Lights out on the UK

The UK government’s lack of an energy policy has reached critical point: if it does not start building nuclear power stations our power will soon run out. Helen Knight and Rob Coppinger report.

UK households could be in for power cuts and escalating electricity bills unless the government takes a firm, longterm stance on the country’s energy policy. Engineers fear that it will be jeopardising the UK’s future energy supplies next month by fudging the issue of nuclear power.

The energy white paper, expected to be published at the end of February, offers the government a chance to secure the UK’s electricity supply by committing itself to maintaining existing levels of nuclear power.

A diverse and sustainable energy policy that includes nuclear power will be vital if the UK is to avoid the electricity shortages that have plagued California, and at the same time reduce its reliance on polluting fossil fuels. But the government is unlikely to make any firm decision on the future of nuclear power for fear of upsetting wary voters, and as a result the chances of the UK’s lights going out are increasing.

Nuclear power produces around 25 per cent of the UK’s electricity, without generating any CO2 emissions. But much of the country’s ageing nuclear capacity is to be closed down over the next decade, and by 2023 all but one of our power stations, Sizewell B, will have been decommissioned. Meanwhile, the government is committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2020.

The obvious answer would be to replace the outgoing nuclear plants with new nuclear capacity, but the cabinet is hopelessly split over the issue, said energy consultant Prof Ian Fells. ‘There are members of the cabinet who are really emotionally opposed to nuclear power. Others distance themselves as they don’t see any votes in it, or perhaps anti-votes. They would be content to see the industry go bankrupt, which at the moment it looks as though it might.’

While trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt agreed a £650m subsidy for the near-bankrupt generator British Energy in autumn, many question whether the rescue package, due to run until 9 March while the firm undergoes restructuring, will be enough to save it.

The result of the cabinet split over nuclear power is likely to be a fudgein the forthcoming white paper, with the government committing simply to keeping the option open, said Fells. ‘I suspect that they will probably say that they won’t abandon the ability to develop nuclear power but will wait and see, which is the worst thing they could possibly do. You cannot keep an industry ticking over waiting for someone to decide we need to build more nuclear stations.’

The Royal Academy of Engineering has warned that it takes so long to build nuclear stations – Westinghouse has estimated that its latest AP1000 Advanced Passive design would take around 10 years including the time needed to secure planning permission – that new plants must be commissioned within the next few years if the UK is to avoid electricity shortages as the existing capacity dwindles.

Even if the government did sanction a new build programme now, the UK will have lost around 60 per cent of its nuclear-generating capacity due to forced decommissioning before the first new reactor comes online (see sidebar). Only by 2023 would nuclear capacity be back to where it is today (12,200MW).

Meanwhile, the UK’s ability to build new nuclear plants is in serious doubt, with the vast majority of skilled engineers in the industry in their fifties or already reaching retirement age. As a result the UK will soon be totally reliant on the nuclear expertise of other countries, particularly France, said Fells. ‘If we ordered a power station tomorrow I doubt we could do it. We would have already lost the engineering skills needed, or almost all of them.’

Unlike France, where nuclear power makes up 77 per cent of electricity generation, or Japan, which is planning to increase its nuclear power capacity significantly by 2020, the UK government is focused on increasing the amount of energy produced from renewable sources. The Energy Review, published by the cabinet’s Performance and Innovation Unit last February, set a target of generating 20 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Even if this target is met, with the majority of the UK’s nuclear plants due to be decommissioned by 2020 the greater reliance on electricity generated by wind energy and biomass will not lead to an overall reduction in CO2 emissions, said Fells. ‘All we will have done, at a tremendous effort and a great deal of expenditure, is replaced the existing nuclear component. We will not have made any step forward in reducing our CO2 emissions, which have been going up for two and a half years. There is not a hope of us meeting our 20 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions by the deadline.’

Indeed, the government’s own chief scientific adviser, Prof David King, a former opponent of nuclear power, said recently that while the renewables target was excellent, if the UK is to reduce its CO2 emissions it will still need to rely on nuclear power.

Many are even questioning whether the government’s 20 per cent renewables target is feasible. When proposing it, the government underestimated the basic problem with all renewable sources: they are intermittent. The Energy Review proposes installing 22,000MW of wind-turbine capacity by 2020, but using Met Office wind records the RAE has calculated that an output of less than 7,000MW is more likely in reality.

Wind power is unreliable and is not available for substantial parts of the year, said David White, an energy consultant who has written a report on the future of UK energy generation for the Institution of Chemical Engineers. ‘The best you are likely to get out of wind power is 30 per cent of its capacity, and you cannot run 60 million people’s electricity supplies if there are going to be extended outages.’

These power outages could last up to three days during periods of anti-cyclone, which often occur in January and February when the temperature is at its lowest and demand for electricity at its highest, and can cover the entire country. So to ensure a constant supply the UK would have to retain 16-19,000MW of conventional coal or gas-fired power-generating capacity, adding an extra £1bn to the cost and meaning renewable energy sources cannot be regarded as truly CO2-free.

Of even greater concern, according to White, is that the government’s 20 per cent target refers to the proportion of total terawatt hours generated within the UK, not 20 per cent of the installed capacity. ‘So with a 30 per cent availability it probably means putting in four times as many wind turbines as you really need just to meet the target, and that is very expensive.’

Upgrading the national grid to cope with the introduction of renewable-energy generators is likely to add another very significant cost. The grid system was designed to transfer power from a small number of large power stations to the centres of demand. But the increasing use of renewable sources would mean power is generated at a large number of small sites, often remote from the demand centres.

As a result, extensive new cables would need to be installed to transmit power from the Scottish coast to areas such as London and Birmingham, and the Institution of Electrical Engineers argues that grid security can be guaranteed only if wind power is limited to a relatively low level. Many believe a renewables target of 10 per cent would be far more realistic.

According to Greenpeace the cost of installing 30GW of wind power by 2020 would be around £30bn, or roughly £1bn per 1,000MW. To replace the UK’s existing nuclear capacity we would need 12 new AP1000 reactors or their equivalent (see sidebar), each generating 1,000MW. The total cost would be about £7bn, which works out at £580m per 1,000MW, or half the price of wind power installation.

The cost of decommissioning reactors is used as an argument against nuclear power. Although decommissioning will always be expensive, future technologies are set to make the process more efficient.

So with the loss of most of the UK’s nuclear capacity in 20 years’ time, and the government’s renewables target looking at best like wishful thinking and at worst likely to bring about serious electricity shortages, the country will have to rely increasingly on natural gas to meet its needs.

But the UK is not alone in attempting to reduce its CO2, SOx and NOx emissions. All the other EU member states are doing the same, while the 10 countries waiting to be admitted to the EU will also have to start doing so shortly. So demand for natural gas will increase significantly, as will prices, said White. ‘The price of gas has already flipped in the past two winters during peak demand, and the EU is rapidly realising it has to import considerably more to meet the rapid growth in demand.’

To meet this demand the UK and the rest of the EU will become more and more dependent on gas imports from volatile states such as those in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Africa.

The UK would be at the end of any European gas grid, and as the distances from these reserves are so great the cost of installing new pipelines, liquified natural gas facilities, storage and other infrastructure is likely to be very high. New pipelines under the North Sea will also be needed to supplement UK demand.

Estimates suggest this could cost the government up to £13bn by 2020, while some argue it will double the price of gas. The government’s Energy Review claims a fully liberalised European gas market would help to keep prices low, but this has again led to accusations of wishful thinking as a handful of powerful companies, including Eon, RWE and Electricité de France (EDF), are already gaining a very dominant position over the European market. ‘It would be dangerous to move to 100 per cent gas in the present situation, and it would be extremely risky if not negligent to go for renewables at the levels they are talking about,’ said White.

Instead, the government must recognise the benefits of nuclear power if it is to meet its CO2 reduction targets, he said. ‘There is no technology that the government could possibly put together in the timeframe available to replace all of that nuclear capacity by 2020 and still meet its CO2 targets, without replacing it with new nuclear.’

British Energy already has an agreement with BNFL and Atomic Energy of Canada to examine the replacement of the UK’s existing nuclear capacity, and consider the issues surrounding new plant build, such as licensing, siting and the economics of operation. The study concerns the possibility of building the new AP1000 reactor, designed by BNFL’s US-based subsidiary Westinghouse, and is due to be completed within the next few weeks.

But the nuclear industry needs government support if it is to develop a commercially viable replacement programme, said Paddy Tipping, Labour MP for Sherwood and chairman of the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies. ‘We have got to keep nuclear power as part of our energy portfolio, but without some kind of policy framework and set of fiscal incentives the private sector is not going to invest in replacing our nuclear capacity.’

Last year’s Energy Review was long on questions and short on answers, while the uncertainty surrounding even the publication date of this year’s white paper reveals the lack of a clear energy policy within the government, said Tipping. But a final decision must be made over the future for nuclear power in the UK if the country is to avoid electricity shortages and a dangerous overdependence on imported gas, he warned: ‘It is inconceivable that the government cannot devise an energy framework that includes nuclear power.’

Sidebar: The alternatives chosen by different nations

Japan and Finland are the only countries in the developed world that are in the process of building new nuclear power stations. The perceived merits of gas power stations, such as efficient burn and low emissions, are persuading governments to end the use of atomic energy.

Meanwhile, India, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, Romania, Slovakia, Russia, China and the Czech Republic all have reactors under construction.

In all 33 reactors are under construction which will boost the total number of plants worldwide to 471. But by 2020 nuclear’s share of the total global electricity-generating capacity is expected to fall from 16 to 12 per cent. Renewable energy such as wind, wave and solar power is seen as the means of meeting targets for reducing carbon emissions.

In Europe, while Germany and other countries plan to close all their reactors, Finland is building its fifth reactor to ensure future low carbon emissions. The French will have a surplus nuclear-generating capacity for years to come. Ironically this allows France to export power to the UK and other European countries that are cutting back on nuclear capacity.

It is also conducting research into new fission technologies, but as its power stations will last 40 years it is holding off on decisions to build anew.

Japan is an enthusiastic builder of new nuclear plants. Its goal is to increase nuclear’s share of energy production to over 40 per cent by 2010 and to build 20 new reactors by 2020. Its government is convinced nuclear is environmentally sound and it already operates over 50 reactors, almost all water cooled.

In its latest submission to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency Japan states that it needs ‘nuclear energy to achieve a stable energy supply and to minimise environmental effects’.

Sidebar:Power plant technology

Nuclear reactor technology comes in many different forms but after decades of experience, simplified, quick-build designs are likely to be the most widely used in the future.

Since the government energy monopolies were abolished, market competitiveness has been the most important factor in driving new reactor design. Nuclear engineers are now focusing on reducing the complexity of the nuclear power station, to make it faster to build and cheaper to maintain.

This future simplified power station is likely to be the pressurised water-cooled type. Both the Republic of Korea and Japan, the nations that are due to run the most extensive new-build programmes over the next 10 years, have chosen pressurised water systems.

The PWR uses an indirect or secondary cycle method whereby heat from the reactor heats water, which in turn heats another body of water, turning it to steam to drive a turbine. Neither water supply comes into contact with the other, ensuring that the radioactive water’s circulation is limited.

This is said to make the PWR safer than its counterpart, the boiling water reactor. This operates a single cycle or direct method where the same water that is heated by the reactor becomes steam and drives the turbine.

But despite PWRs international popularity it was not always the first choice for the UK. In the 1960s the government had a choice between a US-built PWR or a UK-designed gas-cooled system, the AGR. For political reasons the gas-cooled reactor was chosen. Built at Dungeness, the project was a disaster as it took 15 years to complete and went way over budget.

The only reactor to be built on budget and on time in the UK was the Sizewell B, a pressurised-water reactor. That took six years to construct.

Today reactors on the market offer even quicker build times. Atomic energy plant manufacturer Westinghouse claims its PWR, the Advanced Passive 1000 system can be built in three years. This uses modular construction with 50 large prefabricated sections and 250 smaller ones being built at a factory and transported to the prepared site.

This decision to offer modular, rapidly-built, reactor plants is to ensure that atomic power operators can provide electricity as fast as possible. This strategy is a direct response to the privatisation and deregulation of electricity markets.