Ask the expert: Nuclear energy

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UK business is warning that Britain could face a serious energy crisis if new nuclear power stations are not built.

Philip Dewhurst, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, answers your questions below on nuclear energy.

The most thought-provoking online contributions may be published in the Financial Times newspaper. Please supply your full name, company and location.

How long will we have to wait before commercial fusion reactors are likely?
David Dent, Oxford

Philip Dewhurst Commercial nuclear fusion, if it can be achieved, will not become a reality for several decades. Nuclear energy has a continuing role to play until advanced technologies such as fusion are proven and viable.

In the end, the nuclear industry will need the acceptance of the British people if it is to endure. How can the industry persuade the public that nuclear energy is the right option, given the public’s understandable fear and distrust of all things nuclear, and their lack of confidence in the reassurances of “experts”?
Robina McKay, London

Philip Dewhurst The industry has to do more to spell out the benefits of nuclear - security of supply, avoiding CO2 emissions and therefore helping in the fight against global warming while supplying safe and reliable energy. Attitudes are changing however, as shown by a MORI poll published yesterday, indicating that the public are more supportive towards replacement nuclear build as they are becoming more aware of the issues facing the UK in terms of energy.

Andris Piebalgas, the European Union commissioner for energy, has recently stated that Lithuania could construct a nuclear power plant but he noted that this depends on the initiative of private investors. Do you consider it possible to build a new nuclear power plant based on the private initiative only or should the EU along with individual governments demonstrate a more extensive support towards nuclear power generation? Establishing a new generation capacity is a critical issue for Lithuania but also for the other two Baltic States, Estonia and Latvia, especially in light of the decommissioning of the Ignalina nuclear power plant by 2009.
Alo Kelder, Eesti Energia, Estonia

Philip Dewhurst As you can see from the answer to the previous question, Finland provides an excellent example of how modern nuclear reactors can be funded by the market without direct government subsidy. Again, government support in areas such as planning and creating a regulatory level playing field can all help to pave the way for a fleet of efficient, virtually carbon-free new nuclear reactors.

Given where we are starting from - ageing stations, planning issues etc what is a realistic timeframe to expect nuclear power to account for say 25% of our demand in the UK. How many modern nuclear power stations would be required? What options does the government have to make this happen faster if the UK found itself with power outages?
Gavin Young, CEO, Regen21 Ltd, Selby

Philip Dewhurst If we look at what is happening in Finland today, where a fifth nuclear reactor is being built, we see how they are dealing with meeting their energy requirements at the same time as avoiding CO2 emissions. Planning and construction of the plant is running to time and work is well underway, which demonstrates that, with political will and with a supportive industry base, it is possible to plan and construct a new station in about 10 years.

We can learn from this example, and should also watch closely as the French begin to replace their nuclear fleet.

Do you think new nuclear power stations should only built on existing sites e.g. Sigewell, Dungeness etc and not greenfield land? A statement to that effect would be good for sentiment.
Brian Newman

Philip Dewhurst Existing sites have the advantages of existing infrastructure for example grid connections, skilled workforce and licences. However no decisions have been made on this issue.

It appears, more and more, that nuclear energy will be the primary source of energy of the future. In your opinion, how close are we to safely produce hydrogen, using nuclear power?
Philippe G.Thegat, Alsemberg, Belgium

Philip Dewhurst I cannot really comment on this but it will still be several decades before we reach the point of producing and using hydrogen to fuel our energy needs.

How much greenhouse gas does nuclear power generate per kWHour, and how does this compare with the other sources of energy? This must, of course include all contributions, from mining, processing etc.
Ian Humble, Hartington Software Ltd, Gloucester

Philip Dewhurst: The life cycle emissions from nuclear energy are in fact very similar to those of renewables, even taking account of emissions from the whole production process, including mining and processing. A study conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that even at the high end of the range of emissions nuclear energy is still nearly 20 times lower than the best fossil fuelled plant (using gas technology) and 60 times lower than coal.

Can you tell me if there are any active private companies or private sector groups pursuing the licensing, construction and operation of a nuclear power station in Britain? Alternately, is it your view that nuclear power can only be developed by a government agency?
Richard Bassett

Philip Dewhurst: I am seeing plenty of interest in prospects for new nuclear build but it is too early for companies to start active pursuit of licensing.

How much more efficient would new nuclear stations be than the ones that are due to be phased out, and are there any more innovations to make them even more efficient in the pipeline (ie a new generation of reactors)?
N J Lake

Philip Dewhurst: Each generation of nuclear power stations has been more efficient than the previous one, in terms of fuel used per output of energy, wastes arising. Load factors have also been improving. New reactors will continue this trend because of sensible approaches to things such as maintenance and to standardisation of components. New reactors will also incorporate innovations such as passive safety or integrated safety systems which will all contribute to effectiveness of the way they operate.

With the current energy situation and the majority of nuclear power plants in the UK being decommissioned by 2025, is the nuclear industry ready to step in and build new plants within the required time? Will more efficient reactors using fast breeder technology be utilised, despite fears of proliferation?
Conrad Lee

Philip Dewhurst: Reactor designs are ready for implementation now - they are being licensed in other countries around the world. Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor received regulatory approval in the US last year. The European Pressurised Water reactor has also received design approval in France. They represent advanced and efficient designs that can be effectively safeguarded against diversion of nuclear material. New nuclear reactors can be ready to step into the energy gap but the decision must be taken soon to include nuclear power in the energy mix.

Why should we add to the UK’s already enormous (and enormously expensive) nuclear waste stockpile and decommissioning bill? Can new nuclear power stations be built in the UK without any government subsidies or tax breaks whatsoever? Doesn’t the history of nuclear power in the UK show that it is an expensive and uneconomic waste of time with the UK taxpayer always left to pick up the pieces (and the bill)?
James Nicklin

Philip Dewhurst: The total amount of radioactive waste from nuclear power stations and fuel cycle activities is small in the context of total industrial wastes that we produce in this country. Those radioactive wastes are being safely managed and will continue to be so. Additional waste from a series of 10 new reactors, if they operated for 60 years, would add less than 10% to the volume of existing wastes.

Waste management and decommissioning costs represent only a small proportion of the total costs of generating nuclear electricity, over the lifetime of the stations. That includes all waste handling, treatment, packaging and disposal.

There is no need for government subsidy for building or operating new nuclear power stations. Decisions will be made under market conditions and on the basis of detailed investor analysis. Investors will of course look for certainty on regulatory and planning processes as well as a clear waste strategy and so the government needs to take certain steps to bring in that measure of confidence.

Past experience of building nuclear stations in this country dates back several decades in most instances. Circumstances were very different, there was much re-design and contracts did not offer incentives to deliver to time or cost. The marketplace today has changed significantly, the industry has moved on and modern reactors offer efficiencies and experience that give us confidence about new builds.

1) How does the cost of nuclear energy compare per MW hour to a) natural gas generated electricity? b) renewable generated electricity source (onshore wind in the UK)? In respect of life-cycle project expenditure.

2) How is the waste from our current nuclear power stations disposed of?

3) Where would new nuclear power stations be located?
Kate Henderson, Beattie Financial, Holborn, London

Philip Dewhurst: 1) Recent independent studies show nuclear energy to be cost competitive with other forms of energy. For example the Royal Academy of Engineering report in March last year shows electricity prices per MWh to be as follows: nuclear 23p; gas 22p and onshore wind 37-54p. For nuclear those figures take into account capital cost, operations and maintenance, fuel costs and waste management/decommissioning, in other words they are lifetime costs.

2) Waste arising from our nuclear power stations is safely managed and stored at reactor sites and Sellafield. As far as final waste disposal is concerned the government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is currently assessing long-term management solutions. That committee will be making recommendations to the government next year.

3) Any decision on location would of course depend on a decision that nuclear power should be part of the UK’s future energy mix. Existing sites would clearly be frontrunners in view of their existing infrastructure and licences.

FT background briefing:

Andrew Simms: The fallacy that nuclear energy will be our saviour

Jean Eaglesham, N-power is renewable, Sainsbury tells Lords

Jean Eaglesham and Thomas Catan, Nuclear power lobbying hardens with demand for new stations

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