A consultation on the process to select sites for new nuclear build in England and Wales by the end of 2025 was launched on 22 July by the UK government’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Berr).

The 16-week strategic siting assessment (SSA) consultation is due to close on 11 November 2008, after which the government plans to invite third parties to nominate sites. Following assessment of the sites, the government expects to publish a list of suitable sites as part of a national policy statement (NPS) for nuclear power. The sites identified through this process will then be considered through a new planning regime to be established under the Planning Bill, which is currently before Parliament.

The consultation document, Towards a Nuclear National Policy Statement: Consultation on the Strategic Siting Assessment Process and Siting Criteria for New Nuclear Power Stations in the UK, sets out the various criteria that would be applied in assessing new build sites – including those that would automatically rule out sites.

As part of the process of developing the SSA criteria, the government has carried out a study of the environmental and sustainability effects of constructing new nuclear power stations. This study, Strategic Siting Assessment: Preview of Nominations and Assessment Process, Draft Exclusionary and Discretionary Criteria and Indicative Timeline, was released alongside the draft SSA plans and is also open for consultation.

Launching the consultation, secretary of state for business John Hutton said: “The strategic siting assessment is the next step towards a nuclear national policy statement. This will help to speed up planning applications while making clear that safety and engagement with local communities are key.”

Hutton’s department (Berr) said it expects to have finalised the SSA criteria by early 2009, and will at that time open the invitation for the nomination of sites that could be suitable for new nuclear generation by 2025. The nuclear NPS, which would include a list of the sites assessed as strategically suitable for building new power stations, is due to be published in 2010.

Subject to approval by Parliament, the Planning Bill would create an Infrastructure Planning Commission, which would deal with specific planning applications on those sites. If approval is given, it is expected that construction of new nuclear power stations could begin in 2013-2014, in time for producing energy from 2017-2020.

Duncan Field, partner in the Planning & Environment Group of law firm SJ Berwin LLP, told NEI that the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission should speed up applications. “The remit of the Infrastructure Planning Commission is to assess local impacts and check consistency with the NPS,” he said, adding that the commission would be operating under a fixed timescale – probably nine months – which would make the process “much faster than it is today.”

Suitable sites

The best sites for new nuclear build are considered to be where reactors already exist. The UK has 14 AGR units and one PWR owned and operated by British Energy; and 26 Magnox reactors – four of which are still in operation at Wylfa and Oldbury – owned by the country’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Of these, the five prime new build locations are at British Energy’s Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Dungeness sites and the NDA’s Bradwell and Wylfa sites, according to a report by consultant Ian Jackson, Siting New Nuclear Power Stations: Availability and Options for Government, published alongside the UK’s 2007 energy white paper. The report points out that both the NDA and British Energy share some development land at Bradwell.

The NDA is currently in talks with interested utilities over making its sites available for new build, though doing so would be highly controversial as the NDA was created for the purpose of cleaning up the country’s nuclear legacy. Meanwhile, British Energy’s near-monopoly over the best sites for new build has prompted a “range of proposals from several parties wishing to make a full offer for the company,” according to a 16 May 2008 statement by British Energy. However British Energy rejected the takeover bids because, it said, the offers did not “represent value for shareholders”. And more recently, British Energy rejected a revised bid from EDF.

Negotiations with British Energy are continuing, but Field told NEI that utilities wishing to build new nuclear plants in the UK do not necessarily need to reach an agreement with British Energy or the NDA. These utilities could instead acquire land adjacent to nuclear sites, as some utilities including EDF have already done, and nominate them as part of the NPS consultation process. In addition, the level of detail into which the NPS will descend when identifying proposed new build sites is not clear at this stage and it could be that the NPS allows neighbouring land to be brought in as part of any development proposal. Field noted: “What you would probably get is the identification of indicative sites,” rather than a precisely defined footprint for a new nuclear plant. “It would be foolish of the government to identify sites and not give any flexibility,” he added.

Field pointed out that a utility wishing to build a new nuclear plant on a neighbouring site to an existing plant could also obtain a compulsory land purchase order as part of the same consent process if access to part of the existing nuclear site were needed, for example, to get access to the national grid.

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Dedicated isotope facility

The Maple project comprises two 10MWt reactors, the first in the world to be dedicated exclusively to medical isotope production, and the associated laboratories for isotope separation and waste handling. The reactors are light water cooled and heavy-water reflected. Core dimensions are 0.4m diameter by 0.6m high. The driver fuel is low-enriched uranium, but the targets for molybdenum-99 production are highly enriched (~97% U-235). The whole facility was designed to meet the entire global demand for molybdenum-99, iodine-131, iodine-125 and xenon-133. Two reactors were built to ensure that the supply of isotopes would not be interrupted by maintenance, or unplanned shutdowns. The short half-lives of such isotopes as molybdenum-99 mean that interruptions of supply of more than a few days cannot be tolerated.