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Will the Japanese nuclear disaster force a UK energy rethink?

Special report: With the UK government still placing an 80km danger zone around Japan’s Fukushima plant, NCE looks at the options for meeting the UK’s future energy needs.

Fukushima power plant in Japan have led to calls for a halt to the UK’s new nuclear build programme.

However, almost half of the UK’s electricity generating capacity is due to be decommissioned by 2025 and replacing this remains a huge challenge.

Before the Japan disaster most experts agreed that the UK’s energy needs would be met with new nuclear and offshore wind capacity - planned to come on-stream towards the end of the decade - with a dash for gas in the interim.

Gas is set to become more important, whatever the pace of new nuclear development.

However, only two major gas schemes capable of delivering just 3GW of capacity have so far been lodged with the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).

Any delay to the new nuclear power programme as a result of the events in Japan combined with an over-reliance on gas and possible unforeseen problems in the offshore wind construction programme, mean the challenges of delivering new energy capacity are huge.

“We’re running out of time and we need to grasp the nettle”

Liam O’Keefe, Crédit Agricole

“It brings home the limited options that we have,” says investment bank Crédit Agricole CIB managing director Liam O’Keeffe who is also head of project finance for the bank’s global loan syndication group. “We’re running out of time and we need to grasp the nettle.”

Some argue that coal’s role in the energy mix should be reconsidered.

Coal fired power stations generated 28% of UK electricity in 2009 and during the cold snap in December last year this proportions spiked at 48%.

However, virtually all of coal’s 28GW capacity will be decommissioned by 2020.

“We’re the only country in the world that has decided to not use unabated coal,” says mining firm UK Coal analyst Chris McGlen.

By 2015, 12GW worth of coal and oil fired power stations will shut because they will fail to comply with European Union emission regulations. Remaining coal fired power stations without carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities will close by 2020 to comply with UK and EU regulations. The huge cost of upgrading plants could also result in generators mothballing capacity.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is offering £1bn in financial support for the installation of CCS, but it is still an unproven technology and only Scottish Power remains in the running for DECC funding.

Eon pulled out of the bidding last year. Yet the government has ambitious plans to award CCS funding to a further three gas or coal-power stations this year.

Increased negative feeling towards nuclear power could reopen the door for tidal energy schemes like the 8.4GW Severn Barrage tidal energy project.

The government rejected the scheme last October after cost estimates escalated to £34bn. But some engineers still believe it is a viable option, often arguing it is better than offshore wind.

“It’s proven, has a long life, and can provide storage capabilities [unlike the intermittent capacity from offshore wind],” says O’Keeffe.

After the loss of the Severn scheme, Peel Port’s 700MW Mersey Barrage project is the furthest ahead. A full planning application is due to be submitted to the IPC later this year.

But environmental concerns and difficulties in obtaining planning permission hang over barrage schemes.

Tidal stream schemes rely on the same source of energy but are even more in their infancy than UK barrage schemes.

The Crown Estate has recently let development areas in the Pentland Firth and Orkney water north of Scotland resulting in 1.6GW of planned projects.

Last week the Scottish government approved Scottish Power’s plans to build the world’s largest tidal array in the Sound of Islay - but at 10MW, there is still a long way to go. The Carbon Trust estimates that up to 5% of the UK’s energy needs could be meet by tidal stream technology.

“We’re still crossing the divide from single units to arrays,” says tidal stream energy developer Maygen project manager David Collier. Collier is currently testing tidal stream technology near the Orkney Islands.

Rather more advanced is offshore wind, which is considered crucial to the energy mix. The Crown Estate has let out to developer’s opportunities for over 1GW of capacity in its fi rst two rounds of development licences. There is now the potential to gain up to 32GW of capacity from Round 3.

Onshore wind holds further potential but this will be likely be on a smaller scale when compared with Round 3 offshore programme.

“There could be two to three big anaerobic digestion plants in every major city”

Chris Paddey, Grontmij

Aside from tidal and wind power, the coalition government has recently stepped up its support for technologies such as anaerobic digestion, for which consultant Grontmij head of renewable energy Chris Paddey believes there will be a big market.

“There could be two to three big plants in every major city,” says Paddey. “But an operator will need to secure a food waste contract with, for example a supermarket.”

Many of these projects are still at the concept stage, leaving questions unanswered.

The UK still has to meet its 20% renewable energy capacity target by 2020. To date only 6.7% of its energy comes from renewables, according to the latest government figures.

And without a central board deciding on electricity options, it will be left to the private sector to choose the projects that give best return on investment.

Whether the government will now need to intervene further to drive forward increases in energy capacity following the events in Japan remains to be seen.


Coal 28GW by 2020
Nuclear 12GW by 2025
New Nuclear 16GW
Offshore wind 32GW
Severn Barrage 8.4GW
Mersey Barrage 700MW
Tidal 1.6GW
Planned gas 3.25GW
(Large scale generation only)


Readers' comments (1)

  • Having gained experience of appraising risk while contributing to production of BD79 “The Management of Substandard Structures” in my capacity of Chief Bridge Engineer at the Welsh Assembly Government, I am somewhat concerned about the content of NCE publications dealing with the nuclear issue.

    I have not seen any articles dealing with risk as the product of consequence and the probability of the hazard occurring. While preparing BD79 we found some difficulty in defining the limits of ALARP ( managing risk As Low As Reasonably Practicable) between the not- bothered line and the no-way line. The important thing about the no-way line is that HSE would regard management of risk above that line as potentially criminal; while failure to manage risk below the not- bothered line would not initiate court proceedings.

    Now the front cover of the 24.03.11 issue of NCE showed an alarming representation of the danger zones surrounding the Hinkley Point and Oldbury nuclear sites. The consequences of a major nuclear incident at these sites would be devastating for South East Wales and the Bristol area. I regard the consequences of failure at these sites as being so serious that they should be placed above the no-way line; and it should not be permissible to manage the probability of the hazard occurring using the ALARP, or any other principles .

    I have no doubt that the people of the Cardiff and Bristol areas would not be prepared to accept the consequences of a nuclear disaster at Hinkley or/and Oldbury. I also have little doubt that the public would not be prepared to accept the assurances of the engineering profession regarding the precautionary measures employed and the claimed extremely low probability of the hazard occurring. With regard to the probability of the hazard occurring, it was Donald Rumsveld who famously said:
    ”There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
    While his statement has generated much amusement, it is a valid representation of the limitations of the prediction abilities of the human being.
    If put to the test, I suspect the people of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol would vote for the Severn Barrage rather than nuclear power.
    As engineers, we have a duty to give our unbiased opinion on matters of policy; and I don't think we are doing that. We seem to be concentrating upon the implementation of policy decided by others.

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