Two steps forward, one step back16 January 2019
The Westminster Energy, Environment, and Transport Forum held its keynote seminar: “The next steps for nuclear energy projects in the UK” on 16 October 2018 in London. David Flin reports on the proceedings of the seminar.
THERE WERE 13 SPEAKERS AND 149 delegates from government, industry, and academia at the seminar, and a lot of interest in the details of the Nuclear Sector Deal announced in June 2018.
The deal set the following targets to be achieved by 2030:
- 30% reduction in the cost of new nuclear build.
- 20% reduction from current estimates in the costs of decommissioning.
- Improve gender equality in employment in the industry, so women make up at least 40% of the workforce.
The Nuclear Sector Deal will provide funding of £56 million to support new reactor and SMR design, and £86 million for fusion development at Culham, Oxfordshire.
It was generally accepted that a workforce of 100,000 would be required for the planned new construction, and that this would be challenging. Part of the challenge arises from the fact that reacquiring the skills base for nuclear construction is not going to be easy, partly because the UK has a number of other very large infrastructure projects that will also be drawing heavily upon construction workers, and partly because uncertainties over Brexit means that it is not clear how easy it might be to employ workers from abroad.
The symposium started by looking at the opportunities and challenges for future UK nuclear power projects. The challenges have been known about in the industry for a long time, and include timescale, financing, costs and an ageing workforce.
The need to upgrade the grid to accommodate new nuclear was also raised, and it was clear that there were significant challenges involved. However, the fact that these challenges had been identified and were being addressed by all parties was considered a positive sign.
Paul Westbury, group technical director at Laing O’Rourke, detailed a number of issues involved in developing a supply chain. He emphasised the importance of driving down construction costs and times. He said that the watchwords should be: standardise and modularise. It was also pointed out that large infrastructure projects can have major impacts, both positive and negative, for small local economies, and that these had to be managed – during the project, and after the work had been completed.
The second session considered decommissioning.
Michael Kell, director for energy value for money at the National Audit Office, gave a summary of the progress of work at Sellafield. He said that improvements had been made although there was still room for more. In a later development, however, government spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee said it was “sceptical about [the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s] long-term strategy to decommission Sellafield. It said NDA and Sellafield have made progress with reducing delays and expected cost overruns with 14 major projects at Sellafield, but “there is still a long way to go and the NDA cannot afford to be complacent.”
It added, “Most major projects at Sellafield are still significantly delayed, with expected combined cost overruns of £913 million. The NDA has not systematically reviewed why these projects keep running into difficulties, or analysed properly the constraints it says prevent them from making faster progress. “
At the meeting Bruce McKirdy, managing director of radioactive waste management at Sellafield, explained that although long-term geological waste disposal was essential, and that any arrangement had to be consent-based, the level of public knowledge with regard to waste disposal was not good. The consent-based process will involve planning, working with communities and geological screening.
The third session of the symposium looked at promoting innovation in the nuclear sector. Andrew Storer, chief executive at Nuclear AMRC, said that generating intellectual property was important, and that innovation was needed to drive down costs. James Murphy, chief strategy officer at the National Nuclear Laboratory, also sought innovation, saying it was needed in nuclear for the sector to earn its place. As well as technology, innovation was needed in financing and publicity, he noted.
The symposium closed with a session on the outlook for the UK nuclear industry. Tim Yeo, chair of the New Nuclear Watch Institute, said that the outlook for nuclear power in the UK was the most hopeful that it had been since the dash for gas in the 1990s.
Three things are needed for a nuclear renaissance in the UK: the UK government must champion nuclear energy as being low carbon and increasing energy security; costs must be cut; and SMRs must be developed and exploited.
Peter Haslam, head of policy at the Nuclear Industry Association, said that good progress is being made on Hinkley Point C, and that the government had set up an Expert Finance Working Group on SMRs, and its findings were very positive.
Concern was expressed over a July assessment from the National Infrastructure Commission, which said that there should be no more than one nuclear plant built after Hinkley Point C before 2025. It based this view on the assumption that the private sector was unwilling to invest in projects with very long lead times, and that new nuclear plants will not be built without some form of state support.
Author information: David Flin is a freelance writer and editor