Thursday, 2 December 2010

Public Perception - Scary Nuclear!!

This is NOT nuclear power!


 Nuclear! Radiation! Nuclear bombs! Nuclear war! Nuclear this, nuclear that....

There is no denying or escaping the reality that the civil nuclear power has benefited enormously from the funding and research into nuclear weapons programs, however nuclear power need not be scary!

The motivations for the first nuclear reactors were to produce fissile materials such as plutonium for military weapons needs.

Although civil nuclear power has long since moved away from military involvement the association between nuclear weapons and nuclear power still looms large in many peoples perception. This seems to promote the idea that civil nuclear power is somehow inherently 'bad' or 'evil'.

It appears that many nuclear power opponents are in fact simply indiscriminately  anti 'anything nuclear'. Many current day nuclear power opponents are the very same people who were protesting against nuclear weapons at the forefront of the "Ban the bomb" movement.

Any event involving nuclear power no matter how tenuous the link to nuclear matters is pounced on and cited (always in total factual error) as 'proof' of the 'dangers' and 'madness' of nuclear technology.

A recent example of this is the media treatment of the transformer fire at Indian Point nuclear power station in New York. Those not susceptible realise that a transformer fire is and never will be a nuclear issue. Any type of power generation facillity can fall to this kind of failure.

Despite the intense focus on minor events surrounding nuclear power plants, other extremely risky and dangerous methods of power generation are given an almost free pass by the same groups. Just think how many recent incidents there have been surrounding coal mining, gas pipe explosions and need i mention Deepwater Horizon. Deaths in the mining industry often number in the thousands worldwide anually.

Deepwater Horizon fire

This said, the nuclear industry historically has not done itself any favors when it comes to communications, dispelling misinformation/misunderstanding and generally portraying itself in a positive light.

Every common argument such as safety, economic viability and 'waste' presented against nuclear power as a fatal flaw in the concept can be countered by clear communication from the industry.

The key to future and continued success from a public perception point of view is communication and support from the industry and government.

Consider that nuclear power stations in France have a number of public open days every year. In contrast it's a near impossibility to get a visit to a British nuclear facility of any kind. The French approach helps to engage the public and put hearts and minds at ease.

I have been fortunate enough to visit a number of British nuclear facilities and I know that if more of the general public were able to experience the professionalism of the industry first hand any remaining fears would evaporate.

   

Monday, 1 November 2010

50,000 Megawatts and electricity prices.

Today Britain's electricity demand reached its highest point of the year so far! At 17:00 today our electricity demand peaked at 50,685 MW.

As usual around 44% of the demand was met with combined-cycle gas power stations (or plants for our American friends), 32% by coal followed up with 16% nuclear and finally 4.6% imported from France. France of course with it's numerous nuclear reactors has abundant cheap electricity to sell to us!

The small remainder was met with a mixture of wind, pumped storage hydro and standard hydro.

During the period of peak demand electricity prices peaked at £77.90 p/MWh. This is quite a contrast to a more usual price of around £45.00 p/MWh or even earlier lows in the day of £34 p/MWh.

Why is this?

In Britain (and many other countries) electricity is traded in an open market as a commodity. Like most commodities when demand is high and supply is low prices rise. The reverse is true when supply is plentiful and demand is low.



When demand increases gas plants increase their output and generally a number of large coal plants also begin generating.

Britain's existing nuclear power stations run at (or close to) maximum output when they are online and do not alter their output in response to short term power demands. It's just not what the existing plants were designed to do.

The EPR and AP1000 reactor designs that are highly likely to constructed here are designed for load following operations. This is something that French nuclear reactors routinely do. The more demand that can be met by nuclear the more stable electricity prices will be.

Natural gas is as cheap as it's been for many years however it cannot stay that way forever and when it does start to increase due to reduced supply electricity prices will inevitably rise.

Although the new nuclear builds cannot now assist with stabilizing British electricity prices they will when they come on-line.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Oldbury visit part two

Continuing on with some more on the recent tour of Oldbury nuclear power station that I recently participated in. If you missed part one please take a look here.

The next part of the power station I want to discuss I find particularly interesting. The reactor pressure vessel. It is actually constructed of pre-stressed concrete. I believe this was the first reactor to be constructed in this way. The approach seems to have been very successful as Oldbury's sister reactor Wylfa was also constructed using this method as were the later AGR (Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor) designs.

In the image below you can see one of the areas known as a stressing gallery. What you can see here are the ends of the steel pre-stressing "tendons" as they emerge from within the concrete of the reactor pressure vessel.

Upper stressing gallery  (Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd)


What the photograph does not show is how hot it was here! It felt to be at least 35 degrees C. A member of staff mentioned that it had been as warm as 47 degrees in recent days in this area. It's not surprising considering this is as close as somebody can get without actually being IN the reactor core.  

It may be helpful to refer to the cutaway drawing of  the similar Wylfa reactors. The cutaway and 104 others can be found at the New Mexico Digital Collection. Even if you don't take a look at the cutaways now I urge you to bookmark it for later as they really are an excellent way to get a good feel for the layout of various reactors.

Next up on the tour was the spent fuel pond. Once fuel elements have completed their stay in the reactor they require many months of cooling as the continued decay of fission products produces heat. Used fuel elements are removed from the reactor core and transferred down into the fuel storage pond. This is done via various chutes which deliver the fuel elements to the fuel pond area of the facility.

Fuel storage pond  (Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd) 
Following a storage period in the fuel ponds the fuel elements are loaded into specialized fuel transport flasks and sent off site for disposal/storage. These flasks are rather large and are very well shielded.

Fuel transport flask  (Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd) 

The final area of the tour was a gas recirculator hall. The Magnox type reactor (as are the newer AGRs) are cooled with Carbon Dioxide gas. Large fan like circulators are used to maintain an adequate flow of coolant gas throughout the core. Unfortunately I cannot locate any images of the circulators or the drive motors. I will attempt to locate some more information on the gas circulators. Needless to say this area was also fairly warm but was very noisy due to the circulator motors.

It's worth remembering that these reactors were operating before humankind set foot on the Moon. Thinking of the lifespan of these reactors in those terms really puts in perspective the kind of things that have already been accomplished with nuclear power.

Lookout for details of my visit to the Imperial College London CONSORT research reactor facility and a look at a very interesting future reactor concept in future posts.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Oldbury visit part one

Oldbury Power Station  (Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd)

I was recently fortunate enough to participate in a tour of Oldbury nuclear power station.

Commissioned in 1967 I believe that Oldbury is the oldest serving nuclear power station in the world (if not the oldest operating power plant in the world?).

Oldbury along with its sister reactor Wylfa on Anglesey are unique among currently operating reactors. In particular Oldbury was the first reactor in the world to have a prestressed concrete pressure vessel.

The heart of Oldbury is its two gas cooled (by carbon-dioxide), graphite moderated reactor piles. These of course exist for the sole purpose of heating the coolant gas so it can pass through boilers (which are actually located within the reactors pressure vessels) and produce steam for the business end of things, the turbines.

Both of Oldbury’s turbines are located in a single large turbine hall. This is first area that I was shown on the tour of the plant.

Oldbury turbine hall
(Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd source)

Sadly photographs of the site were not permitted so I will have to fill in with publicly available resources. There is an excellent panoramic view of the turbine hall found here. What you can’t see in the panorama that you can see on the photograph above (apologies for the small size!) is that the turbines and generators are located above the ground level of the hall. This creates a split level arrangement that allows pipework etc to come up from below ground level to the turbines.

The turbine hall itself is not adjoined to the reactor buildings so the steam pipes come via underground service tunnels.

Aerial view of site with Turbine hall and reactors highlighted.
(Photo Credit: Google Earth)

The level of noise inside the turbine hall was incredible despite only one turbine operating at the time. We were of course wearing hearing protection but it was still fairly loud despite this. Another immediate impression was that despite the age of the plant and that it clearly was 1960s equipment everything appeared to be very well maintained and in extremely good condition. I was very surprised by the very high level of cleanliness.

Next stop was into the reactor buildings proper.

Prior to entering this area staff are required to collect and wear a very modern personal dosimeter. These are electronically booked out with a personal pin code. I presume that this forms some kind of automated dosage monitoring and probably allows all kind of exposure statistics to be produced.

We took a lift to pretty much the top of the reactor buildings and were given of an overview of the site. The exact spot can be seen here.

I was the shown the refuelling control room where the giant fuelling machine is driven. As the reactor core is under pressure (around 24 bar), the refuelling machine needs to operate at the same pressure to permit refuelling.  

The refueling machine at Oldbury.
(Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd)

The refuelling machine runs along rails so that it can position itself on the pile cap in order to access the reactor below. The top of the reactor pile begins 12 meters below the pile cap as can be seen in the image below (it’s the open white tiled area). Also note how clean everything looked. It really does look this good in person!

Reactor pile cap. The refueling machine is also seen to the left of the image.
(Photo Credit: Magnox North Ltd)

The MAGNOX fuel elements are stacked 8 rods high inside the the graphite core and each element/rod is around 1 metre in length and are perhaps 3-4 centimeters wide (excluding the fins). This is quite a contrast to say fuel assemblies in a modern water cooled reactor which consist of bundles of dozens of thin rods. Un-enriched uranium metal fills each element.

Each reactor contains approximately 26,000 MAGNOX fuel elements within 3308 graphite channels. Fuel elements often spend many years in the reactor with some elements reportedly have been in the core for upto 13 years.

The MAGNOX name comes from the material that the uranium fuel is encased in. Essentially a non oxidising Magnesium alloy hence the name Magnesium Non-Oxidising (or MAGNOX).

The refuelling machine extends a ‘grabber’ down into the graphite pile that grabs the top of a MAGNOX fuel element. Note in the image below you can see an indentation at the end of the fuel element. The other end of the element is somewhat pointed so it fits into the indentation on the rod above.

Example of a typical MAGNOX fuel rod.
(Photo Credit: NDA Insight Stakeholder newsletter)

The image below shows an Oldbury MAGNOX fuel element shown inside a graphite block representative of what is found in the Oldbury reactor. The fins not only provide a larger surface area for heat transfer but also position the element within the graphite channels within the reactor. This permits the CO2 gas to circulate past the element.

Oldbury MAGNOX fuel element in graphite brick.
(Photo Credit: Prof. B Marsden, University of Manchester, NGRG)

As seen below thousands of graphite bricks were assembled to form the reactor pile.

Oldbury graphite pile during construction.
(Photo Credit: Prof. B Marsden, University of Manchester, NGRG)

Finally for this installment at least I must mention the visitors room at the plant. Still on site is a room with various educational displays and a fantastic 3D plastic model of the reactor. This room was used to educate visiting groups of school children on the basics of nuclear fission and how the power station operates. The room had some great large child friendly fission graphics all over the floor and i’m sure any inquisitive child would have enjoyed them. It was a little sad to see it dormant as school tours are no longer permitted post 9/11.

This makes me consider the wider aspect of educating and inspiring school children about this sort of thing.

That’s about it from my Oldbury visit for the moment but I shall write some more in the coming days.

Rather than reproducing various facts and figures here I direct you you to the operators site here.

Last but certainly not least, a big thanks to the friendly and super professional folks at Magnox North who took the time to provide the tour and make it possible. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Upcoming visit to Oldbury nuclear power station

Oldbury Power Station (Photo: David Bowd-Exworth)


 Next week I am fortunate enough to be participating in a tour of Oldbury nuclear power station. In the post 9/11 world, tours are not easily obtained so many thanks to the people at Magnox North who operate the site for this opportunity.

I will write in detail about the visit once it has taken place.

I have a number of things I want to ask during the tour however please get in touch via the comments section if anybody would like me to ask anything specific.

Being a graphite moderated gas cooled reactor it will be a real treat to see up close as, water moderated/cooled reactors are by far the more common type worldwide.




Oldbury is one of the first generation of UK power reactors and was commissioned in 1967. This power station is forty-three years old! To date its generated 122 TWh with an 81% load factor.

Let's think about this some more. This single facility for the last forty-three years has generated enough electricity to provide for the electrical needs of 2 million Britons; and it did it 81% of the time!

It has done this, quietly, safely and without emitting millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

If a forty-three year old power station can continue to generate safely in the year 2010, stop and consider what the third generation AP1000 and EPR (the two models that will probably be constructed here in the UK) will be capable of. I plan to write something of a summary comparison between the two reactor designs as they are both very interesting but very different in their design philosophies.

Monday, 27 September 2010

PopAtomic Studios and thinking about nuclear



You may have noticed the fantastic new Nuclear Britain banner. Many thanks go to Suzanne and the team over a PopAtomic Studios for generously creating it. 

Many positive things have already been said about the aims and efforts of the PopAtomic team, but I want to add some more.

I see the chief aim of PopAtomic as being to provoke viewers of their art into further investigation and better understanding of nuclear power.

This effort is absolutely crucial for the future of nuclear power.

Since the dawn of the atomic age itself the general public has been told what to think and feel about nuclear power. In times past this may have been in a positive but fearful way, such as with the propaganda of the cold war. In present times many organizations exist solely to spread fear and misinformation on nuclear power. Again telling you what to feel and think

As the beautifully elegant and to the point artwork above says..."Think".

Think for yourself and investigate the benefits and reality of nuclear.

Please checkout the great work being done over at PopAtomic.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

EDM 557 and Britain's need for nuclear.

A British parliament 'early day motion' recently came to my attention. It is entitled "INQUIRY INTO NEW NUCLEAR POWER STATIONS".

These motions seldom get discussed but an interesting point regarding the British need for nuclear power is raised.

I will discuss one major point below while the full text of the motion can be found here EDM 557.

therefore calls on the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to suspend any decision to build new nuclear power stations and to commence immediately a parliamentary and public investigation into the need for new nuclear power stations and related matters including their cost, their effect on electricity prices and on fuel bills, and on whether they, or the alternatives to nuclear, are the best ways to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and to create jobs in the energy sector.
The majority of our electricity is produced all year round by the burning of fossil fuels. Our few operational Nuclear power stations ensure that around 12-15% of this electricity is produced in a carbon free way. Wind and hydro contribute some 2% to this carbon free energy production.

Public investigations aside, do this figures not clearly demonstrate the clear and present need for getting the new nuclear builds underway as soon as possible?


Here is a graph of today's electricity generation.


  The graph shows how much electricity the various types of generation stations provided for each thirty-minute "settlement period" throughout the day (this is today's information).

The important bit is to take note of the contributions between nuclear and fossil fuels. Nuclear throughout the day provided a pretty steady 5000 Megawatts. The coal and gas stations (yellow and khaki?) provided at most points during the day remaining 73% of the required generation.

Interestingly at times of lower demand such as the weekends we in Britain actually purchase around 5% of our required electricity from France. France apparently has a surplus of inexpensive electricity to sell (I wonder if that has anything to do with 75% of it being generated by nuclear?). This is the blue bar you can see.

Wind (orange) and hydro (blue) make up the remainder. 

So back to my point. Do we want to turn this graph around and have 75% generated by carbon free nuclear, and potentially the remainder by wind and hydro? If the answer is yes then we must wholeheartedly commit to getting our new nuclear power stations underway. 

This would seem to answer EDM 557's question quite clearly. Do we need nuclear in Britain? Resoundingly, YES.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Nuclear and wind. Strange bedfellows?

Why are nuclear power and the energy sources typically called 'alternative' usually considered strange bedfellows?

What are some the reasons that 'alternatives' such as wind and tidal power frequently go head to head?

Are the reasons usually driven by the financial agendas of the big business' protecting their future profits? Maybe there is some fundamental incompatibility between 'alternatives' and nuclear.

I will investigate some hard numbers on this question for a future post.

My personal observation is that alternatives and nuclear appear to be complimentary. It appears to me that the real source of friction between the two comes from a third party.

That party would seem to be the current dominant force in Britain's and indeed the worlds energy supply. Fossil fuels. In Britain this comprises natural gas and coal.

The gas and coal based energy suppliers have the most to lose should the nuclear and alternative 'camps' unite.

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