclear power plant on the grid would mean that National Grid have to have a bigger emergency response capacity than at present.

Existing plans to develop STOR capacity, using a range of methods, combined with the increase in wind power capacity, mean that Hinkley Point C will be redundant before it’s even opened.

6.   Extra safety measures, but the prospects of more dangerous fuel, and higher accident risks

*   The EPR nuclear power plant design has had more safety measures included, owing partly to the Fukushima Dai-ichi multiple nuclear reactor accident.

*   The EPR reactor design could be tailored to use dangerous mixed oxide fuels – reprocessed from radioactive waste.

*   Ramping the power output of the EPR up and down will be dangerous because of high burnup fuel.

*   Damages to the nuclear fuel rods cannot be quantified, and extra emissions allowances have been requested.

The design for Hinkley Point C includes two concrete reactor containment walls, each more than a metre thick; and a six metre thick concrete floor under the reactor vessel, with channels for meltdown dispersion, and a cooling system. After a total lost of power, cooling systems failed at Fukushima Dai-ichi and the reactors overheated – so to avoid this, the design for Hinkley Point C will have six separated flood-proofed independent power generators. But the official documents looking at the design consider only the use of normal uranium oxide fuel, as mixed oxide fuels are said to be “out of scope”. The EPR could potentially be partly loaded with MOx (mixed plutonium and uranium oxide) fuel, and this would increase the risks of any potential accident. Although the only MOx fuel production facility in the UK has been closed, other reactors in Europe are fuelled with MOx, which comes from international nuclear waste reprocessing.

The 2008 UK Government White Paper “Meeting the Energy Challenge A White Paper on Nuclear Power” concluded that “our view remains that in the absence of any proposals from industry, new nuclear power stations built in the UK should proceed on the basis that spent fuel will not be reprocessed. As a consequence, plans for waste management and financing should proceed on this basis”. However, this does not rule out the practice.

Nuclear power plants are usually expected to run all the time. Most of Britain’s nuclear power plants were built with the assumption that they would run producing a constant level of power. The output of electricity from a nuclear power plant can be reduced and increased, but there are risks and financial penalties for doing so unless it is absolutely necessary – for example under emergency conditions. Some nuclear power plants in Europe are used to follow peaks and troughs in power demand, and it is possible that the Hinkley Point C power plant would be expected to do the same. However, given the stated plans for the nuclear fuel in the reactor, this increases the risk of plant failure. The UK EPR (TM) is expected to have some high burn-up fuel rods in its reactor core, and studies have shown that repeatedly stopping and starting nuclear fission in such fuel rods, such as by removing them from a reactor core and then replacing them, or bringing the output power of the reactor down and then up again by inserting and removing control rods, causes high physical stress in high burn-up fuel rods, and could compromise fuel and fuel rod integrity. It is not yet known if “power cycling” of the EPR can be done safely, and it could be shown that it is risky to do so. In this case it would mean that the reactor would not be fully flexible.

The EPR Pre-Construction Safety Report explains that EDF Energy have requested high tolerances for Xenon and other noble gas emissions, presumably as they cannot tell how easily it will be for high burn-up fuel rods to develop leaks of fission gas (see Appendix A). This suggests that the safety of this type of nuclear fuel is not yet fully quantified.

7.   Transparency issues

*   Secrecy and lobbying have dogged this decision

There are a number of areas surrounding the Hinkley Point C announcement that are unclear. For example, on 29th October 2013, in the House of Commons, Paul Flynn MP received a reply from the Nicky Morgan on behalf of the UK Treasury that “non-disclosure agreements have been signed ahead of commercial discussions with potential investors in Hinkley Point C. A [loan] guarantee has not been approved and a security package has not been agreed. At this early stage of discussion with investors it cannot be said what will be published however the Government will disclose information within the bounds of the confidentiality agreement.” (Hansard, 29 Oct 2013, Column 432W)

This demonstrates that this deal is far from completion, and raises questions of confidence. It also throws up the lack of transparency surrounding the negotiations between Government, the energy industry and the investor groups. The exact nature and size of all the subsidies that will be made by the UK Government to the investors and project managers is still uncertain.

The deal apparently guarantees the subsidy payments, even if the project goes into administration, according to wording in the “Notes to Editors” of the Press Release from the Department of Energy and Climate Change on 21st October 2013 : “Compensation to the Hinkley Point C investors for their expected equity return would be payable in the event of a Government directed shut down of Hinkley Point C other than for reasons of health, safety, security, environmental, transport or safeguards concerns. The arrangements include the right to transfer to Government, and for Government to call for the transfer to it of, the project company which owns Hinkley Point C in the event of a shutdown covered by these provisions. The compensation arrangements would be supported by an agreement between the Secretary of State for DECC and the investors.”

The Press Release also raised the prospects of challenge to the announcement : “The commercial agreement reached today on key terms is not legally binding, and is dependent on a positive decision from the European Commission in relation to State Aid.”

Since the project is scheduled for completion at least a decade away, and it is not possible at this time to accurately project the prices of fossil fuels, or fossil-fuel generated electricity that far into the future, it could be that market forces enhance the role of energy conservation and the development of renewable electricity in that timespan, making the power from Hinkley Point C redundant. Another possibility is that the electricity market becomes subject to further reforms to enable stronger competition, and so it could be envisaged that power from Hinkley Point C could remain unsold.

Those who work in the nuclear power sector, whether employees or contractors, are constrained by the conditions of their contracts to keep strict secrecy on a number of aspects of their work that could risk national security. This means that whistleblowing on the health of the industry is fraught with complication, and although a number of failings in nuclear power plant operation and nuclear engineering have come to light, it is not clear what else may emerge.

8.   Security matters

*   The Hinkley Point C project will be mostly foreign-owned and controlled.

*   Proliferation risk

As part of the Hinkley Point C project, a radioactive waste repository will need to be built on the site that will hold contaminated material for a 100 years before permanent disposal is made. This is just one of a number of security issues raised by the plans for this plant. The announcement on 21st October 2013 signalled the drawing in of Chinese investors to the project consortium, the company to build the plant are French, and the technology is from another French company. This means that the plant will be largely built, owned and controlled by foreign companies.

There are two aspects to the risk of proliferation. Any use of uranium in a nuclear reactor has fissile plutonium as a by-product – the stuff of nuclear bombs. Even reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract the plutonium to make mixed oxide fuel does not solve the problem of plutonium, as burning mixed oxide nuclear fuel in a nuclear reactor will create more fissile plutonium as a by-product (although a bit less than went in). Plutonium that has already been separated from spent fuel is a particular risk, should it be acquired by those who would want to utilise it for its explosive criticality. It may therefore be better to make mixed oxide nuclear fuel – at least the final result would be plutonium locked into spent fuel – more difficult to make use of. However, spent fuel is dangerous in and of itself. It is not expected that spent fuel will be under any form of strong containment, and will sit in cooling ponds in insecure warehouses. Draining a fuel pool would at the very least cause a fire in the superheated fuel rods left exposed – and could possibly cause a “dirty bomb” phenomenon if it also exploded. With superheated fuel rods in cooling ponds arising from high burn-up nuclear fuel, the danger is worse than at other nuclear power plants. In addition, going ahead with the Hinkley Point C power plant will increase the number of dangerous spent fuel pools in the UK. Both of these issues proliferate risk.

There is also the question of double standards. There are some countries currently not permitted by the international community to operate nuclear power plants, such as Iran, but if they see the UK building a big new nuclear power plant, they may be able to make a stronger case for their own plan for civilian nuclear power. The more nuclear power plants there are, the more likely that plutonium could end up in the wrong hands.

9.   Radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel

*   The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station could increase the total radioactivity of the combination of the radioactive nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel by between 87% and 93%.

*   The volume of undisposed radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel is still accumulating in the UK, even without the Hinkley Point C project. Although without the Hinkley Point C project, the radioactivity of the total anticipated at point of disposal is decreasing.

The EPR nuclear reactor design is said to generate more electricity from less fuel, however, there will still be significant radioactive and toxic waste from the plant. In the Pre Construction Safety Report (PCSR) of 30 May 2012, Section 2, it says “Spent fuel from nuclear power stations is not categorised as waste because it still contains uranium and plutonium which could potentially be separated out through reprocessing and used to make new fuel”, but spent fuel does need to be counted when considering the total radioactivity burden, and the need to make arrangements to dispose of it.

The new EPR nuclear reactors would create radioactive wastes and spent fuel that would add to the UK’s total inventory. Going from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s 2010 Inventory of radioactive wastes, combined with the report on radioactive materials not in the 2010 Inventory, as a baseline, and using a worked example from three reports from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM Document Numbers 1277, 1279 and 1531) as a guide to how to do the calculation, it it is possible to estimate that the Hinkley Point C development of 2 EPR nuclear reactors would add just a few percent to the total volume of radioactive waste and spent fuel; but increase the total radioactivity of the waste and spent fuel by something like 87% to 93%, which is close to double the amount of radioactivity to manage otherwise. The final volume for safe disposal would be between 634,000 and 644,000 cubic metres compared to the baseline of 631,000 cubic metres. However, the radioactivity would be between 127 million and 132 million TBq, compared to the baseline of 68 million TBq without the EPR development. The range of values depends on whether current stocks of plutonium and uranium are used to make fuel for the new EPR reactors – MOx fuel. The figures compare with a combined volume of spent fuel and radioactive waste calculated from the 2004 inventory baseline of 478,000 cubic metres, and a radioactivity burden of 78 million TBq.

Although there has been progress with the development of Low Level Waste facilities, much of the remainder of the UK’s radioactive waste and spent fuel is not yet in safe, long-term storage, and the total is rising, even without the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant. It would seem wise to aim to reduce the total levels of un-secured radioactive materials, rather than create new waste.


Areva (2013a). “The EPR (TM) Reactor Projects Worldwide”, Areva, 2013. Online at :-
[ Accessed 19 November 2013 ]

Areva (2013b). “Taishan 1 & 2 – China”, Areva, 2013. Online at :-
[ Accessed 19 November 2013 ]

BBC (2013a). “UK nuclear power plant gets go-ahead”, BBC Business News, 21 October 2013. Online at :-
[ Accessed 19 November 2013 ]

BBC (2013b). “Mind the Gap”, BBC Radio 4, Series : “Costing the Earth”, Presenter : Tom Heap, First Broadcast : 15 October 2013. Online at :-
[ Accessed 16 October 2013 ]
[ Transcript by Jo Abbess ]
[ Tom Heap ]
“Some of Ed Davey’s policies, not least the LibDem [ Liberal Democrat Party ] U-turn on nuclear, have been guided by DECC [ Department of Energy and Climate Change ] Chief Scientist David MacKay, author of the influential book “Renewable Energy without the Hot Air” [ sic, actually “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” ]. Does he think the lights will dim in the second half of this decade ?”
[ David MacKay ]
“I don’t think there’s going to be any problem maintaining the capacity that we need. We just need to make clear where Electricity Market Reform [ EMR, part of the Energy Bill ] is going, and the way in which we will be maintaining capacity.”
[ Tom Heap ]
“But I don’t quite understand that, because it seems to me, you know, some of those big coal-fired power stations are going to be going off. What’s going to be coming in their place ?”
[ David MacKay ]
“Well, the biggest number of power stations that’s been built in the last few years are gas power stations, and we just need a few more gas power stations like that, to replace the coal, and hopefully some nuclear power stations will be coming on the bars, as well as the wind farms that are being built at the moment.”

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Appendix A

Glossary of Terminology


Each atom of each molecule of matter has a core (nucleus) and a shell (one or more electron particles). If an atom loses one or more of its shell of electrons, or gains one or more electrons, it is called an ion. The nucleus of an atom is composed of proton particles and zero, one or more neutron particles.

If the core (nucleus) of an atom is unstable, the atom can potentially one or more of six things :-

1. It can emit an Alpha Particle consisting of two protons and two neutrons. This is essentially a nucleus of a Helium atom, a Helium ion. This is known as Alpha radioactive decay, or Alpha decay.

2. It can emit a Beta Particle consisting of an electron or a positron (a bit like an electron, but with positive electrical charge). This is known as Beta radioactive decay, or Beta decay.

3. It can emit a Gamma Particle consisting of a photon – the same kind of particles as sunlight – but at a much higher energy. This is called Gamma radiation.

4. It can split into pieces – normally two or three. This is called nuclear fission. When this happens, a lot of heat energy is given off.

5. It can emit a neutron particle. An atom can become unstable if it is bombarded (irradiated) by neutrons from the nuclei of other unstable atoms, and if one of these neutrons enters its nucleus. Having an extra neutron in its nucleus can make the atom a different chemical, but unbalanced, so that it is likely to be radioactive itself. The heavier the nucleus, the more likely it will be to undergo nuclear fission. Many unstable nuclei will emit neutrons.

6. It can emit a proton particle, a nuclear particle with a positive electrical charge.

The kind of radioactivity of a substance depends on its nuclear weight. Only the very largest nuclei are capable of nuclear fission – splitting into two, three or possibly more pieces. But most of the really heavy nuclei experience Alpha decay rather than nuclear fission.

All of these forms of radioactive decay give off heat energy, but fission gives off about 10 times as much as the other kinds.

When there are enough unstable atoms in a piece of material giving off neutrons, then there can be a cascade of neutron emissions, one after another, causing a large flow of neutrons, and a lot of heat energy is produced. This is known as a chain reaction. In order to achieve this, there must be at least a certain amount of the material in one place. This is known as the critical mass, and the material is said to have reached criticality. If this situation is not managed, the material can explode from the quantity of heat energy produced.

If material has been irradiated by neutrons, it is called an “activation product” and it will have a number of unstable nuclei throughout its bulk. Even when the neutron flux is removed, and nuclear fission stops, there will still be heat produced by the material, owing to the other kinds of radioactive decay.

Activation products can include the containers of the nuclear fuel, parts of the nuclear reactor, and part of the water or gas used to cool moderate the radioactivity of the reactor core.

Nuclear Power Plant (NPP)

A nuclear power plant uses the heat energy created by nuclear fission (and other forms of radioactive decay) to vapourise water into steam, which drives a steam turbine to produce electricity.

The centre of a nuclear power plant is a nuclear reactor, a special building which contains the nuclear fuel in its core. The nuclear fuel is in packaged in a specific way. First of all pellets of the nuclear fuel are put into a sealed tube of metal alloy. A collection of these fuel pins, or fuel rods, is then packaged into a container called a fuel assembly, which has an outer cladding. When the reactor is in operation, the fuel rods get hot, so water is passed through the core to cool it.

Important Fission Products and Activation Products

If an atom is made unstable, it may become a different chemical, or it may stay the same chemical, but with a different number of neutron particles in its nucleus – in which case it is known as an isotope of the chemical.

In terms of the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, the following are the key chemical end products of neutron irradiation (activation products), radioactive decay and nuclear fission (fission products) that need managing and monitoring :-

a. Plutonium

Plutonium is produced by the irradiation of Uranium with neutrons. There are several different isotopes of Plutonium that are of concern. These are activation products. They are formed inside the nuclear fuel.

b. Highly-radioactive short-lived chemicals

These include isotopes of Iodine, Caesium, Cobalt and Strontium. These are mostly fission products, but radioactive Cobalt can be produced as an activation product if there is a trace of Cobalt in the steel used in the nuclear reactor. These are mostly formed inside the nuclear fuel, apart from radioactive Cobalt. Radioactive Caesium is water soluble, so any leaks from nuclear fuel rods means that it ends up in the reactor coolant if the reactor is water-cooled. Also, if one particular isotope of Xenon is produced in fission gas, it can decay to radioactive Caesium.

b. Noble Gases

The most significant are isotopes of Xenon, Krypton and Argon. These are the most important of the gases known as “Fission Gas”, and are produced as a result of nuclear fission – fission products. They are produced inside the nuclear fuel, but end up being emitted to the atmosphere because leaks from fuel rods.

c. Tritium (3H)

This is an isotope of Hydrogen and forms a gas. It is mosty formed as a product of irradiation of the water coolant in a reactor core (an activation product), but can be a fission product. It can be formed inside the nuclear fuel, and would make its way out into the the reactor coolant if there are leaks in the fuel rods. Otherwise, it is generally produced in the reactor coolant.

d. Carbon 14 (14C)

This is mostly in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4). Because this isotope of carbon is radioactive, these are often referred to as radiocarbon dioxide and radiomethane. These are activation products.

e. Helium (He)

This is non-radioactive and a gas. It is mostly formed by Alpha radioactive decay, but can be formed by nuclear fission, and can also be used to create a gap between nuclear fuel and the fuel containers when the fuel rods are manufactured.

Nuclear Fuel

Uranium oxide. Uranium has a heavy nucleus and so more likely to undergo nuclear fission.

Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOx)

Plutonium oxide from reprocessed nuclear fuel is mixed with uranium oxide (either reprocessed or from refined ores) to make nuclear fuel pellets.

Spent Fuel and Spent Fuel Ponds

When nuclear fuel has been in a nuclear reactor, and then becomes less energetic, it is removed from the reactor core, and it is then known as spent nuclear fuel, or spent fuel. It is either prepared for permanent disposal or reprocessed to separate out useful or dangerous chemicals. Besides emitting high levels of radiation of all kinds except neutrons, spent fuel gives off about 10% of the heat that it did when it was in the reactor core, and both the radioactivity and the heat are major concerns. Spent fuel normally goes into a cooling off pond of water for up to ten years, where it needs to be actively cooled, much like in the nuclear reactor. After this time, it is usually stored in a spent fuel pond until it can be reprocessed or disposed of. Most fission products (products of nuclear fission) in the spent fuel are a lot more safe to handle after 100 years, owing to the rate at which they give off radioactivity. It is expected that after 100 years, spent fuel will be much more safe to store in a geological disposal facility (GDF).

Nuclear Power Plant Accidents

The most serious accidents in a nuclear reactor are :-

a. LOCA – Loss of Coolant Accident

This is a situation where it becomes impossible to keep the nuclear reactor or the spent nuclear fuel at a safe temperature. There are “small break” LOCA, for example from a pipe or pump, and “large break” LOCA, which would include the reactor being punctured or drained of coolant with no ability to inject more. In the case of water-cooled reactors, if the reactor gets too hot, the water can turn to steam, which cannot keep the reactor core cool.

b. Problems with Fuel Rods and Control Rods

Most nuclear reactor designs have a frame, and the fuel rods are slotted into it. To control the output of the nuclear reactor, control rods are also slotted in. When nuclear fuel has been in a reactor for some time, it can swell up or become deformed, or even have a leak, due to a build-up of fission gas inside, or corrosion of the metal containers. This can make it difficult to remove the fuel rods. Control rods can also become warped over time and be hard to manage. In addition, a mechanical fault can mean that fuel rods or control rods cannot be slotted in or out of the reactor core in the way that the plant manager wishes. In some rare cases, the pressure of the coolant in the nuclear reactor can prevent control rods being properly inserted.

Fission Gas and Fission Gas Release (FGR)

Nuclear power reactors work by setting up conditions where there is a build-up in the flow of particles called neutrons. These neutrons cause the central parts (nuclei) of atoms in nuclear fuel to split up into smaller pieces (fission), giving off energy. This energy is in the form of heat, which can be used to generate electricity. The end result of the nuclear fission is smaller nuclei that are different chemicals or elements than the original atoms. Some of these “fission products” are solid, but some are gases. While the nuclear reactor stays working, this “fission gas” generally stays inside the package covering of the nuclear fuel (cladding), even though it increases the internal pressure in the fuel packages (rods in assemblies). Fission gas increases the internal pressure in the fuel rods, and can cause swelling or deformation, which limits the amount of time the fuel rods can safely stay in the reactor. Fission gas can contribute to holes in the fuel cladding, which will then leak the gas and maybe some of the fuel. If there is a nuclear reactor accident which causes a large change in temperature, or the nuclear reactor is partly or fully turned off, or fuel rods are damaged, this gas can be released. Fission Gas Release can also occur when fuel rods are removed from the nuclear reactor, and if they are chemically processed after being used in the reactor. Sudden or high volumes of fission gas being released is a chaotic scenario that may have a range of consequences. It is possible to reduce the amount of fission gas released from a fuel rod, either by adding special chemicals to the nuclear fuel, or arranging for the fuel to have different physical properties, or by changing the design of the fuel cladding. However, reducing the amount of fission gas released simply means that the fission gas will build up inside the structure of the nuclear fuel, which has its own risks when the spent fuel is removed from the reactor (upon change in external pressure), reprocessed or conditioned for disposal. In addition, should the fuel package become damaged – either during an accident or during reprocessing or conditioning of the fuel at the end of life, the higher levels of fission gas inside the fuel could cause problems. Fission gas that is released from leaking or damaged fuel rods when they are in the reactor core ends up in the reactor coolant and must be filtered out. It is normally vented to air after filtering, allowing some time for it to lose some of its radioactivity.

Fuel Rods

The centre of a nuclear power plant is a nuclear reactor, a special building which contains the nuclear fuel in its core. The nuclear fuel is packaged in a specific way. First of all pellets of the nuclear fuel are put into a long thin sealed tube of metal alloy. A collection of these fuel pins, or fuel rods, is then packaged into a container called a fuel assembly, which has an outer cladding. The fuel assemblies are loaded into the reactor core. When the reactor is in operation, the fuel rods get hot, so water or gas is passed through to cool it. Theoretically, the coolant should not come into direct contact with the nuclear fuel, as they are contained, however, most nuclear power plant operators recognise that it is possible that they can have leaking fuel rods. Regular inspection and surveillance programmes are therefore necessary.

High Burn-Up Nuclear Fuel (Burnup, Burn up)

It is possible to make nuclear fuel that “burns up” more than normal. This does not mean that the nuclear fuel is used up faster. What it does mean is that a higher percentage of the same volume of nuclear fuel can be fissioned by the reactor. The net result is that the same amount of nuclear fuel carries on producing energy for longer, so theoretically it can be in the nuclear reactor for longer before it needs to be replaced by fresh fuel.

Nuclear fuel can be high burn up if it has higher levels of uranium enrichment, or if it has plutonium added, as in the case of mixed oxide nuclear fuel (MOx or MOX).
There are five main reasons why high burn-up nuclear fuel is potentially more dangerous than normal enriched uranium oxide nuclear fuel.

First of all, at high burn-up, the structure of the nuclear fuel changes, and this has implications for fission gas release, potentially making it easier for fission gas to be released if there is damage to a fuel rod. This can create problems with the safe management of the power plant.

Secondly, high burn up fuel can be more easily damaged by the changes in temperature and pressure caused by a nuclear reactor partially or completely shutting down and starting up again, or by a fuel rod being removed from the reactor temporarily or permanently.

Thirdly, higher burn-up nuclear fuel will remain in the reactor core for longer, and the operators will resist removing it, for example to check its integrity, as doing so will risk its performance. This means that visual and other inspections of these fuel rods could be delayed. It may be that unless fission gas levels start rising in the reactor coolant, it will not be possible to know that a fuel rod is compromised. Also, if fission gas levels in the reactor coolant rise, it might not be possible to know which fuel rod has been compromised.

Fourthly, there will be more fission products in the high burn-up fuel rods when they are removed from the reactor core, as more of the nuclear fuel will have been fissioned. This means that the nuclear fuel will be hotter, and stay hotter for longer than other kinds of fuel rod. This will be true for not only radioactivity, but also heat output, and will impact on how the fuel needs to be treated after it has been used.

The fifth reason why high burn-up nuclear fuel is a liability is because of the risk of sudden material failure, either from rapid break-down of the fuel rod, because of chaotic fission gas release, or ejection of nuclear fuel from the fuel rod under conditions of high temperature or pressure. If a chaotic failure occurs inside a nuclear reactor, it can damage more fuel rods. If a chaotic failure occurs outside the reactor, it could cause a major release of radioactivity, or fire.

Using what is known as mixed oxide fuel – a mix of uranium oxide and plutonium oxide nuclear fuel – is currently being considered as the recommended option by the UK Government for a plan to “safely” deal with plutonium stocks. However, if MOX fuel is used, these fuel rods will be automatically high burn-up, and in addition to the risks already mentioned, these rods will contain plutonium, which is highly chemically toxic, and many of its istopes are radioactive. If a MOX fuel rod were to disintegrate, either in a reactor core, but more specifically, in fuel rod cooling and storage ponds after use, when it is still hot, and internally stressed by fission gas, there is the added risk of plutonium fuel ejection – a highly dangerous fallout.

As a note, using the UK’s plutonium stocks, by reprocessing into MOX fuel will not “eat up” or “burn up” all the plutonium, as fission in the combined fuel will produce other isotopes of plutonium, some of which will be radioactive, particularly close to the start of its use.

Having high burn-up nuclear fuel rods in a reactor core or a spent fuel pond would increase the risks of meltdown in the event of a LOCA – Loss of Coolant Accident, because the nuclear fuel will continue to produce higher relative levels of heat than other kinds of fuel through the radioactive decay of its higher levels of fission products, even when there is no nuclear fission taking place because neutron flux has been stopped.

It is thought that the hotter MOX fuel in the Fukushima Dai-ichi Reactor 3 unit might have contributed to the severity of the accidental explosion and meltdown there, following loss of reactor coolant, even though the plant managers retained use of some of the safety equipment for some time after the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011.

Appendix B

French Nuclear Power

According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Nuclear Association (WNA), nuclear power generates just under 76% of all French electricity production, on a trend towards 78%, based on data in the period 1990 to 2012. This represents an average of roughly 106% of final electricity consumption in the period 1990 to 2012, after taking into account imports, exports, electricity use within the energy industry (parasitic load at 10.5%) and system losses. The IEA calculates that nuclear power represents 81% of primary energy production in France, by applying the average of nuclear power plant conversion efficiency of 33% from heat to electricity. France has become more dependent on nuclear power to meet its total energy demand in the period 1990 to 2012, and this has had the side-effect that winter imports from Germany have been high during winter cold snaps, as nuclear power is not flexible to cope with the much higher demand for heating.