January will be remembered as a harrowing month for Britain’s nuclear sector.
Centrica pulled out of a nuclear new-build scheme in the UK, the proposed underground waste storage site in Cumbria fell at the first hurdle, a report highlighted the escalating cost of storing nuclear waste and to cap it all a recruitment firm pointed to a yawning skills shortage in the sector.
Plans to build up to six new nuclear power stations took a step forward when the government announced an official assessment of the reactor design proposed for UK sites.
Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy plans to develop new reactors at Wylfa in Anglesey, North Wales, and Oldbury in Gloucestershire following its acquisition of Horizon Nuclear Power towards the end of last year.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change said ministers had instructed the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency to carry out a Generic Design Assessment on the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) Hitachi hopes to deploy.
“The ABWR is a proven reactor design, which has been constructed to time and budget at four locations in Japan, and is also licensed in the USA and Taiwan,” said Masaharu Hanyu of Hitachi.
“We look forward to making sustained progress with the regulators in the months ahead.”
But before the flush of success had time to fade Centrica announced that it had scrapped its plans to build new nuclear power stations in Britain, dealing a fresh blow to the industry amid warnings that nuclear was turning into an economic nightmare.
The company is retaining a 20 per cent interest in French firm EDF Energy’s eight existing nuclear power stations in Britain but will not now proceed with an option for a 20 per cent stake in the building of new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk.
The company said the anticipated project costs in new nuclear had increased and the construction timetable had extended by a number of years.
“The withdrawal by Centrica is extremely unfortunate but symptomatic of the uncertainty that the delays in the Electricity Market Reform have introduced,” commented Professor Martin Freer, Professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Birmingham and director of the Birmingham Centre of Nuclear Education and Research.
“It is increasingly clear that the present approach to management of electricity production, where the market responds to signals from, and conditions set by, government is challenged at times when a step change is required in the transition to a low carbon electricity economy.”
That news followed publication of a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which showed that the “enormous” legacy of nuclear waste at Sellafield in Cumbria has been allowed to build up, with the cost of decommissioning the site reaching £67.5bn and no indication of when the cost will stop rising.
In January Cumbria County Council decided against studying the prospect of building an underground nuclear waste site in its area.
Ministers will look at finding another area after councillors voted 7-3 against studying the possibility of having the £12bn facility in the region.
“The government remains firmly committed to nuclear power as a key part of our future energy mix and to geological disposal as the right policy for the long-term, safe and secure management of higher-activity radioactive waste,” Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said in response.
The government would now reflect on the process for selecting a site but it will not change it without further consultation, he said.
“The government’s position regarding prospective new nuclear power stations has been clear that there must be provision in the long-term for safe disposal of higher-activity waste produced by new nuclear power stations,” Davey added.
Even when the nuclear new-build plans start to bear fruit the UK faces a serious skill shortage in the sector that could hamper its growth.
A recent report from recruitment firm Randstad shows that the UK is already suffering skills shortages across many industries, and points out that 70 per cent of nuclear energy workers will have retired by 2025.
“Our projections are conservative but they still portray a worrying scenario for the country over the coming decades,” said Randstad chief executive Mark Bull.
“With an ageing population, we need to ensure we are open for business and welcoming talent from around the world to bolster our workforce.”