Franco-British nuclear collaboration

10 May 2023

France and the UK stand alone in Western Europe with the scope of their highly ambitious civil nuclear programmes. If these goals are to be achieved the special relationship between these two nations will be critical to developing the skills necessary.

Above: Learnings from Flamanville 3 are already paying dividends in the construction of UK EPRs

On Friday 10 March 2023, the first Franco-British Bilateral Summit in five years took place in Paris. This event served as a timely reminder that our two countries have an enduring partnership in many key areas and a desire to see this continue, particularly on the vital matters of energy security and climate change.

At the summit, a dedicated seminar on nuclear saw the UK’s Energy and Net Zero Secretary of State Grant Schapps sign a memorandum on cooperation in civil nuclear with his French counterpart Agne`s Pannier-Runacher. This relationship will be critical to the realisation of both countries’ civil nuclear programmes, which are highly ambitious. The UK is aiming to build 24 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050, while France intends to deploy up to 14 new reactors over the same period, developing an upgraded version of its EPR technology in the process.

In Western Europe, these two countries stand alone in having large-scale new build programmes. And, with Chinese expertise being frozen out of the pipeline due to geopolitical tensions, nurturing the capability and capacity to deliver new nuclear between Britain and France is imperative.

Skills mobility

A chronic shortage of skills in the nuclear sector presents a substantial risk to both countries’ civil nuclear ambitions, and success will ultimately hinge on the development and expansion of a shared pool of talent and resources. Currently, companies like EDF and Assystem are bringing French expertise to UK nuclear projects, facilitating knowledge transfer with a view to establishing a sovereign domestic skills-base.

This is working well for Hinkley Point C (HPC) and Sizewell C but will need to be significantly scaled-up for future projects. Why? France alone will need to recruit an estimated additional 100,000 people to work on EPR2 – approximately 10,000 skilled individuals will need to join the industry every year to meet the development and deployment demands of this exciting new technology. The UK’s skills demand will also be significant.

The UK and France must work together to ensure the supply-chain is in the best possible shape to deliver. This means addressing the issue of international skills mobility. Building a nuclear fleet requires specialist capabilities and Brexit has taken away our ability to swiftly bring in experts who possess limited, in-demand skills in critical areas such as engineering, digital, and project management.

Bringing in knowledge from France will reinforce the development of a sovereign capability in the UK. There is a short window, between now and 2027, where we can tap into French expertise – Assystem has been doing this by embedding experienced French nuclear engineers into UK-based teams over the past four years, but the private sector alone cannot deliver to the scale required to realise our mutual nuclear ambitions.

We require positive action from both governments to ensure skilled personnel have the mobility to support new nuclear projects in both countries. Not just engineers, but digital experts, project management specialists, and a plethora of non-technical disciplines that all contribute towards the delivery of new energy infrastructure. Many voices are calling for specific policy intervention on this issue.

The nuclear pipeline

The cascade effect in developing large-scale complex energy infrastructure is powerful – for example, looking at the generation of AGRs that are now starting to be taken offline in the UK, it took 20 years for the first AGR plant, Dungeness B, to be built and put into operation, while the last, Torness, took just eight. We can expect a similar outcome for EPR plants in the UK, but only if we can commit to a pipeline.

We can already see the effect of learning from one project being applied to another. For example, HPC will benefit from the best vessels ever made, owing to lessons learned from the development of components for Flamanville 3. In fact, HPC will also benefit from a range of efficiencies generated at Taishan – it is being built with just a third of the staff and is only around a month behind the progress of its Chinese counterpart, despite a lengthy stoppage due to COVID, tighter regulations, and a less accessible site.

Lessons learned in the development of HPC Unit 1 are being carried over to HPC Unit 2, with the replication effect leading to a 25% gain in construction speed, saving thousands of hours in labour time. This in turn will benefit Sizewell C. The question is, ‘What comes after that?’

By the time Hinkley Point C begins operation, it will have been three decades since the UK last commissioned a nuclear power plant. Those thirty plus years represent a period in which Britain’s nuclear new build supply chain dissolved – and a generation of skilled engineers was lost to other industries.

We are at the early stage of rebuilding an industry and need investment in all nuclear skills, but for the private sector to commit to this, it needs certainty and confidence in the market. This is where a clear pipeline of projects comes into play. A company involved in the manufacture of nuclear components for example, will only seek to scale-up operations if there is obvious demand to match supply.

The historic memorandum signed between Britain and France and the establishment of Great British Nuclear provide the positive signals that companies need to make a commitment to supplying the nuclear sector through investment, personnel, components and equipment or consultancy, but a clear pipeline will help companies to make that decision.

Careers for life

The development of a new nuclear fleet will create thousands of high-quality jobs, many of which will be found in less economically active regions of the UK. According to the World Nuclear Association, every gigawatt of new nuclear capacity installed requires around 1500 people. With plans to deploy 24 GW over the coming decades there is a fantastic opportunity for the next generation of the workforce to secure careers in nuclear, working on projects in the UK, France and beyond.

The nuclear supply-chain will not only be seeking new engineers, but project management specialists, digital experts, and a range of supportive disciplines such as HR, finance, sales, marketing and legal. The next generation of nuclear professionals have a truly exciting array of options ahead of them, taking on careers in an interesting and varied sector that sits on the cutting-edge of technology development and at the heart of global decarbonisation efforts.

By joining the burgeoning Franco-British nuclear talent pool, our future colleagues will unlock opportunities to work on innovative projects in Western Europe and, eventually, around the world. France’s nuclear alliance has seen several EU states declare their renewed interest in civil nuclear, providing the potential to expand Europe’s EPR pipeline beyond the fringes of the Atlantic. Countries further abroad, such as India and Kazakhstan, are also giving serious consideration to deploying this technology.

With a UK industry commitment to achieving 40% of nuclear sector roles filled by women by 2030, we will also capitalise on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to enable women to secure their stake in delivering the energy transition through new nuclear projects.

A special relationship

Britain and France may have experienced a turbulent few years recently, but with mature leadership, together our two governments have the ability to galvanise the nuclear sector and secure long-term prosperity for both our nations. This will be of immense benefit to British and French people through the provision of abundant high-quality skilled jobs, stable and secure low-carbon energy, and broader economic boosts across both countries. Vouloir, c’est pouvoir.

Author: Simon Barber, UK Managing Director, Assystem

By the time Hinkley Point C begins operation, it will have been three decades since the UK last commissioned a nuclear power plant

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