The government hopes that nuclear power might gain more public acceptance via its much hyped consultation exercise yesterday with a “panel” of 1,100 citizens simultaneously across 9 cities in the UK. The need to bridge our looming energy gap is urgent but nuclear power has a chequered past. What can we learn from Shoreham?
There is indeed a nuclear power station at Shoreham but the one near New York, not the one “by sea” along the coast from Brighton. It was built in 1973 and tested but never generated any electricity because strong local opposition from residents, supported by county and state officials, prevented it from ever getting an operating licence. It was decommissioned 21 years later without ever having lit a single light bulb but having cost $6bn to build.
|The ill fated nuclear power station at Shoreham near New York|
The near disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979, when a nuclear reactor nearly went into meltdown, didn’t help to reassure the Shoreham locals that a nuclear power station was a good neighbour.
By the time the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, Shoreham Power Station was definitely never going to spark to life.
However, manufacturers of nuclear power stations (and there aren’t that many) such as AREVA (France), GE & Westinghouse (America) and Toshiba & Babcock-Hitachi (Japan) insist that modern designs are simpler and safer which means they are also easier to operate and regulate.
For operators a big problem with early reactors was the amount of time they needed to be offline for maintenance. In the 1970s “downtime” accounted for 50% of the average nuclear reactors working life in America. In 2006 it accounted for 10%.
This means that modern nuclear power stations, once built and operating, can produce large quantities of electricity with little interruption cheaply and with scope for large profit margins. This helps to defray the enormous costs of construction, which although less than the 1970s are still more than coal or gas fired utilities.
There are still doubts about the cost/benefit of nuclear, not helped by the fact that AREVAs new plant being built in Finland is two years behind schedule and well over budget. It is hardly surprising that banks are not prepared to lend money to build new reactors without some extra guarantees and subsidies from the government. This is a situation that could get worse if the current credit crunch caused by turmoil on the financial markets continues. In America, to speed up the planning process, federal government has identified sites that it deems appropriate for such facilities so that power companies can prepare applications with more confidence of consent. Unsurprisingly the most popular sites are next to existing facilities, which is likely to be the case in the UK as well.
The American model of government subsidy even goes as far as limiting the liability of operators to a maximum $10bn in the event of a nuclear accident.
Of course one of the major issues that the nuclear industry has to face is the disposal of the nuclear waste, which will need to be sequestered for hundreds of thousands of years. The universally preferred location in the industry is deep underground but currently it is stored in artificial surface ponds and sealed containers in a variety of locations but a more permanent solution will be essential if nuclear power plants are to enjoy an expansion.
The pro-nuclear lobby urges politicians not to get hung up on the disposal problem insisting that technology and advances in science will come up with an answer and we have plenty of time to work on one.
The renaissance of the nuclear industry in America and the increasing global demand for more energy without the concomitant greenhouse gasses is likely to be an increasingly attractive proposition to governments across the western world.
And what about our own Shoreham power station? Is it ever likely to go nuclear? Click on the link below for more information.
Nuclear Power Station at Shoreham Harbour
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