Out of the ashes - Nuclear New Build 2011 conference report

Materials World magazine
,
1 Aug 2011
Sizewell nuclear power station on the coast at Sizewell, Suffolk, UK. Image courtesy of Les Powell

Hankering for a ‘nuclear renaissance’ to preserve the UK’s energy reserves, investors, material
engineers and environmentalists swarmed to reinstate a flailing energy sector at Nuclear New Build
2011 in London, UK. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen learns more.

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne’s recent
admission that the UK is still light years
from becoming a world leader in nuclear
energy was a sour ingestion for peers at a July
19 address to the House of Lords Science and
Technology Committee.

The UK operates 23 nuclear reactors across
nine locations, in addition to the Sellafield
processing facility. Pre-2011, however, the
issue of nuclear power has been a slow
burner. While the economics behind nuclear
are competitive compared with coal-oil-and
gas-fired plants, a mixture of stigma and
low investment in technology and R&D from
previous decades has stalled any sizeable
outcomes. Nuclear incidents such as
Fukishima have also left governments
unsettled on the matter.

Now with members of the UK Government
pushing for a ‘broader energy portfolio’ to
alleviate reliance on any one energy source
and minimise financial risks of low return in
high nuclear investment, it seemed a full
throttle approach could still be some way off.
Furthermore, while Huhne’s electricity market
reform paper sounds promising, his assertion
that the UK could be a leader in carbon
capture and storage technology may suggest
a renewed, yet still cautious, view on nuclear.
The Nuclear New Build conference held on
5-6 July in London, UK, was an earnest
attempt to overturn this and restore the sector.

Nuclear ambition

‘Nuclear is vital for our energy security. We
don’t want to see one nuclear reactor built, we
want to see a fleet by 2050... having a role
alongside renewables. We want a message
around the world that the UK is open for
business for new nuclear investment,’ said
Minister for Energy and Climate Change,
Charles Hendry. For that to happen, investors
and the public will need clarity, he added.

‘It is now 16 years since the last nuclear plant
was built in the UK [at Sizewell B]. Over the next
decade up to £110bln is needed to replace old
nuclear and coal fired power stations and
upgrade the grid. That’s twice the rate of investment
of the last decade. The equivalent of 20
new power stations is needed,’ Hendry declared.

To meet this, he called for the
establishment of the Nuclear Advanced
Manufacturing Research Centre and highlighted
the need for more apprenticeship schemes
in the sector to encourage academic excellence
in the area as now shown by Imperial
College London, University of Manchester and
the University of Birmingham, UK.

Post-Fukishima, he noted top priorities
were nuclear regulatory transparency, finalising
decommissioning waste management of
plants and strategies for long-term disposal.
He added that prevention methods, assessments
and renewed safety goals should be
implemented as a result of the interim
Weightman Report, which was presented at
the event.

Lessons from Fukishima

Mike Weightman’s document largely
confirmed that the direct causes of
Fukishima-1, a magnitude nine earthquake,
and an associated 14m high tsunami are far
removed and beyond the most extreme
natural events that the UK could ever
experience, but stated the nuclear industry
would do well to assess Japan’s response.

The UK’s nuclear power industry has a
strong safety record partly due to it’s minimal
output. As a result, initial conclusions found
no gaps in safety assessment principles
for nuclear facilities or any weakness in the
UK’s licensing and siting policy. Two
relevant aspects that were drawn from
Fukishima were the location of sites in areas
subject to onerous natural hazards, and
the ability to take on precautionary
measures such as evacuation. Now, reactors
considered for the UK willl be designed to
avoid any one reactor having adverse consequences
on a neighbouring unit. Weightman
argues that multi-reactor sites providing they
are in line with ALARP principles, are feasibly
safe, and that there is no need for the UK to
depart from multiplant sites.

‘The cores of Magnox and AGR operating
in the UK have larger thermal capacities and
lower power densities than the Boiling Water
Reactors at Fukishima. They therefore have
longer timescales on loss of cooling before the
operator of automatic systems have to react
to stop the fuel overheating dangerously.’ In
addition, ‘Hydrogen is not generated due to
fuel cladding/water interactions if the fuel
overheats during loss of cooling accidents’.

Additional recommendations from
Weightman’s interim paper included off-site
infastructure resilience, spent fuel strategies,
site and plant layout, fuel pond design and
seismic resilience. Areas for further review and
research included the availabilty of off/on-site
electricity supplies in light of severe hazard
conditions. Further work still has to be done with the National Grid to establish
robustness and potential unavailability of
electrical supplies. A review of coolant
supplies such as the enhancement of pondwater
was also advised. Weightman also
called on industry to review site and plant
layout in view of severe flooding so that
access to supply and controls were kept clear.

However, Mark Hodgson of the Office for
Nuclear Development, noted that elementary
barriers to nuclear power still exist, namely
planning, licensing the reactor design and regulatory
requirements.

Safety in preparation

Activating the more sober issue of environmental
responsibility, Professor Robert
Pickard, Chairman of the Committee on
Radioactive Waste Management, talked
attendees through the recycling of atomic
nuclei, ecological systems and the
questionable intelligence of mankind, allowing
the uncomfortable musings of Philip K. Dick
to transpire.

‘The waste we produce is no good for any
species to live on. We pour dioxins, PCBs and
brominated flame retardants into rivers.
We dump heavy metals like methyl mercury
into the sea and we generate radioactive
waste. Any biologist will tell you that the
more energy you generate through
manufacture and processing, the more
pollutants you create. In the next 50 years we
will be able to turn the screw one more time
with nuclear new build, but after 2050 we
will have to think very carefully,’ warned
Pickard.

‘We are at the cusp of making a true
balance point between the energy we use and
the health of the environment,’ he continued.
‘To maintain public confidence and in the
public interest, it must be very evident in
the new build programme, that we will apply
the best science and technology to
radioactive waste’.

Pickard pointed out that while radioactive
waste is a concern, ‘it is a lot better than metal
disposal poisoning as it does at least diminish
in time which is not true of other wastes from
industrial processes.’ Following this, he urged
both industry and the public to base their
assumptions on fact either for and against
nuclear.

Candidly he asked, ‘Do we have a solution
for the mass dispoal of radioactive waste? No.
Do we have a policy that could lead to a
solution, the answer is yes. Is the
Governement providing adequate support
and resources for this policy? Yes. And is the
incrementation of a radioactive waste
management programme progressing to
satisfaction? Surprisingly, yes’.

More work will need to be done for an
underground research facility. Another study
priority will be in situ investigations into host
rock and stainless steel cannisters for waste
disposal. High level waste will generate heat,
and with that there will be a need for a greater
volume of geological host material for
intermediate level waste, noted Pickard.

‘It is the geology itself that is the major
barrier to the release of radio nuclei. An area
of study will need to be the understanding of
the microbial ecological system within a
geological system, as we may introduce bacteria
and fungi in the construction phase of
nuclear new build. This will ultimately help us
understand the effect on containment vessels
and [improve] our civil engineering.

Quoting Shakespeare, he concluded,
‘“There is nothing either good or bad but
thinking makes it so”. I do believe we can
build a suitable deposit if we only choose to
make it so’.