Could heat-only nuclear help us decarbonise British cities?

Nuclear power in what is now Cumbria, 1955. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

As a country, the UK will not meet future climate change targets unless we figure out how to heat and cool our cities without burning vast amounts of natural gas. Towns and rural areas also need to decarbonise their heat supply, of course. But cities being what they are, the greatest amount of energy going into keeping people and equipment at reasonable temperatures are in cities.

Renewable heat only supplying around 5 per cent on annual heat demand in the UK, and isn’t increasing anywhere near as much as needed. The UK government has introduced a world-leading Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which paid out cold hard cash to households and businesses to produce heat from renewable sources, with 90 per cent of installation being biomass. But the RHI at a household level has not been nearly as successful as comparative schemes for solar PV, likely due to a higher hassle factor, despite being potentially more financially lucrative.

Highly concentrated heat demand allows heat networks in cities to be economically viable, compared to towns or suburbs. Heat networks are essentially pipes of hot water, much like gas pipes. In cities, these networks can transport heat to where it is needed from large heat productions plants, or from processes which make waste heat in a city, like subways, sewers, or digital heavy infrastructure.

Many UK cities already have heat networks in place – but they are almost all based around burning gas. This is acceptable now, as combining heat and power production lowers national carbon emissions, but it comes at the cost of a huge point source of air pollution in a populated area. Although a properly designed flue should result in minimal emissions actually reaching people, it’s clearly a problem for the long term. And don’t feel this doesn’t affect you if you are running a biomass boiler or even a pretty wood burning stove in a populated area, air pollution restrictions might be coming your way.

There is good news as British cities are starting to move away from just burning stuff for heat and towards long term low carbon solutions – ones which don’t have impacts for air quality. Technologies like water source heat pumps can extract the low grade heat from our rivers or the sea, and boost it to useable temperatures. Rivers effectively act like massive solar collectors, gathering heat from their catchments and bringing into cities where it is needed (cheers, nature).

British cities with a legacy of mining are also starting to seriously look at their mining legacy as an asset to support heat extraction and storage in a dense urban environment. This strategy has been hugely successful in the Dutch city of Heerlen. But heat pumps still need power from the grid to work, and since they will be mostly used in winter the end result on the power grid is likely to be our gas or coal plants turned up slightly.

However there’s one solution which we’re not talking about, which perhaps we should be. It’s very low carbon, creates no air pollution, produces heat easily at higher temperatures, and doesn’t put extra demand upon the power network.

That solution is nuclear – but not as you might know it. There are some grasping projections of how we could build small modular nuclear power reactors, place these near high heat demands (cities or industry) and reap almost continuous large volumes of high grade heat. But our electricity grid is rapidly decarbonising – so what if we did away with the electricity generation of nuclear and just sought the heat generated?

Producing only heat would significantly decrease the cost of each plant, as the nuclear fuel rods wouldn’t have to bother heating steam to hundreds of degrees celsius to drive turbines. For direct heat we would need relatively low temperatures (around 90°C maximum), simple heat exchangers are all that is required to ensure total isolation between the nuclear fuel and the heat under the streets and in our homes. This would result in claims of comparative costs per unit of heat delivered as gas.

Of course, an important component of plausible energy scenarios for the UK is social and political acceptability. There’s no point designing what will just be rejected by the public and elected representatives – and having a nuclear reactor in the centre of British cities, well, that might be a problem. Fortunately, there are many routes to decarbonising heat in the UK, which don’t rely on using nuclear heat

Meanwhile, China is currently undergoing a huge shift away from coal for heating, mainly driven by dire need to improve air pollution. Some homes may have even been left without heat during winter due to such effort to rapidly move away from coal.

China’s district heating networks consumed more energy in 2015 than the whole of the UK, and the majority are based around coal. Heat-only nuclear reactors have been trialled and operated in China. Wider roll out could occur from 2020.

So could your heat be provided by a heat only nuclear plant? If you’re visiting northern Chinese cities in the futures, then maybe.


A new report explains who is to blame for this summer’s rail meltdown

Masks of transport secretary Chris Grayling, who is definitely not to blame for anything ever. Image: Getty.

Last May, the British rail network introduced what had been sold as the biggest timetable shake-up in a generation, and promptly fell over. Commuters had been promised new, more frequent journey opportunities thanks to new or upgraded cross-city infrastructure in London and Manchester. What they got instead was delays, cancellations and, eventually, a new, new timetable – which improved reliability largely by giving up pretending that a lot of services had ever existed at all.

In the weeks that followed, everyone involved played pass-the-parcel with the blame for this catastrophe, downplaying the role of their own mistakes while talking up those of others. Unions blamed train operating companies. Northern and Govia Thameslink in turn blamed Network Rail, the government agency responsible for the infrastructure. So did Transport Secretary Chris Grayling who, with the political instincts and sense of personal responsibility for which he’s famous, said that he did not, in fact, run the railways.  

To the first approximation, everyone blamed everyone else, and the buck – like so many Thameslink services attempting to make up for delays – stopped nowhere. The outgoing Network Rail boss Mark Carne, meanwhile, accepted a CBE. 

Today, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published its interim inquiry into the causes of this mess – and it concluded, in short, that everyone was right. Network Rail did fall behind on infrastructure improvements, and failed to come up with a back-up plan, wrongly believing it could make up the time. GTR and Northern were not aware of or prepared for problems, and failed to keep passengers informed of their intentions. Both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the ORR itself failed in their oversight roles, accepting assurances from the industry that everything would be fine instead of checking and discovering that it wasn’t. Nobody took charge: everybody is to blame.

There is a danger, however, that if everybody is to blame then nobody will be held to account. In a systemic failure of this sort, everyone can point to somebody else in the chain and suggest that the real culprit is over there. (It’s tempting to see parallels here with the last decade’s financial crash, but perhaps that’s a track it’s best not to follow.) “The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making,” the ORR’s chair Stephen Glaister said. “It was unclear who was responsible for what. Nobody took charge.” 

In order to fix all that, this morning, the DfT launched yet another review, this one the biggest review of the structures of the rail industry since privatisation in the 1990s Speaking on the Today programme, Grayling made clear that one possible outcome would be to replace the 20-year-old infrastructure/operator split with a regionally integrated structure, of the sort used on the Japanese railways. Another would be wider use of the Transport for London model, in which the infrastructure provider effectively doubles as the commissioning body to which operators report. He has ruled out nationalisation, but then he would, wouldn’t he.

Any one of those options might have improved things last May, by improving trust and communications when things went wrong, and making it clear which heads would roll if they weren’t fixed again. But there’s another way of doing that which also leaps to mind. If the transport secretary were to fear for their job when the railways got into trouble, then their department would be less likely to accept industry bosses’ assurances that everything was going just fine. This line of accountability, for some reason, is not one Grayling seems keen to strengthen.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.