Nuclear in the UK – where did it go wrong?

26 August 2009

If we consider the four largest European Union countries, each has a very different nuclear situation. France has a strong programme and the highest nuclear share of electricity in the world, maintained over the long run by excellent government support. Germany has a significant, technically excellent nuclear sector, but all its reactors will be shut down by 2023 unless the nuclear law is changed. Italy has already shut down the few reactors that it built, largely because of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The United Kingdom is also different, having been an early pioneer of nuclear but one which fell on hard times for a variety of reasons. Having examined nuclear in French last month (see here), it is interesting to contrast a UK programme that could reasonably be described as an excellent case study in how not to ‘do nuclear’.

The UK and France actually started off in the 1950s down identical routes, namely utilising gas-cooled reactors for their civil nuclear industries that originated in their military plutonium programmes (indeed the initial Magnox reactors in the UK were regarded as dual purpose). Both also developed a full range of fuel cycle facilities, both front-end and back-end (although there was never uranium mining in the UK). Back in those days, both governments enthusiastically resourced their nuclear sectors and there was limited public opposition. The key differences began with the adoption of the Westinghouse-origin PWR as the model for future French reactors, while the UK continued down the gas-cooled reactor route with the AGRs. In both countries, these decisions were made in a climate of substantial debate and some dissent, but the die essentially became cast for the next 30 years.

That the French made the correct decision is absolutely borne out by future events. LWRs, whether PWRs or BWRs, have demonstrated their ability to run at high capacity factors for many years without incurring substantial capital expenditure. They have not surprisingly become the mainstays of the international reactor park, accounting for 90% of those in service. The AGRs, by contrast, have been troublesome in operation and have required a significant amount of time and money in care and maintenance to keep online. It is now expected that they will be retired after reactor operating lives averaging only 35 years, leaving the UK with the sole PWR at Sizewell in operation by the early 2020s (unless there is new-build in the meantime).

The problems of the UK programme unfortunately ran a lot deeper than selection of what is now a demonstrably inferior reactor design, particularly from an economics viewpoint. There are important lessons to be learned for the future from this. In common with the dreadful experience in the United States, all the UK reactors are slightly different and took far too long to build, destroying their overall profitability before they even began to operate. Lack of standardization may be forgivable with a developing technology, but the engineers and physicists were clearly in charge of the programme, rather than those with a business understanding. This was compounded by weak contracting companies which could not easily take on the job of building lots of different reactors up and down the country. Seven sites for only 14 AGRs were finally completed.

Nuclear also unfortunately became a political football, with policy changes and inconsistencies following the electoral cycle. The long-term and consistent political backing received in France was sadly lacking, and the costs inescapably mounted. In addition to concerns about safety, it was the huge costs of construction and operation that aroused public opposition to nuclear in the UK; but this also applied to the other non-nuclear plants built by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). It is therefore not surprising that the Conservative administrations in the 1980s were determined to change UK energy policy. But the route they embarked down, namely privatization, was not very helpful for nuclear.

Indeed, the nuclear sector had to be omitted from the initial wave of privatization of the electricity supply industry in 1989 owing to the financial mess it was in, notably the already-looming decommissioning liabilities. The attempt to dress up and eventually privatize most of the sector as British Energy without carrying out other substantial reforms eventually, and inevitably, failed with the new company’s remarkable bankruptcy. The final end game has been its acquisition by EDF. This is perhaps not a bad solution, on the basis that the French certainly know how to ‘do nuclear’ properly.

Other notable adverse features of nuclear in the UK are the problems at the reprocessing and fuel fabrication facilities at Sellafield, the inability to decide and deliver a used fuel strategy, and the extent of the decommissioning liabilities now apparent. The facilities at Sellafield have been a technical and financial disaster from which it is hard to see an escape route short of eventual closure (and maybe investment in replacement facilities). Again the UK has followed what is apparently the wrong technical route in comparison with the French, but it has also not managed the projects well. The failure to make progress towards a waste repository has been a negative surrounding the UK industry, especially as British Energy has never shown any inclination to use recycled MOX in its AGRs. Had a major PWR programme been introduced and the plants at Sellafield performed well, things could have been very different.

Although much of the GBP80 billion or so of decommissioning liabilities are attributable to the degree of experimentation in the early periods of the military nuclear programme, their existence creates a negative impression of nuclear with the general public. With all the talk of waste and cleaning up for past sins, the public, not unreasonably (at least until recently), saw it as a ‘sunset’ sector. The employment that all this activity creates should not, however, be underestimated, but it means that a lot of the nuclear industry in UK is not particularly interested in today’s new-build prospects, having ‘jobs for life’ carrying out something rather different.

Turning to the brighter side, the Urenco centrifuge enrichment plant at Capenhurst has been a huge success, with steadily-rising capacities and buoyant order books from around the world. The Springfields UF6 conversion and fuel fabrication plants have also done well, despite changes in ownership and somewhat ancient facilities. The heavy investment in nuclear in the past is also reflected in a solid reputation for technical excellence amongst British nuclear scientists and engineers, but in many cases their skills have been employed outside the country.

Things are now, however, looking up. Successive Labour governments have gradually undergone a conversion to new nuclear build, from a position of (at best) sitting on the fence and relying on renewable energy to deal with the new problem of climate change. Energy security concerns have also mounted as North Sea oil and gas production has peaked and begun to fall, while the prospect of the lights going out as nuclear and old fossil fuel plants are shut down has begun to concentrate minds wonderfully. From a laissez-faire attitude to energy that peaked in the 1980s, the UK has now returned to a firm energy planning framework, but this time the private sector is expected to take the lead without a hint of government subsidies. There is some debate about whether this will work, but at least it is a much more favourable outlook for nuclear than for the past 20 years.

What strikes one is the extent to which possible new nuclear build in UK is like establishing an infant industry. This is despite the UK’s early start in nuclear and subsequent heavy investment in the sector. There is no local reactor supplier these days, no established supply chain and a notable shortage of experienced technical staff. So not so different, in reality, to establishing an initial nuclear programme in a new country, with the requirement for new policies on regulation, planning and waste management. Yet given nuclear’s history in UK, starting almost from scratch is maybe not such a bad idea. The policy changes should have been made years ago, so new reactors could be coming into operation today, but there is nothing that can be done about that now.

There are a wide range of risks surrounding the future British programme, which with a fair wind could see the first new reactor in operation by 2018. In particular, the new planning framework is untested but needs to work well. Over-long public enquiries bedeviled the UK nuclear sector as much as construction schedule overruns; there cannot be a repeat. Those opposed to nuclear know that delaying things is fatal for project economics, so this will be their tactic. The other biggest risk is the willingness of the private sector to invest. The pure economics of new nuclear plants look good, but prospective investors, even from financially-strong companies such as EDF, RWE and E.ON, need reassurance on the likely level of imputed carbon prices and electricity prices before they will go ahead. Still, the omens are looking increasingly good, in contrast to the USA, where the prospects of new construction now look more cloudy in the aftermath of the financial meltdown and anticipated plant cost escalations. There are at least plenty of companies interested in investing in UK.

At least there is now strong cross-party backing for nuclear in UK, while the general public appears at worst ambivalent about the plans. Nobody thinks about energy policy until something goes wrong – either the gasoline prices escalate at the pump or there is a threat of power cuts. This goes for politicians as well as the public. But now minds are being concentrated, particularly by the environmental side of energy policy.

The history of nuclear in the UK has important lessons for other countries. One does not need to do things totally the French way, but consistency of government policy, avoidance of long planning delays and building a number of standard reactors on one site are key features. It is also important to have a sensible regulatory system for site and reactor approvals, a well-thought out waste and decommissioning policy and some degree of certainty in carbon and electricity market futures. Whether the UK can accomplish its private sector nuclear investments remains to be seen – it is rather an experiment but it is certainly worth a try. It is conceivable, in addition, that the AGRs will get lifetime extensions, if the necessary investments can be justified.

With the private sector in the lead, the UK programme will continue to differ from France but may be copied in other countries if it proves successful – maybe even in Germany and Italy, where new nuclear may eventually become a reality.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Director 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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