Past, present and future: tough questions for nuclear

News editor

The legacy of past and current nuclear fission technologies, funding for new reactors, and the continuing development of nuclear fusion are all under scrutiny this week.

Its been an interesting week for the nuclear industry.

On one hand, Cumbria County Council effectively halted progress on assessing the feasibility of West Cumbria as the site for a nuclear waste repository.

The council’s cabinet agreed instead that the government should be encouraged to invest in existing surface storage facilities at Sellafield, which itself has been the subject of much media attention today with the Public Accounts Committee reporting on costs at the site reaching £67.5bn and rising.

The PAC report says deadlines to clean the site have been missed, leaving decommissioning projects over budget.

Eventually a repository will have to be built to house medium-and high-level nuclear material generated mainly by the country’s nuclear power stations, government plans for which can be found here.

Nuclear reactors have so far created thermal energy through a fission reaction but engineers and scientists are working hard to develop fusion reactors that that will provide a secure, low carbon form of baseload energy that won’t create the kind of legacy waste issues the country is currently struggling with.

This Wednesday Napier University hosts Dr Kieran Gibson, deputy director of the York Plasma Institute at York University, who is delivering a talk entitled Nuclear Fusion – within our grasp?

Dr Gibson’s talk, which is free to attend, will take a holistic view of fusion’s progress to date, covering the immediate challenges faced in harnessing fusion energy via magnetically confined plasmas, through to developing fusion in the context of other alternative energy sources.

In November 2012 The Engineer Q&A – a features strand that let’s our readership question engineers working on globally significant projects – focused on the fusion research taking place at ITER in Cadarache, France and the Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham in Oxfordshire.

At the time of publication a member of the ITER team said it was ‘taking time to develop high performance conductors for the central solenoid (the big central magnet (transformer) of the ITER tokamak)’ but added work was ‘progressing well’.

The latest news from the ITER suggests that a ‘technically reliable and economically viable solution’ has been found to the problem, and that designing the conductor with a so-called short twist pitch was key to the breakthrough.

Fusion power is proven but challenges remain in developing a system that can produce continuous electricity at competitive prices.

In our November 2012 feature a member of ITER said, ‘To make fusion energy commercially viable, future fusion reactors will need to produce a positive balance of energy, to harness plasmas for several hours, avoid too expensive materials and, last but not least, find materials that are capable to withstand the enormous heat loads and neutron fluxes that are expected in a fusion power plant (some factors higher than in ITER).’

Electricity from fusion is not likely to enter the grid until at least 2040, so in the interim fission will be instrumental in keeping the lights on, that’s assuming the UK’s proposed fleet of nuclear new build has the confidence of commercial entities willing to back them.

Only this morning Centrica announced that it won’t participate in new build, citing uncertainty about overall project costs and construction schedules.

As part of a deal struck with EDF Energy in 2009 Centrica took an option for a 20 per cent interest in new stations at Hinkley Point and Sizewell.

In a statement issued this morning Centrica’s chief executive Sam Laidlaw said, ‘Since our initial investment, the anticipated project costs in new nuclear have increased and the construction timetable has extended by a number of years.

‘These factors, in particular the lengthening time frame for a return on the capital invested in a project of this scale, have led us to conclude that participation is not right for Centrica and our shareholders.’

The next Engineer Q&A, focusing on the Severn Barrage and tidal energy, will be published in The Engineer’s February digital edition.

Other notable events due to take place include Southern Manufacturing, Cleantech Innovate and BAE Systems Maritime Science and Technology Conference. Details of these and more can be found here.