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What a waste: an end of year lament

By Dave Elliott

In a post-Xmas pre-new year Scrooge-type austerity mood, I worry about the money we are wasting on energy. If you look at Sankey diagrams of energy flows from primary resources to final end use, you will see that for many countries around half the raw energy input is wasted in the conversion process, most of it being rejected into the atmosphere as heat, for example from steam-based fossil and nuclear generation systems.

In the US the energy waste figure is around 60%, with the waste being larger than the delivered energy. Not all of this wasted energy can be recovered, but some of the huge electricity-related losses could be, by phasing out inefficient thermal plants – the worst offenders, coal and nuclear plants, both raise steam for generation. There are no thermodynamic losses with wind and PV. If gas must still be used, in thermal plants, then Combined Heat and Power (CHP), or co-generation, as Americans tend to call it, would help, in cities. It is good then to see that CHP/co-gen is being pushed under the new US Clean Power Plan:

Note that it’s not just a matter of wasted money, it’s also all the CO2 that has been released when producing this wasted energy:  directly from fossil fuel plants, indirectly from the fuel production process for nuclear plants. And also the huge use of water for cooling thermal plants – with water scarcity becoming an increasingly important issue around the world, as climate change hits. A recent UK paper noted that, in England and Wales, the electricity sector is responsible for approximately half of all water abstractions and 40% of non-tidal surface water abstractions. It looked at some decarbonisation pathways to 2050 to see how that might change. Up to 2030, there was not much change, but from 2030 to 2050 pathways with high levels of carbon capture and storage resulted in freshwater consumption that exceeds current levels (by 37–107%), while pathways with high nuclear capacity resulted in tidal and coastal abstraction that exceed current levels by 148–399%. The pathway with the highest level of renewables has both lowest abstraction and consumption of water.

The way ahead seems clear. But we seem, oddly, in the UK to be going off mostly in a different direction. I fear we will be wasting yet more money. For example, the demise of the Hinkley nuclear project seems likely. If that happens it will fall into a familiar pattern in the UK. For example, British Energy Ltd was set up in 1996 to run the UK’s newly privatised nuclear plants, with its fleet of eight nuclear plants, including the then new taxpayer-funded £2.5bn Sizewell B PWR. But, despite subsequent large cash injections from the government (over £3bn), British Energy went bust and was purchased by the French utility EDF-Energy in September 2008, for a total of £12.5bn. Now the UK wants to pay EDF to build a new twin EPR at Hinkley. Some of the £24bn that it’s said it will cost will go to the project’s Chinese backers. But EDF will probably get the money they spent buying British Energy back. Thanks to the support of British electricity consumers and taxpayers. The former will have to help support the £92.5/MWh CfD strike price for 35 years, while the latter will possibly have to stump up rescue funds when and if it goes bust. There are wind and PV projects going ahead at under £80/MWh now. By the time Hinkley gets going, if it ever does maybe in the mid/late 2020s, it will look ridiculously expensive, and even more so 35 years later. What a waste…

It’s also a waste generator in another sense: it will add to the UK nuclear waste problem, with, as yet, no sign of anyone willing to host a permanent repository for the legacy waste much less the new waste that Hinkley, and any other new nuclear plants, would produce. The current plan is to keep it on site in “temporary” storage until a repository becomes available. However, even if one is eventually built, by say 2040, it will initially be reserved for legacy waste, in an expected 90 year filling programme. So space for the “new” waste from Hinkley would not be available until around 2130, about fifty years after the new Hinkley plant had been closed.

All this will cost a lot of money. The possible price tag for building and running the still hypothetical geological repository has been put (arguably rather optimistically), at £15bn, presumably at least partly to come from the taxpayer. And based on the cost escalation of many previous nuclear projects, and a hypothetical 2040 start date in an unknown location, it may end up costing more than twice that.

The eventual closure of Hinkley, and dealing with its waste, will also be costly – to be paid via the electricity cost charged to consumers. In response to a Parliamentary Question in June this year, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said that DECC estimated the decommissioning and long-term radioactive waste management costs for the Hinkley Point C will be “around £2 per megawatt hour of the [£92.5] strike price for this power station“. Hopefully they have got the sums on this, and waste management generally, right. There does seem some uncertainty about clean-up costs for Sellafield, with a DECC official saying they can’t be forecast accurately. The huge range in the current estimate (£88-£201bn) illustrated the “level of uncertainty” and, the Public Accounts Select Committee was told, it was “impossible to know” the costs of a job that will not be finished until well into the 22nd century: “We still do not know by any stretch of the imagination all the technical challenges of the site. The difficulties are pretty much unprecedented.”

Some of this expenditure is now inevitable, for the legacy waste and decommissioning of existing plants. And since it is claimed that there will be “less waste” from the new plants, partly since spent fuel will not be reprocessed, it is argued we might as well add it to the pile! But, in fact, with reprocessing abandoned, while there will be proportionately less low and intermediate waste, there will be more high-level waste, since the plutonium will not be extracted. And since, to try to improve the economics, high fuel burn-up is also envisaged, with fuel staying in the reactor longer, this waste will be much more radioactive. It will be an expensive interim storage and long-term disposal nightmare.

Why bother? There are much better uses for the money that will be spent in building and cleaning up the new plants and dealing with their wastes. The site decommissioning costs for windfarms are tiny, and they produce no wastes, just a lot of clean and relatively cheap energy. I know how I would like my taxes to be spent….and it’s not on producing and storing more nuclear waste.

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