By Kent Barker

The Dungeness nuclear power station was due back online this month (December) after a two-year ‘rest’. In fact the restart has been postponed until at least next February while the company, in its own words ‘remediates’ issues with steam lines and “environmental corrosion”. 

If the news of a planned restart concerns residents along the coast to Hastings, it will likely come as relief to the government which is underpinning its new ‘green industrial revolution’ with nuclear capability. Currently one-fifth of Britain’s electricity is generated by nuclear power stations, yet almost all are reaching the end of their lives. By the early 2030s, six out of seven will have closed – including Dungeness.

PICTURE: Kent Barker

This will make the government’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 extremely hard to achieve. 

Currently 43% of the UK’s electricity comes from fossil fuels and even if the pledge to quadruple offshore wind production in the next decade is met, it will still leave a huge shortfall of non-carbon producing power generation. Part of the problem is that we will use more electricity as gas and oil for home heating are phased out. Compared to 2015 levels, electricity consumption could double by 2050 – to an estimated total of 42,000 terawatt hours – enough to run nearly fourteen trillion electric kettles.

A perfect storm 

Carbon-producing electricity generation has to be phased out. Current nuclear power production is about to decline rapidly, and wind and other renewables can’t increase fast enough to take its place. Meanwhile we need much more power. According to the government’s independent adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, by 2050 around 38 per cent of electricity will need to be ‘firm’ low carbon power – that’s to say not subject to weather variations. And apart from the possibility of retrofitted carbon capture and storage – that means nuclear. That’s right, nuclear generation currently at 20% will have to rise to nearly 40% – just as six out of seven nuclear power stations are set to close.

The British government is touting a solution – Small Modular Reactors. SMRs typically have a fifth or a quarter the output of major installations like Dungeness and are less than a tenth of the size – covering perhaps 35 acres as opposed to 500. SMRs are constructed in factories as modules then assembled onsite. Cooling is by sodium rather than water or gas and they are relatively cheap – an estimated £2.2 billion each compared with the price tag of nearly £20 billion for Hinkley B. Small is said to be not only beautiful, but safe. Meltdown is impossible claim manufacturers like Rolls Royce; if there’s a problem, they simply shut down.

Safety concerns

Critics are less sure. Economic viability requires selling off their excess heat to homes, thus locating them near population centres which, says David Lowry of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, will never be allowed. He also cites civil security as well as terrorism concerns. Plus there is still no solution to the problem of radioactive nuclear waste; and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research points out that some previous SMRs have encountered safety problems including partial meltdowns and sodium fires. 

So it seems that the UK’s carbon zero energy policy is based on somewhat dubious assumptions and that we can expect to see mounting opposition to the concept of modular reactors – especially if they are likely to be located anywhere near our own backyards.

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