Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 17

Memorandum submitted by NNC Limited

1.  INTRODUCTION

  NNC is a UK owned company, with nearly 50 years experience in the UK nuclear industry. NNC and its predecessor companies designed and built the UK fleet of MAGNOX, AGR and PWR civil nuclear reactors, as well as the MAGNOX reactors at Latina in Italy and Tokai-Mura in Japan. NNC has also been at the forefront of the management of radioactive waste. In the UK the Company is now a leading provider of nuclear services to British Energy, BNFL, UKAEA, the Environment Agency and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). Internationally NNC has won more nuclear work in Eastern Europe than any other UK company and has recently developed a significant presence in Canada making NNC one of the largest nuclear analysis companies in the world.

  NNC believes that the UK needs sufficient quantities of affordable, secure, sustainable, safe and environmentally responsible sources of energy. No single technology provides a perfect solution to all these requirements; the challenge is to derive the best overall mix in the eventual solution. To this end Government policy needs to be founded on a risk-based approach that balances cost, safety, security of supply, environmental damage and consumption of natural resources.

2.  BALANCE OF TODAY'S ENERGY SUPPLY

  The energy economy of the UK is dominated by carbon-based fuels, of the 238 million tonnes of oil equivalent worth of energy consumed by the UK in 2001 only 2% was supplied by nuclear and only 1% from renewables technology, therefore 97% of our energy came from carbon sources.

  The percentage sector shares in total energy consumption reveals transport 34%; domestic 30%; industry 22% and the service sector 18%. Looking at all non-transport energy consumption it is worthy of note that space heating and water heating amounted to 82% of domestic use and 64% of commercial use of energy1. This distribution of consumption indicates the priority areas that should be targeted for action.

3.  THE UK ENERGY MARKET

  The UK market is highly competitive, with very low energy prices, as the investment made by previous generations is being exploited (Oil, Gas, Coal and Nuclear). There is little incentive, even for mature technologies, to build capital plant in the current market and no inventive to invest in developing immature technologies like renewables. In addition there is very little incentive to conserve energy for either the domestic or commercial consumer.

4.  EXPENDITURE ON RD&D

4.1  Nuclear

  It is true to say that significant R&D funding is in place for nuclear fusion projects, and this funding is essential as it addresses the long-term energy supply issue. Whilst fusion has considerable promise for the future it will not feature in the energy supply market until at least 2020, with current expectations being 2050 or beyond. By contrast, despite providing some quarter of our current energy, nuclear fission is not attracting any research funding beyond safety support for ongoing operations.

  The lack of investment in the only proven source of high-grade energy that is able to provide base load capacity without carbon emission is slowly starving the industry to death. No universities now run nuclear engineering courses and nuclear physics courses are under-subscribed, add to this an ageing professional workforce one is left with serious issues of the sustainability of the UK industrial base for nuclear technology and Science and Technology in general. The run down of the nuclear industry in the UK's even more perverse given that it has an enviable safety record and has demonstrated long-term availability and reliability, the skills required to run and decommission existing nuclear plant are not the same as those required for designing and building new plant, the latter creative skills need to be honed by undertaking directed and useful R&D work.

  Funding on fission R&D needs to be directed at stimulating the nuclear industry base so that it is prepared for any new build programme. More specifically the opportunity to do research into less costly, more efficient, intrinsically safe, lower waste inventory plant needs to be supported, if the wealth of experience in the industry is to be exploited. As a particular item, research into optimising any new plant to deplete the plutonium inventory should be pursued, current estimates would indicate several hundreds of years of UK energy supply are available from this source and its use as a fuel renders it unavailable for other uses. Co-ordinated UK R&D funding would benefit by sharing in international R&D expenditure.

  Having invested in this research the UK can benefit;

  Domestically by having a nuclear base load capacity that is:

    —  carbon free;

    —  intrinsically safer; and

    —  produces far less waste than older plants.

  Internationally by having the skills to operate in:

    —  a global through life support market; and

    —  a growing new build market

4.2  Renewables

  NNC believes that the development of renewable energy sources is essential to create the correct energy mix. However, the three main drawbacks of renewable energy sources are their low energy density, intermittency and transmission/distribution difficulties. A further drawback is that very few are direct conversion processes, thus they suffer compounding conversion inefficiencies.

  NNC believes that the renewables sector has a very valuable contribution to make in reducing the UK energy sectors carbon dependency, but is convinced that the "market" is unlikely to take the initiative. Thus R&D funding is required to directly address the three main drawbacks and specifically research direct conversion processes.

  For the renewables sector, funding of Demonstration projects is particularly necessary as they often combine established technologies in a novel mix (eg wave power combines naval architecture and marine engineering with power generation and distribution), have practicability concerns or scalability issues. Demonstration programmes that specifically address the implementation aspects will help to mitigate the risks on full-scale projects and provide confidence for potential funders.

4.2.1  Wind

  Wind power is of low energy density, diffuse and intermittent. Even before considering the level of unavailability due to maintenance, on average for 15% of the time there is no wind available to turn the generator. The cost of onshore wind energy will fall with development to become comparable with current generation costs, however for offshore the cost will be far higher as distribution infrastructure cost will have to be recovered and the maintenance cost (due to a harsh, remote marine environment) will be high. The areas of land or sea required to site wind farms of sufficient output to make a meaningful contribution to UK energy supply is considerable, very large areas will have to be given over to power generation and the environmental impact will be significant.

  The R&D effort should be concentrated on making wind generation more efficient, providing transmission/distribution solutions, reducing the initial cost and lowering the through life costs.

4.2.2  Wave/Tidal

  Whilst still having low energy density, it is reliable and predictable. Wave and tidal power has many attractions, not least of which is that it draws on the natural energy store of the sea itself. Unfortunately there are only a limited number of locations where the source of energy is sensibly close to the users of energy and/or the grid distribution infrastructure. In order to overcome this location problem it is likely that expenditure on distribution infrastructure will be required. As with wind power, the area the installations will occupy is considerable with significant impact on the environment.

  The R&D effort should be directed at how best to harvest the energy, what is the optimum conversion mechanism and what is the optimum distribution methodology.

4.2.3  Hydro-electric

  Within the UK there are limited economic opportunities for large-scale hydroelectric schemes. The technology is mature and already integrated into the grid infrastructure. Where it is exploitable it is an ideal solution. Unless the technology could command an electricity price premium further exploitation appears unlikely. In addition, large-scale hydroelectricity schemes in other countries have required major changes in the landscape causing significant environmental disturbance. Research into further candidate sites and at what cost per Kwh they become economic to build would be of value, if this has not already been done.

4.2.4  Solar

  Solar power is of low energy density, diffuse and intermittent. In addition in the UK it is seasonally out of phase with demand. The traditional segmentation into passive and active solar heating and direct conversion Photo Voltaic is helpful in determining the most appropriate way of utilising this source.

4.2.4.1  Passive & Active Heating

  The DTI figures 1 state that space heating and hot water heating account for 82% of domestic energy use and 64% of commercial use of energy. This activity substantially only requires low-grade energy (for space and water heating). Heating for habitability is conducive and active and passive solar technology requiring only a "top up" with higher-grade energy as required. This approach is only really appropriate for new housing or industrial stock and possibly appropriate as a retrofit for major renovations. In any event it will need incentivising for builders to install it and owner to specify it.

4.2.4.2  Photo Voltaic

  Photo Voltaic has a major advantage of being a direct conversion device that uses semi-conductor technology. Therefore the potential exists to increase the performance/price ratio, as has been the experience with computer chips. Currently the price is too prohibitive for wide scale adoption of the technology, so RD&D should identify what technological breakthroughs are required to exploit the full economic benefits of that technology.

4.2.5  Biofuels and Waste

  Energy from biofuels and waste clearly has a significant role to play in providing energy that should be carbon neutral (rather than carbon free). Currently it provides over 85% of renewable energy in the UK2. This extraction of energy uses established technology and can provide the energy as heat or electricity. It is therefore well placed to substitute for fossil fuels. It is particularly amenable to space and water heating applications which as stated above account for 82% of domestic energy use and 64% of commercial use of energy. Biofuels and waste energy is medium-grade energy and therefore much easier to use as a substitute to the high-grade energy sources of carbons and hydrocarbons for heating for habitability reasons.

  The major drawbacks are the acreage required to grow biofuels and the fact that they are at best carbon neutral.

  The RD&D issues are more those of optimising size of plant, local distribution power or grid connection, transport implications (fuel in-ash out), quality control of fuel supply, cost reductions through innovation and of course the planning issue.

4.2.6  Fuel Cells

  Fuel cell technology is conversion technology rather than an energy source. Taken together with hydrogen (see below) it has many potential applications and should be pursued. However the energy density remains modest and an infrastructure to support its broad adoption will need to be put in place.

4.2.7  Hydrogen

  In order to utilise hydrogen as a commercial source of energy, electricity will be require to create the hydrogen, strictly hydrogen is an energy vector rather than an energy source. In many ways hydrogen represents a very attractive solution, as it is transportable and clean. Its drawbacks relate to the nature of the primary energy source (what type of PowerStation is providing the electricity and is it producing carbon?), together with the significant challenges of the safe handling and storage of hydrogen. Despite this hydrogen may be the key to migrating transport users away from hydrocarbons and into using cleaner fuels, given that transport is the largest energy user and there is significant growth in energy use in delivery vehicles, the attraction of hydrogen is clear. Hydrogen also has merit as an energy storage medium, either to solve the intermittency of renewables or for energy distribution remote from existing fixed infrastructures. The technical challenges of making Hydrogen safe and practical in everyday use are considerable, but so are the benefits.

  The R&D technical issues are those of; production, transportation/handling, safety and storage, whilst research on the economic and environmental issues of moving to a hydrogen economy needs to be undertaken. Demonstration and verification of the safe use, economic benefits and environmental benefits will be required if public acceptance is to be achieved.

5.  INFRASTRUCTURE ISSUES

5.1  Transport

  The shaping of a cohesive transport infrastructure is beyond the scope of this response, however since transport is such a large user of energy NNC would make the following observation.

  The growth in the use of goods vehicles continue unabated. It is essential to shift the primary energy source from hydrocarbons to carbon free sources. There will be little, if any, net benefit to the environment if for example electric cars were recharged by additional coal burning power stations.

5.2  Electrical Power Distribution

  With renewables emerging as viable alternative sources of energy, two distinct power distribution issues need to be addressed;

  Firstly, there are few places where exploitable sources of bulk energy (offshore wind and offshore wave) are sensibly close to the existing electrical distribution network. This implies investment in new power distribution infrastructure to exploit these assets.

  Secondly, many of the renewable sources are more amenable to a modest sized local generation capability, rather than large-scale power station. This implies a more diverse power generation approach with a mix of large, medium and small producers.

  Taking these two points together, there is a need to research the best way to harness all potential power supplies into the distribution system and drive the optimum generation capacity mix of renewable; wind, biomass, wave etc.

6.  CONCLUSION

  The UK has an overwhelming dependence on carbon-based sources of energy. Many sustainable alternative sources of energy, that do not use fossil fuels, are available all carry advantages and disadvantages. The carbon-based economy has developed an entire infrastructure based on high-grade energy; therefore there are significant barriers to entry for low and medium grade energy providers. Renewables alone cannot provide the quantity of energy to sustain the UK without large areas of land and/or sea being turned over to producing energy as electricity or heat. NNC believe that RD&D funding needs to address these issues to shape UK energy policy and migrate away from depending entirely on carbon fuels.

  Transport is a key area where few substitutes for hydrocarbons exist; NNC would suggest this sector needs RD&D on viable alternatives urgently.

  The heating of domestic and commercial property for habitability reasons consumes the lion's share of domestic and commercial energy use, yet this demand does not intrinsically require high-grade energy. The role of low and medium grade energy in supplementing demand in this sector needs addressing.

  The only technology that is carbon free and can provide sufficient supplies of high-grade energy is nuclear. Fusion technology is an energy source for the future and should be pursued. Fission technology is available now and needs modest RD&D funding to bring to market the next generation of lower cost nuclear plant, producing significantly lower waste, that incorporate all the gained knowledge of the past 50 years.

20 September 2002



 
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