Joined: 05 September 2004
Whether or not the nuclear industry changes for the better or dies out is still an open question. Societies in Europe and many in the rest of the world, are currently going through their second major renaissance since the collapse of the Roman Empire. The first renaissance in Europe, being the transition from the medieval world view to the modern world view.
The concept of Renaissance for me is more about the changes in how people sense, imagine and interact with the world, than in what actually physically exists in the world, at any particular moment in time. The second renaissance age we are currently living through has yet to be given an adequate name, because even the structure and outline of the new world view (in even the scientific and engineering sense) are not clearly and fully formed in our collective mind yet.
Given this possibility and view point what do the words "Nuclear Renaissance" actually mean to us? Do they mean a cheap re-brand of twentieth century thinking or are they a reference to a whole new way of thinking about nuclear science, engineering and associated technological outputs (guided by the past) that we haven't quite worked out yet?
More thoughts of mine...
1. Developing Generation IV Nuclear is not going to be cheap and will not likely be ready for mainstream commercial roll-out much before 2035 at the earliest; even if we start a major programme of work to develop it now.
2. There are probably only two countries in the world that can definitely choose to do this costly development on their own in a commercially driven way, without much help from other countries: America and China. India is perhaps another country that will be able to do this in a decade or two. All other players including those in Britain, France and Russia, will have to join ptogrammes in one of these three countries or alternatively help form consortia from commercial and publicly funded partners in a large array of smaller countries.
3. Europe as a whole has an unfocused academic programme of Gen IV nuclear research, which will be a very poor platform to build technology specific industrially and commercially relevant development programmes (e.g. developing some kind of molten salt reactor for specific process heat and electricity generation applications that meet the future energy needs of energy intensive industries and consumers)
4. Canada, Northern Europe and Russia have no option but to develop new cheaper safer nuclear technologies because renewable sources, particular solar cannot provide anywhere near enough dependable energy, with the required energy density, during cold winter months. Other countries such as China and India need new nuclear technologies because they have huge populations in developing mega-cities, limited water resources and a need to drastically reduce atmospheric pollution in and around these densely populated areas.
5. Eastern European countries need cheap new sources of energy that give them long term energy security. For example whatever the Green movement in Europe wants or demands of Poland, the political leaders of Poland are not going to undermine their energy security by prematurely giving up coal burning stations, before cleaner cheaper safer alternative energy sources are developed.
6. The widespread roll-out of extremely expensive third generation nuclear and under developed offshore wind technologies, will put up the cost of energy in the UK in a way that could bankrupt the country: within this existing government world view the alternative is between penalising energy intensive industries so they close down or leave Britain, or to tax consumers more, including the fuel poor, to subsidise these industries so that they stay in the UK.
Even if these unwise manipulations by government don't bankrupt the country and prompt a Stirling crisis, poverty will increase as small and medium sized enterprises have to reduce wages to bring costs down; so their products and services can remain internationally competitive.
7. Building 4 nuclear reactors by 2030 in the UK for £32 billion over the next 15 years, is not the way to build up a healthy, stable, productive, innovative and cost-effective industrial supply chain. The UK alone needs hundreds of GW (thermal) to supply its energy needs. Where does 5.9 GW electric (18 GW thermal) built over the next 15 years progress the UK in being able to meet its energy needs for the 15 to 40 years beyond 2030? A doubling of this rate of roll-out gives 16 GWe of new third generation nuclear by 2045 and this would meet the Governments 2030 target 15 years late. What happens if by 2035 China is offering us chemically stable passively safe molten salt small modular reactors that can be built at reduced cost in under 4 years. Reactors that are cheaper to run and produce much reduced spent fuel and waste volumes compared with existing pressurized and boiling water reactor designs. In effect we will have built up a new industrial supply chain specialising in building expensive and defunct third generation reactors designs. Talented and imaginative young people entering the job market can see this, even if certain elements within the UK's nuclear industry leadership work on regardless.
8. If the Nuclear Industry is to become part of the wider renaissance in Britain and elsewhere in the world, we need to go back and learn from the most imaginative and inventive nuclear engineers of the past, like Alvin Weinberg, and take renewed inspiration from them. Alvin Weinberg invented the pressurized water reactor, the most common reactor in use today. However he quickly realised that pressurised water reactor designs couldn't be scaled up, without bringing in a whole host of new failure modes that could not be experimentally studied and tested for in smaller scale model designs. He worked for most of the later part of his career on the development of molten salt reactors as a result; believing that solid fuelled reactors were a temporary transition technology that would quickly be superseded by later liquid fuelled nuclear reactor designs.
9. A large proportion of the nuclear supply chain resources over the next 10 to 20 years have to be assigned to plant life extension work on existing nuclear reactors across Europe. My worry is that in order to build a few new overly complex, slow to build, new Gen III reactors, vital upgrade work on old reactors will be skimped and starved of experienced engineering resource and cash. This situation isn't helped by the current age profile in the nuclear industry in the UK, France and elsewhere.
10. Government isn't the main customer for cheaper and more passively safe Generation IV nuclear energy technologies; private sector industry and consumers are. Governments seem happy to live with chemically unstable reactors of the present, and to pile subsidy upon subsidy into the nuclear industry to kill off all economic and commercial pressure to improve on these existing 1950's era technologies. Why do governments have to apply this enforced stagnation on to engineering community as a matter of policy? Is this what nuclear renaissance is all about? Why not be really radical and let the engineers do the engineering, instead of the scientists and politicians? I am asking these specific questions of Ed Davey and his predecessors in the DECC Secretary of State job Chris Hulne and Ed Milliband, as well as everyone else in government, in order that they can reflect upon them.