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The UK's new nuclear doubts

Nils ZimmermannAugust 31, 2016

The UK plans to build several new nuclear reactors - of three different types, oddly, including a Franco-German design that has gone radically over-budget elsewhere. That's a recipe for high costs, critics say.

Hinkley Point C building site
Image: picture alliance/empics/A. Matthews

Over the past several years, a number of companies have put forth applications to build new nuclear reactors in the UK. But none have started construction, and now, there's some doubt whether any of them will go forward.

At the end of July, the new UK government led by Theresa May announced a delay in the approval of Hinkley Point C, the new-build nuclear power reactor project currently closest to going ahead, pending a review.

Mycle Schneider, an anti-nuclear analyst who is convening lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Reports, said he doubts any new UK reactors will actually get built. And if any are built, he doubts they'll ever be put into service: "There have been at least 92 nuclear reactors construction projects around the world that were abandoned at various stages of completion."

Financial rather than environmental concerns are putting the UK's new-build nuclear program in doubt. Why Prime Minister May ordered a review of Hinkley Point C is unclear, but one reason may be that the EPR reactors intended for the site are of the same design that has seen vast cost over-runs and multiple years of construction delays in Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France.

nuclear reactor construction site
The world's first two EPRs to be built in Finland (pictured) and France have been under construction for a decade, yet remain unfinishedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Nuclear renaissance?

According to the UK's Nuclear Industry Association, "the UK government is supportive of – but not involved in - the delivery of a nuclear new-build program for the UK."

In January 2008, the British government announced that new nuclear should play a role in the UK's future energy mix, and invited companies to come forward with plans for the development of new nuclear power stations.

From the start, the government insisted that any new-build nuclear power stations would have to be financed entirely by investors - the government wouldn't put up any money. There was to be a "free market" in electricity generation.

The government's ostensibly hands-off approach is the reason why three different reactor designs are now being considered for UK new-build.

Horizon Nuclear Power, a subsidiary of Japan's Hitachi corporation, wants to build Hitachi-GE Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs) at Wylfa in Wales and Oldbury in England.

NuGeneration, a company majority-owned by Toshiba, proposes to build three Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Moorside in Cumbria.

France's government-owned EDF Energy, in collaboration with Chinese state-owned China General Nuclear corporation (CGN), plans to build two EPRs (European Pressurised Reactors) at Hinkley Point C in Somerset, and perhaps additional EPR units at two other sites: Sizewell C on the Suffolk coast, and Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.

In each case, the companies proposing to build and operate reactors are also the suppliers of the reactor technology.

Multiple reactor types = inefficiency

Experts question whether building several different kinds of reactors is sensible. Jacopo Buongiorno, director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told DW that "lack of standardization can increase cost, both for construction and operations. But the UK government is taking a 'laissez-faire' approach where the companies decide what design to go with."

Mycle Schneider said the UK's approach isn't really laissez-faire, because "no-one can build a nuclear reactor today under free market conditions… If reactors get built, it's because they're highly subsidized, regardless of what the subsidy mechanism is. Otherwise they just don't get built."

Mycle Schneider
Nuclear expert Mycle Schneider is skeptical that Hinkley Point C will ever be built, noting that many nuclear projects around the world are under massive pressureImage: M. Schneider

In the UK, reactor construction companies are offering to finance and build reactors entirely at their own expense. They hope to recoup their investment by selling electricity at a subsidized, non-market price.

Subsidies to new-build nuclear power are now taking the form of a government-set "strike price," with the tariff set to increase with inflation. The tariff was designed to be high enough to entice reactor builders to move forward with their projects.

Critics say this policy puts a lie to the notion that there is a "free market" in new-build UK nuclear power - as does the fact that the corporate proponents of Hinkley Point C are French and Chinese state-owned firms that enjoy substantial financial support from their governments.

The special treatment the UK is granting to nuclear projects fails to take account of the fact that energy markets are undergoing a period of rapid change, "a revolution, not an evolution," Schneider said. Electricity generation is going in the direction of ever smaller, more decentralized equipment like rooftop solar, integrated horizontally in networks. Nuclear, in Schneider's view, represents an out-dated, over-priced paradigm of centralized power generation and distribution.

Green campaigners… for nuclear?

Not all greens agree. Surprisingly, in the UK, some - though certainly not all - of Britain's most prominent environmentalists are now actively pro-nuclear, including Guardian columnist George Monbiot and author Mark Lynas. Both formerly were anti-nuclear activists, but now believe low-carbon nuclear power is a necessary tool in the fight to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Lynas published a book in 2014 entitled "Nuclear 2.0: Why a green future needs nuclear power." Monbiot wrote a column in March 2011 - immediately after the Fukushima disaster - entitled "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power," the second paragraph of which reads:

"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation… Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution."

The best design?

MIT's Jacopo Buongiorno said that most new reactors being built around the world today are supplied by five firms, and all are fairly similar: "They're all light-water reactors, i.e. they all use the same fuel, the same coolant, the same turbines. The differences are mostly in safety philosophy."

Buongiorno told DW that it wouldn't be possible to say which design was "the best" until they'd been built and operated for some years. All five have significant safety upgrades with respect to previous-generation designs. But he added: "Personally I like Westinghouse's AP1000, because it strikes me as a simpler design, more forgiving of human errors in operations."

The AP1000 is the only one of the five leading commercially available reactor types built with "passive safety" features, which means that no core meltdown can occur even if all electricity supplies to emergency cooling equipment are cut off.

No AP1000 reactors are in operation yet, but four AP1000 reactors are currently under construction in China, and four more in the United States. All are two to three years behind their original completion schedule at present.