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Dame Sue Ion FREng FRS
4th June 2019, Institution of Civil Engineers

Dame Sue is Honorary President of the UK National Skills Academy for Nuclear. She was Chairman of the UK Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) until March 2017. She is the Chair of the Science Advisory Board for the Canadian National Nuclear Laboratory and a Member of the US Dept of Energy Nuclear Advisory Committee. Dr Ion spent 27 years with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd rising to the position of Chief Technology Officer in 1992, a post she held until the Company was wound up in 2006. She has been a member of the UK Nuclear Regulator’s Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) Technical Advisory Panel since September 2014. She is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Fellow of the Royal Society and Foreign Member of the US National Academy of Engineering.

Background to Discussion

We can do without nuclear energy, can’t we? With the significant advances made in renewable technology and the Government’s commitment to these technologies surely nuclear energy can be consigned to the 20th century? The talk and subsequent discussion will show just how important nuclear energy is for sustaining a 21st century industrialised, economy, providing secure supplies of energy in an era of geopolitical uncertainty, delivering reliable low carbon electricity and providing significant numbers of high technology, high paying jobs. It will compare and contrast the various forms of low carbon energy and bring some engineering reality into the debate. It will also challenge the Net Zero target recently proposed by the Committee on Climate Change. Evidence rather than perceptions and myths are what should be driving the decisions we make as a nation. As engineers we should be doing more to ‘make this so’.

Dame Sue Ion's Introduction

My starting point this evening for our discussion is the need for engineering reality and the fact that as engineers we have a duty to make sure that this prevails and that myths, legends and fake news do not.

I should also emphasise that the views I am about to express are mine and mine alone. They might be a bit too controversial for anyone else to sign up to!

Arguably over the past two decades we have had lots of good intent and aspiration in evolving policy for the energy sector:

  • secure

  • low carbon

  • affordable

Very laudable aims but they result in somewhat of a trilemma in how best to deliver them. They are often in conflict when you try to deliver all three at once.

The recent Committee on Climate change report which said a net zero target should be the aim was interpreted by the media as possible. The report actually said a net zero target is not credible unless policy is ramped up significantly. Delivery must progress with greater urgency, 10 years after the original climate change act, there is no serious policy for decarbonising UK heating systems. CCS has not even started in the UK. Afforestation targets are not being delivered. Infrastructure to enable the revolution of electric vehicles is haphazard, ineffective and not addressed as a system issue as far as grid demand and its associated infrastructure is concerned. The Committee on Climate change also said that we won’t even meet the original 80% by 2050 target enshrined in legislation without much more and rapid action.

Being the sad person that I am, I have an app on my phone called Electricity Map. If you haven’t got it you should download it. At any given point in time it allows you to select a European Country and it will tell you what the sources of generated electricity are over a 24 hr period at 30 min intervals.

Even with all the investment that has been made so far in renewable there is no way the combination of wind and solar which are the mainstays of renewable policy can meet our day to day needs. Coal has generally been replaced on the grid by these forms but the solid baseload of 17-20% nuclear and the availability of flexible gas capacity servicing some days over 50% (today it was 55%) of grid demand are what keeps the lights on and industry going together with imports from France Belgium and the Netherlands.

The weekend papers and the news lauded the fact that National Grid had announced the longest spell (2 weeks) of not having to burn coal to keep the lights on. Sources were 39%gas, 20% nuclear, 13.5%wind, 11.8% imported from the interconnectors, biomass 11.8%, solar only 7.1% even with all the sun we’ve had, hydro was 0.6% and pumped storage 0.4%

Right now, nuclear power gives a steady and reliable 17%-20% of electricity needed. Over the next decade the secure baseload of nuclear will retire leaving only Sizewell B and Hinkley Point C, when it starts, as our reliable low carbon electricity. The Committee on Climate Change said that nuclear energy provides essential baseload. Without nuclear when it’s dark and when the wind isn’t blowing gas will be our only means of reliable electricity. But gas these days isn’t all ours, a fair bit is imported. How secure is that....??

How about carbon. Nuclear power IS low carbon at 12g CO2/kwh. Wind is 11g CO2/kwh, so they are pretty similar: solar is nearly 4x worse at 45g CO2/kwh. The much lauded biomass is nearly 20x worse than nuclear. Gas is over 40 times worse.

Back in 2010 the Royal Academy of Engineering undertook a study which took as a given the target of 80% reduction by 2050 and worked out what we would have to build to achieve it. With engineering judgement we determined what the possible maximum amount of each form of renewable energy which could be built from each of the different forms of energy, wind, solar, marine, hydro etc. The study factored in the likely increase in grid demand as the transport sector was electrified and homes were shifted from gas to electricity for space heating.

When you added up the figures even with the maximum delivery of ALL renewable technologies you were still short of around 40GW of power which could only be delivered by fossil with CCS or nuclear power plants.

We needed to have installed 24GW on shore wind we’ve built 13GW, 38GW offshore wind, we’ve built 8GW, 72GW solar we’ve delivered 13GW and of the 23GW of  wave, tidal stream and tidal barrage we’ve delivered none.

So MY CONCLUSION is that there is no way we can meet the target for CO2 and greenhouse gases more generally without a significant proportion of nuclear energy in the mix.

The current policy if you can call it that is that we’d like nuclear in the mix but of course it’s up to the market to deliver and there can’t be any subsidy. So it looks like nuclear is too expensive as the market isn’t moving to deliver them.

Has anybody in Government bothered to analyse properly why?

EVERYBODY knows in the nuclear world you get better economics when you build a fleet of the same design, that the design has been subject to significant modularisation, that you have a construction schedule MUCH shorter than anything achieved for the EPR and that you are able to borrow the money to build with policy certainty at reasonable rates.

None of which currently apply in the UK. We have thrown at us Nuclear is too expensive and wind costs have come down significantly. Too true but that’s because lots have been built between the expensive early contracts and the current ones often quoted. Don’t forget when Hinkley was contracted at £92.50/MWh Hornsea 1 wind farm in the North Sea was contracted at £140/MWh

We had a plan or should I say aspiration as plan implies something more concrete. New NPP on 6 UK sites HPC, SXC, Bradwell, Wlyfa, Oldbury and Moorside. But the current ridiculous policy construct demanded the private sector, aka foreign owned companies or governments, step up to the plate with the up front cash to build the plants.

Worse, it allowed 4 designs to be the basis going forward. French - EdF Areva with some Chinese help at Hinkley and Sizewell; Japanese - Hitachi at Wylfa and Oldbury; Japanese - Toshiba with an American Westinghouse design at Moorside and Chinese - CGN at Bradwell.

So instantaneously had they all gone ahead they were potentially burdening the UK electricity consumer with the First of a Kind in country costs for every single design with limited follow on repeats for only two of them, with ‘THE Industry’ being urged to bring the costs down. How? When you’ve no idea how many you are going to build and when. Currently HPC is the only certain project. Moorside collapsed when Toshiba exited due to difficulties with its US projects and couldn’t sell on due to HMG failure to provide ANY reassurance or modicum of help in the 10’s not 100’s of £M for potential acquirers; Hitachi have paused Wylfa and hence also Oldbury due to Japanese concerns. We await CGN’s intentions with Bradwell and EdF’s with SXC.

One important piece of policy is how you are able to recover your investment

  • Contracts for Difference, like for Hinkley Point with capital borrowed overseas (heavily criticised by Public Accounts Committee and gives false inflated impression of cost)

  • Direct equity position????? Proposed for Wylfa but failed to progress probably because the Japanese Government asked itself why it should be bankrolling the UK’s need for electricity and taking the upfront risk

  • Regulated asset base - maybe but exactly what and when? BREXIT has stalled everything else in the HMG landscape

Apart from policy certainty what constitutes an investible proposition?

  • One with a much lower capital outlay

  • One where you can guarantee fleet build mainly in a factory environment

  • One where the financial risk prior to generation can be mitigated

  • A  competent supply chain capable of mobilising

The real question should be how do we achieve these given the current uncertainties and a spooked supply chain. Originally optimistic and willing to invest, now seriously cautious, fed up of burning cash with no reward and waiting for a guaranteed project to proceed. Even on the longer term stuff – next generation or Small Modular Reactors where HMG apparently did have some cash to invest there’s little or no progress. Delay after delay, assessment after assessment with companies burning their own cash in bidding for what is in reality crumbs, with HMG kicking the can down the road.

Industry needs a means for the financial risk prior to generation to be mitigated.

We need a level playing field where system and lifetime costs are considered when assessing one low carbon technology cost over another.

The idea you have to be cheaper than the cheapest is a false premise. We need guaranteed supplies of electricity 24/7/365 preferable low carbon. That’s what a fleet of NPP will give you for at least 60+years. Nuclear Power easily meets 2 of the Trilemma: low carbon and secure. It can also meet the affordability challenge if given the opportunity for fleet build and if the system cost of electricity is the unit of cost not just cost at point of generation.

Both wind and solar are hugely variable - from close to zero to sometimes combined in the high 20’s%. When not there you have to have something reliable on standby and account for this additional cost and carbon

Where is the fact that both wind and solar have lifetimes less than half of that of a nuclear power plant accounted for.

New nuclear power plants will have lifetimes of 60+years most likely 80 so why are we working out the economics on a 20 or 30 year model.

What about land use? We are a small highly populated island. The diameter of a nuclear reactor pressure vessel which holds all the fuel is around 5m for one as big as Hinkley Point. Even with all the containment modules and general construction which surrounds such a station, when finished you could walk around the perimeter in 15 mins. Walney off shore wind farm in the NW, currently the biggest in the world occupies 55 square miles with a nameplate capacity of 659MW and hence an output of less than half that (when the wind is blowing).

Currently the overnight capital costs and construction schedules of large NPP are killing us as a sector but the industry can solve both with fleet build and much greater modularisation already in play on global successful projects.

HMG could and should abandon its ‘hands off: the market will solve everything’ approach. It’s apparently happy to do that for other parts of the energy sector and other sectors when push comes to shove.

It could do this at the GW level or jump a step and go for SMRs or HTRs with greater UK IP and in the case of HTR’s the potential to provide heat as well as electricity. These are not risky prospects they are variants of what has been deployed before.

BUT my plea as is the industry’s more generally is PLEASE HMG DO SOMETHING which will allow one or more projects to succeed. The sector supports 65 thousand high tech high paying jobs. It maintains the UK’s position as a top table nuclear nation. Most of those 10’s of thousands of jobs will vanish within a generation unless something is done to kick start new build properly.

I’m not against renewable technology by the way I happen to think that we need all forms of low carbon technology but I also passionately believe that nuclear energy is the closest thing to true sustainable energy ever gifted to humankind and as engineers we should be doing our utmost to ensure it is part of the UK’s future energy mix.

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