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Cameron's great white elephant

Nuclear power is in the news at the moment. The Japanese have switched on a nuclear power plant for the first time since Fukishima, as the authorities realise the full cost of their knee-jerk reaction to the tsunami. Here in the UK, there is a growing concern over the cost of Hinkley Point, a project that increasingly resembles a fiscal black hole.

However, less commented upon have been a few apparently small developments in the nuclear market that may make for a better future for the industry.

Firstly, a US developer of small modular nuclear reactors has given regulators the heads-up that it will submit its first designs next year, ahead of possible deployment in 2023. An array of competitors are working on similar timescales and, encouragingly, regulators seem to be responding constructively too, aiming to have the new rulebook in place in time to keep the commercial operators moving forward.

Meanwhile (if somewhat less credibly), Revkin is looking at a claim that we could have nuclear fusion on stream in a decade.

If all goes to plan it is quite conceivable that Hinkley C could be a white elephant before it is even completed.


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Reader Comments (57)

I've commented before that the EPR is a dinosaur design, being a bigger version of the Westinghouse 4-loop PWR with added extras. It is thus basically a design from the 60s and 70s. The more modern passive reactor types, the AP100 and ABWR, are currently going through the UK GDA by the ONR at ONR They would be much cheaper and easier to build and operate than the EPR at Hinkley. Yet again Ed Davey made the wrong decision.

Aug 12, 2015 at 11:54 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

We believe SMR technology has advanced to the point that it may be the cleanest, safest and most cost-effective long-term solution to ensure stable, reliable, well-priced electrical power for UAMPS members over the next several decades
Well that'll never do, will it? Clean, safe, cost-effective, reliable, well-priced? It's an environmental disaster. In fact even stringing all those words together in one sentence is tempting Gaia to take her revenge on anything so ..... sensible?

I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why the technology that applies to nuclear-powered ships and submarines can't be applied to electricity generation. Is there any reason why Ineos (for example) or any of the aluminium smelters that we've lost or any other process that requires 24/7 power can't have its own mini-nuke?

Aug 12, 2015 at 11:55 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Trivial comment.
Hinkley Point in Somerset is NOT spelt Hinckley - Hinckley is a market town in southwest Leicestershire.
[Now corrected- thanks. BH]

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered Commenteralan bates

I continually wonder at the tsunami of our money flooding the accounts of the wind 'n solar bandits vs. what the construction of a Thorium fueled prototype reactor would cost? OK it's not production mainstream at the moment - but China and India are iirc busy trying out this route?

That said - burning the paper generated by the present crop of legacy design nukes might well provide more power.... The bureaucratic morass surrounding electricity generation is long. long overdue for a clearout - there's simply too many penpushers, lawyers, eco-twerps and subsidy bandits feasting on the consumers.

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:03 PM | Registered Commentertomo

"Is there any reason why Ineos (for example) or any of the aluminium smelters that we've lost or any other process that requires 24/7 power can't have its own mini-nuke?"

Yes the serried ranks of form fillers, box-tickers, jobsworths, lobbyists and protestors that make everything take years

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:30 PM | Unregistered Commenterstarfish

re Revkin link: ITYM fusion.

[Ta. Fixed]

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Marcus

tomo on Aug 12, 2015 at 12:03 PM

For us, it needs to be based in Britain, based on the Physics, with several options studied, including prototyping, before looking at the detailed economics and collaboration with other countries. We have so much relevant experience in this country, but much is retiring and needs to be realigned to the new technology. Yet again, our political establishment, the MSM and the EU are so Twentieth Century while the Rest of the World marches on!

And we don't have any Physicists who can focus on the Physics in positions of influence, because who needs Physics with our current DECC? It is the wrong sort of Science to have on your CV: too close to reality for comfort.

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:36 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

I was hoping the EU would rule out EPR on the basis of subsidies to avoid another private/public funding project like the many Blairite debacles suffered by NHS. I'm not even sure if EDF can afford to build it since they are billions in debt. We'd likely end up taking it over when only half-built.

Yes the AP1000 seems simpler but it is having it's own teething problems - as you'd expect with a design that only existed on paper until recently. As detailed here...

As for thorium reactors, they were ruled out by the our brilliant chief scientific advisor on the grounds that they 'needed research'. Well yes we knew that - so the proposal to do the research was ruled out on the grounds that it was necessary. Pick the sense out of that!

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

JamesG on Aug 12, 2015 at 12:37 PM

It was the wrong sort of research required: Natural Sciences, not Environmental, Political or Climate.

The problem is not knowing the results and conclusions before the research starts.

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:42 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Liquid thorium flouride reactions have already been tried at Los Alamos, I believe, which ran trouble free for ten years. It was only the nuclear companies that squashed it because no real profits could be found with its design which is safe, automatically shuts down on overload, fuel cheap and plentiful and small town sized reactors could be built easily and cheaply (compared to uranium reactors).

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

We do of course have GE Hitachi Prism waiting in the wings for a go ahead, not only to produce power but also use up the stocks of plutonium. Hopefully we will get a decision on that soon

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterForester 126

if Iran is allowed to have new nuclear reactors why can,t we

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Mike Jackson

Rolls-Royce appeared before the Select Committee to discuss the potential for small nuclear plants. In essence, you aren't very cost sensitive in powering a nuclear submarine - you need something that carries on working regardless. There is a very long way to go to make such plants cost competitive, albeit there would be economies of scale if they could be built by the thousand. A second problem is the security issue, given the increasing fifth column population.

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterIt doesn't add up...

It doesn't add up ...
Thanks. All very logical. And sensible up to a point.
It seems characteristic of UK thinking that is easier to abandon the idea than try to make it work. Same applies to thorium as JamesG outlines above.

Aug 12, 2015 at 12:59 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

SMRs aim to get costs down not by being particularly cheaper in themselves, but by getting type approval for the design, and circumventing the monumental approval process on a per site bases that effectiovely trebles the cost of a single large power station.

Its a technical response to a political problem. As are windmills. However SMRs may actually work.

Aug 12, 2015 at 1:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

The MIT fusion reactor seems to be based on the idea that a new superconductor can enable smaller designs. If this were true then we already have a suitable fusion reactor built at Culham and we therefore just need to do a retrofit. Alas it's a bit more complicated than just that....

As for thorium there is a Q&A here with the Thorium bigwigs outlining the research that is required...
Of course the Chinese are doing such work. My fear is that it will end up in the same 'tried but failed' basket as the fast breeder.

Aug 12, 2015 at 1:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Leo - I recall a comment somewhile ago from somebody stating that the regulation and approval of nuclear new build needs radical overhaul as it was responsible for a very significant chunk of the costs. I don't recall the numbers.

John - "It was only the nuclear companies that squashed it because no real profits could be found with its design which is safe, automatically shuts down on overload, fuel cheap and plentiful and small town sized reactors could be built easily and cheaply (compared to uranium reactors)."

Sounds more like a profit opportunity to me? I wonder if it could be done for less than a 35year £90/MWhr strike price?:

Aug 12, 2015 at 1:16 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

"We believe SMR technology has advanced to the point that it may be the cleanest, safest and most cost-effective long-term solution to ensure stable, reliable, well-priced electrical power for UAMPS members over the next several decades."

Meanwhile Aftenposten, Norway's largest newspaper, writes they have an independent expert's report that Industriaal Heat's 1 MW LENR (aka cold fusion) plant is operating well. It has been running for 170 days of the planned 350 day trial. Other reports say it has a COP 20-80.

Aug 12, 2015 at 1:40 PM | Registered Commenteradrianashfield

Mini-nukes with CHP are one way of solving Cameron's CO2 reduction targets. The other is to fit 10 million homes with 1 kW metal/solid oxide fuel cells integrated in condensing gas boilers. These with roof top solar cells acting as a combined unit would act as standby for the windmills when the CCGTs are being closed down, unless subsidised.

Aug 12, 2015 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

The man behind Moltex - the new supersafe, cheap, (aren't they all at first), non-proliferation reactor design with unfortunately the same name as a nappy - puts up a slide in his talks that show nuclear power used to be as cheap as coal power but the ever-increasing safety regulations have effectively increased the costs to its present crazy level. Whether he had factored in decommissioning I'm not sure but based on what the nuclear industry used to do with their waste - and based on the Italian Mafias preferred method of nuclear waste disposal then clearly a lot of that extra cost is utterly essential. However the over-reaction in Japan, Germany and France to Fukushima was well OTT since the damage to Fukushima was actually caused by a Tsunami and the only folk who died were due to the evacuation.

Now the Chinese built 2 Candu reactors within (quite a small) budget and on time (just 3 years), which must be a first for the nuclear industry, and they are so happy they are ordering more. I've often thought we should do the same. The newest design can even use spent fuel from other reactor types as well as thorium. Of course the NDA are considering all alternatives, including Candu and Prism to diminish our plutonium stockpile, but they are glacially slow. We in the UK of course must rely on private investment to fund any new plant for general use ie we are well screwed. Yet for the projected cost of HS2 we could likely build 8 reactors if from the same design.

Aug 12, 2015 at 2:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

It's worth pointing out that the supposed breakthrough in fusion reactor technology is actually applying new materials to the problem. We have new, more powerful superconducting materials and so stronger magnetic fields.

This means that the advance is real. We really have got a new ability.
Our technology is constrained by energy, materials and imagination. This is an advance in one of the three real constraints.

But it also means that all the other technical engineering difficulties still remain to be ironed out.

Aug 12, 2015 at 2:09 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

adrianashfield - do you have a link to the independent expert's report? I share the opinion of many that Industrial Heat is just a long running and elaborate scam;

so I'd be interested to see hard, verifiable evidence to the contrary.

Please post it up as a discussion item to avoid derailing this thread.

Aug 12, 2015 at 2:25 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Low cost nuclear (fission or fusion) would make not just Hinkley obsolete, but also wind turbines and solar infeed. Maybe this is why greenies also hate nuclear.

Aug 12, 2015 at 2:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

Mike Jackson, It doesn't add up..... mini nukes

Why can't you stick a small nuclear plant inside a secure waterproof container, and stick in 1-200 feet of water?

Sort of like a nuclear submarine (without the missiles) with a longish extension lead that you plug into the mains.

Might not need planning permission either.

Aug 12, 2015 at 4:20 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Where are the UK nuclear engineer equivalent of Reaction Engines? I mean... we've been at it for quite a time - and it seems likely that there's some experienced and talented folk out there frustrated by the bureaucratic / political / vested interest straitjacket that the nuclear industry in the UK has been constrained by.

Even daft Baroness Bryony gets Thorium when it's spelled out finger puppet style.

It'd be fun to launch a crowdfunding exercise for a UK Thorium reactor project and get all Bryony's eco-chums to vouch for the project eh?

Aug 12, 2015 at 4:22 PM | Registered Commentertomo

However the over-reaction in Japan, Germany and France to Fukushima was well OTT since the damage to Fukushima was actually caused by a Tsunami and the only folk who died were due to the evacuation.
Aug 12, 2015 at 2:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

JamesG, I wish someone would get over to the BBC and tell them that. If you can do it, I'll give you a job when I am BBC science master general. Cheap reliable electricity which doesn't depend on the whims of Environmentalist-Art students.
And then I woke up.

Aug 12, 2015 at 4:46 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart
Aug 12, 2015 at 4:48 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Doh of course fusion/fission was always going to get better and provide future electricity.
No one was taking unreliables solar/wind seriously 30 yrs ago before subsidy scam was invented.
When govs make far future CO2 targets they have always been thinking fission/fusion was on the horizon

Aug 12, 2015 at 5:11 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

4 25pm Radio 5 Live doing tosh item about induction roadways project by British government for electric cars cos gov want to incentivise electric cars "as they generate far less CO2" (easy for presenters to say; bet it's wrong in practice)

Aug 12, 2015 at 5:13 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

tomo, would-be UK nuclear engineers have been put-off by the greenie control of universities. In the first 2 years of her physics degree my niece said she wanted to work on nuclear power, now she is about to start a masters in renewables technology.

Aug 12, 2015 at 5:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

Mikky: Her physics course cannot be very good if she thinks low energy density sources of energy are better than high energy density sources of energy. I suggest that you ask her what she thinks about the energy density of renewable energy fuels.

Aug 12, 2015 at 5:41 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

On the BBC's recent programme, Inside Sellafield, Jim Al-Khalil seemed to want to present a balanced history of the British nuclear power industry. However, the fact that the Beeb showed this programme as part of a series more about nuclear weapons than nuclear power and shown around the anniversary of Hiroshima bombing, shows that they still want to stay on message.

Aug 12, 2015 at 6:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub

I remember reading an article over 40 years ago that suggested we (the UK) should adopt the Canadian CANDU design, which was then fairly new. Canada, understandably, now uses nothing else and they seem to have a good track record around the globe, including India, Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, Romania and China. If they can be bought effectively 'off the shelf', what's the fuss at Hinkley about? The Canadians are still our friends, aren't they..?

Aug 12, 2015 at 6:22 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp


"Might not need planning permission"

Certainly not if you kept the missiles...

What happens to old nuke subs anyway?

Aug 12, 2015 at 6:25 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

jamesp: The latest CANDU reactor could have been one of the designs looked at as part of the GDA, but, as I recall, the Canadians declined to offer the plant for consideration.

Aug 12, 2015 at 6:36 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

"Candu Energy Welcomes New Phase of Canada-UK Nuclear Energy Cooperation"
June 29, 2015

Aug 12, 2015 at 7:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterPiperPaul


harumph... yeah... It always irked me that particularly in sandwich courses (remember them?) - one was obliged to endure sessions with some sinecured sociologist prattling about what you're supposed to think and other mostly artsy soft science twaddle for their comfy hourly rate - to folk they clearly deemed bricklayers II, plumbers I and butchers IV - in order to drum in that them mechanics knew their place as subservient to the clearly superior beings in the liberal arts side of things.

Different time ... same sh1t Douglas Adam's "B Ark" was observation not invention. Much western academia seems to be bumping around near the end of a liberal arts cul-de-sac - with science in tow....

@Bloke down the pub
Jim al Khalili did a Fukoshima tour - which after initial airing hasn't had much in the way of repeating - yet more BBC bias by omission. In the meantime the likes of Derek Muller trot around Japan fully togged up and snap cut editing between Fukoshima and Chernobyl....

Aug 12, 2015 at 7:10 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Back in the 60s and 70s Britain built an experimental thorium-fuelled reactor at Winfrith that was supplying power to the grid, it is decommissioned now but the final decommissioning only took place a few years ago.

For some reason known only to the green blob, all the information gained during the running of that power plant has been deemed worthless by those that should know better. There is no reason that that information could not be the basis of new thorium reactors built in the UK.

The big problem is that the green blob in all its guises only see nuclear power as the killer for all their goals.

Aug 12, 2015 at 7:32 PM | Unregistered Commenterivan

@John Marshall, Aug 12, 2015 at 12:48 PM

Liquid thorium flouride reactions have already been tried at Los Alamos, I believe, which ran trouble free for ten years. It was only the nuclear companies that squashed it because no real profits could be found with its design which is safe, automatically shuts down on overload, fuel cheap and plentiful and small town sized reactors could be built easily and cheaply (compared to uranium reactors).

My understanding is that the USA, UK, France etc abandoning Thorium reactors was nothing to do with costs, efficiency, safety or profits. It was deemed a military requirement that Uranium reactors were build to produce Plutonium for nuclear weapons. The heat the reactors produced was a waste product - as are many rare earths*. Someone realised the waste heat could be used to generate electricity and sold for a profit after paying for the generating plant. Later politicians then took the easy option of ordering more of the same even though sufficient Plutonium was already being produced.

* See

Aug 12, 2015 at 8:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterPcar

Can you imagine the stink there would have been had the phrase been "black elephant"?...

Aug 12, 2015 at 9:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

We have shale gas and other fossil fuel reserves to last for centuries. There is no case for nuclear today. Apart from anything else, we will be so much better at managing this technology and its risks in a couple of hundred years' time. Right now, no nuclear is good nuclear.

Aug 12, 2015 at 11:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterJordan


Never wait until you need something, it will always cost you more than envisaged.

Never be sure of the ability of those that follow. Many countries, companies, football teams.....

We will develop today and every day, as long as we secure (keep government intervention to a minimum) the ability to do so.

Retrograde steps in energy generation systems can only inhibit our ability to improve the well being of mankind as a whole.

Yes, we will bark our shins! That is how we learn.

Aug 12, 2015 at 11:55 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

"I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why the technology that applies to nuclear-powered ships and submarines can't be applied to electricity generation.

Aug 12, 2015 at 11:55 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Enrichment. You have an enrichment level of >90% and then fill it with a burnable nuclear poison, Gadolinium. During the lift of the reactor the U235 decays and the gadolinium burns away, so that neutron flux is stable over decades.
However, fueling them is expensive as you are not making 239/240Pu from a U238 blanket for most of your burn.

Aug 13, 2015 at 12:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterDocMartyn

With regard to new fusion reactors, this is my personal favorite, General Fusion;

Those crazy Canadians are using acoustic hammers to implode a rotating hollow sphere of molten lead, onto a tritium/deuterium target. The temperature and pressure will will cause fusion, neutrons will be absorbed by the lead and the heat will be used to heat water to high pressure steam.

Aug 13, 2015 at 1:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterDocMartyn

Re: small thorium reactors
Reactor size is a secondary (or lower) consideration. Steam turbine and generator sizes matter more. A "small town size" plant only makes sense if the small town is not connected to a larger grid. Personally, I wish greenie 'towns' powered by wind and solar would disconnect from the grid so they could enjoy their free electricity without the burden of fossil powered grid back-up.

Aug 13, 2015 at 2:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterSlywolfe

Green Sand

The nuclear industry cannot exist without government ownership of the resulting uncapped liabilities. As these cannot be transferred to the private sector, the nuclear industry cannot escape from the public sector. Don't kid yourself if you see private nuclear operators: they are bit-part outsourced government service providers. They don't have the uncapped liabilities.

Given that the government has responsibility for the uncapped liabilities, issues of public safety and issues of proliferation, you will never "keep government intervention to a minimum". An extensive web of government regulatory intervention is part-and-parcel of the industry. Look at what recently happened in Japan and Germany if you have any doubts about that. UK nuclear installations need a safety case to operate ... who do you think grants approval? So minimum intervention is a bit of a non-starter. And you wouldn't want it any other way.

Ongoing investigation of nuclear physics at laboratory scale is fine and a good thing as it will allow us to develop our understanding of best technologies for the future. But if we apply the ALARP principle, we would easily conclude that industrial scale nuclear operational risks are unnecessary for the foreseeable future: ALARP would guide us to take no additional industrial/commercial nuclear risk so long as fossil resources provide an alternative.

Nuclear designs (costs) have improved in the last five/six decades. We therefore have every reason to be confident that future nuclear designs will be better because of the learning curve and general technological development. Our distant future (200-300 yrs) ability to manage the risks and liabilities will be better than today, and it is incorrect to claim that focus on superior technology today (fossil fuelled) in favour of today's inferior technology (nuclear) is a "retrograde step".

Yes, we "barked our shins". It leaves the UK public sector with the legacy of £billions of liabilities at Sellafield and elsewhere. If we have learned anything for today, the perfectly reasonable conclusion is: no more.

Aug 13, 2015 at 7:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterJordan

The profit in light water reactors is in the fuel for supply and so there is a huge desire to maintain that design by the industry. Fast breeder reactors were the reason that Thorium reactors were not developed as only one new design could be afforded. The fast breeder would also produce strategic plutonium, unfortunately the problems with liquid metal embrittlement of the steel in the sodium coolant circuit was insurmountable.
Thorium reactors have advantages across the board, thermodynamic, safety and fuel efficiency. Problems remain, but probably solvable with enough research.

Aug 13, 2015 at 7:49 AM | Unregistered Commentersrga

Jordan — you're right in theory
Green Sand — you're right in practice.
In the real world we have to accept that the Green Blob has been very effective at demonising fossil fuels to the extent that arguing that there are enough to last several centuries is irrelevant. Think of all the CO2! Think of the children!
They have been less successful in their efforts to demonise nuclear because 70 years after Nagasaki, no nuclear weapon has been used in anger, radiation leaks have been minor (and usually overhyped) and Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have been the only major events and even wih Chernobyl it is almost certain that the only deaths that resulted were among the squads that were sent immediately after the incident.
Set that against the number of nuclear reactors operating world-wide (land-based and ship-based) without incident and the Blob is reduced to using (and of course misinterpreting) a tsunami to persuade the likes of France and Germany to shut down their nuclear operations.
I must say I am sitting here in the middle of France scared to death on a daily basis about when the next tsunami is going to happen!

Aug 13, 2015 at 8:23 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

We should have started major CANDU development 35 years ago when Fred Hoyle made some pretty compelling arguments:

The UK economy might look very different today.

Aug 13, 2015 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Marcus

Part of the submission by Co;in Gibson and Sir Donald Miller to the Holyrood Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee,chaired by Murdo Fraser (Conservative).

"The UK electricity structure at privatisation is unique in electricity systems in that it failed to recognise the vital necessity of providing generation capacity sufficient to meet maximum demand or providing an optimum mix of different types of generating plant in the interests of the consumer. The UK government has belatedly attempted to remedy
this by inviting tenders for the provision of capacity for some years ahead. However in the auctions to date little or no recognition appears to have been paid either to the types of plant or their location on the system, both of which carry very significant costs for the consumer. Nor is there any indication that planning is being undertaken on the
much longer time scale required for the construction of major new generating plant.

In our view Government is not equipped to fulfill the role of detailed planning of the
electricity system and it seems clear that when inviting bids for new plant, they are in a
weak negotiating position. This became apparent in the contract negotiations for new
nuclear capacity at Hinckley. While the price agreed was similar to the published expected out-turn cost for the first plant being built by EDF in France at Flamanville, we would have expected a significant reduction for a second plant of virtually the same design provided from essentially the same supply chain. Certainly these costs are a third higher than
those published by the USA Energy Administration for equivalent nuclear capacity now under construction there. Furthermore there is no possibility that SSEB or NOSHEB would have let contracts for new nuclear plant with a Company which is ten years and five years late on their two existing contracts and with a main
contractor who is reported to be under severe financial pressure.

Aug 13, 2015 at 12:23 PM | Unregistered Commentersam

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