What I learned at Hinkley Point – or why a nuclear power station is not like a bicycle
By Erin Gill
People often have firm opinions about the merits – or otherwise – of nuclear power. I’m no exception. When I set out early one morning in Sept 2014 for a tour of Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset with members of the Power & Water network I felt certain that my views wouldn’t be altered by what I would see and hear. I was wrong.
I was excited about the visit to Hinkley Point – this would my first visit to an operational nuclear power station and I wanted to see whether my general understanding of how reactors work was accurate. As we drove out of Bristol toward the site I thought about the two reasons why I have long opposed nuclear power (in a rather passive way). First, there is the inherent risk of catastrophic failure. Second, there is the unresolved issue of what to do with nuclear power stations’ ongoing production of radioactive waste, including highly-radioactive spent fuel rods.
There are several other arguments against nuclear energy – including the possibility that radioactive emissions could be a factor in the increasing number of childhood cancers – but for me the two make-or-break issues have been the twin dangers of nuclear disaster and waste. I don’t think energy production needs to be so risky.
So I was unnerved to realise, after a fantastic tour of Hinkley Point B led by informative and intelligent EDF staff, that I now have a new – a third – reason to oppose nuclear energy. I had not expected my opposition to nuclear power to harden, but it had. The EDF tour was exemplary, but it couldn’t help but expose a central problem: that it takes far, far too much effort, by too many people, who must all be very, very careful all of the time – and whose actions must be triple-checked by others – to produce what is really not very much electricity for the nation.
I am not interested in presenting a detailed case about nuclear power’s lack of economic competitiveness. Others have done this very well. Instead, I simply want to express my astonishment at what I witnessed: the staggering and inescapable inefficiencies of nuclear power generation. It is such a dangerous form of electricity generation that everything takes place at a snail’s pace and every tiny action is monitored so many times…I really don’t know how people work there without going mad with the tedium. Surely, humanity no longer needs to make so much of an effort – whilst putting the health of people and the environment at so much risk – in the pursuit of such a paltry amount of power. We have better solutions now, some of which need the financial support that we are misguidedly giving to nuclear power (I’m thinking here of the construction of high-voltage direct current – HVDC – interconnector cables between the countries that border the North and Baltic Seas, so that spare electricity can be traded rather than wasted.)
A 1960s mainframe
Relying on nuclear power today is like using one of those gargantuan 1950s computers that take up half a university campus but are only capable of spitting out useful data once every few months. And building new nuclear reactors is like choosing to do this at a time when it’s possible to use a 4G smartphone at a cost of about £20/ month.
Any new method of power generation should become easier and more efficient with time, not less efficient and more risky. As Hinkley Point B nears its 50th year of operation, it seems little more than a hulking symbol on the Somerset shoreline of a technology that has failed to improve with time; a technology that limps along requiring more and more assistance with each passing year.
Of course, the new reactors at Hinkley Point C will – if they’re finally built – be somewhat more efficient, for a few years. (Until their cores develop cracks prompting nuclear safety authorities to demand lower generation rates.) But even a brand new nuclear power station cannot offer even a fraction of the efficiency gains and cost savings being achieved by photovoltaics and wind. In the past decade the power generation game has inexorably changed and nuclear no longer makes any sense as a ‘transitional’, low-carbon technology. It’s been left in the dust.
Let me offer an example of the inefficiency that nuclear power necessitates. Each of Hinkley Point B’s two reactors is served by an enormous machine used to remove spent fuel rods and replace them with fresh rods. These bespoke machines take a full eight hours to very carefully – ever so slowly – remove one set of highly-radioactive spent (ie. used-up) fuel rods and replace them. This essential process ensures the reactors are ‘fed’ with the uranium and graphite-rich rods required for the generation of electricity. The reactors can’t run without the rods.
This eight-hour operation is risky, thanks to the highly radioactive nature of the spent fuel rods, and EDF’s staff are rightly proud of the care they take to ensure everything goes smoothly. After this painstaking procedure is completed, the rods are even more carefully transported to a cooling pond for temporary storage. Eventually, each of these spent fuel rods is tenderly transported by road and rail from Somerset to Cumbria, where they are stored in facilities that are acknowledged by all parties involved in the nuclear industry as seriously inadequate. One day the UK will build an underground storage facility – in granite – to house these spent fuel rods for thousands of years, but until this ‘deep geological storage facility’ is constructed we keep them in cooling ponds at Sellafield, where they pose a risk to local environmental and human health. This is not an opinion, this is a fact.
But I don’t want to focus on the the very real safety concerns about nuclear power. I want to draw attention to how inefficient and painstaking it all is. All the effort by so many people at Hinkley Point B and for what? For an average annual rate of electricity generation below 500MW per reactor. It’s enough to make a person weep. More than half a century of nuclear power generation in the UK and this is what we get?
I was relieved to learn during the Hinkley tour that safety is not taken lightly there. In fact, every three years, all operations cease for a three full months to allow for a comprehensive check of the station’s physical state and processes, known as a statutory outage. During this period approximately 9,000 people spend time onsite as part of these checks. That is a staggering number. In addition to the hundreds of staff employed during normal operations to cosset these two reactors so that they can each generate at a rate below 500MW, there are 9,000 extra people every three years just to make sure it’s still safe. This makes no sense. Almost every new regular-sized offshore wind farm being built off the UK coast will have a capacity approaching 500MW. The turbines need maintenance and repair, but they don’t need anywhere near the numbers of people that nuclear power stations need. Larger wind farms due to be built over the next decade will produce more than double the projected 3,200MW output of Hinkley Point C. As an example, Dogger Bank offshore wind farm, to be built in phases more than 100km off Yorkshire, will have a capacity greater than 7,000MW when complete.
A bicycle brain
I could go on, but I won’t. Opinions about nuclear power have become so polarised that I doubt anything I write will ever influence the views of someone who has already decided that nuclear power is a ‘good thing’. So I’ll end by admitting that I am a cyclist and that cycling has possibly influenced my views on industrial efficiency. I cycle to and from work most days and so I ‘know’ in a visceral, physical sense what real efficiency feels like. One of the oddest and loveliest things about the bicycle is that it is the most efficient form of human-designed transportation that exists to date. It’s true, look it up. The bicycle requires a surprisingly modest exertion of somatic energy in exchange for the production of enough power to travel at a speed of between 10-15mph.
No other machine invented by humans comes close to the efficiency of the bicycle – and those of us who cycle gradually realise this. If it looks like a breeze for us, that’s because it is a breeze (except when we’re going up hill)!
As I see it, nuclear power stations are the antithesis of the bicycle. They are the equivalent of a hulking military tank inching forward, built using vast quantities of finite resources, fuelled by even more irreplaceable materials, and manned by an enormous team of people who carefully keep the whole thing from blowing up. I am grateful to every single person who works at Hinkley Point B for keeping the reactors there functioning as well as they can. But I am truly mystified as to why the UK government is so committed to building yet another inherently inefficient (and, yes, dangerous) hulk on the Somerset coast. The energy generation equivalent of the nimble bicycle is available – in the form of a number of renewable technologies that are fast becoming commoditised and whose costs are tumbling. Even better, they generate electricity without the risk of poisoning the land and/or the people.