Last Past the Post: UK nuclear, whatever the evidence

Bridget Woodman

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) has become an annual fixture. It’s an invaluable resource for people to get a global and reliable insight into what’s happening in the nuclear industry.

The WNISR is written by people who are sceptical about nuclear power. While that means that it needs to be treated with a degree of insight into their agenda, it doesn’t mean that the report is not a useful survey for people, whatever their perspective on the nuclear industry. It’s certainly no more biased than the information produced by the nuclear industry, and often highlights issues which are neglected by those who want to promote a rosy view of what’s going on. In fact, it’s that perspective which makes is so useful for people who want a well-researched compilation and analysis of some key information on the sector.

This year’s edition is a particularly interesting read for the UK because it contains a chapter on Generation III reactors, including the EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) design which has been proposed for Hinkley Point C.

The chapter is useful because, unlike a lot of the coverage on Hinkley Point which looks at the project in isolation, the WNISR puts it in the context of other EPR projects.  The other reactors of similar design under construction are all plagued by construction and cost overruns. This is well-established for Olkiluoto in Finland, and Flamanville in France, but the report also highlights the problems with the two reactors under construction at Taishan in China, something which has received comparatively little coverage.  The Taishan reactors are now predicted to enter operation around two years behind schedule (end of 2015/early 2016).

All the projects EPR are experiencing a range of problems with their construction which could be summarised as quality control issues – a key area when you are dealing with a technological system as complex and risky as a nuclear power station.  Perhaps most worrying are the quality issues found with the reactor pressure vessels at the Flamanville and Taishan projects, which have failed to meet the specified quality for carbon content in the steel.  Pressure vessels hold the core of the nuclear reactor, so have to be manufactured to exacting standards to try and avoid a failure, with potentially catastrophic consequences.  More worrying still, the pressure vessels for the Hinkley Point project have already been manufactured by the same company, AREVA in France and they too are likely to suffer from the same problem.  If they have to be manufactured again, this will add to the cost and possibly extend the construction timetable. If the regulator decides to accept them as they are, or to require some sort of repair, then that in turn may be perceived as compromising the agreed safety specification. Neither way is satisfactory, whether from an economic or a safety point of view.

The investment decision on Hinkley may be due by the end of this year – certainly Amber Rudd hopes so.  But matters are undoubtedly being complicated by the fact that AREVA, which was due to take a 10% stake in the project, has been declared technically bankrupt, and its construction arm is meant to be taken over by EDF.  In addition, the involvement of investors from China may be threatened by problems at the Taishan unit.  Add to that the challenge recently filed by the Austrian Government again the UK’s ongoing subsidies for Hinkley Point. Amid such financial, safety and political uncertainty, there is a very real prospect that the project might not progress at all.  In the face of overseas experience of EPRs, this would be a rational, albeit difficult, decision to take.

Since the election, the Government has been busy dismantling the framework which is meant to encourage reductions in carbon dioxide, and particularly reducing support for renewables. It has removed support for onshore wind beyond 2016, changed the planning regime, and announced that it wants to remove support for some solar and biomass projects. It’s ironic then that the WNISR report shows the renewables sector flourishing worldwide, with investments and new capacity far outstripping the nuclear industries efforts. That brings me to another of the valuable things about the report: in addition to its use as an annual summary of key issues, it also clearly highlights how out of step the UK political debate is. While the rest of the world is pursuing renewables, we stick to a zombie proposal for a new nuclear station, in spite of the growing evidence against it.

Bridget Woodman is Director MSc Energy Policy at the University of Exeter.

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