UK’s nuclear future: look East?

The wheels could be falling off the UK’s plans to build 16 gigawatts of new nuclear generation capacity by 2025 and, as Tim Probert discovers, the country’s best hope for a nuclear future may now lie in East Asia


Despite having been granted planning permission by the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) to build two European pressurised reactors (EPRs) at Hinkley Point on March 19, there are growing doubts whether EDF’s nuclear plant will go ahead. Last December, France’s EDF delayed taking a final investment decision on the proposed twin- reactor, 3,260-megawatt plant in Somerset until the end of March 2013.

That deadline passed without a positive decision, and negotiations between EDF and the government over the level of support have reached stalemate, with the DECC unable to match the French state-owned utility’s reported demands for a 35-year fixed-price contract at around £90 per megawatt-hour. EDF stresses the potentially thousands of jobs that could be created by its project in Somerset, but there is no sign of a breakthrough.

Even if a deal can be agreed, the European Commission must then decide whether government-backed support for nuclear, which is considered a mature technology, would amount to state aid unfavourably distorting competition in favour of domestic generation. This process could take anything from six months to two years, perhaps longer.

The main drag on negotiations has been the issue of construction costs of the EPR. The first EPR at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, originally due online in 2009, is not expected to be commissioned until 2016, 11 years after construction began. Similarly, the EPR at Flamanville 3, in Normandy, France, is running four years behind schedule and costs have risen from €3.3 billion (£2.8 billion) to an estimated €8.5 billion (£7.25 billion).

Despite having almost completely disassembled its world-leading nuclear industry, there is a nuclear future in the UK – it just won’t be British, it will be Chinese

The EPR looks increasingly like an over-complex white elephant and its poor record is why the government cannot be certain of the costs of Hinkley Point C, with official estimates put at a tentative, though certainly expensive, £12 billion to £14 billion. Even if an agreement is reached, Hinkley Point C will not be the first of a large fleet of EPRs; EDF has proposed just one further plant at Sizewell in Suffolk.

The dismal record of the EPR highlights structural problems within the nuclear industry. In essence, EDF is asking the UK to commit for decades to a reactor that is effectively a prototype, with no operational reference plant. It is rather like a car manufacturer offering a new model with no demonstrators and no showrooms.

If EDF pulls out, Hitachi and Westinghouse are waiting in the wings. Hitachi acquired Gloucester-based Horizon Nuclear Power, a joint venture between E.ON and RWE, last October and it aims to have its first advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR) unit online at Wylfa in Anglesey by 2025. Westinghouse, owned by Japan’s Toshiba, is in negotiations to buy out Iberdrola’s stake in the NuGen West Cumbrian venture with a view to building its AP1000 reactors at Sellafield.

Neither project, however, is without problems. As merely a reactor vendor, Hitachi needs a deep injection of capital from a project developer and, while it has successfully built a fleet of ABWRs in Japan, its fully digital control and instrumentation system would need to be comprehensively redesigned to include manual controls to be licensable in the UK.

Westinghouse is also facing resistance from NuGen consortium member GDF Suez which, as a French company part-owned by the state, is under pressure to go with compatriot AREVA’S EPR. However, Westinghouse has gained confidence and expertise from building four AP1000 reactors currently to schedule in China that, it believes, will allow similar projects to be cost-competitive in the West.

Crucial to this confidence is its focus on developing a modern, modular concept of building modules in a factory off-site and then assembling the modules on-site, allowing construction tasks traditionally performed in sequence to be completed in parallel. The modularisation approach, says Westinghouse, results in a construction schedule of just 36 months from first concrete pour to fuel load.

Johann Lindner, director of European business development at US nuclear consultancy EXCEL Services Corporation and possessor of an encyclopaedic knowledge of nuclear reactors, thinks China holds the key to the UK’s nuclear future. “Despite having almost completely disassembled its world-leading nuclear industry, there is a nuclear future in the UK – it just won’t be British, it will be Chinese,” he says.

“In a decade, China will be exporting AP1000-derivatives worldwide, handling everything from financing to construction, at much less than half the cost of an EPR. Two hundred pre-fabricated modules could come over on a container ship to be assembled in the UK on-site like Lego.”

Mr Lindner envisages a future where Chinese manufacturers enter into joint ventures with British engineering firms, such as Rolls-Royce, to develop a national, indigenous, at-scale nuclear supply chain which would further reduce construction costs.

It is abundantly clear nuclear power needs to become cost-competitive. To use the motoring analogy, nuclear reactors must become more like car assembly rather than one-off, Olympic-sized events.

NUCLEAR REACTOR TECHNOLOGY

LIGHT WATER REACTORS

Light water reactors (LWRs) form the backbone of the 430 operational nuclear power reactors worldwide. They heat water with the energy generated by the fission of atoms, to create steam, to drive a turbine. LWRs fall into two main categories: boiling water reactors (BWRs), which create steam directly inside the pressure vessel in a single loop; and pressurised water reactors (PWRs), which generate steam outside the pressure vessel via a secondary loop. PWRs were originally designed by Westinghouse Electric as a scaled-up version of its nuclear submarine reactors developed in the 1950s. In the 1960s, PWR technology was licensed to Siemens of Germany, Japan’s Mitsubishi and later Framatome (now called AREVA) in France. BWRs were developed by General Electric in the early- 1960s, and later licensed to Hitachi and Toshiba.

SMALL MODULAR REACTORS

Small modular reactors (SMRs), defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as generating less than 300 megawatts, are the great hope of the nuclear industry. Though still on the drawing board, they are intended to be manufactured and brought on-site fully constructed. While the smaller power output of an SMR means electricity will cost more per megawatt, the initial cost is expected to be much less than that of constructing a complex, non-modular, large nuclear plant. Developers include Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox. A prominent proponent of SMRs is Bill Gates, who has heavily invested in TerraPower’s travelling wave reactor, whereby a fission chain reaction moves through a core in a “wave”. The slow breeding and burning of fuel would, in theory, allow the reactor to operate for more than 50 years without refuelling.

MOLTEN SALT REACTORS

Unlike conventional nuclear reactors which use solid fuel, usually rods or pellets, molten salt reactors (MSRs) use a mixture of fluoride salts in a molten state. The salt mixture, which also serves as primary coolant, includes fissile material or fissile isotopes of uranium and/or plutonium, together with fertile material, such as thorium-232 or uranium-238. Proponents say the main advantages of MSRs are higher fuel efficiency; that they operate at near atmospheric pressure, reducing the chance of explosion and thus obviating the need for a large, costly containment building to contain releases of radioactivity; and a large negative temperature co-efficient, meaning regulation of the reactor’s temperature is passive with no need for control rods. Transatomic Power is developing the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor, designed to run on the United States’ considerable stockpile of radioactive waste.