New nuclear build: is there sufficient supply capability?

31 July 2006

It is clear that the envisaged new nuclear build programme in the UK will be almost like establishing a new industry. Despite significant experience of nuclear in the past, indeed as a leader in nuclear technology from the 1950s onwards, the UK has not had a substantial nuclear reactor construction programme for many years. It is therefore reasonable to question whether there is now the capability to supply the plant and equipment (either from local suppliers or from the international market), to carry out the major civil engineering and construction works which will be required, and finally to have adequate programme management and technical support.

Within each of these areas there is an underlying concern that the people and skills may no longer be available or be stretched by their involvement in other competing activities. For example, within the UK nuclear industry itself, the change in focus towards plant decommissioning and the cleanup of old sites is tying up a lot of experienced staff. At any one time there are also other major infrastructure projects underway, which can take up a substantial share of the available national resources.

It is interesting to make a comparison with South Korea. The nuclear programme there has allowed the development of a local reactor design and construction infrastructure in the form of companies such as Kopec and Doosan, which has had a steady stream of work for many years. This has followed consistency of public policy on nuclear and would allow an acceleration of new reactor construction to take place relatively easily. In the UK and the West, however, the tap got turned off during the 1980s and the ability to respond quickly to the needs of a new programme must have suffered. The question is: how badly?

Some useful analysis of the issues underlying this question, at least for the UK, is provided by two recent and complementary reports, both looking at the national capability to support a new nuclear build programme. The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) used a working group of its members to undertake its study – titled, The UK capability to deliver a new nuclear build programme – which focused very much on demonstrating that UK companies still have the ability to support a programme of ten new reactors over the next 15-20 years. In An evaluation of the capability and capacity of the UK and global supply chains to support a new nuclear build programme in the UK, IBM Business Consulting Services carried out a telephone interview programme with UK and global suppliers, highlighting where overseas sourcing will likely be necessary. It concentrates more on the plant and equipment area, whereas the NIA study is far more comprehensive, including detailed evaluations of the civil engineering and project management areas too.

The NIA believes a typical nuclear power plant can be divided by value into plant and equipment (55%), civil engineering and construction (30%) and project management and support activities (15%).

Within the plant and equipment area, a subdivision can be made on the nuclear part of the plant (the nuclear island) and secondly the non-nuclear part (which would be similar for any thermal electricity generation station) – the split on construction costs is likely to be approximately 50:50. At the time of the last nuclear plant to be built in the UK, Sizewell B, almost all plant and equipment could theoretically have been supplied by UK companies, the major exception being the large forgings and reactor pressure vessel. Competitive tendering led to additional contracts being won by overseas companies, but a significant level of local nuclear engineering, manufacturing and site installation capability still existed. Since then, it is clear that there has been a dramatic downsizing and redirection of manufacturing capability in the UK for large power stations of all types, not just nuclear, essentially because of little market demand. This applies particularly to large turbines and generators and their associated switch and control gear.

The supply of large forgings is a critical area, particularly the head forgings for reactor pressure vessels and steam generators. Only a few overseas companies supply these and if there is a general revival of nuclear build worldwide, lead times on supply could steadily increase. On the other hand, if there is confidence that there will be a steady stream of new orders for many years, investment in new facilities by these and possibly some new suppliers will likely take place. The importance of this area is underlined in the reported interest of Areva in acquiring Sfarsteel, an integrated producer of steel forgings that includes the historic Le Creusot forge, which makes the very large components of the type used in nuclear power plants.


There will be time to train a new generation of operators and it should be an attractive career choice, given that new reactors will likely run for 40-60 years.

Overall, it is believed that about 50% of the necessary plant and equipment could be delivered from current UK facilities and resources, which may be increased to 70% by further investment by local companies, assuming they are given the confidence to do so by the assurance of a substantial multi-plant programme.

Most of the civil engineering associated with new nuclear build is similar to other major civil engineering projects. Although the magnitude of the programme envisaged is certainly significant, it would be no larger than other major infrastructure projects, such as oil and gas terminals and the 2012 Olympics site in London. A relatively small proportion of UK construction materials would be required, less than 1% of annual cement and aggregate output and less than 4% of structural steel production. A modularised approach to construction may well be employed, reducing onsite labour requirements at relatively remote locations, but requiring the ability to handle the large modules. In terms of timing, other major infrastructure projects in the UK are timed for completion prior to the start of a nuclear new build programme, so that it would provide continuity of work rather than overstretching.

In the programme management and technical support area, it is possible that a grouping of companies will provide the necessary resources, rather than a single UK or overseas company, given the need for a strong and experienced leader with an international reputation. Similar to the civil engineering area, the resource demands will be small compared with the overall UK capability, but there may be some constraints in areas such as reactor safety and licensing, where many of the current experienced personnel will be approaching retirement age over the next five to ten years. It will be possible, however, given the phased and extended nature of a new build programme, to implement training programmes to provide a new generation of technical specialists to fill the gap and provide continuity of support.

The overall position with regard to skilled staff is one frequently mentioned as a possible constraint on a new build programme, applying in many areas. In reality, however, even a ten-reactor programme will be spread over many years and observations such as that many UK reactor operators are close to retirement are not particularly relevant. There will be time to train a new generation of operators and it should be an attractive career choice, given that new reactors will likely run for 40-60 years. The new build programme will also employ an international reactor system, already designed and licensed in its country of origin and probably already constructed at another location. This contrasts with previous UK experience with the Magnox and AGR programmes, but also with Sizewell B, which started as a standard PWR but was extensively modified. Without the need any longer to develop the rector designs, skill requirements can be focused on selecting, licensing and constructing a standard reactor system within the UK regulatory framework.

It is therefore clear that the UK supply chain is capable of delivering most of a new nuclear build programme but will require support from the wider global chain in a few key areas. There is some risk that there will be capacity constraints worldwide imposed by similar new build programmes in other countries but what is really needed to address this is a higher degree of certainty. Companies will be very happy to invest in new facilities and staff as soon as they are assured that there will be a steady flow of demand for the foreseeable future. At the moment, there is a lot of fine talk but only a limited amount of progress towards this. Yet this is only to be expected as a return to new nuclear build in the western world represents a major break with the recent past. There may be some shortages of capacity in the early stages but, given the timescales of nuclear projects, it is not complacent to expect markets eventually to react and bring forward the required staff, materials, components and services by the time they are required.

Above all else, governments have to demonstrate the political will to support new build, develop regulatory systems to ensure that reactors can be approved and built in a reasonable time and also finalise the necessary public policies on waste management and decommissioning. The industry cannot expect guarantees that things will never change, but it does need some general degree of political consensus to invest. But if, instead, it’s going to be used as a political football as in the past, there is little prospect of new plants.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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