UK Focus

Britain has changed

12 April 2005

To mark one of the most important events the UK nuclear industry has ever experienced – the birth of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on 1 April – this issue of NEI is focusing mainly on things British.

There may well be somewhat of a parochial feel to this issue of NEI (probably not for the first time) but the official start of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s (NDA’s) operations will affect the nuclear industry around the world.

On the following pages there are features on the NDA itself, the climate change levy, the interpretation of opinion polls, the trials and tribulations of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), and we end with a discussion of the political practicalities of preparing for new nuclear build.

Further articles had been planned, but were not ready in time for one reason or another. (One of these reasons being a dogged stubborness on the part of many in the industry to stick to their agenda rather than give a full and open account, but let’s leave that point until another day.) One article that didn’t make it was to be on the past and new structures of the BNFL group, which is hugely affected by this shake-up to the UK nuclear industry.

A lot of information on the changes taking place within BNFL is covered in the article on the NDA, though some further clarification might be useful here.

The decision for a major strategy review of BNFL was announced in July 2003, at the same time as Mike Parker was named as the new CEO of the company. Not even two years on from that turning point, BNFL has changed dramatically. It is still the owner of Westinghouse and still has a third share of Urenco, both of which continue to operate as before.

The main change at BNFL is the creation of British Nuclear Group (BNG), which comprises:

• Management Services, the Sellafield and reactor sites’ operations and management (O&M) business. This unit provides clean-up and operations services, including

generation and spent fuel services.

• Project Services, which is a new operating business due to be launched on 1 April. It operates as a subcontractor to site licensee companies (SLCs) in the UK and Europe.

• BNFL Inc, which provides clean-up services for the US market. As of 1 April, BNFL Inc was due to be rebranded under the name BNG America.

Other business units that come under BNFL are: the Spent Fuel Services business division, which has recently joined the BNG Sellafield SLC to act as expert adviser to the new owner (the NDA); and Nexia Solutions (formerly Nuclear Sciences and Technology Services), which provides nuclear research, development and scientific services on a commercial basis.

Essentially, the most significant change for BNFL arises from the fact that the NDA takes on the ownership of its facilities and liabilities. As Mike Parker said at the end of February (speaking at the Waste Management Symposium 2005, held in Tucson, Arizona): “I think this is a very, very, important and major cultural shift for our company, because as we speak right now, we are still the owner and operator of these nuclear assets and liabilities in the UK, as is the UKAEA. As of 1 April 2005, we have to transition from that owner-operator culture into a manager-operator culture.”

Option remains open

Around the same time that the UK government decided to grab the liabilities bull firmly by the horns, it also made a strong commitment to focus on renewable sources of electricity, feebly committing to merely keep the option open for nuclear power in its 2003 energy white paper. So, where does what was once one of the great pioneering countries in the field of nuclear R&D now stand?

Since 1997, the UK has retained only one civilian research reactor, Consort, owned and operated by Imperial College London at its Silwood Park campus since 1965.

It operates for about 200 days per year for research and commercial purposes supporting a number of scientific and engineering fields, including national radioactivity standards and neutron detection for 16% of UK electricity generation as well as medicine.

The reactor is also used as a live teaching tool. It is part of the programme for undergraduates in mechanical engineering studying nuclear reactor technology, and postgraduates from similar courses at the Universities of Surrey and Birmingham. The reactor will provide a live platform for the Nuclear Education Consortium coordinated by the University of Manchester, and commencing in 2006. The provision of specialised training to industry and regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive is also a growing field.

Sadly, due to difficulties in funding, the long-term future for this crucial facility is not assured. Following a strategic review of the reactor’s future, Imperial College has decided to further develop and define its strategy for eventual decommissioning and waste disposal, and allow increased flexibility for the timing of a final decision to close the facility. The reactor will remain operational, although future operation will be reviewed annually, based upon a review of the business case. A final decision to shutdown is likely in January 2008, if financial support is not forthcoming.

There have been recent rumours that, after the next general election (which is probably only a few weeks away), the government will take a more realistic look at addressing the country’s future electricity generation requirements. However, this will essentially require making a dramatic U-turn on policy laid out not even three years ago (in the energy white paper). It could happen, but until it does, Britain’s nuclear industry will be firmly focused on clean-up, with generation being not much more than a sideshow.

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