The stress free nuclear stress test

In the wake of Fukushima a “stress test” of European nuclear reactors was proposed, in line with the “stress tests” applied to banks during the financial crisis. That “stress test” 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 – 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. They’ve also excluded Sellafield, much to the annoyance of the Irish government, using the lame excuse that it doesn’t generate any power (but does contain the bulk of the country's dangerous nuclear waste!).....of course the fact that “suspected” 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 won’t be that jumpy if the place was making ice-cream cones now would they!

For those in the UK who don’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 “ultra safe” nuclear rubbish bin and because it was so safe they pushed it as far away from London as they could…..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 “unlikely” to “not that unlikely”. Now I’m not suggesting there’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 that’s possible (preferably into deep storage) post-decomissioning, and building future reactors a little further inland (10-20 km’s should do it) would solve both of these problems. But the industry seems aghast at even these measures. Indeed it’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 isn’t the whole point of a stress test that it be stressful? If we exclude such factors as I’ve mentioned the end result will be a stress test that all plants will pass with flying colours. Greenpeace will naturally scream “STITCH UP!”, 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 toys….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 “helicopter parenting” we see from governments on the topic. If any other industry had made the same litany of monumental (and costly) screw-ups they’ve made it would have been killed off through government regulations ages ago. Fifty years after the first “commercial” reactors went online the nuclear industry is still living with its parents who have to sub it a few bob now and then. Isn’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 “tough love” 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 “stress test” results haven’t been published yet, the fallout is already underway. My suspicion is that the German government’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 what’s in the future if they don’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, I’m not convinced this applies to all nations, and Germany is top of my list. I’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 – period!

And in fairness to the German nuclear industry, they aren’t that bad, indeed it’s often been the foul ups of Germany’s neighbours (the French and British) or those further afield (Japan and Russia) who’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 doesn’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 you’re best Boris Karloff voice and tell everyone that without nuclear “the lights will go out”, follow it up with an evil laugh, and the public still won’t care. You can give out about windfarms all you like and claim that coal kills a Gazillion people a year and it won’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 “stress tests” 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.


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D A. Ryan
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Guest BlueRock

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> ...the UK government has announced that it will be excluding terrorism as among the things to consider in the stress test. And the farcical / Orwellian reasoning for this: "...terror attacks were reportedly excluded because of the UK argument that they lie within the purview of national security authorities and not the European commission or national nuclear regulators." So, we're ignoring terrorist attacks because they are the responsibility of a different government department. Let's hope the terrorists know which department they need to make an application to before planting their bomb! I laughed until I remembered I live in England! > Indeed it’s unclear to what degree the issue of flooding will even be considered in the stress tests. It should also be noted that the Tories recently cut funding for flood defences. I'm not sure how or if that impacts nuke reactors - but it is an indication of how seriously (or not) this government takes the risks of climate change. > I’m not sure Germany can meet its energy needs without being heavily dependant on imports... No doubt true initially, but that should rapidly change: * "By 2020, Germany may realistically have 90 GW of solar and wind capacity to cover peak demand of generally no more than 75 GW. We will have surpassed peak demand parity." http://www.renewablesinternational.net/yes-we-have-no-base-load/150/537/29353/ Good article. Thanks.

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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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In this day and age it's completely mind-boggling that we aren't testing the nuclear plant's safety against terrorist acts, air disasters or cyber attacks. Greenpeace has shown repeatedly how easy it is to access the premise of nuclear plants. Just imagine how easy it would be for a few well-organized terrorists to wreak havoc at any of our nuclear sites. The Greens in Sweden are calling these "stress tests" for scams. And it seems they are right in doing so.

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Guest D A Ryan

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Bluerock, I would love for the Germans to prove me wrong, and if they do then the case for nuclear in Europe is pretty shaky. Also, I don't see why (up to a point) being dependant on imports is a big deal. You could count on one hand the number of countries right now who are truly energy independent. This North Korean, Juche-esque argument seems to have taken over the renewables debate. Inevitably in the future some countries will be rich in energy (Scotland and Ireland being top of my list...oh! and Russian too! they've vast renewable potential) and others, such as Germany (or England!), will need to import it. Getting as much as they can internally, and in particular getting enough to meet the critical needs of the state (i.e keeping the lights on, keep public transport moving) is what's the goal. 

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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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I don't really understand the fixation with becoming energy independent. Some European countries will have a hard time becoming self-reliant on energy and will need to import energy from other areas. And as long as that energy is renewable I don't see any problems with that. I would love to hear your thoughts on mega energy projects such as DESERTEC which would make it possible for the whole of Europe to co-operate and import renewable energy from areas inside Europe as well as outside. And with that said I am sure that if there is one country in Europe that has the potential to truly get rid of nuclear energy (and other fossil fuels) it would be Germany. If you compare Germany to Sweden you can see what an amazing headstart they have on the renewable sector. By just counting windmills alone Germany has more than 20 000 wind turbines. Sweden is far behind with only 1655 wind turbines. I mean seriously, even tiny neighboring country Denmark has more windmills (around 5000 of them) than Sweden. But more importantly, and like you write in your post, the German public does not accept any new investments in nuclear energy, and having public support is key to success. Hopefully Germany will stick to their nuclear-phase out plan and not go down the same path as Sweden...

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Guest D A Ryan

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Simon, Firstly DESERTEC isn't anything new, I seem to recall reading about a German Engineer, Frank Shuman (I think that was his name) who, back in the 1910's had grand ideas about building big solar plants in the Egyptian desert and exporting the energy. Unfortunately, his plans fell foul of international poltics, i.e he was German, & the brits controlled Egypt & the great war had just kicked off. As I see it DESERTEC has three major obstacles: 1) Distribution, pumping all that power into Europe in the form of AC electric would be in-efficient and impractical. We'd want it transported either via HVDC or high pressure hydrogen lines instead, thought both of these currently come with some practical difficulties and a high price tag (at the moment anyway). This is the fact that has led to fossil fuels, particularly oil, taking over the world - ease of transport. One option would be to try and grow vast amounts of algae in the deserts which is transported as biofuels/biogas through existing fuel distribution systems, but I'd question whether the technology is up to scratch for that to work. 2) Politics, the Mid-East and North Africa are not very politically stable and the fear would be that they might impose an embargo, as OPEC did in the 1970's. Now, so long as the EU isn't solely dependant on DESERTEC for all its energy imports (i.e we have substantial renewable energy production within the EU so only a fraction comes from imports) and we're importing as well from places like Iceland, Norway (large fossil fuel and potential renewable resources) or Russia (dito), this means the only people who would suffer from an embargo would be the governments of the Mid-east countries themselves, making an embargo unlikely. 3) Finance, to get DESERTEC going would require a lot of money, 100 of Billions probably, and that means governments or large financial institutions investing in it. Unfortunately, with oil at the "bargain" price of $130 a barrel, there is little incentive to invest. The 2 reasons given above, while solveable create a business risk, discouraging investment. Finally, the people with the serious cash (and poltical muscle) to get things moving, the rulers of Middle East oil rich states, are reluctant to commit to such a project fearful it will undermine oil profits. The current "Arab spring" might change things tho, so watch this space.....

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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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Yes, those are some good points you bring up. It's probably just me being a dreamer, but if people and politicians alike actually understood what kind of severity we are in this energy project (and other similar Nort-South American projects) would be a no-brainer. But I don't think your first point will be such a big obstacle. Sure, it might be expensive for the moment but the new DC (HVDC) lines looks promising to be able to distribute the renewable energy from North Africa to Europe. DESERTEC says that "with around three percent per 1,000 kilometers, the transmission losses are fairly low." And those HVDC transmission lines would create lot's of new jobs in my own hometown where ABB is producing them. ;) I guess you are correct in your assessment of the costs required. I've heard similar numbers. According to Dr Anthony Patt a £50 billion government investment would convince private companies that the supergrid idea is both “feasible†and “attractiveâ€.

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Guest D A Ryan

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Simon, Yes, but just note about the HVDC lines, I'm thinking in terms of what it has to connect into. To make effective use of such power we'd need to radically re-arrange how the European grid operates, as well as conver large amounts of "stuff" that currently runs of fuels over to run on electricity. That would be the expensive bit! Really the problem for DESERTEC and similar ideas is the old chicken and the egg issue. Nobody wants to invest in it because there's currently no means to bring the energy to market. Nobody wants to buy the energy, or build the transmission lines, because the generating facilites don't exist....go figure!

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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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Yes, of course you are right. It involves a lot more work than just constructing the power plants and the transmission lines. 

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