Scotland nuclear

Scotland’s richest landowner backing ‘madcap’ mini-nuke plan

Scotland’s richest landowner backing ‘madcap’ mini-nuke plan 5

Scotland’s richest man and rewilding enthusiast, Anders Holch Povlsen, has come under fierce fire for backing a “bonkers” plan to build thousands of floating nuclear reactors in Asia.

The Danish billionaire is a major investor in a £23m Danish nuclear company, Seaborg, that is proposing to install up to 9,000 mini nuclear power stations in barges around South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere.

Campaigners described floating reactors as a “disaster waiting to happen”, warning that they could sink, leak radioactivity and contaminate coastlines. They criticised Povlsen for wasting money on a “shameful” scheme that will end up dumping radioactive waste on the other side of the world.

Povlsen, however, said he was proud to back Seaborg “to secure a sustainable, affordable solution” to climate change and “create a better world”. He stressed the need for “new clean energy sources” to enable a “green climate transformation”.

Seaborg argued that its reactors would be “inherently safe” and were vital to slowing global warming. Radioactive wastes would be “chemically bound” to the fuel so would not leak, the company said – and investors such as Povlsen should be applauded as “bold and visionary”.

In 2023 Povlsen was listed as Scotland’s richest man and was said to be worth £8.5bn. He made his fortune in the fashion business, is chief executive of one clothes retailer, Bestseller, and has a stake in another, Asos.

He is also Scotland’s largest private landowner, with more than 220,000 acres across 13 estates. He owns Aldourie Castle, on the shores of Loch Ness and the Jenners building on Princes Street in Edinburgh, and lives at Glenfeshie in the Cairngorms.

Scotland’s richest landowner backing ‘madcap’ mini-nuke plan 6
Glenfeshie in the evening, Cairngorms National Park. Image: Sebastian Sonnen/iStock

He has been feted by some environmentalists for his commitment to “restore our parts of the Highlands to their former magnificent natural state and repair the harm that man has inflicted on them.” His company, Wildland, manages three large estates in the Cairngorms, Lochaber and Sutherland.

According to the Danish Business Authority’s register, as of 15 March 2024 Povlsen owned a 42.42 per cent capital share and had 46.66 per cent voting rights in Seaborg. He first bought a stake in the company in 2020 via his investment firm, Heartland.

Seaborg’s plan is to design and manufacture new “compact molten salt reactors” to generate electricity from hundreds of barges moored around Asian coasts. Initial agreements have been signed with South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia.

Molten salt reactors are one of a series of new designs of smaller reactors that the nuclear industry hopes will boost the use of nuclear power globally. Instead of using water or gas to cool the nuclear reactions, as existing reactors do, they plan to use molten salts.

Seaborg said in 2021 that it was aiming to bring the reactors to market by 2025. According to one Danish report at the time, the company was aiming to install as many as 8,975 reactors in barges by 2040.

The reactors, however, are still being designed. In July 2023  Seaborg announced that it was changing the type of uranium fuel they would use, as well as the reactor moderators used to slow down nuclear reactions.

The company then appeared to postpone the planned delivery of the reactors, saying in 2023 that the aim was to complete its first plant in Asia “by the end of this decade”.

He should stick to protecting nature in Scotland instead of wasting a fortune on a madcap scheme that threatens public health and the environment.

Dr Richard Dixon, former director of Friends of the Earth Scotland

Seaborg also wants to introduce its reactors in Europe. In July 2023 it signed a letter of intent with a Norwegian nuclear power company which said it was “considering how this technology can best be introduced in Norway”.

According to Seaborg, its molten salt reactors on barges would complement renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. “Our power barge can produce energy where and when it is needed, supporting variable renewables on windless, cloudy days,” it said.

“The power barge will be able to deliver up to 800 megawatts of electricity as well as clean water from desalination, and district heating”. It could make “an important contribution to the transition towards a prosperous and emission-free society,” Seaborg argued.

Some experts, however, dispute the benefits of molten salt reactors. The nuclear critic, M.V. Ramana, concluded in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in June 2022 that they were a “bad idea”.

He maintained they were unlikely to operate reliably and would produce radioactive wastes that would be difficult to dispose of. The French Government’s nuclear safety agency, IRSN, said the reactors still had to overcome “numerous technical challenges”, he pointed out.

Campaigners were damning in their dismissal of the reactors. Molten salt reactors were a failed technology and putting them in barges brought risks of leaks, crashes, and sinking, warned Dr Richard Dixon, the former director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“Given that Povlsen is an enthusiast for nature it seems bonkers to find him investing in a technology that could contaminate significant areas of coastline if things go wrong,” Dixon told The Ferret.

“He should stick to protecting nature in Scotland instead of wasting a fortune on a madcap scheme that threatens public health and the environment with risks from thousands of reactors.”

The veteran Highland anti-nuclear campaigner, Lorraine Mann, argued there was no such thing as an “inherently safe” nuclear reactor. “This appears to be a huge and, frankly, shameful misstep on Povlsen’s part,” she said.

“While he rewilds Scotland his ill-considered nuclear investment will necessitate the dumping of radioactive waste in some other part of the world.”

The Green MSP, Mark Ruskell, thought that the focus had to be on fast and effective action to prevent climate breakdown. “Floating nuclear reactors are a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

“Rather than investing in dangerous and unproven nuclear technology, we should all be supporting clean green renewable energy which is already proven and is already making a big difference.”

Friends of the Earth Denmark described the drive for small new reactors as a “sham” which would divert funds from renewables. “In this case, the only good news is that it is private and not taxpayers’ money that is wasted,” said the group’s Niels Henrik Hooge.

“We are surprised that Povlsen is investing money in Seaborg. He is known to be a savvy businessman and here in Denmark, Seaborg and others are not perceived as serious business ventures, only as a distraction from the green energy transition.”

A spokesperson for Povlsen said: “If we are to protect and preserve nature we need to keep innovating to create new clean energy sources that enable a green climate transformation and support hard-to-reach decarbonisation targets while tackling the planet’s biodiversity crisis.

“Seaborg is harnessing new approaches to an established technology with the aim of becoming one of the world’s leading clean-tech companies. Their proposition is to secure a sustainable, affordable solution to address climate change and enable the energy transformation that we all want to see.

“We are proud to play our part in supporting those ambitions in the hope that their work can truly create a better world if successful.”

While he rewilds Scotland, his ill-considered nuclear investment will necessitate the dumping of radioactive waste in some other part of the world.

Lorraine Mann, anti-nuclear campaigner

According to Seaborg, nuclear power was vital to delivering more green energy. It was developing a new technology which “had the greatest potential for achieving the large-scale deployment needed,” the company’s co-founder and lead reactor engineer, Eirik Eide Pettersen, told The Ferret.

“The main benefit of the molten salt reactor is that the exceptionally high level of safety that is expected and required from nuclear power plants is rooted in the laws of physics and chemistry instead of complex and costly engineered safety systems.”

He argued that because radioactive wastes were “chemically bound” within the fuel they could not leak in accidents, as has happened in the past. He accepted, however, that Seaborg reactors would produce long-lived radioactive wastes requiring “timely and responsible handling”.

Pettersen also admitted that “considerable work and investment remains to further mature and scale up the technology”. More testing was needed to “bring molten salt reactors to the level of performance that the current nuclear industry achieves”, he said.

“Considering the scale of the global warming crisis we are increasingly experiencing, we strongly believe that the world needs an ‘all of the above’ approach to curbing emissions,” he added.

“Nuclear power and molten salt reactors are dependable and competitive low-emission alternatives, with an environmental footprint smaller than any other energy technology. So we applaud the bold and visionary investors that have and continue to support the development of this.”

Main image: mesh cube/iStock

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