New Nuclear Build in Britain

by David Phillips
(Anglesey, UK)

With a growing energy gap looming over the next decade, the UK government is driving forward with new nuclear build to replace the retiring fleet of old Magnox nuclear reactors.

There will also be a further gradual loss of baseload capacity in Britain from retiring coal plants, as a result of having to comply with the Large Combustion Plant Directive from the European Union.

In all about 16 GWe of capacity should be provided when new nuclear plants come on stream over the next 15 years or so, and given that nuclear power makes up about 20% and falling of the electricity mix, a timely completion of this major infrastructure commitment is essential.

As well as ensuring the energy gap is closed, there are also other considerations to bear in mind from a strategic energy perspective, namely working towards a low carbon economy as well as addressing the need for energy security.

The UK government has made a strong commitment to achieving a low carbon economy, and recently passed a Climate Change Act in the British Parliament which includes a goal of achieving a cut of 80% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Such an ambitious target puts the UK well within the goals set out by Kyoto as well as the EU framework for tackling carbon emissions.

Many question the need to build more nuclear power stations and express concerns about the nuclear waste that will be produced. This is a fair point and it is absolutely essential that safety is paramount when it comes to decommissioning these new plants as well as in the disposal of the new waste.

Supporters of new nuclear build claim that even when the costs of mining and fabricating the uranium fuel as well as building, operating and decommissioning the plants is taken into account, the costs and emissions of carbon dioxide are still much less than fossil fuels and even than renewable energy systems like wind, on a comparable energy unit basis.

Another area which we need to consider seriously is the capacity to provide a continuous, dependable and steady supply of baseload energy, which has until now been possible with coal, nuclear and gas. Only new nuclear can ensure that the UK has both a solid baseload electricity supply as well as that source being low carbon.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced in November 2009 that after carrying out a Strategic Site Assessment (SSA) across a number of nominated locations for new nuclear sites, ten of the eleven proposed sites have been deemed suitable for a new generation nuclear reactor.

The developers of new nuclear stations at these nominated locations, which include Wylfa B on Anglesey, will now have to carry out extensive consultations with stakeholders about the impact of new build. They will also have to carry out ecological, environmental and social impact assessments as part of the application process.

On Anglesey, a joint venture between the UK subsidiaries of German energy giants RWE and E.On, Horizon Nuclear Power, has already started testing land near the proposed new build site.

There are many strands in the whole new nuclear build process. There has to be an assessment of generic reactor designs by the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate (NII) to ensure they comply with very exacting engineering, design and safety criteria.

The planning process has had to be changed in such a way that justification for having nuclear will be considered as a national strategic decision, based on the question of need, and separated from local issues specific to each chosen site.

A new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) has been set up to oversee and decide on the local aspects. It now means that if people want to object to a particular project, they will not be able to cite the fact that it is nuclear as a reason for their objection.

Regulatory justification refers to an assessment of whether the socio economic and other benefits of a new programme involving ionizing radiation outweighs any potential detriment to public health.

Another key area is that the consortia developers for these new nuclear plants must satisfy the government that they have a sustainable funding stream (FDP) to cover decommissioning of these reactors and proper disposal of the nuclear waste.

With regard to the economic benefits of a nuclear renaissance in Britain, the impact on job creation in the regional economies where the new reactors will be built such as at Wylfa B Anglesey, will be significant.

As well as creating thousands of construction jobs in the build phase, once the reactors start generating power there will be many science, engineering and project management positions open.

Given that these new reactors will have lives of up to sixty years, the implications for career planning go across at least two generations. This places a significant challenge on education providers to ensure that students achieve the necessary standard of relevant qualifications.

There are also great spin-offs to the supply chain in the local economy as well as for research collaboration with universities.

The future will indeed be green if Wylfa B on Anglesey, as well as other new nuclear plants get off the ground and produce low carbon sources electricity in Britain.

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