Neeraj Oak reports on the APPCCG meeting on the UK Energy Bill

Ever since the birth of commercial nuclear power at Calder Hall, Cumbria in 1954, fission-based reactors have been an important part of the UK energy mix. Today, policy makers stand at a crossroads. Increasing demand for electricity and the constraints of carbon reduction treaties are forcing the government to consider renewal and expansion of our existing nuclear power generation capacity. At the same time, the old spectres of safety, cost and nuclear waste still haunt the industry.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a meeting hosted by the APPCCG and NCG on the current UK Energy Bill and its relation to new nuclear generation capacity. Among the large number of attendees were  Hergen Haye (head of new nuclear, DECC),  Dr. Nigel Knee (head of nuclear policy, EDF energy), former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP as well as representatives of academia, trade unions and environmental organisations. The meeting was chaired by Joan Walley MP (Labour). Interestingly, the only major party not represented at this meeting were the conservatives, which left the burden of defending government policy to the DECC.

Points of contention at the moment are numerous, but a few do stand out. The government appears not to be upholding its commitment not to subsidise nuclear energy, at least in the eyes of the Green Party and present academics. The current energy bill details a change in the subsidy mechanism for low-carbon energy sources, known as the contract-for-difference feed-in tariff (CfD). While CfD is openly referred to as a subsidy in the renewable energy industry, the fact that the nuclear energy industry is also eligible for its benefits has raised significant criticism.

The time and cost of constructing nuclear power stations was also in the spotlight, with special ire reserved for EDF’s ongoing EPR reactor project at Flamanville in France, which is currently 4 years behind schedule and is projected to cost more that €8.5 billion despite initial estimated cost of €3.3 billion. Further, such time and cost overruns have been alarmingly common in Europe in recent years. The preferred configuration for new nuclear in the UK is similar to that of Flamanville, an EPR reactor administered by EDF. There were calls, especially from academics, for other options to be tabled.

Finally, in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, safety and disposal of nuclear waste are also raising considerable concern. With the commitment of Germany to a nuclear-free energy sector, the possibility of the UK following suit is slightly more likely. However, this will depend on how this change affects Germany’s progress towards carbon-reduction targets. It’s too early to say, but for now it appears as though the government will look to retain the status quo, renewing nuclear generation capacity without necessarily expanding it.  This leaves environmentalists opposed to nuclear energy in somewhat of a dilemma, as they must choose between supporting new nuclear energy, or siding with more carbon-intensive alternatives until renewable energy technologies mature.

Neeraj Oak

Blog entry by Neeraj Oak
Bristol Centre for Complexity Science (BCCS)

Learning lessons from Fukushima

When disasters happen scientists pretty much have a duty to try to understand what happened and why, and to try to learn the lessons. This week the catastophist Gordon Woo of Risk Management Solutions gave a seminar here at the Cabot Institute and suggested that the question that we should really ask is not “why did this happen?” but “why did this not happen before?”. This is also one of the ideas that emerged from a recent exercise that we undertook to try to understand the recent events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. The range of skills available within Cabot allowed us to take a fundamentally holistic approach to the analysis that wouldn’t have been possible for any single individual. The results of the analysis are here, but two main points emerge.

First, there is the need to tackle is “chained” or “cascaded” hazards, which, as very low probability events, have traditionally been treated as independent random events and hence have too low a likelihood of coinciding together. There may be hidden dependencies, which are not always either obvious or intuitive, requiring careful analysis to tease out or recognise. This is particularly the case for complex infrastructure like nuclear power stations.

Second, it is no longer adequate to rely on deterministic assessments of hazards and risks from natural hazards as these cannot account properly for uncertainty. Dealing with uncertainty requires a probabilistic analysis that looks at the full range of possible situations that may arise, not just a single one that a company or regulator has (perhaps somewhat arbitrarily) decided is the ‘worst case’. Probabilistic approaches should now be regarded as mandatory, and application of rigorous, structured approaches to assessing risk are needed. Such assessments must include evaluation of all credible alternative models for natural processes, rather than just adopting particular models that happen to support inherited views.