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Britain's nuclear powered trains

Posting in Energy

The nuclear express. Railways are the U.K.'s single largest electricity consumer. Trains in the country's expanding electrification scheme, like this Virgin Pendolino, will run on nuclear power.

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The company that runs the railway infrastructure across most of the U.K. will rely on nuclear power to keep the trains running on time and to slash CO2 emissions over the next decade.

No, Network Rail is not building some form of small, submarine style reactor into engine cars (not that it wouldn't one day be possible!).

Rather, the privately held, government-backed rail operator - which is Britain's single largest consumer of electricity - has struck a 10-year deal with utility EDF to provide the power that will enable it to expand the electrification of its lines and to reduce the number of CO2-spewing diesel-powered trains that run on Network Rail's tracks.

But not just any power. The contract specifies nuclear.

"EDF Energy will ensure 100 percent of the electricity it supplies to Network Rail will be matched by low carbon energy generated from its eight nuclear power stations," the companies said in a joint press release on both the Network Rail and EDF websites (as I reported earlier this week on my Weinberg Foundation blog).

Nuclear trainer. National Rail CEO David Higgins is counting on nuclear to power his tracks.

The CEOs of both companies extolled nuclear as a low carbon source of power.

“Rail is already the greenest form of public transport and this partnership with EDF Energy will help us make it greener still,” said  Network Rail CEO David Higgins, who described the supply arrangement as “an innovative contract for low-carbon energy.”

In addition to the nuclear stipulation, the contract allows Network Rail to purchase electricity 10 years in advance, thus eliminating the volatility associated with fossil fuel prices.

Today only 40 percent of the lines are electrified, representing 55 percent of the traffic. Network Rail wants to increase those numbers to 54 and 75 percent, respectively, by adding overhead cable and third rails by 2020 on an additional 2,000 miles of track (the private train companies that use its tracks would have a say in the switch).

"Rail is one of the least carbon intensive ways to travel and the huge investment in electrification will be backed by a stable and affordable supply of low carbon enegy," said EDF Energy CEO Vincent de Rivaz. "The deal places nuclear energy at the heart of the U.K.'s infrastructure for the next 10 years and serves to underline that nuclear power is part of everyday life in Britain."

Among other benefits, electrified trains are quieter, allow more seats, are often faster, can haul goods further than diesel trains, and cause less wear on tracks, the press release noted.

The commitment between Network Rail and EDF carries two broad lessons for the business of  a low-carbon economy.

Large industrial users can help shape the direction of power sources by putting financial commitment behind technologies such as nuclear (heavy industry could even help fund the development of small reactors that it might use for both heat and electricity). And other modes of transportation - like electric cars - would go much further toward carbon reduction if the electricity that feeds them comes from zero-carbon sources like nuclear power, rather than from fossil fuel plants.

Images: Virgin train by Phil Scott via Wikimedia.  Network Rail CEO David Higgins from Rail.co.

There are many stops along SmartPlanet's nuclear tracks. Below are links to a few stories describing unusual or alternative nuclear:

For a long list of SmartPlanet nuclear posts, click here.

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— By on January 15, 2013, 8:55 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure