To opponents of nuclear power, Hinkley Point C must seem to be a gift that just keeps on giving.
Delay after delay, budget overrun after budget overrun, this project has turned from being the bright future of nuclear power to embodying most of the things that its opponents claim it to be.
It is now time that the Government pulls the plug on the project and return to the drawing board. A new nuclear approach is needed, an approach that not only plays to the UK’s strengths, but also allows us to address the nuclear legacy in a sustainable manner.
As the realities of climate change become increasingly apparent, the need for challenging the status quo has never been more important.
The significance of last year’s announcement by then Environment Secretary Amber Rudd of the UK’s phase-out of coal by 2025 should not be underestimated. Hinkley Point C was to play an important role in the new energy mix.
The European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is proposed for Hinkley, however, was not even state-of-the-art when the project was originally proposed. It was simply a dogmatic choice, symptomatic for an industry that lost its confidence and more worryingly, its innovative spark.
The role that pressurised water reactors can play is diminishing, and rightfully so. They were never meant to be the final design for nuclear power, but rather a step in the right direction. The designers of the EPR suffer from the faulty notion that more security is always better, very commonly found within the industry.
No one is arguing that we should neglect safety aspects of nuclear power, however, the mindset of ‘the more independent safety systems, the better’ creates a two-headed dragon that causes immense damage to the nuclear cause.
Firstly, in more practical terms this mentality inevitably increases the costs of the reactors themselves, making them less palatable to private firms and the taxpayer alike. Secondly, and more worryingly, it reinforces the grave public misconception of radiation overall.
Whilst the industry tries to send a message of safety and that safety is top priority (over even electricity generation), it misfires as these actions create a disturbing set of questions: either radiation is considerably more dangerous than anyone cares to admit, or these firms are effectively wasting a lot of money building these redundant safety systems.
Research has shown that no one is likely to ever die due to the accident at Three Mile Island or Fukushima and the fatalities from Chernobyl are too small to be statistically significant. This is very different from the scaremongering from the anti-nuclear movement, which claims that hundreds of thousands will die in these accidents, without any grounding in scientific research.
The following analogy sums up the absurd state of affairs we find ourselves in: you would never compare the first mobile phone with a modern smartphone and say they are the same, so why would you with nuclear power?
Only one conclusion can reasonably be drawn from the Hinkley Point C debacle – it is time to admit defeat and pull the plug. The EPR is not fit for purpose and represents the worst of an industry, gripped by the misconceptions its enemies are nurturing.
This ‘defeat’, however, could also provide the Government and the industry an exciting opening; an opportunity to challenge the status quo and for the UK to return to the forefront of nuclear power development.
The vast majority of the current global nuclear reactor fleet, including the UK’s, are relics from a past age. Whilst modern, conventional, reactors have managed to achieve modest fuel efficiencies these can hardly be regarded as sustainable.
Uranium is an incredibly energy dense substance, containing more than 1.5 million times more energy per kilogram than Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). However, with our current reactor technology we only utilise some of the available energy.
After the fuel has been used in the reactors it becomes reclassified as ‘waste’, although it still contains vast amounts of energy. This waste will subsequently be prepared for geological depositories. This is not only an incredible waste of resources but also neglecting future generations by failing to reduce the radiation levels with existing technology.
The answer is a break with the status quo. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) concept was designed to bear in mind potential problems such as waste and fuel management whilst ensuring a safe energy supply.
Such is the scientific sophistication of modern reactors, including IFRs, that they are becoming as safe as it is possible to make them, notwithstanding human error.
The IFRs are able not only to unlock the full energy potential of uranium but also use the transuranic waste from conventional nuclear power plants. This addresses the waste management issues in a sustainable manner, whilst providing even more energy.
These ‘fast’ reactors are not a new concept, and we have accumulated over 300 reactor years-worth of experience. GE-Hitachi’s PRISM reactor is merely one of many projects that seek to commercialise the fast reactor technology.
It is therefore high time we challenge the status quo. The deployment of IFRs and other Generation IV reactor concepts should be considered as a matter of urgency, coupled with already commercial reactors such as Westinghouse’s AP1000 – reactors which well could be used in a new Hinkley deal.
Looking further ahead, Britain is a world-leading pioneer in nuclear fusion research. In the post-Brexit reality that we now find ourselves, it is important that we ensure our continuous support for this so that we one day can create a ‘sun’ on Earth.
The Government should dare to drop the failure that is Hinkley Point C and adopt a truly visionary nuclear power policy for Britain. Advance, Nuclear Britannia!
This article was originally posted on ConservativeHome on September 10th 2016. It has been republished here with permission of the author.