US Warming to Nuclear Energy While the UK Turns to France for Assistance

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Two different articles published this month on either side of the pond illustrate the challenges facing many countries in meeting power production needs in the future.

Britain has produced some 18% of its electricity needs from nuclear power for the last 20 years but recently, as early plants have been decommissioned, that percentage has dropped to 15% reports an article in the Telegraph newspaper. With more scheduled to close in the next decade as they come to the end of their life and older coal fired plants being forced to close to meet EU environmental standards, the government has finally sold its stakes in domestic nuclear power producer British Energy to the French state producer EDF and given approval for them to build four new plants. The challenge for the UK is that after 20 years out of the plant building business, they no longer have the engineering skills to design modern Generation III power plants.

Fortunately the French group Areva does and have contracted with EDF to use their pressurized water reactor designs working with engineering group Rolls Royce to manage an estimated 100 local contractors and construction firm Balfour Beatty in what is expected to be a 20 year program of replacement for all of Britain’s reactors creating some 15,000 jobs and spurring a generation of under graduates to take degrees in nuclear engineering again, albeit with the prospect they will be hired by foreign firms. How much of the reactors’ metal components will be made in the UK and how much will come from French contractors though remain to be seen. Rolls Royce has experience managing much smaller nuclear powered generators on the Royal Navy’s submarines but these reactors will be on a different scale.

The US, on the other hand, has excellent engineering skills, proven designs and no need for foreign ownership of their generating companies but has the massive environmental and regulatory hurdle to overcome of waste disposal. US reactors typically use the once through design meaning fuel is used once and then stored for disposal whereas much of the rest of the world reprocesses fuel reducing waste. Finally public opinion appears to be turning back to acceptance of nuclear power’s role as part of the energy solution. A recent Gallup poll showed a majority in favor of nuclear power but public acceptance or no, there still remains the issue of spent fuel storage.

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However, GE-Hitachi believe they have an answer to both the waste disposal problem and saving the US from reliance on carbon emitting fuels like coal according to a WSJ article. The company is applying for NRC certification of its Prism fast breeder reactor in 2011 to build a 311 MW prototype in the next decade at an estimated cost of $3.2bn. The attraction of the fast breeder is it consumes the waste other plants produce and creates little at the back end. What it does produce has a half life of hundreds of years rather than thousands of years as from current reactors. Supporters suggest the waste in store at current nuclear sites contain enough energy for the US to meet all its energy needs for 70 years if used in a fast breeder of this kind. Some may say such pioneering work deserves support in the form of stimulus dollars even if the technical hurdles look formidable at the moment, at the very least it will ensure the US stays at the forefront of nuclear power technology in the next decade and beyond.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (2)

  1. shaun burnie says:

    “Sourcing and trading intelligence for global metals markets” unfortunately this article is far from intelligent – its starts off badly by misnaming the French state nuclear company AVIVA – that should read AREVA. Is this just a typo – or does it betray the author as not knowing a great deal about the nuclear industry ? And then it proceeds to be yet another article that declares a solution for nuclear waste through the fast breeder reactor – before writing this nonsense it would be worth reading the history of fast reactor development – too expensive, too many technical failures/accidents, and a proliferation nightmare.

  2. stuart says:

    Shaun, you are right we are not nuclear scientists nor do we profess to be specialists in the nuclear industry, so if you found the article not to your liking then may be a specialist energy blog would be more appropriate. I appreciate you pointing out my mistake on the company name; that was lax to have missed that. You will see I have corrected the text accordingly. I agree the post was tying two rather loosely connected issues together and may be they could have been handled better separately but I don’t accept that the fact GE-Hitachi are intending to invest millions of dollars in this project is undeserving of comment in its own right. Clearly fast breeders have not fulfilled early hopes, as you say largely down to technological challenges, but science advances and one day solutions will be found, at which time fear of nuclear proliferation will not stand in the way of adoption if fast breeders can be made economic. Will this prototype be successful? I have no idea, I suspect GE-Hitachi are expecting it will move matters forward or they wouldn’t bother but only time will tell. Meanwhile thank you for reading MetalMiner, I am sorry you do not find the content or comment of value but persevere, may be you will in time.

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