Chernobyl 30 years on and the future of nuclear power

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, when an uncontrolled reaction blew the roof off, spewing out a cloud of radioactive material which drifted across a swathe of Northern Europe. The contamination reached as far as Scotland and remained until 2010.

Levels of radioactivity remain high in the surrounding area. A charity, Bridges to Belarus, is warning that a number of babies in a region close to Ukraine’s border are still being born with serious deformities, while an unusually high rate of people have rare forms of cancer. Ukraine is not a country with its problems to seek and it is here that the impact remains the greatest. A World Health Organisation investigation suggests that populations exposed to the radioactive fallout may still be struggling with a number of health problems, including cataracts, pulmonary disease and congenital disorders.

The psychological impact is equally great and many have fallen back on fiction and black humour. A joke the workers on site share, which is based on the remotely-controlled robots initially used to clear the irradiated graphite from the exploded reactor’s roof – until the radiation rendered them unresponsive. It runs: “An American robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Russian robot is up there for two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: ‘Private Ivanov! In two hours you’re welcome to come down and have a cigarette break!’”

Chernobyl has had an impact on the development on nuclear power as an energy source. Safety systems are undoubtedly much stronger, but it is also a less prevalent energy source than once expected. Germany has abandoned nuclear and others are less reliant on it.

In the UK the replacement programme is moving at snails pace. EDF, the French energy company promoting the £18bn reactor scheme at Hinkley, has admitted there would be no final investment decision at least till the summer. The French unions are concerned about the financial impact on the company and have invoked a consultation process. Hinkley has attracted criticism in the UK from a range of sources, including the City and environmental groups, as an overly-expensive project. The government has promised to pay £92.50 per megawatt hour for the power over 35 years – double the current cost.

In Scotland we are still heavily dependent on nuclear power from Hunterston and Torness as a source of base load electricity. One third of our electricity generation comes from these two plants, which operate even when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun stops shining. Even the anti-nuclear Scottish Government has not opposed life extensions to both plants.

Those who argue that there is a case for replacing at least one nuclear plant recognise it isn’t going to happen. If Hinkley is struggling to get off the ground in a benign political environment, there is no prospect of a company investing in Scotland. There is a certain irony that a dirty energy source such as fracking has more support amongst Scottish ministers.

Given the complexity and costs associated with a conventional nuclear power station, many in the industry are investing their hopes in mini-reactors. The U.K. Government wants to be a “global leader in innovative nuclear technologies”. Part of this plan involves spending £250m on a research and development programme to put the UK in with a chance of “winning” the race to develop small modular reactors (SMR).

SMR’s are essentially scaled down reactors that generate around a third of the output from a current nuclear power station, or 10% of that planned at Hinkley. That’s enough power for 1 million people all the year around, compared to the 26% output from the best wind turbines that supply less than 10,000 people.

The main advantage is probably smaller start up costs, making it a less risky investment. They can be built centrally and moved to the site. Smaller output is easier to manage on the grid and they have good safety features including an underground cooling system that makes Japanese style core meltdown unlikely. The main drawback is the increased running costs. Each kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity from an SMR would be expected to cost between 15% and 70% more than a kWh of electricity produced in a full-sized nuclear power station, due to economies of scale.

SMRs are being built in China, India and Russia and the UK government’s competition should deliver progress in the UK. On the other hand, we all remember the shambles of the CSS competition, which dragged on for years and was then abandoned.

So, on the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl we should remember the human cost of that tragedy that continues to this day. However, safety is probably the least concern with a new generation of reactors – financial cost is a much larger issue. SMRs may offer a cost effective alternative source of base load generation, but don’t expect to see any in Scotland soon.

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