New nuclear in the UK – post Weightman

In 2009 government announced plans to build 10 new nuclear power plants to replace the ageing sites that provide 18% of the UK’s electricity. But the Fukushima disaster in Japan had international repercussions and, despite reassuring words from government and some key industry stakeholders, the situation in the UK has remained tentative. 

Fukushima was hit by an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami, resulting in the world’s largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. A series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive material resulted in the most complex nuclear reactor meltdown ever.

As the physical tremors of the earthquake shook Japan and brought its infrastructure too its knees, so the metaphorical tremors resulting from equipment failure shook the nuclear industry throwing safety practices and capabilities into question.  Plans to push forward with the construction of new plants in the UK were delayed by at least six months and several investors pulled out, including Scottish and Southern Energy as concerns over the safety of nuclear technology swept through industry.

The UK response

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne speaking at RenewableUK
Energy Secretary Chris Huhne speaking at RenewableUK

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, requested that Dr Mike Weightman, the UK’s chief nuclear inspector, produce a report on the safety implications of Fukushima for the UK nuclear industry. The final version of this report was published in September and was largely welcomed by industry, engineers and unions.

Remaining consistent with the messages of the interim report, released in May, the final document outlines the implications of the Japanese disaster and defines areas in the UK nuclear industry where lessons can be learned. The report, which focused on the ability of UK nuclear plants to survive similar power outages to those seen in Fukushima, found that safety practices and the capability of plant technology in the UK is of an acceptable standard for nuclear new build plans to be resumed.

Energy provider, Westinghouse, is one new nuclear stakeholder which is now applying renewed vigour to development plans in the UK. Adrian Bull, manager of media and stakeholder relations in Europe, Middle East and Africa at Westinghouse said: “The Government here have made clear that they see nuclear as an important part of the electricity mix for the coming decades, but equally that they want to see the plants built with no public subsidy.”

Westinghouse has expressed a clear interest in the development of the UK nuclear industry and Aris Candris, president and CEO of Westinghouse expressed a view, even before the publication of the final Weightman report, that the UK supply chain for nuclear would play an important part in Westinghouse plans for nuclear development in Europe too, particularly in eastern European countries like Hungary. Mr Candris expressed a confidence in the capabilities and skills of UK engineering to dominate supply opportunities in these promising new markets.

Key to Westinghouse’s plans in the UK will be the approval of their new reactor, the Westinghouse AP1000. Mr Bull says that interim approval of the Generic Design Assessment of this new power plant technology will be a key milestone for the company, providing a high level of confidence to potential investors that the reactor is safe to build in the UK and can be built without regulatory difficulties emerging.

While the overall impression drawn from the Weightman report express the belief that there are no fundamental safety weaknesses in the UK’s nuclear industry, there were 38 key areas where Weightman felt that government, industry and regulators could learn lessons from the Japanese experience.

The report recommended regulations become more stringent with regards to flooding control, emergency planning and security. Speaking to TM, Claudia Mahn, Europe energy analyst at IHS Global Insight commented: “The results of the Weightman report were not surprising. The nuclear energy industry is undergoing a great deal of reform at the moment. It is a big part of the low carbon economy, as it has almost no carbon footprint, which is why the government is heavily behind its progress and why it is so important that it remains safe.”

Ms Mahn continued, “The report was important as assurance to any current or future investors. Now that the review has been concluded it allows the industry to move on from Fukushima in the knowledge that there will be no more major safety or protection regulators seen any time soon.”

New nuclear in Europe

While the UK attempts to drive its nuclear industry forward with full government backing, Britain’s European counter parts like Germany and Italy are turning to a green sustainable future powered by renewable energy generation methods such as wind and wave. Germany’s government bowed to immense public pressure in the aftermath of Fukushima, and earlier this year announced that it has halted all new nuclear builds. Italy also proposed an end to its civil nuclear programme.

Speaking to TM, Clive Smith, strategy director for nuclear at sector skills council, Cogent, discussed how his organisation is planning to continue working with the sector in the UK: “In line with the Weightman report, Cogent will continue to work with industry, the Government and other skills bodies – in particular the National Skills for Nuclear, to ensure that the UK has a clear, jointly shared understanding of the key skills priorities for the nuclear sector, and how skills demand can be met.”

Across the UK, the nuclear industry employs around 60,000 people and it is estimated that new nuclear builds will create an additional 30,000 jobs by 2025, with between 10,000 and 15,000 of these in manufacturing and construction, providing a huge boost to the industry.

Commenting on the report, Hannah Grimsley, public affairs officer at The Nuclear Industry Association said she was pleased safety confirmation had been provided to “both existing nuclear plants and new build designs,” and hoped this would “allow the UK industry to move forward with its new build plans.

Ms Grimsley added: “It is important that UK businesses take advantage of the vast number of opportunities that will be available in the nuclear new build programme for the benefit of the regions home to nuclear sites and the UK economy as a whole.”

The report arguably marks an important point in moving on from the events in Japan – both in terms of the nuclear facilities which are currently operating and for new builds. With worldwide electricity demands set to nearly double by 2030 and the wheels firmly in motion for the UK nuclear new build programme, there is clearly an opportunity for UK manufacturers with relevant skills sets and products to capitalise on an emerging market.

A key challenge for orgnisations hoping to do this remains the time and cost of accreditation and alignment with industry standards. The Nuclear Industry Association is able to advise and assist on these obstacles.

Shelley DeBere