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Nuclear option

Posted 16/10/2013 by sevans

Nuclear energy is back in the headlines again! While the miseries continue at Japan’s wrecked Fukushima nuclear site, with continuing reports of leaks and even workers being drenched in radioactive water, in the UK there has been some welcome news that the first two new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset are moving a little closer to becoming a reality. There has also been further positive news regarding UK nuclear safety from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

UK energy secretary Ed Davey has said that a breakthrough has been achieved in the negotiations over the UK government support that would be available to the Hinkley Point project leader, France’s nuclear company EDF, and its potential partner, state-owned China General Nuclear.

This announcement has broken the grumbling slow progress to restart the UK’s nuclear programme; however, although the UK government may try to take credit for the deal, it is also likely to be influenced in some way as a result of the EU’s decision to exclude nuclear energy from the renewable subsidy guidelines for EU member states. Nuclear subsidies will now be considered on a case-by-case basis after the new guidelines are published in November 2013 for the period 2014-20, but the impact on the UK programme is so far unknown.

Meanwhile, following a recent inspection visit, the IAEA has praised the improvements that have been made to the UK regulatory safety framework, saying that the country ‘has made ‘considerable progress since reviews in 2006 and 2009’, although further recommendations aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the framework were made as well as regards the control of radioactive discharges and environmental monitoring.

Elsewhere, announcements about other new reactor projects have been surfacing in, for example, Bangladesh, which has

But finally there has been an interesting twist to global nuclear arms reduction, which has surfaced with the news that the deal, the Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Accord, whereby the US has been using uranium fuel from disarmed Russian warheads to generate about half of the US nuclear energy is coming to an end.  

Through the Accord, which was signed after the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Russian nuclear weapons grade uranium was downgraded in Russia, and the low enriched material was sold to the US where it was turned into nuclear fuel. The deal will finish in December 2013, as Russia believes the US had been getting the uranium at too low a price and generating energy ‘on the cheap’. In future, the uranium will be sold to the US at market prices.

In addition to these higher prices, the US is also facing potential shortages of lithium, which is critical to operation of more than half of the total US reactors. According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), only Russia and China still produce significant quantities of lithium and this supply is dwindling. Lithium-7 is a byproduct of tritium production for the manufacture of hydrogen bombs, and US production ceased in 1963, while the subsequent arms reduction treaties have diminished the need for tritium for weapons production. The GAO has calculated that it would cost $10-12m and take five years to re-establish production of lithium-6 from lithium 7.

So while the US is facing significant issues regarding nuclear energy production, and a number of countries around the world have decided to exit nuclear energy, the UK and a smaller number of other countries are moving ahead with their nuclear plans. Whether we like it or not, nuclear energy is more reliable than most of the other non-fossil fuel alternatives, and we ignore its use at our peril. 

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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