The extraordinarily good record of the nuclear industry

Woke up yesterday morning to hear someone on the BBC Today programme seriously suggesting that we should weaken nuclear safety standards to make atomic power more affordable.

It was in a segment (starts 50 minutes in) pegged to the continuing woes afflicting Hinkley Point C.

To recap quickly, the finance director of intended plant-builder EDF Energy resigned on Monday. Why? Well, he judges Hinckley C’s financial prospects to be so dire that they’ll sink his company if the project goes ahead. And that’s in spite of vast taxpayer subsidies, a guarantee of extortionate electricity tariffs and that ‘we saw you coming’ price tag of £18 billion – half the bill for HS2 for one power station.

The air is tremulous with the sound of huge bets going massively wrong. The bet on unlocking loads of (some … any?) domestic natural gas via fracking. The bet on a ‘friendly’ gas pipeline from the Gulf – a bet that’s a big reason for the desperate brawl tearing up Syria. The bet that nuclear power might ever provide affordable AND SAFE base load electricity.

As unpalatable situations go, this one is up there with a decomposing frog sandwich. Procrastination, wishful thinking and willingly doing the Neocons’ bidding have got the UK exactly where you’d expect. Which is:

  • Plan A. Pour blood into sand for years to come in an unwinable play-off for oil and gas between the US-dominated bloc, the Gulf states, Russia and the many – often overlapping – proxies of all three.
  • Plan B. Pay whatever ransom is demanded by anyone capable of building us a nuclear power plant.
  • Plan C. Anyone got a plan C?

Now, we know the BBC could no more allude to a state of affairs in which Plan A exists than it can ever come to terms with its high-level culpability for the long reigns at Broadcasting House of Jimmy Savile and other molesters of the airwaves.

That leaves the option of selling – sorry ‘examining the issue of’ – Plan B. So with the first hour of Today rapidly closing in on the weather, Sarah Montague introduced a ‘nuclear specialist’ to discuss the ballooning price tag for Hinckley Point C. What, she asked, Malcolm Grimston of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, makes it so costly?

”It is a big plant. It is going to generate 7% of our electricity. But nonetheless what we have seen is, as safety system is piled on top of safety system, this has become enormously complex as well as having a vast number of pumps and valves and the like associated with that.”

Right, ‘pumps and valves and things like that.’ Easily explains why Britain’s next nuke could cost, what, £20 billion allowing for the inevitable overruns.

OK, let’s forgive the shaky start. Doing live radio can be a tough gig at ten to seven in the morning.

Mr Grimston had another run at explaining why nuke safety has got out of hand and ought to be reined in to keep the price down:

“Given that the safety record of nuclear power is so extraordinarily good – I mean a single accident in the whole of its history that has had health impacts off site – I’m sceptical as to whether this is really the way forward,” he began.

Woah! How do you jumble up the letters F-U-K-U-S-H-M-A and C-H-E-R-N-O-B-Y-L and come up with ‘extraordinarily good safety record’?

nuke-accident

Had Today introduced Mr Grimston as what he is, that is a career-long PR person and advocate for the nuclear industry, this would have been the moment for the presenter (note the term) to go for his attempted spin like the Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh savaging Sir Lancelot.

Instead, apparently for the benefit of not-quite-awake-yet listeners, Montague fed him a neat summary of the pitch he was there to sell:

“So are you saying that we should remove some of these layers of safety to ensure that the next generation of nuclear plants are built?”

Grimston:

“Well I think you have to reach a level of safety – which I think we have reached in the nuclear industry – whereby the chance of an accident is extremely small. But we learnt from Fukushima that, actually, the health effects of nuclear accidents are not the radiation – nobody, certainly off site, and probably even on site at Fukushima – is … we’re not going to be able to detect anybody dying as a result of radiation … the evacuation has killed an awful lot of people.”

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It’s so easy to do. I know I have. A friendly ‘presenter’ lobs you a ridiculously soft ball just before they cut to to the weather and you not only fluff it, you end up mangling your message until it looks like the shredded, bloody leftovers from lunch with the Rabbit of Caerbannog.

DON’T MENTION FUKUSHIMA. Yes, no-one’s (yet) apparently been killed by radiation there. But many people died during the emergency evacuation of nearby settlements carried out to avoid exposure to escaping radiation. And two clean-up workers have died of heat-induced heart attacks at the site under the strain of working in full-body radiation protection gear, including masks and helmets covering their entire heads.

Grimston’s claim that “we’re not going to be able to detect anybody dying as a result of radiation” stretches credibility to the absolute limit.

(Sigh). It’s surprising how many take-aways can come out of a two minute slot.

  1. Nuclear accidents do kill people (but not on site, so that’s OK)
  2. ‘Safe’ nuclear plants are stupidly uneconomic to build. But it’s apparently not stupid to reduce safety levels to make them slightly less stupidly uneconomic in the hope that someone will be stupid enough to sign up to build one.
  3. It may be that, like Churchill’s take on democracy, nuclear power is the worst non-fossil-fuel energy option available to us – except for all the others. But if the foregoing lamentable exchange is the best debate the BBC and the industry’s finest spokesperson can come up with, God help anyone hoping to find out.

Taking the fracking Mickey

Fog, mist or hazy darkness. An energy system that has passed its sell-by date and is slowly evanescing into darkness.

You have to hand it to Dr Chris Cornelius. Calling his offshore fracking business Nebula Resources betrays a wry sense of humour if ever there was one.

Of Nebula’s plans to explore for tight gas in the Irish Sea, Dr Cornelius said:

“We’re very comfortable that the resource is there and the numbers are absolutely ginormous. Is any of that exploitable? That’s the billion dollar question and we won’t know that for many years.”

Quadranting has to assume that the resource being referred to is gas rather than the credulity of investors. After all, Wall Street has successfully strip-mined the latter in the US. Fortunes have been made in the shale gas business. But all too often it was from flipping leases and selling derivatives based on nebulous expectations, rather than selling gas at a profit.

Of course, a big rise in gas prices could easily turn tight offshore gas into a viable game for the frackers. Good for them. But, if you’re a customer, that’s the economics of ‘let them eat cake’.

In space, nebulae form when suns burn through virtually all their fuel. These stars finally eject their outer layers in a bright shell of gas, which lasts a few ten thousands of years before diffusing into the surrounding vastness. In another five billion years, it will happen to our own sun.

Right now, it’s a pretty close analogy to the experience of the oil and gas industry. As it burns through the last of the cheap reserves, fracking and arc tic exploration become the last, bright, hope of holding everything together.

But going after ever harder, deeper and more difficult resources is really just the final flourish of a burnt-out system. Dr Cornelius is clearly a smart guy. If he’d wanted to suggest that offshore fracking is really is hot stuff after all, he could easily have named his company Corona (after the superheated plasma surrounding the sun).

But as it’s called Nebula, I guess we’re being invited to draw our own conclusions.

Fracking silly numbers for UK gas

It’s quite hard to overstate the sheer idiocy of the claims made by UK shale gas’s most ardent promoters.

They’ve been in a state of pantie-twisting excitement ever since the British Geological Survey came out with its highly questionable estimate of 1,300 trillion cubic feet of frackable gas ‘neath the ageless hills of the North.

The big claim is that just 10% of that resource would be enough to maintain Britain’s gas consumption at current rates for 40 years.

They don’t say how many wells would be needed – probably because they’ve not thought about it.

Well, according to the US Geological Survey (which is like the British one, only bigger and with actual hands-on experience of shale gas fields), the average fracked gas well in Marcellus Shale yields 0.8 billion cubic feet of gas over its lifetime.

One of the marvellous tricks you can do with Google Chrome is type “130 trillion divided by 0.8 billion” into the omnibox and get the answer without needing to check you’ve entered all the right noughts.

It even spells out the result: “one hundred sixty-two thousand five hundred.”

So IF there’s 1,300 trillion bcf of gas up there, and IF they can get 10% of it, and IF the production rates are as ‘good’ as the US average, the North West can look forward to around 160,000 separate doses of fracking to get it all out.

Fracking well being drilled
This times 160,000 anyone?

If all the gas was under Lancashire, that’d be 60 wells per square kilometre, assuming they opened up every inch of the county not already under roads or buildings. For comparison, rig density in real-world fracking in the US is more like three wells per sq km (or 80 acres per rig).

Even if the volumes that bubble up in gasmen’s pipe dreams really are there in Britain, it’s clear that there’s physically no way to get out more than a tiny fraction of them. Not even if they turn the North West into the world’s biggest pincushion.

As for the economics of shale gas, they don’t add up either. At least, not for anyone except the City and a few big landowners like the Church of England. But that’s another story for another day.

Why bury bad news when you can frack it?

Conflating resources with reserves is the oldest elision in the energy huckster’s lexicon.

But what’s a poor government to do after having to announce yet another round of spending cuts because (whisper it) growth is over.

So yesterday the British Geological Survey (a sub-branch of gov.uk’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) stepped up with news that shale gas resources in the north of England could be twice as big as previously estimated.

It worked like a charm. It always does. Throwing a big number at the UK’s mainstream media is like chucking a crate of sweets at a primary school class. Cor! One thousand three hundred trillion cubic feet of shale gas!

The sole purpose of the exercise was to generate big headlines like the Guardian’s Britain’s shale gas deposits ‘could supply country for 25 years’. Yes siree! It’s all good news, consumers. Go back to sleepwalking.

But it’s a very odd story even by the today’s standards of run-of-the-mill government lying and manipulation. Professor Mike Stephenson, head of energy at the BGS, had to deny that the BGS had been leant on by gov.uk to come up with a large number.

Reporting the story also seems to have pushed the BBC’s news-poodle tendencies to the limit. Its story was at pains to highlight the difference between resources and reserves. It also pointed out that:

The report for the government comes as energy regulator Ofgem warned that the risks of power blackouts has increased because excess capacity in the power industry has fallen in the UK.

The watchdog has twice warned in recent months that the amount of spare power is shrinking, partly due to some gas generators being taken out of service.

Hmmm. Dunno about your maths but to me “25 years’ gas supply” + “gas generators taken out of service” = WTF?

This story is fundamentally part of the huge turn that industrial civilisation is making. The turn away from almost endless energy from plentiful, cheap fossil sources.

Fracking well being drilled

In terms of our civilisation’s needs, fracking is a desperate measure. The US ‘shale revolution’ is already beginning to roll over because they can’t afford to punch new wells fast enough to keep output growing and new investment rolling in. They’re closing in on the  point where the Ponzi pops.

Ugly veinous pinchushion

Even if the vales and dales of northern England end up thickly spotted with frack pads and service roads like an ugly, veinous pincushion (which they will in order to extract meaningful amounts of gas), fracking’s impact on the UK’s economic trajectory will be useful but far less dramatic than the government’s spinners would like us to believe.

Every story paints a picture

Oliver Valves sounds like a minor character from a Goon Show episode  In fact, it’s a manufacturing firm in Cheshire.

The Telegraph asked the boss for his thoughts on yesterday’s budget statement. He liked less corporation tax and more help for exporters.

Then he got on to energy:

“While the Prime Minister is talking rubbish about wind farms, I’m also really pleased the Chancellor is talking of shale gas. If you drill part of Lancashire, you can have enough gas and oil coming out of shale extraction to run Britain for the next 65 years, so why are we mucking about with wind farms?”

Lordy. And he has the cheek to accuse the PM of talking rubbish.

At first I thought these were the opinions of yet another all-round business person whose natural over-optimism had been stimulated by the tall tales told by the shale fairy.

Then I checked out his business and realised he is simply talking his book. Oliver Valves sells stuff to the oil and gas industry.

Shale is the perfect pitch for suppliers. Rapidly-depleting wells lead to frenzy of drilling and piping as gas companies run faster and faster just to maintain production. Crap economics for the producers but great business for their supply chain while it lasts.

By all means give shale gas in Lancashire a try. But don’t make us laugh by trying to pretend that punching a couple of holes will put Britain straight for 65 years. More like 6.5 years – even if Lancashire and many other places get punctured like pin cushions.

Still, if there’s a prize for summing up the shale gas canard in 100 words or less, the Telegraph piece should make it on to the short-list.

Sadly for all of us in advanced industrial countries, the high oil and gas prices that make shale economic in the short term are slowly killing demand for oil and gas. In turn, that is slowly killing our iteration of high tech industrialisation.

You’d think we’d be trying all the options. Wind farms included. But hell no. It looks as though we’ll ride the technologies we know all the way to the bitter end.

Final scene from Dr Srangelove