Nuclear delusions

Extracts from a press release by Hugh Richards, Wales Anti Nuclear Alliance and used by Western Mail 27th August 2007

The High Court judge in Greenpeace's recent successful appeal against the government's 'flawed' energy review, Mr Justice Sullivan pointed out: "there is no point in agreeing the need for nuclear power if you have absolutely no idea how it might be satisfied". It is a technology that has failed to meet past expectations, so let's try to answer those questions.

The government is moving to pre-license standardised designs and streamline planning procedures in order to reduce the lead times for nuclear construction. This however, increases the risk that public confidence in the regulatory process will be lost, and experience suggests that it will not speed up projects. In England , where public inquiries were scrapped for all the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors, an average ten-year construction over-run resulted.

Are the new reactor designs viable?

None of the four 'Generation III' designs submitted to the regulators for pre-licensing assessment in July are proven commercially; they are design concepts without working prototypes to test their safety. A new nuclear programme in Britain would have to start again from scratch. Only one of the new designs is under construction; the European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR), at Olkiluoto in Finland .

•  The 1600MW EPR being sold by AREVA is the largest nuclear reactor in the world. Based on the French N4 reactor its vast size was an attempt to improve its economic competitiveness and shorten construction times. It has been under construction for two years, but is already two years behind schedule and reportedly £1 Billion over-budget.

•  The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, a (1117MW) Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) is unlikely to get a license in the UK because it omits safety features regarded as essential for the PWR at Sizewell B. Its cost cutting design means that it has no secondary containment. Once the largest reactor company in the world, Westinghouse was sold for £1 Billion within the last decade.

•  General Electric have submitted the 1550 MW so called Economic & Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR). As the name suggests, this is an attempt to simplify the boiling water reactor design in order to reduce costs and increase reliability. It has not been built or tested anywhere but is undergoing assessment by the US regulators.

•  Canadian Deuterium-Uranium (Candu) reactors from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd use heavy water (Deuterium) as a moderator to slow down the neutrons. This is effective but very expensive, and has restricted its deployment. AECL have submitted the ACR1000 a 1200 MW Advanced Candu Reactor, which proposes using a high pressure light-water coolant, in order to reduce costs.

Far from having settled designs all four candidates appear to be 'work in progress', having been enlarged to try to achieve 'economies of scale'. The limited resources of the nuclear regulator mean that one of the designs, probably the Canadian ACR1000 which has support only from British Energy and regulatory delays in the US , will be eliminated. The boiling water reactor is also more difficult to assess by a regulator with no experience of this type. This should favour the two PWR's, with the EPR being closer to the Sizewell B benchmark than the AP1000, but the cost of making reactors of any sort terrorist proof may preclude their use.

Are the potential operators 'credible'?

Seven potential operators have 'endorsed' one or more of the reactor designs. Government believes that new nuclear projects will be brought forward on a commercial basis by project sponsors with strong balance sheets, but no attempt has been made to test their financial robustness.

British Energy, bailed out with £5bn of public money in 2002 has the sole experience of operating nuclear reactors in Britain . Of the six foreign operators from Germany , France , Spain and Belgium , five say they want to have a choice of the best available designs. German firms RWE and VatenfalI, and lberdrola from Spain, support all the 'light water' designs, while Belgian Suez and German EoN want to choose between the two PWR's. Support is limited to 'exploring the option of becoming a potential nuclear licensee in the UK .' There are no commitments to assume a financial obligation at a future date.

EdF operates 58 reactors in France , but as the state sponsor of AREVA only endorses the French EPR: 'We remain determined to be a major player.' However, the financial problems emerging in Finland mean that AREVA are highly unlikely to offer such fixed price contracts again.

The latest construction delays at Olkiluoto are due to problems with reinforcing the reactor building to withstand a terrorist attack that uses an aircraft. Since the events of Sept 11th 2001 the protection of the public from radioactivity escaping from a nuclear reactor can no longer be based on the 1 in 70 million chance of a large civil aircraft accidentally hitting such a power plant. As recently as October 2006 Westinghouse were unaware that any secondary containment was required for their AP1000 design, let alone an aircraft proof shield.

Three of the foreign operators have non-nuclear plant in the UK . Scottish Power recently acquired by Iberdrola, npower owned by RWE, and Eon-UK all put great emphasis on renewables in their marketing. Choice puts the consumer in charge.

An opinion poll recently commissioned by the nuclear industry asked if the company that supplies your electricity were to build a nuclear power station somewhere in Britain would this make you more favourable towards them, less favourable or make no difference? The majority (61%) said it would make no difference, but of the rest, two thirds would become less favourable. Any energy company that makes the decision to build nuclear in the UK risks its reputation.

Talking-up the prospects of nuclear power may impress gullible politicians, or allow them to sidestep their carbon reduction responsibilities, but cannot guarantee that a huge investment programme will follow. Energy conservation and renewable forms of energy make poor targets for terrorists and are a more robust and immediate response to global warming than nuclear power stations.


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