Forging a firm future
Plans for a rejuvenated UK nuclear industry are set to turn an historic steel company that supplies the sector into a global player.
The UK Government has recently given its backing to a substantial increase in the share of UK electricity generated from nuclear power. In response, French energy giant EDF said it would like to build four nuclear plants in the UK, the first by 2017, and other companies have expressed an interest in following suit.
However, the energy companies need specific components in order for these stations to be built, and production of these components could be key to the success of the UK's strategy. This requirement is giving a new lease of life to one historic British company that is one of the very few forging specialists in the world with the knowledge and experience to produce these products.
Sheffield Forgemasters (SFI), a 200-year-old steelwork company, has placed an order for a 4,000-tonne press and is currently in discussions over finance options to build a new 15,000 tonne press - one of the world's biggest - to satisfy the demand for nuclear power station components. These new presses will join SFI's current 2,500 and 10,000-tonne presses.
This development is far removed from the components that SFI built for Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft bombers in the Second World War, but it looks set to produce a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the company, which was rescued from bankruptcy two years ago through a management buyout. "What is pretty clear is that not only we are persuaded of the value of this investment, but clearly a lot of other people are as well," says Peter Birtles, an SFI director. "The nuclear industry, the government with its plans, and various potential trade partners all see it as a very worthwhile investment.
"We're going to benefit from the 15,000 tonne press in various ways. First of all we're going to protect our present business. We're in a strong position, but the market is of course changing and needs bigger components - so we need bigger presses. The 10,000 tonne press we have at the moment is increasingly proving to be inadequate in size, and we're finding that gradually more and more of our traditional products are outgrowing the size of our present equipment.
"The second thing is that we'll open up a lot of new business, and the immediate target is of course the new nuclear power programmes, the 'new renaissance' as we refer to it, which already has grown in volume terms way beyond the present global manufacturing capacity."
The world's capacity to make nuclear power stations is constrained by the availability of large forgings. Growth is currently limited to about five new power stations a year, whereas the foreseeable demand for the next 25 years is averaging around 12-13 a year - excluding the UK's development plans.
There are only five companies globally that have the forging capacity for nuclear station components, and only one - Japan Steelworks - that can provide the largest pieces. SFI says that its new 15,000 tonne press will put an end to this monopoly and give the UK manufacturing industry a boost.
SFI has already secured a contract to supply one primary coolant pump a month for the next ten years to a supplier for nuclear power company Westinghouse. The first SFI coolant pumps will head to China, where Westinghouse is currently building four nuclear power stations.
In addition, SFI is consulting with the Indian Government, which plans to develop about 35 nuclear plants over the next 25 years, but currently has no facilities to manufacture reactor components. India now needs to discuss a transfer-of-technology agreement with America, and if this goes through, SFI could work with the government to develop a press there.
Birtles says: "I think that in the next two or three years, you will see at least one and maybe two big forging plants initiated in India, and I'll be very surprised if we are not active participants in one or more of those projects."
But will Chinese manufacturers themselves jump on the nuclear components bandwagon? Birtles says that China has already installed quite significant open die-forging capability with some very big equipment, but he adds: "The fact is, however, it's not like a bulk steel rolling mill. The technology and the technical competence, both in steelmaking to make the ingot, and then in the forging and processing of these big forgings, is very, very complicated.
"Today there are just five manufacturers in the world who make those big forgings, of which Sheffield Forgemasters is one. The most recent one to join that group was a South Korean company called Doosan, and it took them about 17 years of hard work to develop to the level of quality, integrity and technology requirement that allowed them to be approved to the world's nuclear standards.
"Of the five existing players who already have the technology, Japan Steelworks is putting another press in. Doosan, OMZ in Russia and Cruso Forge in France have all thought about it and for one reason or another are not planning to put additional forging capacity in to meet this need.
"Sheffield Forgemasters is the only other one apart from Japan Steelworks that is planning to put further investment in new equipment and new capacity, and already has the technical approvals, the current manufacturing expertise and ability to hit the ground running in making these things straight away."
The large energy companies, for example, are acutely conscious that while the small number of big forging companies is causing a 'bottleneck', it is not the only one. Throughout the 1980s more than 200 nuclear power stations were installed globally - this would be impossible today.
"We used to be able to create these things at the rate of over 20 a year, but at the end of the eighties, because of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, public reactions to the dangers and the fears about nuclear power were such that programmes were just cancelled all over the world," says Birtles.
"We abandoned it, almost everybody did. And so the whole infrastructure of manufacturing engineering that made the things just collapsed. It collapsed to the stage where we're down to our ability in the world to make five a year, that's all. "
With this in mind, substantial industrial growth is needed to bring this figure up to the volume that is being planned. Many companies that are now involved in areas such as defence will be looking to widen their business with a move into this area.
Bill Bryce, head of nuclear at Babcock Energy, says: "The possibility of new nuclear power plants creates significant opportunities for us in front-end engineering support, manufacturing, site construction, commissioning, through-life maintenance and, in the long-term, decommissioning.
"We intend to be a major player in a new nuclear programme. Depending on the number of plants that will be built and the phasing of the programme, this could give us a very sound base load for many years covering manufacturing, site installation, commissioning and through-life maintenance. It would enable us to increase our workforce and renew some of our manufacturing facilities. It could also create opportunities for us to work with the nuclear vendors."
Peter Newman, general manager, nuclear business at BAE Systems Submarine Solutions, says: "[New nuclear plants] represent a growth opportunity to consolidate our position as a lead integrator for the building of nuclear reactors. Our involvement could span decades, both as a partner in the construction of new nuclear generating facilities and in the support of the reactor facilities through life."
Those involved in manufacturing for new UK nuclear power plants are hopeful that, apart from the necessity for manufacturers to support a UK programme, there's an enormous opportunity to take a lead elsewhere in the world and capture a lot of export business.
"I suspect there's a lot of funding around and available to support that sort of initiative. I'm fully expecting there to be a lot more growth in nuclear engineering in the UK, apart from just by Sheffield Forgemasters," Birtles adds.