The stress free nuclear stress test
In the wake of Fukushima a â€œstress testâ€ of European nuclear reactors was proposed, in line with the â€œstress testsâ€ applied to banks during the financial crisis. That â€œstress testâ€ of banks being important in that it firstly reassured the markets and the public that most were still solvent. It also had a secondary role though â€“ to scare the Beja$us out of the bankers and get them to be more careful in future. One would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the goal of the European Nuclear stress test...right?....no!
Firstly, the UK government has announced that it will be excluding terrorism as among the things to consider in the stress test. Theyâ€™ve also excluded Sellafield, much to the annoyance of the Irish government, using the lame excuse that it doesnâ€™t generate any power (but does contain the bulk of the country's dangerous nuclear waste!).....of course the fact that â€œsuspectedâ€ terrorists have already been caught creeping around Sellafield, suggests that terrorism at Sellafield is a major risk and concern. Granted anyone who looks foreign and has a foreign accent is probably a suspected terrorist to these xenophobes who guard the place, but they wonâ€™t be that jumpy if the place was making ice-cream cones now would they!
For those in the UK who donâ€™t know, contrary to what his Gerriness the Baron of Northstead would have you believe, Sellafield is probably the major bone of contention in Anglo-Irish relations. The view from Dublin is that, London took its â€œultra safeâ€ nuclear rubbish bin and because it was so safe they pushed it as far away from London as they couldâ€¦..right opposite our coastline! Hence Irish annoyance over this exclusion of Sellafield from this stress test.
The stress test will also apparently not include such factors as mega-Tsunami (potentially generated by the Cumbre Vieja) or future sea level rise due to climate change. While one can say that the risks from either of these two, the former in particular, are indeed a very low risk in any one given year, but you have to remember that most of the UK nuclear sites are coastal, most have had an active plant on site for 50 years, and that the decommissioning will lead to waste still being on site in a 100 years time. And of course the industry plans to add further reactors to said sites. Thus given the long period of time in which radioactive material will be on site (centuries), this sort of raises the probably of such a calamity affecting these sites at some point in the future from â€œunlikelyâ€ to â€œnot that unlikelyâ€. Now Iâ€™m not suggesting thereâ€™s any need to panic, these are long term problems, which needs long term solutions. A simple committent to moving the waste from existing reactors off site as soon as thatâ€™s possible (preferably into deep storage) post-decomissioning, and building future reactors a little further inland (10-20 kmâ€™s should do it) would solve both of these problems. But the industry seems aghast at even these measures. Indeed itâ€™s unclear to what degree the issue of flooding will even be considered in the stress tests. This is particularly significant when you bear in mind the 1999 La Blayais flooding incident which almost led to a loss of diesel generators (much like at Fukushima) at a French nuclear plant.
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious here, but isnâ€™t the whole point of a stress test that it be stressful? If we exclude such factors as Iâ€™ve mentioned the end result will be a stress test that all plants will pass with flying colours. Greenpeace will naturally scream â€œSTITCH UP!â€, the public will not be assured, nor will the financial institutions (whom nuclear industry will be seeking loans off, if new reactors are to go ahead) and the nuclear industry will go back to puttering in its sandbox with its EPR and MOX toysâ€¦.until the next accident or financial crisis! Nothing worthwhile will be achieved, and no doubt the nuclear cheerleaders will lap it up with glee and appear on this blog to remind us how only 2 men & a dog were killed at Chernobyl or how great the LFTR (Kool-aid fuelled reactor) is.
The thing that puts me off nuclear power is the constant â€œhelicopter parentingâ€ we see from governments on the topic. If any other industry had made the same litany of monumental (and costly) screw-ups theyâ€™ve made it would have been killed off through government regulations ages ago. Fifty years after the first â€œcommercialâ€ reactors went online the nuclear industry is still living with its parents who have to sub it a few bob now and then. Isnâ€™t it about time for nuclear power to flee the government nest and go get a proper job?
The nuclear industry, like the banks, is in desperate need of some â€œtough loveâ€ from regulators. This means a stressful stress test, that will see the shutdown of a few of our older power stations (which truth be told probably never should have been built in the first place) as well as getting the industry to ditch silly boondoggle ideas like MOX, Fast Reactors and fuel reprocessing, while forcing them to start cleaning up the waste issue and get things like deep geological storage moving a pace (with the exception of Sweden and Finland there has been practically no movement on this issue!). This would of course mean lay-offs in some sectors of the nuclear industry, some big contractors being stung badly, but of course it would also mean more jobs in other areas. In essence it might serve to scare the industry straight.
Even thought the â€œstress testâ€ results havenâ€™t been published yet, the fallout is already underway. My suspicion is that the German governmentâ€™s decision to announce its phase out of nuclear power plants (again!) is probably an attempt by Merkel (in an election year) to head off the inevitable wave of bad publicity that the stress test will generate (some German plants will fail, but not enough to stop the Greens yelling FIX!, and the result will be to cause more public unease than reassurance).
Indeed Germany is perhaps a warning to the rest of the world nuclear industry of whatâ€™s in the future if they donâ€™t mend their ways and start washing the dirty linen in public. While I reckon some countries (notably the UK, see my thoughts on UK energy here) can probably get by without nuclear, Iâ€™m not convinced this applies to all nations, and Germany is top of my list. Iâ€™m not sure Germany can meet its energy needs without being heavily dependant on imports of some sort (some of which will inevitably be Shale gas from Poland and French nuclear power) or fossil fuels (coal) without resorting to nuclear power. However, the nuclear industry in German has now made itself such a pariah that this is simply not an option any more. Regardless of the technical arguments, the German public simply will not support new nuclear construction â€“ period!
And in fairness to the German nuclear industry, they arenâ€™t that bad, indeed itâ€™s often been the foul ups of Germanyâ€™s neighbours (the French and British) or those further afield (Japan and Russia) whoâ€™ve gotten them a bad name. But the point that Germany proves is that there is a tipping point to public patience on the nuclear issue. Push any public beyond that tipping point and that public support will just collapse. And at that point it doesnâ€™t matter what the circumstances are, or what industry says or promises, the public response will be a firm No Nukes! You can go on Newsnight, put on youâ€™re best Boris Karloff voice and tell everyone that without nuclear â€œthe lights will go outâ€, follow it up with an evil laugh, and the public still wonâ€™t care. You can give out about windfarms all you like and claim that coal kills a Gazillion people a year and it wonâ€™t matter, the point where such scare tactics, never mind logical debate, would have worked will be in the distant past.
All in all its possible that these â€œstress testsâ€ will be about as useful as the ones offered by the Church of Scientology! And the only people who benefit from a tame nuclear stress test are a pile of vested interests and Kool-aid drunk nuclear cheerleaders. In the longer term even the nuclear industry itself will lose out.