A high-stakes game of chance is being played at Hunterston B nuclear power station on the west coast of Scotland. Engineers from the French giant EDF and safety experts from the Office for Nuclear Regulation are trying to work out if and when the plant’s two reactors can be restarted. Forty-four years of hard use have not been kind to the plant’s graphite core — a vast chunk of carbon riddled with cracks that weighs the same as 110 double-decker buses. While the regulator and EDF insist that, with careful supervision, a cracked graphite core is nothing to worry about, it is a symptom of its advancing years. Hunterston, like the rest of EDF’s nuclear power stations around the UK, is on borrowed time. Seven nuclear stations capable of supplying about a sixth of the UK’s power needs will shut during the next decade. Unless ministers leap into action, the country that opened the first industrial-scale nuclear power station in 1956 at Calder Hall, Cumbria, will be left with just one replacement plant, Hinkley Point C on the Somerset coast, which is under construction. The government faces difficult decisions: what next in its race to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050? A boom in renewable power has offered the beguiling prospect that wind and solar, combined with storage such as big batteries and hydrogen, could fill the void. A report from the National Infrastructure Commission has suggested that commercially unproven technologies, such as hydrogen generation, could negate the need for more nuclear power and be “substantially cheaper”. With half an eye on this utopian future, successive governments have tried to persuade European power giants such as Germany’s RWE and Eon, and Japan’s Toshiba and Hitachi, to pump cash into new reactors. However, one by one, those companies have dropped out, leaving just a handful of options remaining. EDF and China General Nuclear (CGN) — both backed by their governments — are building the £22bn Hinkley plant. Without a state support package, EDF will struggle to build the planned Sizewell C in Suffolk. That would leave CGN as the only developer capable of going it alone without UK taxpayer support. Fiona Reilly, a non-executive director at the Nuclear Industry Association, said: “The total system costs need to be considered when looking at the price of electricity. A ‘point in time’ strike price does not provide that.” She said offshore wind turbines will need to be located in deeper waters as shallow sites fill up, meaning costlier floating platforms. Nor are batteries likely to prove the answer. The largest lithium-ion battery on the planet, Elon Musk’s 100MW beast in Australia, can power Adelaide, a city of 1.3 million people — but only for minutes. There are signs that ministers may finally be about to act. The prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings is thought to be a fan of small nuclear power stations, and Boris Johnson hinted about a role for nuclear last week. “You won’t get remotely close to big ‘net zero’ by 2050 without big nuclear power,” said a senior industry adviser. “We are at a crossroads. This is the last chance saloon.” Taxpayers are about to find out whether billions of pounds will be pumped into nuclear power. Yet the cost of doing nothing may prove to be even bigger.
Times 5th July 2020 read more »