Calculating the real cost of nuclear

Mark Whitby

Has anyone actually done the calculations to establish th sustainable credentials of nuclear power? They should says Mark Whitby.

There was a great meeting recently where, at the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), a nuclear expert promoted the concept of nuclear batteries. Or U-battery to use industry jargon.

A lovely idea where we may scale down a nuclear power plant to the size of a couple of squash courts for a smart city or even smaller for a remote off grid application.

The idea is not altogether new, small nuclear thermal electric batteries have been developed for  lighthouses with some success, most notably during the Soviet era  along their Arctic coast line.

"Mindful of the realities our government has set a price of 9.25p/kWhr for our new nuclear, just four times the estimate made in 2004."

Following glasnost the security around these ice stations became a problem and whilst the Americans and Norwegians attempted to aid in their salvage, it would appear it is not only the copper and lead that is unaccounted for.  Of course we will manage better but should remember these tales when imaging solutions to the worlds power supplies. 

Back in 2004 the RAE published a paper on the cost of generating electricity that estimated the cost of the next generation of nuclear power at 2.26p /kWhr. This was at the time possibly reasonable .

Areva and Siemens had just signed a £2.2bn JV contract  for a new reactor in Finland. The report’s conclusions were to be repeated throughout the next decade and influence our whole energy policy.  Siemens meanwhile bought themselves out of the JV and with costs at now at over £6.5bn, Areva  have recently posted a £3.5bn loss .

Mindful of the realities our government has set a price of 9.25p/kWhr for our new nuclear, just four times the estimate made in 2004.

However this is not all the story, more recent research has begun to seriously question the ‘ low carbon’ claims for nuclear . Published in the Ecologist earlier this year the Ecologist report maintains that much like the ‘ RAE cost estimate’ there has been a tendency for experts  to cite as evidence ‘sources’ which have been replicating in a viral manner the same common unsubstantiated source. 

Each serve to support each other all without justification. Worse still it is the  calculation in the Ecologist that our planned new nuclear  doesn’t even meet the Climate Change Committee’s definition of low carbon nor the requirement that all new energy beyond 2030 should come in below 50 g/kWhr. 

Perhaps this won’t matter for Hinkley Point but with decreasing grades of ores from which the uranium is mined there are even the suggestion that by the end of its life such a plant would be totally unsustainable.

It would help if the experts could at least  do a definitive calculation.

Mark Whitby is a director of WME Consultants and a past president of the ICE



A welcome article highlighting an issue that's been conspicuous by its absence in the last couple of years. With the emphasis on whole life carbon costing for new infrastructure, its about time we saw an up to date whole life carbon foot-print and costs for this type of installation, taking a circular economy approach as far as possible. No decisions should be made by any flavour Government after the May election until they have this type of information.
Perhaps the Climate Change Committee's definition of low carbon is flawed? Perhaps our narrow reductionist thinking is flawed? Consider what happens when a business is informed that mission critical activities are suddenly put at risk because nationally there is insufficient generating capacity because we've closed a series of coal powered stations and not built new nuclear. What do you do as a business leader? The obvious answer is install standby power to make up the shortfall. So across the whole country the risk aportioned generating deficit is closed on a business by business basis. The lost capacity is re-procured, at great cost. The comparatively efficient, centralised system is replaced by myriad decentralised diesel engines. In this relativistic model, clean coal is replaced by dirty diesel. Absolutely: carbon emissions rise and the consumer is effectively subjected to an highly regressive form of taxation. This IS what is happening now. If one is seriously concerned with the environment and sustainability rather than merely complying with legalistic overtures then the question must be addressed holistically and not compartmentally. It is all very well for The Ecologist to raise these concerns and for Mark Whitby to champion them but if new nuclear is delayed any further UK plc will act independently and manage the risk iteself and I promise you sincerely, its answer will significantly exceed 50 g/kw.hr. We had 13 years under Labour to address this issue and begin the risk mitigation process but they did nothing. Now the time has come to act and we cannot afford to procrastinate.
There's an interesting article in the April 2015 edition of 'The Chemical Engineer' on the environmental credentials of nuclear fission processes for electricity generation. It concludes that - compared with several methods - the latest reactors most closely resemble wind turbine power for impact.