The UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy is masking stark regional divides, according to new research, with regions such as the North of England and East Midlands being left behind. Researchers from Imperial College London and consultancy firm E4tech are warning of a two-tier emerging as Britain undergoes an energy revolution. While many businesses and homes across London, Scotland and the East are set to benefit from clean growth and lower energy bills, research has found that regions such as Wales, Yorkshire and the East Midlands are falling behind. Some of these regions are suffering from low energy efficiency ratings, while cost of heating, combined with lower average incomes in these areas mean that fuel poverty rates are particularly high. Imperial’s Dr Iain Staffnell said: “The country is going through an energy revolution. We are creating an energy system which will power our future economy and help tackle climate change. “But, our research reveals that Britain is at risk of creating a two-tier economy, leaving millions of families and businesses less well equipped to enjoy cheaper bills and better health outcomes. Our concern is they will not be offered the same opportunities as people living in regions which are modernising their energy infrastructure.”
A string of subsidy-free solar farms will move ahead within weeks, marking the first fresh private investments in renewable energy without government handouts. Private equity fund Horus Capital said its new solar development arm, Suncore Energy, will begin construction of three new solar farms totalling 45MW from next month. The first of the trio will move ahead in Worsted, near Gatwick, after clinching the last ever government feed-in tariff for solar power, but the pair that follow will be the first new projects to power the grid with subsidy-free renewable electricity.
Two of the UK’s largest cities have this week moved to strengthen their decarbonisation plans, as the city councils of Manchester and Bristol both voted to bring forward their target dates for securing ‘carbon neutral; or ‘zero carbon’ status. On Tuesday, Bristol City Council unanimously backed a motion put forward by Green party councillor Carla Denyer to make the city ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030 – a full 20 years earlier than the previous target. The move came as Manchester City Council’s Executive formally adopted a new target to become a ‘zero carbon city’ by 2038, 12 years earlier than the target it replaces. Denyer hailed the vote as “a fantastic day for Bristol”, adding that it provided further evidence cities and sub-national governments can lead the response to the escalating climate risks highlighted by the recent IPCC report. Manchester City Council’s Executive backed a plan developed by the Council’s Climate Change Board with input from the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre. The plan, dubbed Playing Our Full Part, would introduce a science-based ‘carbon budget’ for the city that caps total emissions at 15 million tonnes from 2018-2100. To meet the target the city will be required to cut emissions 13 per cent year-on-year from 2018 onwards, making it a net zero carbon city by 2038. The Manchester Climate Change Board will now develop a draft action plan by March 2019, ahead of producing a final plan by 2020, detailing how the city can stay within its carbon budget.
NFLA Policy Briefing 182: Keeping up with Energy – a report on the APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) Energy Summit 2018. APSE Energy provide support and promote best practice in the development of renewable and decentralised energy in the UK. NFLA has quoted from their reports a number of times, and their work has been included in the NFLA’s annual reports on the ‘state of play’ in decentralised energy and best practice examples. This report is provided for its member authorities so that they can keep appraised of new and interesting policy developments. There were two main themes to the APSE Energy conference. Firstly, what local authorities are doing in terms of setting up Publicly Owned Energy Companies (POECs) and what this can tell us about the Scottish Government’s plans to set up a POEC. Secondly, it looked at what local authorities in Scotland are doing to implement the Scottish Government’s policies on energy efficiency.
The controversial Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield has started work on processing its final batch of waste fuel after operating for only 24 years. THORP opened in 1994 to reprocess spent fuel from the UK’s newer reactors – like Hinkley Point B – and overseas customers. Reprocessing is a chemical process which separates out plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear fuel.
There are strong parallels between THORP and the proposed £20bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant. Powerful arguments were put forward against the construction of both plants, but the Government and the Nuclear Industry continued to stubbornly pursue these massively expensive and dangerous projects. This Stop Hinkley Campaign briefing asks whether there are any lessons we can learn from the THORP experience to help us to evaluate the merits of continuing to build Hinkley Point C.
Currently, the ground-works for Hinkley Point C aren’t even finished so, in theory, it should be straightforward not to go ahead with the project, if it looks like full construction and operation would be a mistake. In fact not going ahead with the plant could save electricity consumers between £27bn and £50bn over the 35 years that the plant would have operated.
The construction of THORP was very controversial and was the subject of a Public Inquiry in 1977, which ran for one hundred days. It was argued that the Inquiry would be a way of rationally weighing up all the evidence in order to come up with the correct decision on whether or not to give the plant the go-ahead. However, Professor Brian Wynne has argued that the Inquiry was in fact a charade, meant only to give the impression of rational decision making.
At the Inquiry it was argued that THORP would be needed to supply plutonium for a new type of reactor – the Fast Breeder Reactor. Justice Parker, the Inquiry Inspector, concluded that THORP should go ahead and the Government agreed. It was built in the 1980s and switched on in the 1990s. Within a week of THORP starting up, the prototype Fast Reactor at Dounreay in the north of Scotland was shut down – ending the whole UK Fast Breeder programme.
By 1992 the original rationale for THORP had all but disappeared before it even opened so the Government decided to commission the consulting firm Touche Ross to examine the financial implications of THORP’s operation or abandonment. It concluded that the economic benefit of operating THORP versus not operating it were £1.81bn for BNFL and £950m for the UK. In 1994, after a long and agonised debate, the Government decided to allow the plant to operate and the first waste spent fuel was ‘sheared’ – the outer cladding taken off – as the first step in the reprocessing process, in March of that year.
Another raison dêtre for THORP was quickly found, with construction work of the Sellafield MOX Plant beginning a few weeks later in April 1994. This was meant to produce plutonium fuel for ordinary reactors rather than Fast Breeders. The Sellafield MOX Plant was expected to generate £400m; instead it cost £2.2 Billion.
THORP was originally expected to reprocess 7,000 tonnes of spent fuel in its first ten years of operation. By the time it closes it will probably have reprocessed around 9,300 tonnes of spent fuel. If the plant had been working to its design capacity it should have completed 9,300 tonnes ten years ago in 2008 (9). THORP’s throughput was never reliable, nor to specification
The cost of building THORP steadily rose from £300m at the time of the public inquiry in 1977 to £1.8bn on completion in 1992. With the additional cost of associated facilities this figure rose to £2.8bn. The operator at the time – British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) received advance payments from its customers of £1.6bn which largely covered the construction costs. The net result, according to BNFL was that over the first ten years the income would not only cover all building operating and future decommissioning costs, but would produce a profit of £500m. One economic analysis in 1993 pointed out that at a projected profit of only £50m per year, the economics of the project looked extremely vulnerable to unforeseen events, and British electricity consumers would be paying £1.7bn more than necessary to have British spent fuel reprocessed at THORP. This analysis turned out to be prophetic – there have certainly been plenty of unforeseen events since 1994. With THORP operating around a decade behind schedule, any notional profit originally expected must have long since been completely wiped out.
A report for the Government by management consultants Arthur D Little predicted in 2001 that the Sellafield MOX Plant would earn the UK more than £200m in foreign currency by exporting MOX fuel to Japan and several other countries. After the plant opened it was plagued by production problems due to its faulty design and layout. Instead of producing 120 tonnes of MOX a year, it managed less than 14 tonnes in eight years. The plant was closed in August 2011. (11) The plant is thought to have cost British taxpayers about £2.2bn in capital, operating and decommissioning costs since it was built. An internal report concluded that the facility was “not fit for purpose” and its performance over a decade was “very poor”.
The economics of THORP and subsequently the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) depended on the constructors and operators being able to build and operate the facilities according to the specification. But nuclear facilities being built in the west have suffered from delays and almost always tended to have large cost overruns. Recent ones have ALL suffered horrendous cost overruns – in the USA (4), France (1) and Finland (1). Yet otherwise sensible, financial analysts have, in the past produced reports to justify building facilities at Sellafield and Hinkley which seem to ignore this fact and assume construction and operation will proceed precisely on target.
The prospects of avoiding a Sellafield-scale financial disaster with Hinkley Point C do not look good. As Emeritus Professor Steve Thomas has pointed out: “Hinkley Point C would use a technology unproven in operation – the EPR – which has run into appalling problems of cost & time overruns in the 3 projects using it. It would be supplied by Areva NP, which is in financial collapse and might not be saveable and has been found to be falsifying quality control records for safety critical items of equipment for up to 50 years – a bizarre situation.”
Time to cancel Hinkley Point C now while the cancellation costs are relatively low. Leaving things any longer risks yet another Sellafield-scale financial disaster.