UK nuclear forges ahead

Britain's nuclear new build programme grinds on, unworried by last year's accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Since the UK opened its first commercial nuclear power plant at Calder Hall in 1956, nuclear energy has been the cornerstone of the baseload electricity generation. At its peak in 1997 over a quarter of the UK's electricity came from nuclear power, but since that zenith its contribution has declined to today when it delivers just under a sixth of our requirements.

There are currently 19 nuclear reactors in operation in the UK at ten plants – seven are Advanced Gas Cooled (AGR) reactors, two are Magnox reactors and the final is a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) – the chosen design for future plants. With the final two Magnox plants, along with two more AGRs scheduled to end in 2016, there was a pressing need to shore up electricity generating capacity to avoid shortages.

In 2005 Tony Blair's government began an energy review, which led to the 2006 Energy White Paper making a commitment to put the UK on the path to a nuclear renaissance. Despite a change of government, that commitment to nuclear energy is unwavering with the stated aim from Charles Hendry, minister of state for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to put the UK country back on the nuclear map.

However, when a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami damaged the nuclear plant at Fukushima in Japan, it appeared that the rush to build new nuclear plants in the UK would need to be reappraised. Germany, Italy and Switzerland were quick to put an end to any nuclear aspirations they held, but the UK took its time, assessing the impact of the accident. Mike Weightman, chief inspector of nuclear installations and head of the office of nuclear regulations, was commissioned by the government to report on the implications of the accident on the UK nuclear new build programme. In his final report, released late in 2011, he remained confident that UK nuclear facilities have no fundamental safety weaknesses.

"We have done a lot of work since the interim report," he said. "We've looked at lots more information that the Japanese government has provided, in particular, and the independent mission to Japan that I led on behalf of United Nations Body. All that extra work has confirmed those initial reports, recommendations and conclusions. So yes, we remain confident."

Since he delivered his interim report in the summer of 2011, Weightman has visited the devastated area in Japan, a trip that he feels was crucial to his understanding of the situation. "Unless you go there first-hand you can't imagine the utter devastation that the Japanese people have suffered from the direct impact of the earthquake and the tsunami, and that devastation will stay with you if you witness it, forever I would say.

"But in terms of the nuclear accident then it showed what people can do in very trying circumstances on sites and also off sites and effectively so. On site they managed to curtail and keep things down to a level that they were able to in the circumstances and off site they were able to have effective evacuation as well."

Full speed ahead

Armed with the report's conclusions, the government is pressing ahead with its plans. In its National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6) it published a list of eight sites that are potentially suitable for the deployment of new nuclear power stations in England and Wales before the end of 2025: Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Oldbury, Sizewell, Sellafield and Wylfa. These sites are to be developed by three groups, EDF, Horizon Nuclear Power (a consortium of E.ON and RWE) and GDF Suez.

"Some countries decided that was the time that they should pull away or scale back their nuclear future, we decided to take a different approach," Hendry says. "The most important thing was to get the facts and that's why we appointed Mike Weightman, one of the foremost authorities in the world, to look into the lessons that could be learnt from Fukushima and see what that meant in terms of a new nuclear policy in the UK going forwards.

"There was one clear message from the report which was that there was nothing that had happened there which should stop us having a nuclear ambition in Britain. It was, of course, a terrible incident and tragedy but there was nothing that was a game changer in terms of the role that nuclear can play in our energy mix going forwards. It reconfirms our view that the UK should be the number one place for nuclear investment."

In the space of five years since nuclear energy became part of the mix, the UK has moved from having now nuclear on the agenda to being one of the most exciting countries in the world for new nuclear. This is an extraordinary rate of progress.

"In Germany, Italy and Switzerland they have decided to phase out nuclear power post-Fukushima, others such as France, Finland, China and the US have chosen to take the same path that Britain has because we see the importance of working alongside other countries to promote the worldwide benefits of nuclear power, not just for the energy security and climate change objectives, but the economic opportunities that it brings."

Reactor technology

There are two designs vying for the UK business, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) from Areva, and the AP1000 from Westinghouse – both PWRs. Before they could be licensed, however, they had to pass the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) from the Office of Nuclear Regulations. GDA only needs to be undertaken once for each design. As such, it is envisaged that it should speed up the subsequent site-licensing and consents process, together with providing more certainty to investors at an earlier stage. Just before Christmas both designs received a provisional seal of approval, although both still have some technical issues to resolve.

"We have reached an important milestone," Kevin Allars, Office for Nuclear Regulation director for nuclear new build, explains. "This interim acceptance confirms that all the plans on how the industry will resolve the outstanding issues are in place. This includes how they will address matters raised in the chief nuclear inspector's report, published in October, on lessons learnt for the UK from Fukushima. It is for the designers now to satisfy us that they have resolved these issues. We will not allow industry to build the reactors until they have done so."

A year of action

So, 2011 was a busy year for the government on the nuclear front. It began the year by defending the legal challenge against the Secretary of State with regards to the two nuclear reactor designs that were undergoing the GDA. That challenge defeated, the reactor designs went through parliament with a majority of 520 to 20, one of the biggest margins ever seen in recent years, something that Hendry explains shows the extent to which this industry has cross party support.

"But it also showed us when we were able to fight off those legal challenges that we were right to take a cautious, studied approach to these things," he continues. "We need to get our case work right because we know that we will face legal challenges, but we have to be sure that the approach that we are taking is robust."

In July the government published the National Policy Statements that included the eight suitable sites for new nuclear development and again that was approved in parliament with an overwhelming majority.

"The companies that are serious about new nuclear development are looking at the UK and it was a great moment when EDF trucked off 80,000 pages of submission under the new slimmed down planning regime to the IPC so they can start the ground works in the coming weeks at Hinckley Point," Hendry concludes.

One of the chief constraints to investment is the electricity market structure in the UK, something that the government is already addressing. "Whilst government is nearing the completion of its facilitative action to encourage investment in the UK, our role doesn't end there. We can do more to make the conditions right and to make this an attractive place to invest," he says.

"Part of the starting point of that was to recognise that our market structure was no longer fit for purpose and as we set out in the White Paper in July we are now introducing a package of reforms that ensure we can get investment in secure forms of low carbon energy. This is the biggest change in the electricity market for a generation but it's fundamental to securing the levels of investment, which are going to be necessary in this industry."

The announcement drew praise from EDF Energy CEO Vincent de Rivaz, who said that it was the final piece in the puzzle that would allow EDF to take a final investment decision on new nuclear by the end of 2012.

Despite the optimism, the nuclear process will face further challenges and the energy gap will almost certainly need to be bridged by further extensions to the life of the existing nuclear fleet. But with the German nuclear ban, Britain is ideally placed to reap the financial and technological benefits of the new nuclear age. *

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