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.
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.