Friday, February 05, 2010

Underreacting - Again

Brace yourselves, people. Start looking out those candles and remember to wrap up warm. It seems that a mishap has just hit Torness Nuclear Power Station, causing one of the reactors, our most 'reliable' source of energy, to shut down. What? You mean that the lights don't go off without nuclear after all? Oh...

It should be pointed out that the fault affected a transformer, rather than anything more critical, and that the reactor shut itself down automatically only as a precaution. However, it does highlight one of the biggest drawbacks of nuclear as a source of power, at least when it comes to Scotland.

The conventional wisdom of the nuke fanatics is that it generates 50% of Scotland's electricity, a myth which I've stamped on before. The truth is that when both Torness and Hunterston are going at full output, they generate something like 35% of our total output, meaning that if one of either station's two reactors shuts down, we lose nearly 9% of our normal capacity. If either station has to shut completely, as happened to Hunterston B over 2006/7, that's the equivalent of losing all the power Scotland exports routinely through the interconnector.

That nuclear is inflexible to demand is one of the reasons it is spoken of in hushed tones of reverence as a way of meeting 'base load'. The flip side of this is that any sudden and unexpected loss of a big chunk of capacity like this can be hard to deal with. The same of course is true of any large power station going out of service. However, the problem is magnified many times where nuclear is concerned, not least because the down time for conventional stations in the event of a shutdown is seldom as lengthy as it is for nuclear.

The loss of a reactor affects the 'levelised' cost - the total cost of the station over its lifespan. Given the astronomical construction costs associated with nuclear power, and even allowing for the fact that the brave, swashbuckling capitalists of the nuclear industry still need the taxpayer to take the decommissioning liabilities off their balance sheet, the lengthy outages common to the UK industry do nothing to convince that nuclear can be considered either cheap or reliable.

In contrast, tidal flow and waves are as predictable as the moon orbiting the earth. If the wind doesn't blow in one part of the country, it will generally be blowing somewhere else. Demand is generally predictable, as is the ability of conventional fossil fuel powered stations, hydro, pumped storage, tidal, wave and wind to match it. A decentralised grid, flat connection charges, feed in tariffs to encourage take up of domestic microgeneration, and greater energy efficiency represent a much more sensible approach than putting so many of our eggs in the nuclear basket.

Nuclear might well be a wise option for countries lacking the ability to sequestrate carbon, or without access to significant resources of wind, wave, tidal and hydro power. They can choose that course if they wish, and be saddled with the financial millstone of decommissioning. In Scotland at least, our comparative advantages, and greatest opportunities, lie elsewhere.

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