Professor Robin Grimes, director of London’s Imperial College Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre in Nuclear Engineering, spoke with deputy editor Tim Probert about his views on nuclear power plant lifetime extensions, Generation IV nuclear reactors and the prospects for a nuclear renaisssance on 11/01/2010. The interview in it’s entirety can be found here.
PEi: The nuclear power sector has had a somewhat chequered history from an engineering point of view. Is the industry ready to succeed in a largely ‘liberalized’ energy sector?
Grimes: In the early years of the nuclear power industry, reactor designs were usually for a safety case of 20–30 years, and latterly 40 years. As we’ve learned more over the years and designs have changed, the design criteria can be lengthened. There are a number of reasons for this.
We have better materials, we have a better understanding of scheduling maintenance, and we can design structures with the replacement of parts in mind.
The designs of the reactors are different, but we’ve learned a lot from previous designs. From new designs, we have learned how to extend the lives of existing reactors. This is particularly important financially, because once you’ve paid for the reactor, additional years are very lucrative, as the debt has been paid off.
In the UK, however, it is more problematic due to what I call ‘The British Issue’. Because the UK was first out of the blocks in designing commercial nuclear reactors – i.e. the Magnox reactors – we built each of those designs slightly differently, even down to the fuel cans. Of course, from an engineering point of view, this was not terribly efficient. When the UK moved on to the AGRs (advanced gas-cooled reactors), it still designed bespoke reactors, but at least the fuel was consistent.
Grimes: Nuclear plants are very profitable as long as the electricity price is maintained. What did for British Energy was a low electricity price, which left them with a fleet of reactors that did not make much money.
Grimes: I just don’t think that’s politically acceptable. The progress made by the nuclear industry over the past five years by convincing people that nuclear is a necessary option has been remarkable, but I don’t think an incentive is possible at this point in time.
Grimes: China is going to build an astounding number of new reactors and yet nuclear power will still only make up a relatively small proportion of its total generating capacity. And yes, it is a state issue. If they want something to happen, it will happen. Of course, it’s completely different in the West, as the power industry here needs to generate revenue, which is why its nuclear renaissance will take a different route.
Grimes: People in conventional nuclear engineering always like to say that, but it’s a little unfair. Nuclear fusion has actually made tremendous progress; it’s just a hell of lot more difficult than people at first appreciated…