UK new build gives new excitement

22 December 2015

David Flin reports on the NIA conference “Nuclear, Powering the UK”, held in London in December, which focused on the opportunities and challenges resulting from the decision to proceed with new nuclear construction in the UK at Hinkley Point C, and at Wylfa Newydd and Moorside.

The recent progress on the Hinkley Point C (2 x 1670MW EPR) nuclear power project, with the deal between EDF Energy and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) announced in October 2015, and excavation work at the site getting underway, has provided a huge morale boost to the UK nuclear industry. When combined with the strong support to nuclear power from the UK Government, with £11 billion over the next five years promised by the chancellor, George Osborne, for decommissioning work, and the strong statements at the COP21 talks in Paris for a low carbon future, there was a very much more optimistic feel to a conference on the future of nuclear power in the UK than has been seen for a very long time.

The delivery of a series of new nuclear construction projects - Hinkley Point C, using the EPR; two GE-Hitachi ABWRs at Wylfa Newydd; and three Westinghouse AP1000s at Moorside, along with plans for projects at Oldbury, Bradwell, and Sizewell - promised to deliver 18GW by the mid-2020s. This was a constant theme of the conference, along with the challenges posed by these projects.

Lord Hutton, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, introducing the conference, said that the government funding for small modular reactors (SMRs) was welcome, as was progress in dealing with legacy issues. Low carbon energy was firmly on the agenda at COP21, and the move away from coal-fired plants brings a massive opportunity for nuclear to fill baseload needs.

However, there were a number of challenges. These include: decommissioning and waste disposal; a skills shortage; the need to get public support for nuclear power, and the need to ensure security, with special attention being paid to cyber-security.

John Clarke, CEO of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), memorably described decommissioning and, by implication, waste disposal, as "putting away your old toys before playing with new toys." He said that in order to achieve this, we need:

  • to have the right strategy;
  • to have the right level of funding;
  • to be able to deliver;
  • to demonstrate effectiveness by making sure it actually happens.

Clarke said that good progress was being made on decommissioning, and that a lot has been achieved in reducing the amount of waste that needed to go to a repository. The point was made that until the nuclear industry could demonstrate that it could deal with the waste issue, it would have difficulty getting public acceptance.

Public acceptance

Public acceptance of nuclear power was an issue. Surveys have suffered from a number of systemic issues, the most notable being that much of the public did not have a great deal of knowledge on the subject, and answers could frequently vary according to how a question was phrased. Stephen Bray, public affairs and consultation manager for NuGen, working on the Moorside project near Sellafield, said that in Cumbria, people were in general very much more knowledgeable about the strategic issues, and the local community was in favour of the project.

"There is a factor that communities living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants tend to be in favour of them"

There is a factor that communities living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants tend to be in favour of them. This is partly because they have experience of the benefits brought to the local economy. Bray noted that the biggest concerns that the local community have been raising about the project were not related to the fact that it was a nuclear project, but that it was a big project. They were concerned over the transport infrastructure, and if it could cope with the logistical needs of constructing the plant, and the impact this transport would have on the communities. They were also concerned about the impact 4000 temporary workers would have on community services, such as medical support. The local communities are also keen to be reassured that the local supply chain will be maximised. Bray said that based on figures NuGen had, 73% of the local community supported the Moorside project.

Miranda Kirschel, president of Women in Nuclear UK, said that from public responses, 51% of people expressed no opinion on nuclear power, and that over 30% said they knew nothing about it. It is hard to get strong public acceptance with such a high level of lack of knowledge, and she said that it was vital to deal with this.

Skills challenge

A lack of knowledge was also a factor in another issue that was a constant theme in the challenges facing the industry, the shortage of skills.

"A lot of companies have apprenticeship schemes...but there remains a demographic problem"

A lot of companies have apprenticeship schemes to help overcome this, but there remains a demographic problem with operating a nuclear plant. As there has been no new construction for over 20 years, very few people were attracted into plant operations. The majority of experienced operators are now nearing - or beyond - retirement age, and while people are coming in now, there will be a shortage of experienced operators.

Professor Francis Livens, research director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, described the skills landscape as "complex, disconnected, and disjointed." He also highlighted an issue with attracting people to study engineering. Different players have different drivers. Industry, in general, wants good general scientists and engineers with a sound grasp of the basics, with industry giving them the specific skills for their area. Industry can "nuclearize" these students. However, students are generally attracted by a strong hook for their studies, and want a fairly specific course rather than a general basic one. He also said that students need to be attracted early. By the time they are post-graduates, it is too late. We need to attract school children, and the way to do that is through young university students. Livens described initiatives in which university students took on projects with school children, and came up with ideas that engaged the children more successfully than anything he could have come up with.

Security, and specifically, cyber-security, was an issue, and one that is being increasingly looked at in a geopolitical context. Ian Bonnett, director of Ridgewood Europe, said that it was not just cyber-security that was an issue, but hybrid threats had to be dealt with.

Climate considerations

Professor Robin Grimes, chief scientific adviser to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, described the issues that had to be faced at the COP21 talks in Paris. He was categorical that climate change was happening through the greenhouse effect, and that emissions from human activities are a dominant cause. He said that the evidence for this was "overwhelming". He said if we take action now, we can limit the temperature rise to 2°C, which will still have impacts. If action is delayed, the temperature rise is likely to be 4.7°C, which would have catastrophic consequences. His point was that action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was imperative.

New nuclear construction replacing retiring coal-fired plants would help achieve this aim, and the reports from EDF Energy, Horizon Nuclear Power, and NuGen on the progress being made at Hinkley Point C, Wylfa Newydd, and Moorside were all very positive, and showed significant advances. Many of the same speakers spoke at NIA's conference in July 2015, where the mood could be described as cautious optimism, describing their position as one of slow progress in a marathon. These speakers are now talking with much greater confidence of the future and the progress being made. As one delegate said: "There are still challenges, but now we can deal with them."

Speaking at the conference, the UK energy minister Andrea Leadsom, re-iterated the support from the government for nuclear build. She said that the government had scrapped its former "no subsidy" policy, and wanted the UK supply chain to be given the chance to compete. She said that the policy of the government was to transform to a low carbon economy while keeping the lights on, and that new nuclear was key to this. Key to developing new nuclear was the need to safely decommission legacy sites, and to overcome the skills shortage.

She said that the government had a big commitment towards SMR technology, and wanted to see the UK exporting SMR technology.
Leadsom looked forward to 2025, and said that she expected to see the new nuclear plans for 18GW operational, providing 33% of the UK's needs. There would need to be increased focus on reducing energy demand, and that if there is a significant move towards electric transport, this would result in a big increase in demand for low carbon electricity. She saw a move away from coal, possibly using gas as a transition technology, before going to a mixture of nuclear and renewable electricity.

Overall, the mood among the 280 delegates was very positive, with a confidence in the future that was greatly encouraged by the support of the government. There seemed to be a general feeling that the challenges had moved from those associated with getting work to those associated with carrying the work out successfully.

Prof. Robin Grimes

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