Modular nuclear plants

Modular nuclear plants sound the death knell for large-scale solar

Published by West Welwyn Solar Plant Action Group

The need to transition away from fossil fuels towards clean forms of energy is universally accepted. The UK has been particularly successful at implementing offshore wind but the lack of a clear strategy on solar up to now has led to a “gold rush” with developers seeking permission for sites across the country, often in unsuitable locations, aiming to make a quick buck. Farmers, attracted by the promise of higher income from renting their land for solar than they can make from farming, have often been only too happy to play along.

Now things are set to change. Following hot on the heels of the UK Government’s recent announcement that nuclear power will be categorised as a clean energy source, news that a US-based developer of small nuclear reactors has signed a deal to sell 24 of its power plants to UK customers, subsidy-free, is a major boost to the UK’s chances of achieving net zero energy targets. It also potentially sounds the death knell for the large-scale solar plant planning applications proliferating across the UK.

Compared to solar, small nuclear plants – sometimes referred to as “modular” plants – need significantly fewer natural resources to build, take up a fraction of the land and produce a vast amount more energy. Importantly they also work 24 hours a day, 365 days of a year, not just when the sun shines or when the wind blows. This is particularly important for heavy energy users with 24-hour operations, such as data centres.

Last Energy said the £100m modular units, which are two-thirds the size of a football pitch, can output 20MW of electricity, enough to power 40,000 homes and can be operational in less than 3 years. In comparison, a solar development of 100 acres would typically claim to be able to produce sufficient energy to power 10,000 homes. In reality, this is likely to be much lower due to the intermittency of solar.

The intermittent nature of the output from renewables, particularly solar, means that it is necessary to have an alternative energy infrastructure in place, and ready to step in at a moment’s notice, to deliver 100% of the country’s requirements at any one time. If not fossil fuels, then the only current alternative is nuclear. The implications of this are that if a country is building sufficient capacity to provide 100% of its energy requirements then nuclear will have to do the heavy lifting, supported by renewables, principally offshore wind.

What does this mean for the long-term viability of large-scale solar projects. Larger modular plants, such as that being developed by Rolls Royce, would provide 100 times more power and still only take up around 25 acres of land. In addition, the heat generated from modular nuclear plants can be used for other heat-intensive applications, such as the manufacturing of cement.

In a global context, putting more emphasis on nuclear will reduce the huge environmental damage and human cost caused by mining the scarce resources required to build solar panels and battery storage. More often than not these mines are located in poorer countries around the world and, as nuclear is put front and centre of the drive to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, many fewer such mines will be required to produce the materials and minerals required for solar panels. Throw into the mix our current reliance on hostile powers, principally China, to mine and/or refine these commodities and the need for nuclear becomes irrefutable.

Given the shift towards nuclear, one has to question why we would allow our countryside to be carpeted in solar panels, often taking the place of productive agriculture, when they are likely to be obsolete within a relatively short period of time. Given the 30 to 40-year commitments and payback for solar plants, who will pay for the decommissioning and removal of panels when this happens? It is not difficult to imagine fields of abandoned panels rotting away unmaintained and local councils (or more accurately, tax-payers) having to foot the enormous costs of removing and disposing of them.

There is no question that solar still has a role to play – for local, small-scale energy production it makes a lot of sense. It is high time the government passed legislation (as in Germany) to require solar panels to be placed on rooftops of all new properties. Indeed, advances in technology, bringing to market solutions such as solar tiles, and even solar glass, mean that this option will become even more attractive. There are 250,000 hectares of south-facing warehouse space in the UK which is crying out to be used for solar energy to provide power to such businesses and local communites. In France the government has passed legislation requiring all car parks over a certain size to install solar panels and it is not uncommon there to see solar panels lining central reservations of motorways. These are the appropriate applications for solar.

Returning to the potential for nuclear, many firms are now developing modular nuclear plants. Rolls Royce’s design will produce 470MW of energy at £3.8m per megawatt compared to £10m per megawatt at the new Hinkley C plant under construction. The argument that nuclear is too expensive and takes too long to implement (never a logical argument in the first place as surely negating climate change requires the right solutions whatever the cost?) is now null and void. Renewables alone will never achieve net zero objectives and we must press ahead with building as many modular nuclear plants as possible. Now the government has opened up the industry to green subsidies this will happen quickly.

There is of course the question of safety. Those who argue that nuclear isn’t safe have little grasp of the concept of relative risk. The construction process for building a nuclear plant in the UK requires every component to be built and tested and then re-built for the actual project. Even toilet cubicles are protected by reinforced steel and concrete so that if a plane crashes into a nuclear installation, not only is the reactor protected, but the controller can’t be killed if they happen to be on the loo at the time! Safety rules are belts and braces and then some.

As far as nuclear waste is concerned, we know how to deal with this safely and effectively. There are no examples of people being injured or killed by nuclear waste. It’s stored remotely and/or underground in unimaginably strong containers and there isn’t a risk when being transported for the same reasons. Nuclear waste containers have been tested over the last 40 years by running them into concrete bunkers at 80MPH, being dropped on steel spikes, burned in jet fuel fires at thousands of degrees and sunk in deep water for weeks.

The reality is that any risk is non-existent compared to those we routinely accept in our daily lives, such as crossing the road or getting in a car.

There is no question that the world needs to move away from fossil fuels to clean alternatives. Relying on renewables alone to do this, as some advocate, is simply pie in the sky. Renewables are intermittent, we don’t have the natural resources to build sufficient renewable infrastructure and even if we did, the mining and manufacturing processes are hugely environmentally damaging in themselves. In addition, continuing to rely on China for the supply of a significant proportion of the materials needed is pure folly. The solution, which the UK government now seems to have grasped, is nuclear, supported by offshore wind with solar used for small-scale local energy provision. It is imperative that the UK Government makes this strategy crystal clear and that local government continues to refuse large-scale solar plants in sensitive locations.

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