EDF is foisting second-rate nuclear technology onto Britain, and we can’t stop them

A Slog exposé of Britain’s woefully hands-off ‘secure energy’ policy

This is a tale of clever government omission in what it puts out about energy. A brief history of the inane reasons behind the UK’s choice of nuclear reactor type. A classic example of having no control over our own national destiny any more. The continuing story of the unaccountable obviating their responsibilities. And the obsession of governments throughout the world with nuclear development in terms of weaponry.

The French privatised EDF (Electricité de France) is, as anyone who’s been to London must be aware, ‘powering’ the Olympics. It is also, effectively, in charge of the development of nuclear-generated electricity in the United Kingdom. Following the privatisation of electricity generation in the UK, in the years leading up to 2002 the three allegedly competitive companies  ─ SEEBoard, London Energy and SWEB ─ were bought ogether to form British Energy plc, and this was acquired by the French to form EDF Energy. In 2009, EDF Energy purchased British Energy and all its assets, including land at Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point and Sizewell, in order to form an 80/20 joint venture with Centrica to to build 6.4GW of new nuclear. This will use the Areva EPR reactor type, based on uranium technology.

The British bureaucratic Establishment is somewhat economical and evasive about what the real situation is here. The Department’s website produces this classic piece of swerving Sir Humphrey (my italics):

‘The UK government is supportive of – but not involved in – the delivery of a nuclear new build programme for the UK….Though government is not directly involved in new nuclear developments, the Office for Nuclear Development (OND), which is part of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), is involved in developing the stable policy framework which is essential for new build, removing unnecessary barriers and implementing facilitative actions.”

Decoded and abbreviated, this means “We dicked about with the energy football under New Labour, but now we need to get on with it, even though we can’t afford it. So over to you, EDF.” The Coalition Government which took power in May 2010 has backed the plans for new nuclear, and progress to new build remains on track.

The DECC’s output is also blatantly biased in its assessment of the technology chosen (again, my italics):

‘Nuclear power is low-carbon, affordable, dependable, and capable of increasing diversity of energy supply. The 2008 Nuclear White Paper stated that new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country’s future energy mix, alongside other low-carbon sources….Nuclear power stations generate electricity from energy produced by the fission, or splitting, of uranium atoms…This process creates very large amounts of energy: per atom the energy released is about 50 million times more than that released from the combustion of carbon….Most nuclear fuel is made from enriched uranium (although UK Magnox stations use natural uranium). Uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate is readily available on the world market…’

Judging from the above, you could be excused for thinking that Britain has a flourishing non-carbon generation sector (it doesn’t) and that uranium is the only element via which nuclear energy can be generated. Well, it isn’t. What follows may surprise you, but five separate information and human sources have confirmed every word of it.

Uranium is the 92nd element in the periodic elements table that baffled us all at school; but the 90th place element in that table is Thorium. Never heard of it? Probably not, but Western scientists estimate that the nuclear energy available in thorium is greater than that available from all of the world’s oil, coal and uranium combined.

Thorium is approximately three times as abundant as uranium in the earth’s crust. In addition, thorium is present in higher concentrations (2-10%) by weight than uranium (0.1-1%) in their respective ores, making thorium retrieval much less expensive and less environmentally damaging per unit of energy extracted. Countries with significant thorium mineral deposits include: Australia, India, Brazil, USA, Canada, China, Russia, Norway, Turkey, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, South Africa, and Malaysia. Its availability is both broader and deeper than uranium, and it produces a fraction of the nuclear waste left after using uranium for electricity generation.

But it is a minority choice for reactors round the  world. A senior researcher explains with refreshing bluntness why:

“Ah, that’s easy. You can’t make bombs out of it. Bombs should, of course, have zero importance in the decision about which material to use for nuclear electricity generation. Thorium is plentiful, easier in terms of disposal, and vastly – hugely – more efficient than uranium. But you can’t make bombs out of it. So nobody uses it. It’s insane”.

A specialist media source tips me off by email as follows:

“I am not a rabid anti-nuclear person – I would not oppose new nuclear plants on condition they were based on thorium technology, which is (potentially at least) vastly superior to current uranium technology in terms of safety, clean-up costs, waste storage and nuclear proliferation risks. But we are not being offered thorium, and nobody anywhere seems to know or care about the difference between the two….the main difference between uranium and thorium is its thermal efficiency. Uranium’s is pitifully bad, which means there is lots of waste and lots of bad stuff left after the reaction, some of which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Thorium’s thermal efficiency is – if I remember rightly – 97%, which means there is a fraction of the waste, and that waste is non-radioactive within 300 years.”

And finally, this from the US – source must remain vague I’m afraid:

“The major reason why thorium use for energy production has not made more progress over the past decades is that thorium is not nearly as easy to weaponize. The principal reason thorium hasn’t been used more widely to date is that the ore contains no fissile isotope.”

‘Weaponize’ eh? Doncha love it?

OK fine, the Pentagon doesn’t like it, so it doesn’t sell. But as the UK boffin quoted above remarks, why should that matter to French-owned EDF? And this is where it gets interesting.

The largest percentage of all EDF’s uranium is supplied by an outfit majority-owned by the French government called Areva SA. On February 10th this year, EDF extended Areva’s uranium supply contract from 2014 to 2030. That’s quite an extension, but the reason involves some pretty obvious back-scratching: EDF is being guaranteed 20,000 tons of supply in return for partly financing a new Areva mining project.

Clearly, uranium supply isn’t quite as secure as the DECC would have us believe. On May 16th, for example, Uranium Investing News noted that the impact of Labour disputes among African uranium miners ‘could be considerable if continued challenges become more widespread’. And supply from that continent could dry up quite quickly if the virtual annexation of it by China carries on at its current pace. But my specialist media source helps us out here:

“Something else you should know about uranium v thorium, is that the uranium model has an inbuilt income stream in terms of making the uranium fuel pellets. Companies like EDF love this because, at the same time as securing huge deals for new power plants with governments, they also get a permanent order for the fuel that is required to go into each plant, and of course there is a healthy mark-up along the way.”

That’ll be the munnneeeeee again, folks.

Of late, Areva has been trying to calm fears about uranium supply by predicting a glut of it between now and 2014…which, spookily enough, is when the company’s new contract extension with EDF kicks off. Given China’s increasing adoption of nuclear electricity, that seems an odd forecast to me, but there you are. Wheels within wheels and all that.

But EDF energy remains committed to diversifying the energy it has on hand to sell. Before the Delingpolar one at the Torygraph has an attack of the vapours, let me quickly review the “CETO” wave energy device being developed by Carnegie Wave Energy. It is a joint Australian-British endeavour, and its main plus point is having most of the equipment based on land – which makes it easy to maintain and cheap to run. The technology is also very power-dense, and capable of producing something like five gigawatts of energy per square mile. Astonishingly, it can also be turned into a desalination device when it is not needed for energy generation. No more standpipes for Britain, then. Amazing.

However, the exclusive rights to use the technology in the northern hemisphere have been sold to….EDF. So, here we have a nuclear company trying to foist upon the unsuspecting British taxpayer hugely expensive uranium nuclear plants while also having rights to far superior technology that is relatively close to full commercialisation, and could so easily be employed in the waters around the UK.

But worry not, Sir Humphrey – for Britain is keeping an eye on things….while studiously avoiding any responsibility.

Nobody – and I mean literally, nobody – in the UK’s governmental class is investing in energy breakthroughs that might give us back some control over our future supply. And unlike most of them (which can be demolished by James Delingpole in a thousand or so words) there’s one coming through from across the Pond that has a lot going for it.

It’s a wind energy device, but it’s solid-state – it doesn’t move, it doesn’t make any noise, it doesn’t have to ruin the landscape, and it should be incredibly cheap. Whereas even the best solar technologies today are only now getting under $1 a watt generation cost, the people developing this are aiming for $10-$50 a kilowatt – in short, at a fraction of the cost. In percentage terms, an astonishing 95% cheaper. So while the Coalition fluffies and Ed Miller Band are all for erecting white elephants on every available square metre of land and sea, the developers of this approach are looking at something considerably more efficient and long-term.

The company doing this is American, and called Accio Energy. They acknowledge the limitations of current wind technology and have come up with a different way of doing things. Their driving force is Dawn White, who has a track record of both innovation and successful commercialisation of her inventions. You can watch her talking about the idea here.

Keeping it simple, Aerovoltaic technology harvests energy by using the wind to move electrically charged particles against a voltage gradient. The electricity generated is fed directly to the grid or stored locally to provide energy on demand. It is a far, far better idea than the disabled propellor towers with which our well-pensioned lunatics in the DECC are blighting British landscapes.

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Whatever your politics – be you warmist LibDem Guardian eco-warrior or libertarian climate change conspiracist fanatic – there are three very serious questions here which must be addressed by anyone concerned about the future quality of life in this country:

1. Is it wise to have the British Government standing aside while those placing ‘British quality of life’ well behind shareholders, uranium bias, defence, and French interests are running the show?

2. Whatever you think about ecology, none of us would give a 3000-year halflife radioactive isotope to our kids as a means of keeping them quiet during the footie. Why should we let the Pentagon et al take the decision to make nuclear waste disposal ten times more difficult than it need be….and the price of electricity generation up to four times higher than it could be?

3. If we don’t want to wind up with an injudicious blend of low-grade fantasy fart-recycling, dead-end nuclear technology, and late adoption of effective natural power harnessing, then shouldn’t we be a lot less dependent on EDF? If nothing else, somebody somewhere should be pondering this fact: for all it’s squeaky-clean Olympics advertising, the company remains heavily in debt. Its profitability suffered during the recession which began in 2008. It made €3.9 billion in 2009, which fell to €1.02 billion in 2010, with provisions set aside amounting to €2.9 billion.

This piece is most emphatically not a Leftie argument for renationalising energy in the UK: I would like to take the planning of energy requirements as far away from Sir Humprey and the vote-centric pols as possible.

But what I would suggest is that there are some things – given our parlous lack of any self-sufficiency in the forthcoming global fiscal and economic crisis – that simply should not be in foreign hands. This is a case, to my mind, for a patriotic mutual to take 0ver – not the entire energy industry – but certainly the selfishly British strategy for securing our future energy needs.

ALSO AT THE SLOG TODAY: Mario Draghi speaks mind, mind complains it wasn’t ready