This two-part series leads on from my last article, Sustainable Renewable Energy: Neither Sustainable Nor Renewable, and explores why something known to be unfit for purpose is being so vigorously pursued.
The UK Government has recently announced an additional £102 million in funding for nuclear and "green" hydrogen power as part of its commitment to "support clean energy production in the UK". When we come to concepts like "green" or so-called "clean energy", the Government's proposition is riddled with inconsistencies.
Not only does its nuclear plan, with its dependence on Russia, run clean contrary to all the vitriol that British politicians heap upon Vladimir Putin for "his war" in Ukraine, but the designation of "low-carbon" hydrogen is seemingly a deception, because it is founded in ludicrous assertions about the “carbon neutrality” of biomass.
As discussed in the previous accompanying article, so-called "renewable energy"—particularly in the form of solar and wind power—is neither renewable nor sustainable. The technical challenges of storing the sporadic energy surges from "renewable energy" and the global lack of resources to build the necessary renewable energy infrastructure on anything like the required scale are but two of the many unresolved problems associated with what appears to be the impossible transition to renewable energy.
In additional to this folly, the UK Government's Ten Point Plan for a "green industrial revolution" focuses upon "low-carbon" hydrogen, new and advanced nuclear power, and "carbon capture, usage and storage”. All of this raises some significant questions, not least given the UK Government's alleged opposition to the Russian Government.
Funding Russia's War Effort Through Sustainable Development
The overall financial and economic cost of transitioning to meet "net zero" is unknown. The UK Government keeps mentioning funding of so many millions here or so many billions there but, as pointed out by the Institute for Government, government projections for the period 2019–2050 range between £50 billion and £70 billion per year (£1–£1.6 trillion by 2050). Others, such as National Grid ESO, the public-private partnership that runs the UK's energy grid, put the cost closer to £3.5 trillion.
As we discussed previously, just like the German Government, the UK Government doesn't really know how much the transition will cost. The UK Institute for Government has said that "models that attempt to calculate costs have a degree of uncertainty because the underlying economics are constantly shifting."
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), none of this matters. This non-scientific political organisation, and the mainstream media that report whatever claims it makes without question, have used IPCC models and projections to state, in the absence of any evident reason, that the future we face is "frightening" if we do nothing. Who cares what the financial, economic, social and human costs are?
Of the latest tranche of £102 million funding for "clean energy", £77 million has been earmarked by the UK Government "to support nuclear fuel production and next generation advanced nuclear reactors in the UK". This money is specifically for advanced modular reactor (AMR) research and development programme and to invest in uranium recycling and enrichment.
As part of its push toward "net zero”, the Government has also committed to working with the French energy giant EDF on development of the Sizewell C nuclear plant, having bought out the China's General Nuclear Power Group's (CGN) stake for an undisclosed—and presumably irrelevant—sum. EDF initially envisaged that Sizewell's EPR reactors would be able to use recycled (or repurposed) uranium—sometimes referred to as enriched reprocessed uranium (URE).
Unfortunately, as noted in the UK Government press release:
Uranium conversion is an important stage in the nuclear fuel cycle. The funding will create expert nuclear fuel capability to convert recycled uranium in the UK that is not currently available outside Russia.
The Seversk plant in Russia, run by Russia's state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom, is the only one in the world capable of undertaking the initial conversion process for subsequent production of "reprocessed uranium”. Speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Laurent Odeh, the Chief Commercial Officer at Urenco, said:
The big problem for reprocessed uranium is you need the first step before that, which is conversion. That only takes place in Russia. [. . .] We are unable to do that enrichment of the processed uranium, but we have the technical capabilities to do so. If there is a market need, we are willing to consider additional investment there.
While uranium itself is a common earth metal, Rosatom dominates the global enrichment market, controlling an estimated 40% of the total uranium conversion, including 100% for recycled uranium, and 46% of global uranium enrichment capacity. The giant multinational corporation is a major contributor to the Russian economy and has continued to expand its overseas operations regardless of the Ukraine war or consequent sanctions.
The UK, US, Germany and other European countries can enrich uranium, including undertaking the necessary preliminary conversion of yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride (UF6). But if nuclear power is to be scaled up as a genuine replacement for fossil fuels, the increased use of energy-intense uranium mining operations around the world will itself add considerably to global carbon dioxide emissions.
Therefore, if reducing CO2 emissions is the aim, the CO2 and commercial cost of the mining can be significantly reduced by recycling uranium. That is why the French firm Orano, which calls reprocessed uranium RepU, has invested heavily in the process. As uranium becomes more expensive, the commercial benefit of RepU will also increase.
Orano, which claims that its Rosatom contracts elapsed in September 2022, notes:
EDF has recently announced the resumption of RepU recycling from 2023.
This means an ongoing partnership with Rosatom. It also partly explains why, despite the sanctions imposed by the European Union, the US and UK governments on Russia, Rosatom has been practically immune—much to the dismay of Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
A number of nuclear reactors in Eastern European states—members of the EU—specifically require Rosatom nuclear fuel. Since the Ukraine war began, Rosatom has signed new plant construction deals both with EU member states and NATO countries. It continues to export nuclear fuels to both Europe and the US with relative ease.
The UK Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Corinne Kitsell, rebuked the Russian Government for its seizure of the Zaporizhzhia (Zaporozhye) Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. She said:
The United Kingdom continues to utterly condemn the Russian government’s actions in Ukraine. [. . .] We remain gravely concerned about the implications for nuclear safety, security and safeguards of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. [. . .] The United Kingdom convened an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to condemn the Russian attack on Zaporizhzhia. [. . .]
Russia has chosen to take control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, [. . .] putting at jeopardy the safety of millions who would be affected by a nuclear incident in Ukraine. [. . .] Russia’s continued control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, including the presence of officials from ROSATOM [. . .] is also contrary to the principles Russia has freely signed up to.
Strong words, and an unequivocal condemnation of the Russian Government and Rosatom by the Ambassador. Yet the UK hasn't sanctioned Rosatom either. Nor does it seem unwilling to work with Rosatom's partners and, in so doing, contribute to Rosatom's own operations.
The UK Government's partner in the Sizewell C project, EDF, has extensive ties with Rosatom. EDF signed a strategic cooperation agreement to develop green hydrogen with Rosatom in April 2022, two months after the launch of the Russian military operation.
The funding for the AMRs is for research and development, but the UK Government public-private partnership has progressed further with small modular reactors (SMRs). The Rolls-Royce SMR, also called the UK-SMR, uses UO2 (uranium dioxide) enriched up to 4.95% in a three-loop pressurised water reactor (PWR) system.
The design and construction of the UK-SMR is being overseen by the UK-SMR Consortium. The consortium consists of Assystems, SNC Lavalin/Atkins, Wood, Arup, BAM Nuttall, Laing O’Rourke, Siemens, the National Nuclear Laboratory, the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and Rolls-Royce.
Assystem, the French0based nuclear energy engineering firm—part of the UK-SMR consortium—has a "sizeable contract" with Rosatom for the construction of its Akkuyu nuclear power plant in the NATO member state of Turkey. Speaking about SMR technology, Assystem's Chief Operating Officer, Stéphane Aubarbier, said:
Those who are the most advanced in SMRs are not the Americans, but the Russians. Rosatom has already signed contracts with the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. Whereas in Europe, the licensing of SMRs has not yet started.
Similarly, UK-SMR partner Siemens, which made a lot of noise about "condemning the war in Ukraine" and the alleged winding down of its Russian business, wasn't so incensed that it didn't carry on selling parts to Rosatom or partnering with the Russian energy firm in new European energy constructions projects. When the Ukraine war disrupted rail transport, Rosatom simply flew in nuclear energy components and fuel supplies to the EU, the US and other NATO aligned states.
Rosatom is more than just a Russian state nuclear energy corporation. It also has a national security role. The Rosatom nuclear weapons complex is responsible for the development, production and maintenance of Russian nuclear weapons. Rosatom is also a key component of the Russian government's unyielding efforts to tackle climate change and to fully engage in Agenda 2030 sustainable development.
Evidently, then, although Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calls Russia a "rogue state" and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly accuses the Russian Government of committing "atrocities”, that is no impediment to the UK Government working closely with Rosatom's commercial partners. The UK Government hasn't applied any pressure on its own partners to break these strategic relationships with Rosatom. In continuing its commercial and industrial partnerships, the UK Government is unavoidably contributing towards Russia's nuclear weapons programme and its economy.
This is not to suggest that the UK Government wants to support Russia's nuclear weapons development or assist it to overcome the sanctions; only that the nature of its public-private partnerships renders it incapable of doing otherwise—leaving it to spout nothing but hypocritical balderdash on the international stage.
Equally, Putin’s assurances to the Russian people ring hollow. In his New Year address, he said Russians were “fighting for their homeland, for truth and justice, for reliable guarantees of peace and Russia’s security.” Meanwhile the state-owned Rosatom, through its partnerships with companies like Siemens and EDF, is bolstering NATO aligned and EU economies, and thus governments. The same governments then supply the weapons that kill Russian soldiers.
Both the UK and Russian governments, as much as any other, are part of the global public-private partnership, alongside Rosatom, EDF and Rolls-Royce. All are equally committed to sustainable development, and this obviously takes precedence over any claimed animosity.
It seems, then, that the West, including all NATO-aligned governments, and the Russian state are arch-enemies, except when they're not. Disagreement appears to be restricted to the Ukraine conflict, but only where it is affordable. In every other regard, the supposed adversaries are in absolute agreement and working together to address the big global issues while continuing to support each other's economies.
While the UK AMRs are very much in the concept phase, the UK-SMR consortium is close to production. Rolls-Royce, which heads the UK-SMR projects, has already selected three potential manufacturing sites for the "modular" nuclear reactor components. Like the Russian SMRs, though a different design is used, the British SMRs are based upon naval technology and can be assembled on site from factory-made kits.
The Russian operational SMRs are currently sited on barges and are primarily used as industrial power plants for large-scale infrastructure projects, in particular the construction of the Arctic Silk Road. Earlier this year, China became the first country in the world to bring a commercial onshore SMR online. Situated in the Shidao Bay nuclear plant complex, it uses a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) to heat helium to then drive the turbines that generate electricity.
According to the UK Government, the possible future development of AMRs, and the more realistic near deployment of SMRs, will help the UK to "decarbonise" its economy. This notwithstanding, there appears, looking beyond the UK's industry, to be a rather large shortfall in the total energy generation proposed.
Referring to "renewable energy" (excluding nuclear) as "low-carbon technologies", the Government's AMR R&D Phase A report notes:
The UK’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy highlights that the majority (70%) of the UK industrial energy demand is for heat. [. . .] there is currently no cost-effective technology solution for the decarbonisation of industrial heat. Hence, HMG aims to develop and demonstrate AMRs by the early 2030s so that they can be a viable cost-effective technology solution option (alongside other low-carbon technologies) for decarbonising industrial heat, and potentially for cost-competitive electricity generation.
To be clear, only nuclear power can possibly replace the "heat energy" that industry currently gets from so-called fossil fuels. Other sources, such as hydrogen, could do it, but sufficient energy is needed to manufacture the hydrogen in the first place. Nuclear is the only viable "low-carbon" option for the scale of hydrogen production required. Claims that natural gas can be used to generate the hydrogen cannot be considered a “low-carbon” solution. It is, however, being touted as such. This is yet more nonsense and we will return to it in Part 2.
In its self-professed Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy, the UK Government demands of the private sector:
We want to provide a clear signal to industry, setting out how we expect decarbonisation will happen through the sector.
The Government might as well provide clear signals about how it expects industry to turn lead into gold. While it is theoretically possible to achieve this "ambitious target", there isn't any actual sign of it happening.
If we really are going to switch to "low-carbon" energy generation, then SMRs are, at least, a more practical proposition than wind or solar power. The proposed design will generate around 470 megawatts. To generate the same from a wind farm would require roughly 10,000 times the acreage, and the figure would be at least 1,000 times for an equivalent solar farm. However, as we noted previously, the energy from such "renewables" is sporadic and needs to be stored somehow for it to be of any practical use.
To date, the UK hasn't built any SMRs. Speaking at the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Tom Samson, CEO of Rolls-Royce SMR, said:
[. . .] we believe the first unit will be on the grid probably in the early 2030s. [. . .] We looked at the NDA [Nuclear Decommissioning Authority] estate and other nuclear sites that are designated for large gigawatt or are under EDF, Chinese or French control, which could readily be deployed as nuclear sites for SMR. Within that existing footprint, there is enough space to accommodate all of the 24 GW that we would need from nuclear by 2050.
Assuming that UK industrial energy requirements don't increase markedly over the next three decades, SMRs could certainly contribute towards the "decarbonisation" of British industry. While Samson's statement suggests that the UK-SMR consortium envisage the construction of around 40 or more SMRs by 2050, he also notes that none will be ready for 2030, with perhaps one or possibly two completed by 2035.
A terawatt is one trillion watts, equating to to 1000 GW (gigawatts). That amount of output is expressed in terawatt hours (TWh) when referring to the equivalent generated heat energy required by UK industry.
According to government statistics, the UK's industrial demand for energy in 2021 decreased as a result of the pseudopandemic shutdown. Nonetheless, British industry used the equivalent of 95 TWh of natural gas and around 110 TWh of electricity, in addition to the oil, coal and renewable energy it required.
There are 8,760 hours in a year; therefore, an SMR, running at full capacity and maximum efficiency for one year, could generate up to 4 TWh. The capacity factor is the difference between a power station's theoretical maximum and achievable output. The capacity factor of SMRs is as high as 75%. So the proposed SMRs could generate the equivalent of 3 TWh (a year).
The Government has already admitted that the "low-carbon technologies" (renewable energy) needed to meet the UK's industrial energy requirements don't in any practical sense exist, so how does it expect this decarbonisation alchemy to take place? We are told:
[. . .] emissions will need to reduce by at least two-thirds by 2035 and by at least 90% by 2050, with 3 MtCO2 captured through Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) and around 20 TWh switching to low carbon fuels by 2030.
A target of increasing the UK's industrial reliance upon "low-carbon" energy by 20 TWh by 2030 represents less than a 9% shift. This doesn't come close to "reducing emissions by at least two-thirds by 2035".
Lets forget about the additional energy that UK industry currently gleans from oil, coal and renewables, and assume that it only requires the 205 TWh which it presently derives from gas and electricity—regardless of how that electricity is generated. To match that alone, the UK would need to construct at least 69 SMRs.
To achieve the 20 TWh switchover by 2030, it will need at least 6 operational SMRs. It won't have any.
So the 20 TWh from "low-carbon energy" by 2030 isn't going to come from SMRs or other sources of nuclear power generation. The Government appears to be suggesting that this input will come from "renewable energy", which it has already ruled out due to its inability to provide the energy intensity needed for UK industry. The Government's expectations seem fanciful.
We also need to generate energy for domestic use: charging the future EV fleet, for example. Bearing in mind that the UK hasn't even built the factories to make the SMRs yet, the prospect of any "decarbonisation" of the UK economy using "advanced nuclear" solutions seems extremely remote.
To put this in perspective, Rolls-Royce says that one SMR can power a city the size of Leeds. With a population of just over half a million people, Leeds is the UK's eighth largest city. If we use population as a yardstick—as Rolls-Royce has—then Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow will each need at least one SMR. Birmingham will require two to three SMRs, and London will need around 17. A total of around 25 SMRs will be required just for the country's eight largest conurbations.
If we then take the remaining 992 of the UK's thousand largest towns and cities, around another 200 SMRs should do the job. With the 50 or more required to "decarbonise" UK industry, 275 would appear to be the minimum requirement by 2050.
Of course, the Government is not claiming that nuclear power can generate all of the UK's required energy. But at the moment, its ambition of generating just 24 GW from nuclear by 2050 looks like a pipedream.
The clue of how this magical emission transition is supposed to occur comes with the above-mentioned "3 MtCO2 [three million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide] captured through Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS)”. That is to say that the initial planned reduction in emissions was set to be achieved by not reducing them by three million metric tonnes by 2030. However, as the plan stands today, the objective is not to reduce emissions by 20–30 million metric tonnes (MtCO2) by 2030.
If the above paragraph makes no sense, don't be surprised. Nothing about the net-zero "low-carbon" energy transition makes sense.
That whimsy is something we'll explore in Part 2.