Monday 14 March 2011

The New Politics of Nuclear Power

Cards on the table. (1) As readers will know I am strongly opposed to subsidising the building of new nuclear power plants in the UK; (2) I am not any kind of engineer. As such, I very much hope that this sanguine assessment of the situation at Fukushima is correct.

But base-level 'democratic' politics is at best lightly concerned with fact, and it is at least a strong possibility that
as regards new nukes the terms of trade, only recently minted for the benefit of EDF et al, are set to change.

Wind back the clock to 1986 and Chernobyl, a Soviet plant that was hardly representative of worldwide state-of-the-art nuclear technology at the time. Yet, when it blew, the CEO of a then-obscure Texas gas pipeline company (Enron) immediately predicted that no-one would build another nuke in his lifetime. But people still need electricity, he reasoned, and thus correctly foresaw, and triumphantly acted upon the 'dashes for gas' that swept the USA, then the UK, and subsequently went fairly global.

In 2011 the UK, as elsewhere, is on the brink of what could be - or could have been - a mighty nuclear renaissance. After lengthy lobbying by EDF the stock was sold, the press was squared, the middle class was quite prepared - yea, even unto Chris Huhne, against his better judgment.

What happens next ? Obviously we don't even have a definitive outcome at Fukushima, still less a measured analysis. But I'll wager any money you like that at the very least (a) the timetable for any programme of new nukes in Western countries (already slipping badly for reasons inherent to its own dodgy dynamics) has just taken a considerable extension; and (b) that the costs have just gone up significantly**, and the economics correspondingly down. At worst (if you are Areva) the politicians take fright & the shutters go back down for another decade or so.

But the pressing need for more generating capacity still needs to be met. For sure, it will be offset by a steeply rising oil-price. (Japan's need for reconstruction on a gigantic scale will potentially drive up commodities prices still further, as did the Chinese rebuilding after the Sichuan 'quake of 2008). However, just as 25 years ago, the main effect is likely to be yet another round of dash-for-gas. Perhaps high-tech coal will also get a look-in. Even some renewables will become genuinely economic eventually ...

As we've endlessly written, there's plenty of gas around - at the moment. But it will look different after half a decade of 'new dash'. Just as with Enron back in 1986, the race will be to those who make simple (& correct!) judgments on these things and act boldly. Memo to Huhne: this doesn't need subsidy (which we can't afford anyway) but it does need you to turn your politics around, as quickly as possible.


there is the possibility of a counter-intuitive opposite effect, which I'll write about later


James Higham said...

How much of our energy crisis is induced - professional scarcity?

Anonymous said...

Ah, JH could that be the effect of freetrade and the great global economy, what that leads to eg dervatives and such forward buying, Ladbrooks on an Almighty scale, if so, "professional scarcity", not heard before but it sums it up nicely. Induced, yes I think it almost likely thatthe gamblers will be out in force, remember the great copper buying episode of a Japanese company a few years ago, it went bust a the copper price collapsed.

CityUnslicker said...

I have little truck with the idea that it is all the fault ot speculators. Even now every time a company screws up and the share price crashes it is 'speculators'. Indeed the banks blamed short sellers for their death when they were in fact bust.

Not to say speculation has no role on the upside and downside, but fundamentals drive behaviour in the long term.

As to Nuclear, ND is right on economic grounds, it just is not right to subusidise all this development when there is plenty of gas.

However, the old plant at Fukushima is not the same as modern nuclear plants . I do agree the politics will change in the Uk which is going to save taxpayers and annoy the greens!

rwendland said...

ND re your "sanguine assessment" MIT PhD blogger you link to. Just two comments:

a) A lot of MIT PhD's worked on the US NRC Probabalistic Safety Assessments that predicted that there was a one in several million chance of the events just unfolding ever happening.

b) If there is no safety risk, why has the U.S. 7th Fleet "temporarily repositioned its ships and planes away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant", after 17 helicopter crew members came back with radiation on them? They have good nuclear engineers who would know if there was no risk.

Electro-Kevin said...

Doubtless Fukushima will be used as an argument against British nuclear power plants.

Britain is not Japan - open to earthquakes and tsunamis. Nor is it the USSR - closed to scrutiny.

Nick Drew said...

Mr W, I can but hope

as always we struggle to find good analysis: those who know the most are so often up to their eyeballs in vested interests (present company excepted ...)

rwendland said...

On the economics, it would be good if new nuclear building fades out. But a shame if this puts a stop to the safer existing nuclear plant does not get life-extended to a reasonable degree.

However I think all the nuclear plants of the same General Electric Mark I Containment Reactors design as these exploding Japanese units should probably be shut down. The US alone has 23 of them.

They share a characteristic with Chernobyl of not having a continuous concrete containment structure - they are refuelled through a hatch in the top of the concrete containment structure. It looks rather like that hatch was blown off in these explosions, which would not happen in a more modern domed concrete containment structure.

Nick Drew said...

all the nuclear plants of the same design as these exploding Japanese units should probably be shut down

this is exactly the example I always give when advising on how to conduct (financial risk management) stress-testing

rwendland said...

ND I should add the the more recent General Electric BWR Mark II Containment Building follows the same principles as the exploding Mark I version, mainly differing in cost-saving simplifications. There are probably a whole lot more of these about, and they should probably also be closed down - though I suspect a huge well-paid lobby will roll out to stop this.

If you need a consultant to count up how many Mark II prospects for closure there are, you know who to ask :-)

Budgie said...

Shock! Horror! Man who earns living from gas, advocates gas! Well I never!

There isn't a single method (yet?) of electricity generation (ie conversion) that does not pollute, or have grave safety implications. Windmills are by far the most expensive and are completely unreliable (we cannot rely on the wind to blow). Gas and oil come from abroad - which is fine for some of our baseload, but not all. We therefore need coal and nuclear for the bulk of the baseload _for strategic reasons_.

Unless, of course you think 'jonny foreigner' will be kind and thoughtful enough to always send us gas and oil consistently and reliably.

Anonymous said...

US in the case of the banks they became the speculators ie making an investment (gamble) in something they knew little about but thought the odds were good so they had a punt, they made calculated guesses.
Budgie the UK had a system under trial called fluidised bed combustion, a more efficent form of burn coal, of course after ther miners strike the NCB was disbanded and the fluidise bed system was sold to what was W. Germany at the time

Nick Drew said...

water off a duck's back, budgie, it's been over 15 years since I made my living in gas (and I was buying as much as I was selling)

click on the link & you'll see I agree with you about coal

I am as keen as anyone to point out the need for diversification of energy supplies - most specifically including gas imports. As Churchill put it (about oil) "Safety and certainty lie in variety and variety alone"

RichieP said...

You and the commenters seem to have ignored the prospects for shale gas.

Nick Drew said...

Richie - certainly not ! (check here for example)

gas is indeed plentiful, BUT (a) it's all to do with marginal movements, no man is an island etc, see this; and (b) even plentiful gas can be interrupted, (have a look where Qatar is ...)

all I'm saying is diversify

we are a trading nation

(wv = comatomm ...)

Anonymous said...

Need to do more work on Thorium reactors - Thorium is cheaper, waste products have a short half life and, I understand, Thorium is less easy to use for bombs.

Old BE said...

I thought EK's comment was apt.

Nuclear is not import-independent. We get uranium from Australia mainly. There isn't very much uranium on Earth. A statistic I vaguely remember was that if the whole world was to get it's power from nuclear the known sources would run out in about five to ten years. So if we really want a long-term nuclear programme we also want to prevent China and India from getting involved because otherwise we will have achieved precisely nothing. Except of course if we go carbon-free but the Indians and Chinese don't then we will have achieved precisely nothing.

Perhaps geothermal will be the answer, if we can get some of the heat out of the ground maybe tectonic activity will even be slowed!

Old BE said...

Apologies for the rogue apostrophe.

alan said...

ND - I just posted a comment, but its been binned ( bug? over sensitive spam filter?) its the third time its happened in the last couple of weeks. Any clues?

My major questions were. Anyone know the status of coal gasification (or other methods) to get at the huge north sea coal reserves. And any quality end to end EROI studies on nukes renewable etc? How much gas is plenty if it gets used for transportation?

And for nukes are loans better than subsidies? a big problem for nukes is all the costs are front loaded.

Anon - And thorium (Th) fission is in theory safer. Th is a waste product of rate earth mineral extraction.

Anonymous said...

2 points. The first is the UK's power generating capacity is ageing quickly. The second is transmission loss over the grid.

When we have to eventually shut Magnox we will need to bring in load from France as the nearest alternative source. We already do to some extent now.

So the more green we are in the UK, the more power we will bring in from 76% nuclear EDF.

Ironic ini't

Pom said...

If the UK went Nuc free, but France didn't, would ther UK be at any lesser risk?

Budgie said...

Nick Drew said: "... water off a duck's back, budgie ..."? Surely it is water off a Budgie's back? Anyway what do you mean by that phrase?

You do not address the issue I have raised: the strategic necessity of a reliable, always ready, low fuel volume (ie easily stored/hoarded for years) source of electricity for a modern fuel dependent economy.

The only alternative is coal because we have plenty of reserves in the UK. So, as I said, we need both coal and nuclear for the bulk of the baseload.

Gas is good for domestic fuel, for industrial processes and for rapid response additions to the baseload. But, again as I said, gas and oil are dependent on the goodwill of the whole supply chain. And we know that goes wrong - often.

Nick Drew said...

Alan - sorry you've been bounced, no idea why, will look into spam filter

picking off one of your qns -

loans vs subsidy: you pre-suppose (as do many people) that some kind of subvention is required. You may all be right but I point out that N.Sea oil & gas was developed without such state support - & some (not all) of that infrastructure was built for 50-year life

I'd say: the nuke lobby started banging the drum for a little bit of help when oil was less than $40, first time around. Curiously, however high oil goes, nuke (and wind, and solar, and ...) needs just a little bit more help. I can only presume they know that there's a decent chance plentiful gas will keep electricity prices down

I don't wish to contemplate either loans or subsidies, but if pressed ...

in theory, any de-risked investment proposition can raise any amount of money (when the de-risking is being done by passing through costs to captive electricity customers, herded by an AAA-rated govt)

loans are at least honest & visible, the subsidies are smuggled surreptitiously onto elec bills, & several of the proposed new ones can result in windfalls

for that reason, in principle I'd go with loans + very tight step-in rights

BUT note that there is a host of EU regs on what is allowed by way of state lending (which in most circs I'd endorse)

Nick Drew said...

Budgie - dunno how you escaped the spam filter !

anyhow: (a) you know I agree with you on coal (b) you know my answer on security, = diversification (c) if you don't like importing gas then you'll no doubt be worried about food, oil, uranium (see BE above), ... the list goes on; we are a trading nation; Russia has for 30 years been a reliable supplier; yadda yadda yadda

I have no problems with nuke per se (though obviously many folk do) & I don't see why it isn't economic at oil > $100 unless actually gas remains significantly cheaper, i.e. turns out to be better all round !

you will pay heavily (and in my view unnecessarily) if you want to commission EDF to provide you with 'strategic' comfort

mark said...

This is a fast moving and fluid situation so first off, fingers crossed and prayers for Japan and it's people.

The recent events in Japan have changed my opinion on nuclear energy from bull to bear (and I've sold my uranium stock at a loss although i'm not too concerned as i'm only losing money).

The key determinant for me, and it was discussed above, is how my view of risk has changed.

No matter how safe any newly built nuclear plants are it can't alter the fact that the consequences if it does all go horribly wrong are just too catastrophic - it's hard to think of anything worse than a nuclear fall out over the world's largest City. Maybe Toykyo escapes. Maybe it doesn't.

Engineers can only ever plan and design things to take account of events that are within the realm of the possible.

I understand that it was never expected that a magnitude 9 earthquake followed by a Tsunami would hit Northern Japan. I repeat - engineers can't plan for the totality of the universe events that are extremely improbable. But unpreditcable events can and do happen. We don't need nuclear power. Why take the risk?

Anonymous said...

My oh my Nick you have certainly stirred up a a wasps nest but I did not see one swear word, at least it got people talking and contributing their opinions, Thanks!

Nick Drew said...

Mark - yes, 'black swan' events do seem to come around far more often than the experts would have us believe

I may not be here to sell gas (right, Budgie ?!) but I am here to promote the risk-management thought process

anon - well thank you, and to all the others who comment here so constructively

you might even want to think of a nom de guerre?

(I hope the post I've just put up is viewed as constructive too, it's meant that way, but ...)

Jan said...

hear hear Mark...couldn't agree more

Budgie said...

ND - yes, I was unaware you have not made your living from gas for 15 years, but apart from my quip, that does not invalidate my serious point.

Yes, I am concerned about the strategic implications of food imports but, really, food can be obtained all round the world, where oil and gas are from volatile and limited sources. As you repeat it is all about risk assessment.

As I said, coal we have and uranium is easily stockpiled; oil and gas are not.

Anonymous said...

One last comment here, but, I don't know if I am being a bit like a conspiracy theorist, these large earthquakes seem to be moving in a clockwise rotation around the Pacific rim the next time in the Bering Islands/Alaska, and the next the big one, somewhere on the San Adreaus fault, thank goodness we live in the UK but even then we a had a relatively small one, based in Lincolnshire I think.