Thoughts on the eternal headache that is nuclear power – Part 6 of 6: The US & the UK

Despite my previous bitching, the nuclear industry does have a track record of delivering low-carbon electricity, at a scale so far unmatched by renewables. Given that climate change is going to hurt, given the absolute imperatives for rich nations to cut their carbon emissions by 80%, then any source of low-carbon electricity is needed. So despite my concerns, there still needs to be an ongoing discussion of whether nuclear power can help us. So, here’s where we have to get away from abstract arguments and talk about what nuclear options we do have, how much of a difference to emissions nuclear power can make, and at what cost.

I’ve raised abstract arguments against a resurgence of the nuclear power industry at a global level, but this industry is not global, it is fundamentally set of national industries. (How the industry got like that is a fascinating tale, for another day, but mostly it’s down to individual nations wanting to have their own capacity to make their own bombs.) Which nations are we talking about, and how well do I expect those industries to progress? We’ve seen today the Italians vote 95% in favour of rejecting nuclear power (although that 95% is also driven by Italians rejecting water privatisation and Italians rejecting Berlusconi).

We’ve also seen the Germans turn away from nuclear power, possibly after a long hard look at just how far over budget the new European generation III reactor has run. Then again, China is wanting to get from thirteen reactors to a hundred reactors by 2020 (or they were, before Fukushima). Every nation is different, but I’ll just discuss the US and the UK.

The US – Regulatory capture FTL:
The US leads the world when it comes to regulatory capture. What’s regulatory capture? If you’re in an industry where regulation sets your costs and limits your profits, then it’s entirely rational to try to buy those regulators. (It’s deeply immoral, but that’s beside the point.) The US Minerals Management Service is a classic example of this. The MMS was responsible for ensuring the safety of off-shore oil drilling. Did they maintain a clear distance between themselves and the industry, making sure that US regulations fairly balanced the risk to Americans with the costs to the oil companies? Did they bollocks. The MMS was so far into the hands of the oil companies that MMS staff ended up at brothels with oil companies paying for prostitutes. How effectively regulated was US offshore oil drilling? When BP proposed the Deepwater Horizon rig, their environmental impact assessment listed walrus as a species potentially at risk. There are no walrus in the Gulf of Mexico, BP had simply cut-and-pasted text from their impact assessment for rigs in Alaska. No-one at the MMS picked this up, possibly no-one even read it coz hey, coke and whores!

And then the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, killing eleven workers and resulting in one of the largest oil spills in history. The accident happened due to the weak regulation, because the regulators had been bought. Result for the MMS? The director resigned, it was renamed and thoroughly reorganised. Whether that will make a real difference remains to be seen.

Another classic example of regulatory capture is the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Even the US president and vice-president admit that it has been captured by the industry, rubber stamping approvals, and responding to flagrant safety breaches with a damp slap on the wrist at best. It’s not been quite so scandalous as the MMS, but there’s a reason why the writers of the Simpsons had Homer working in a nuclear plant, it’s that “The NRC has consistently put industry profits above public safety”.

We know the US can build reactors. That’s not the problem. The problem is whether the US is capable of implementing a regulatory system that can keep a nuclear industry safe and honest about risks and costs. Can that system avoid industry capture and cozy relationships between the regulators and the regulated? If so, then the US can get on with replacing coal with nuclear power, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If they can build them fast enough, then the US can rapidly grow electric vehicles, import less oil, and untangle themselves from the mess that is the Middle East. Sadly, so far, it seems that the US cannot regulate the nuclear industry.

What to do about that? I’d agree with what Charlie Stross has to say on this matter: “It’s glaringly obvious how you operate nuclear reactors safely! You make safety, not profitability, the primary operational goal. However, doing this requires that the entity that owns the plant is (a) not a profit-seeking entity (i.e. not a corporation) and (b) that the operator has a sufficiently deep pocket to cover all the possible externalities. Which means, basically, a government.” Sadly, that approach isn’t acceptable to the US, which means that the US, if it builds more reactors, will continue to put us all at risk of entirely-avoidable disasters.

Will the US build more nuclear plants? Hell no. They’re going to keep on burning coal until renewables make the nuclear question irrelevant, at which point the climate may be entirely screwed.

The UK – backed into a corner
The UK has ignored the nuclear question for too many decades and managed to back itself into a corner, when it comes to electricity. None of the available options look good.

Going hard out on efficiency should be a given, as this makes all of these questions easier. It doesn’t make them go away, coz even with a stronger push for efficiency, the power has to come from somewhere and Britain needs to retire its current fleet of reactors, potentially leaving the UK with only 80% of the generating capacity needed.

Britain’s choices come down to three options: more gas, new nukes, or new renewables. None of these are exclusive, the answer may come down to a bit of all three. However, every option is bad.

More gas means buying that gas from Russia. This means trusting that Russia won’t turn the taps off in the middle of winter, as they did to the Ukraine. In all honesty, this is equivalent to bending over a barrel and handing the Russians an unlubricated chainsaw. It also means more greenhouse gas emissions and breaking all the promises that Britain has made about dealing with climate change.

More renewables will be pricey in the short to medium term. This route needs a strong price on carbon to be viable – basically a state subsidy. It means building much more wind now, and planning to build more marine power in the next few decades. This runs up against two linked problems – the BANANAs and the grid. BANANA stands for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, it’s NIMBYism with bells on and Britain being a crowded place, getting agreement for anything to be built turns out to be a bit of a mission. The grid? Well, renewables are variable and the solution to that is to have many kinds of renewables, spread across the nation, so that enough power is always available. Much of the renewable generating capacity is in Scotland, which means great big cables running across some of the last undeveloped areas in Britain. You’d want fatter cables linking Britain to the continent so electricity can be moved all around Europe from where it’s being generated to where it’s needed. There’s even half-way serious plans for a cable from Iceland to Scotland to bring in all that lovely Icelandic geothermal power. This would need major new transmission lines and pylons across the countryside. Again, this runs right into the British desire for nothing to damage their view.

More nukes also needs a state subsidy to be viable, coz let’s face it, fossil fuels are still cheap, so long as you forget about carbon costs. And we do forget about carbon costs. More nukes means dealing with what’s left of the existing British nuclear industry and the British nuclear industry has been a story of funny accounting, not quite covering up for the huge financial losses and broken promises. The kind of technology that the Brits chose – gas cooled reactors, not water cooled – wasn’t commercially viable, so we’ve no indigenous designs of our own (that’s why we pushed hard to build the world’s reprocessing capability, coz our nuclear industry couldn’t build saleable reactors). Thus we’ll be buying designs from the French or the Americans. The European Pressurised Reactor is built by Areva, Electricité de France and Siemens. Four are under construction in Finland and France, all are more than 50% over budget and behind their build schedule. So the French design is already known to be a dog. The American design is, so far, only being built in China. The American regulations about reactor safety are weak and Chinese building standards are frightening, so can this be considered a trustable design by the Brits? I’d hope not.

So the Brits have no good options. I hope that they’ll chose the renewables option, I expect they’ll build more nukes. If they do, I hope that they are nationalised, I expect that they will be privatised.

Frankly, we can count all of this issue as yet another reason why I’m glad to live in New Zealand.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the eternal headache that is nuclear power – Part 6 of 6: The US & the UK”

  1. BP had simply cut-and-pasted text from their impact assessment for rigs in Alaska.

    I suspect that very few people who write repetitive documentation for a living haven’t been caught out that way at some stage, even without the assistance of hookers and blow.

    1. True, but seriously, it shows they thought that they could take the piss. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, BP had no plan to deal with that kind of leak. The US government shouldn’t ever let a company get itself into that kind of fuckup.

  2. Regardless of the NIMBY’s (I get so bored of people telling me that windmills kill birds) a significant facility for renewables in the UK is going to cost UKP1.8fucktonnes in an economy experiencing ‘significant belt tightening’ to say the least.

    Can England not just buy more coal? It’s cheap in the short term AND buggers up the environment. Sounds great!

    1. Yeah, but the UK is proposing to build eight more reactors at a cost of EUR 15-20 billion, or more, depending upon cost overruns. I could get all Keynesian and say that would be good for the economy, but the trouble is that it’ll mostly be good for the French economy. At least if you send the same on renewables, more of the money will end up staying in the UK.

  3. Firstly, thank you for writing this series, I’ve found it really interesting (and educational!).

    Any chance of hearing what your thoughts are on the problem of waste materials from nuclear reactors? I’ve always considered this the real insurmountable problem when it comes to this type of power generation….

    1. Well, this is engineering, so the question has to be “how insurmountable?” 😉

      High-level waste tends to become a mix of pretty much every element from roughly iron upwards, thus you get really interesting chemistry. Anything that makes gases is a problem, any gases that decay into nasty isotopes is worse (xenon-137, I’m looking at you). Oh, this is all combined with mixing via thermal diffusion coz of the high temperature gradients. And you end up with fun things like ruthenium tetroxide… If you wanted to research all the weird chemistry that happens in spent fuel, then you’d be pretty assured of a job for the next 100,000 years or so.

      But aside from those complications, nuclear waste is a problem that solves itself, if you wait for long enough. You’re going to want to turn the waste into glass and put that glass in a copper flask in a stainless steel container surrounded by bentonite clay deep underground in the driest rocks you can find. We’ve pretty good evidence that it will just sit there and decay away, for a boringly long time. So long-term storage seems feasible.

      The problem with waste is what to do with it in the few years where it’s too hot to store outside a water pool and the few decades where it’s too radioactive just to leave lying around. So you’ll want the spent fuel to be reprocessed or stored underwater in safe and secure pools; moving fuel to dry cask storage and glassification as soon as you can. France reprocesses spent fuel rapidly, Sweden quickly gets it into dry casks and buried it. It seems there’s good engineering routes to dealing with the waste safely.

      However, it’s not just a question of engineering, it’s a question of urgency and care. The US has spent fuel just piling up in pools, pools that are badly secured and overcrowded, with no real plans for dealing with it. Their plans for an underground repository are stalled. It could be worse, the UK stored spent fuel in an open-air pool. Seagulls have crapped in it. They stopped adding fuel to that pool in 1986 but did approximately bugger all about fixing it. In 2004, the European Commission sued the UK for lack of action, the UK is now planning on fixing it by 2019. Or so, give or take, depending on the breaks, coz they don’t even know what’s in that pool.

      So I’d conclude that while engineering solutions exist for this problem, there’s a track record of political problems that seem hard to solve. Until we’ve solved those, it seems a bit daft to push for more nuclear power.

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