How Dead is Nuclear Energy?

  • Date: 13/03/16
  • Dr John Constable: GWPF Energy Editor

The troubled near future of nuclear electricity generation in the United Kingdom is now plain to all. In spite of subsidies, Electricité de France (EdF), is not confident that it can obtain a return on capital investment in a new power station at Hinkley in Somerset, and by implication at its sister site, Sizewell C, in Suffolk.

But does this tell us anything about the intrinsic promise of nuclear as an energy source? Greenpeace will say, and with emphasis, that the present hesitation proves that nuclear energy is inherently uneconomic. This is not an empty argument, and even those without a programmatic bias will find it in part compelling. If nuclear energy has genuine promise, they might ask, why is it proving so difficult to obtain investment?

However, reflection on the physical fundamentals should make us reluctant to accept these conclusions. The cheapness of any energy source is determined by its density, and nuclear sources are extremely dense, having about 10,000 times more energy per kilogramme than liquid fossil fuels or natural gas, and an even greater advantage over coal and renewables.

Consequently, even if the extraction and conversion technologies for nuclear must be extremely complicated, partly because of safety considerations, it is unlikely that the Energy Return on Energy Invested will be inferior to that of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy ought to be very cheap energy.

However, it is clearly not so at present; otherwise, nuclear power stations would be being built on every hand, and that is not happening, even where governments appear willing to write blank cheques on the consumer account in order to secure construction. Something is wrong, but what?

In the case of the United Kingdom, and probably much of Europe, a great deal is explained by the extreme distortions of the wholesale market for electricity. Targets for renewables result in a prospective generation market that is much reduced (about 35% of all UK electrical energy must be renewable in 2020), with the remainder being highly unpredictable from year to year, as renewable output varies according to weather. This has all but destroyed investment signals even for Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT), which are relatively easy and rapid to build, so it should be no surprise that nuclear plant, which has a long construction time and a heavy burden of interest on capital during construction, should be still more severely affected.

However, the problem with nuclear generation is global, not merely European or British, so some more general detrimental cause must be effective in holding this source back. Is technological immaturity the explanation?  It is only very recently, in fact, within the last century, that human beings have understood enough about nuclear energy to make any use of it, and judging from the histories of other sources, such as oil and coal, it may be much too soon to form a view as to the fundamental promise of this fuel. The energy return on energy invested may be excellent; but the investment threshold is very high, and the accumulation of sufficient intellectual and societal complexity to make use of dense energy sources is a slow business. Alexander the Great saw the oil seeps in what is now Northern Iraq in about 330 BC, but could do nothing with them except burn the unrefined stuff crudely for light. Coal began to be used in economically significant quantities for heat in Britain as early as the 1500s, but the first operating steam engines were not built in the 1690s, and their efficiency and reliability was not sufficient to make them widely attractive until the early decades of the 1800s. It is obvious that dense energy sources are intrinsically difficult to handle, and their mastery a slow business. It would be unreasonable to expect nuclear to be any different.

Moreover, atomic energy has been cursed with its value as a weapon, a fact that has inevitably resulted in development being largely military and thus governmental. Indeed, it is arguable that the attempt to deploy civil nuclear power was a politically necessary cover for the weapons program, and economically premature. Certainly, the nuclear industry shows all the signs of being a spoiled child, frightened to do business with the outside world unless sheltered by the aegis of state.

On this historical view, the present difficulties facing nuclear energy are what anyone should expect from an industry attempting to use an energy source only very recently made available. If that is correct, it is much too soon to write nuclear off. But equally, no one should expect too much from it, yet. Paradoxical though this may sound, the greatest friends of nuclear may be those urging widespread adoption of natural gas, an energy source that looks set to greatly enhance worldwide wealth and thus bring us closer to being able to productively use the resources of internal atomic structure.