Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nothing like this will be built again:

As Les explained, "nothing like this will be built again". The AGRs at Torness are not ordinary civil power reactors. Designed in the 1970's, they were the UK's bid to build an export-earning civil nuclear power system. They're sensitive thoroughbreds, able to reach a peak conversion efficiency of 43% -- that is, able to turn up to 43% of their energy output into electricity. By comparison, a PWR peaks at 31-32%. However, the PWRs have won the race for commercial success: they're much, much, simpler. AGRs are like Concorde -- technological marvels, extremely sophisticated and efficient, and just too damned expensive and complex for their own good. (You want complexity? Torness was opened in 1989. For many years thereafter, its roughly fifty thousand kilometres of aluminium plumbing made it the most complex and demanding piece of pipework in Europe. You want size? The multi-thousand ton reactor core of an AGR is bigger than the entire plant at some PWR installations.)

It's a weird experience, crawling over the guts of one of the marvels of the atomic age, smelling the thing (mostly machine oil and steam, and a hint of ozone near the transformers), all the while knowing that although it's one of the safest and most energy-efficient civilian power reactors ever built it's a a technological dead-end, that there won't be any more of them, and that when it shuts down in thirty or forty years' time this colossal collision between space age physics and victorian plumbing will be relegated to a footnote in the history books. "Energy too cheap to meter" it ain't, but as a symbol of what we can achieve through engineering it's hard to beat.