The Nuclear Legacy

Chris Huhne gave an interview to the Guardian yesterday evening in which he highlighted just how much it would cost to decommission the UK's nuclear power stations and deal with the cost of containing nuclear waste.

Chris Huhne warns of £4bn black hole in nuclear power budget

     

Britain is facing a £4bn black hole in unavoidable nuclear decommissioning and waste costs, Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change secretary disclosed tonight.

The decommissioning costs over the next four years revealed by officials to Huhne are so serious that he has already flagged the crisis up to the cabinet.

The revelation places an unexpected burden on his department's £3bn annual budget ahead of difficult spending negotiations this summer. "As you can imagine, this is a fairly existential problem. The costs are such that my department is not so much the department of energy and climate change, as the department of nuclear legacy and bits of other things," Huhne told the Guardian.

The additional costs derive from slowly rising expenditure on nuclear decommissioning, and falling income due to the closure of ageing power plants, Huhne said.

Huhne disclosed that in current financial year the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's budget is expected to be in balance. From 2011-12, the deficit suddenly rises to £850m, in 2012-13 the gap increases further to £950m and then to £1.1bn in the two subsequent years.

Guardian, 1 June 2010

The short term issue is relatively simple: that government cuts cannot be made in this area because of the risk to public safety. So we have no choice but to pay for it out of the public purse. But the long term issue is much more serious: these costs are rising because the nuclear industry is no longer earning (or will in the next few years no longer be earning) as much money as the plants reach the end of their useful lives. The cost of nuclear decommissioning was never properly factored into the overall cost equation. Each estimate was essentially just a fudge, and every few years was replaced with a new estimate which was just as likely to be another fudge.

So, for example, the latest figure for decommissioning was revised upwards from £63bn to £73bn only in 2008. But as soon as we get a new government in Westminster, we see that even that budget allocation was inadequate. It was underestimated by more than £1bn per year. As I said in this post the previous government's consultation document on the costs of Funded Decommissioning was based on inadequate estimates that amounted to even less than the revised 2008 figure. This should ring alarm bells for anyone who assumed that nuclear power would be any sort of easy answer to our future energy needs. The sums only "add up" if the costs of decommissioning are not fully taken into account.

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In Wales, we can generate all the electricity we need form renewables, but we can only do that if we invest in renewables. Offshore wind technology is now well proven, but the main source of energy that we now need to invest in is tidal power ... particularly in the form of offshore tidal lagoons.

The irony is that this form of energy investment is an exact mirror image of nuclear. Nuclear is relatively cheap to build and run ... and all the big costs are in decommissioning and taking care of dangerous waste for centuries thereafter. With tidal lagoons all the big costs are in the civil engineering works necessary to create the impoundment ... but after that we get abundant, reliable and cheap electricity for centuries. Nothing dangerous or harmful is produced and nothing has to be cleaned up. Ecological damage is minimal compared with a barrage or shoreline tidal lagoon.

So why don't we do it? Simply because the costs of tidal lagoons are big and upfront; you need to spend all the money before you get any electricity. With nuclear it is easy to fudge the issue because the big costs only kick-in in thirty or forty years time.

The answer is to start small and build from there. And the beauty of this approach—as opposed to one large megaproject—is that high tide varies by several hours around the Welsh coast, giving us the potential to produce round-the-clock electricity. A detached tidal lagoon produces energy on a six-and-a-quarter hour cycle because it generates on both ebb and flow tides; because of silting a barrage can only produce electricity on a twelve-and-a-half hour cycle.

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9 comments:

Ioan said...

So how much energy will renewables produce when the tide is halfway between ebb and flow, on a cloudy, wind-less day?

MH said...

Read the post a few times more, Ioan. The penny will drop ... eventually.

Ioan said...

"..is that high tide varies by several hours around the Welsh coast".

OK, but there is a point in the tide cycle which gives the minimum amount of energy which must supply the whole of Wales if we are to generate all the electricity we need from renewables.

By the way, I hope I'm wrong!

Siônnyn said...

MH - Tidal Electric had a fully costed proposal, for a 50GW lagoon between Seansea and Port Talbot. It was fully validated by WS Atkins, one of the world's most respected civil engineers. The cost of £8Bn was fully covered by private finance, arranged through Rothchilds bank, and the cost of £2Bn decommissioning was to be covered by bonds, from the same source.

THeir plans were very detailed, and designed to have minimal impact on the environment. The impoundments was to consist of a core of silt from local maintenance dredging, with the outer walls consisting of natural stone quarried in remote areas of the Scandinavian coast, and transported directly to the site by barge - obviating the need for road transport almost completely. The only concrete would be used in the construction of the Turbine halls. The low head turbine technology proposed has been mature since the late 1930s. The impoundment technology has been used for even longer. Yet Andrew Davies refused to meet Tidal Electric when he was the responsible minister, saying 'It is too expensive, and uses unproven technology" Jane Davidson said much the same thing when she took over the portfolio.


Tidal Electric spent several years, and many millions of pounds, trying to obtain government approval for the scheme, but hostility from the DTI and the WAG drove them away, and they are now involved in schemes in Canada and China - another wonderful chance for Wales to be in the forefront of renewable technology lost. There are at least 8 other sites around Wales that TE had identified as being suitable for lagoons. One off Conwy would not only have produced reliable power, but also acted as a protection against the sort of tidal surges that caused all the flooding a few years ago.

Tidal lagoons, far from being harmful to wildlife habitat, actually create excellent nesting sites for birds and shelter for fish. The impoundments can be used for fish farming and leisure activities - the RSPB, friend of the earth, and the Green party are all enthusiastic supporters - in contrast to their view of the Severn barrage.

Ioan - depending oh how the lagoons are configured it is possible to guarantee 24 hour production- by having more than one pond within the impoundment one can be draining and producing electricity, while one remains full, and then, during slack (low) tide, this still replete pond can drained , producing electricity. The opposite occurs at slack high tide.

They can also be used as pump storage facilities, storing the energy produced by other sources at low demand periods (eg - wind in the early hours of the morning. The important thing is that they are totally predictable and controllable in their output, which no other form of renewable is. A no brainier as far as I can see it. There is a story of intrigue and skulduggery to be told about why we in Wales did not jump at this opportunity!

Siônnyn said...

Sorry, just read over the above, my figures are wrong - output 50 Mw, and cost £80 Million. OOPS! Sorry.

I forgot to add that the maintenance would be minimal, (annual inspection ), and the construction period would be about 36 months.

MH said...

Thanks, Siônnyn. I don't have much to add except maybe to comment on why the DTI poured cold water over it.

They disputed Tidal Electric's figures, mainly over the construction cost of the impoundment. They applied the same standards as are proposed for the barrage, including putting a road on top. This virtually doubled the construction cost.

I also wondered why there would be a need to decommission (i.e. remove) the impoundment. It would be rather like asking the Victorians to have included for dismantling the bridges, embankments and cuttings of the railway network ... and filling in the tunnels. Unlike nuclear, the impoundment would be a legacy that would do no harm.

In short the civil engineering works for a lagoon are undoubtedly expensive ... but not that expensive.

Siônnyn said...

MH - the report that the DTI commissioned was just a hatchet job - they redesigned the lagoon totally - not for any reasons of standards, but just to make it more expensive. The two engineers commissioned to make the report weren't even qualified in the field - which WS ATKINS undoubtedly are. The road along the impoundment was a ridiculous addition - it was to facilitate maintenance, but the original design specified that all maintenance of the enclosing wall would be done by sea-borne cranes. The road itself would need more maintenance than the structure!

The DTI report specified turbine halls doubled in length, but no justification was given for this. My information is that the Severn Barrage conglomerate lobbied heavily and expensively against the lagoons, apparently successfully.

The question of cost was moot, anyway, as no public money was being requested.

Jane Davidson is said to have become enthused by someone else that has proposed exactly the same scheme, even quoting the Atkins report in support but not involving Tidal Electric. Andrew Davies was even on a panel recently at the Environment Centre in Swansea, with the new developer (I am trying to find his details), and though I was not there (I only found out about it the day after) I understand that he was embarrassed when challenged about his assertions that Tidal Electric were asking for public finding - he was called a liar by tow people who had been involved in making sure that his senior civil servants were fully briefed.

It was pointed out to the developer that both the Atkins report and the IP on the technology were the property of Tidal Electric, and therefore there was no possibility of his progressing in their absence. This silenced him completely, I am told.

You are right about the de-commissioning apart from the Turbines, which can be replaced indefinitely, it amounts to a pile of rocks off shore, which can be re-positioned if shifted by storms or earthquakes. Unlike concrete structures like the Barrage, a lagoon's life can be extended indefinitely as it can be constantly renewed. effectively an

Siônnyn said...

PS By IP I refer to the patents that TE have on using low head turbines for this purpose, along with other innovative aspects of the design. Effectively, for Tidal lagoons, read Tidal Electric!

Ioan said...

Hi Siônnyn,

Are you referring to:
http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sustainable/book/tex/Lagoons.pdf
...most interesting: you can sacrifice some efficiency for continuous electric production.

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