Overpriced nuclear mega-projects like Hinkley Point are not the way forward

“Hinkley Pointless” is The Economist’s unkind moniker for the UK’s planned Hinkley Point nuclear power station. The government’s latest rethink on this US$24 billion monstrosity is a rare piece of sanity in British energy policy. But nuclear power done right still has a role in providing the world with clean energy in the future.

The British government decided to review the Hinkley Point project on July 28, as it increasingly seems just too expensive and too inflexible. The UK needs new low-carbon power from the 2020s, but the 9.25 pence (44 fils) per kilowatt hour (kWh) promised to the nuclear plant’s French-Chinese consortium is twice current wholesale power prices. Gas is set to remain in glut for years to come, solar power costs con­tinue to fall worldwide and a new record for offshore wind costs was set in the Netherlands last month.

Nuclear power provides steady base load electricity, but a global energy system shifting towards renewable energy instead needs flexible power – that can ramp up or down to meet fluctuations in solar or wind, or changes in demand. To meet this role economically, nuclear power has to be cheap.

The French nuclear system provides 75 per cent of the country’s electricity and has adapted to follow demand, even as wind turbines become an increasingly common feature of the countryside. To keep costs down, such large nuclear plants have to be built to a standardised design, and not get caught up in redesigns or public opposition halfway through.

The UAE illustrates this. If all goes to plan with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation’s (Enec) four reactors at Baraka in Al Gharbia, then from next year it should deliver wholesale electricity at about 26 fils per kWh ( a number based on my own calculations). That is more expensive than the 11 fils bid for Dubai’s latest solar plant, but it can be cheaper than gas, and is a reasonable price for reliable power meeting a quarter of Abu ­Dhabi’s demand.

But in this region, Saudi Arabia and – despite deals with Russia – Jordan and Egypt have so far made little progress on their own nuclear power ambitions.

Forecasts such as those by BP have nuclear power just clinging on to its current share of about 5 per cent of global energy. To go well beyond that will require new technologies and designs that can reduce costs, improve safety and increase deployment speed and flexibility. Passive cooling could prevent meltdown in the event of an accident even if external power is lost, the flaw that led to Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

Nuclear innovation is difficult. New systems take a long time to develop and certify, and it is expensive to build demonstration units. Deep-pocketed, far-sighted investors are vital, such as Bill Gates and the Chinese government, who are together funding a novel reactor that can even burn spent nuclear fuel, while producing far less waste.

One of the most promising areas is small modular reactors, for which the UK has just launched a competition. These would be between 50 and 300 mega watts (each Baraka reactor is 1400MW), so could largely be built in factories to a simple, repeatable design.

Part of Enec’s mission is to develop a generation of Emirati nuclear engineers. The Korea Electric Power Corporation is responsible for designing and building the UAE’s reactors, and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (Kaeri) is a world leader, working among other projects on small modular reactors. The UAE partnerships with Kaeri or other leading nuclear innovators could explore new options, such as using the waste heat produced by nuclear plants for water desalination.

Nuclear power will probably be an essential part of the future energy system, to complement variable renewable sources. Overpriced mega-projects such as Hinkley Point are not the way forward. And next year should see nuclear join the UAE’s wealth of oil, gas and sun.

Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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