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Missing the Hinkley point

This week’s announcement that France’s EDF  Energy will lead a consortium including Chinese investors to build Britain’s first new nuclear power station in decades is, in some respects, welcome news.

The long-awaited go-ahead for Somerset’s Hinkley Point C plant is an important step towards a secure energy supply, a positive move away from a dependence on carbon intensive sources of energy, and  should create a number of jobs during the construction phase. The deal also, potentially, draws a line under the investment uncertainty that has dogged  the UK’s new nuclear ambitions.

But claims from some quarters that the deal is a boost for the UK’s own nuclear industry are spurious to say the least. Indeed, despite a rather unconvincing statement from DECC that “up to” 56% of the contracts “could” be awarded to UK firms, one of the most significant, and worrying,  aspects of the deal, is the fact the under the terms of the agreement all of the contracts for the advanced technology aspects of the project will go to French companies.

And yet if there are - as there should be - any aspirations at all to grow our expertise in a sector in which the UK once led the world - any future deals, such as the anticipated announcement on Sizewell C, must look for ways to involve UK engineering firms in the advanced, high value areas of the projects. Otherwise, all talk of a UK nuclear revival will be for nothing.

It’s worth stressing that this is not an unrealistic ambition. Contrary to some reports, our nuclear expertise has not entirely vanished. There are still some engineers around who have direct experience of building nuclear reactors and with firms like Sheffield Forgemasters the UK is one of the few places in the world theoretically able to produce many of the large components for civil nuclear.

At Rolls Royce we build nuclear powerplants for submarines, we manufacture the most complex parts of civil airlines, we build oil rigs, advanced combined cycle power stations, and even a fusion reactor.  All of these are large, complex, safety critical systems requiring a high level of component and material traceability. It shouldn’t be beyond our wit, with a bit of  government assistance,  to play a role in the civil nuclear technology industry. 

Quite apart from whether or not the EDF deal represents good value to the taxpayer - (we simply don’t know what  a strike price of £92.50 per MWh  will look like in 40 years time) it’s still not too late to use the renewed momentum behind the UK’s nuclear build programme as a catalyst for the UK’s nuclear sector. Maybe it might be possible to build into subsequent nuclear building contracts an increasing level of UK component manufacture? For example, Chinese companies are building steam generators for AREVA’s EPR reactors currently being build in Taishan; could a similar agreement be put in place for Sizewell C, if it goes ahead?

It will also be very interesting to see what contracts are placed for Horizon Nuclear Power’s proposed nuclear plants at Wylfa and Oldbury, since Hitachi, when it signed the contracts to take over Horizon, stated that it wanted to set up manufacturing capability in the UK to serve future European projects, and signed agreements with Babcock and Rolls-Royce.

Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is absolutely clear. What we’re seeing today in the UK nuclear sector is an inevitable consequence of successive governments failing dismally to get to grips with our energy sector.  By placing their blind faith in the benefits of the free market - we’ve now arrived at a situation where our nuclear sector is nationalised, just not by us.  Perhaps the ultimate irony is that with the emergence of China as a UK nuclear player, we now appear to be destined to entrust large chunks of our future energy infrastructure to an autocratic communist regime.            

Readers' comments (33)

  • It seems to me that the main opportunity on this project for UK engineering to build up its expertise is on the review side - even without the direct expertise of building these things we have a good supply of highly competent engineers with relevant expertise who can sit Client side and carry out detailed reviews. Direct and ongoing experience of high value projects in China indicates this is exactly what the Chinese do, they review reports and calculations to death as well as requesting all models etc, in effect using our designs as a learning tool to devlop their own expertise. I think we will be missing a trick if we don't do the same.

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  • Isn't this just PPI on a massive scale? A government mired in debt cannot find the money itself so it has prostrated itself before the French & Chinese and postponed paying the price for a couple of decades. Be assured, as with PPI, when the true cost becomes due, we will all wonder what on earth we were thinking.

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  • £2billion per Twh, and there's 70Twh available in the North Atlantic!!
    Wave generation is NOT this expensive!!!
    Come on, who is kidding who?
    Sounds like there's some serious money crossing palms here!!!

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  • Good article.
    It remains one of life's mysteries that GB's major infrastructures were all handed to foreign ownership, without any solid guarantees of re-investment, modernisation or price-caps. (Energy, water, roads etc.)
    EDF, EOn, et al. have not been allowed to get away with this in their home nations, and have abused GB's weak position for a cash-cow.
    As a result, there are no GB engineering companies that have the money/capability to invest in infrastructure development on this scale.
    Once again, we give away long-term benefits for a short-term solution.
    When will the folly end?

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  • In a way jy is correct. It is a bit like PPI on a grand scale but all this is simply a consequence of privatisation of the electricity supply. The private companies have an obligation to deliver money for their shareholders. They have no obligation to security of supply or anything else to do with the UK's needs. As a result we have to guarantee a return or nobody will put up the money to build new nuclear stations. If anything, the generating companies have a vested interest in NOT building new capacity. As the system margin gets smaller the wholesale price of electricity goes up and so does the return for the shareholders. Building more capacity will increase the system margin and drive prices down. Against this background the government has little option than to "bribe" companies to build new stations by guaranteeing them a return. All very sad from the point of view of the interests of UK PLC and all the businesses and individuals who reside there.

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  • I worked on the Berkeley Nuclear power station, now decommissioned, and have been very disappointed that our politicians have been misled into abandoning the technology for so long. Please let us all support this project and rebuild our lead, create jobs and reliable power.

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  • Two points:
    i) The obsession with global warming (by all three parties) has contributed to the delay of this decision so that much of the expertise there was in the UK was lost and the govt was forced into a corner.

    ii) At least nuclear will be built - Germany, Italy and Japan - have turned their back on it - so lets hope the UK can gain some knowledge and business back.

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  • By the time this plant comes on line everybody will have self generated solar power. The price of solar is falling and the price of Electricity is rising, Soon the two will cross over.
    Just one other point why is gas a quarter of the price in USA

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  • At current rate with green taxes the price of electricty in 10 years will be more than twice what it is now.

    The UK requires 3 things:-

    1) Renewable energy from Tidal flow approx 85% operational

    2) Energy storage investment/development to store tidal energy for peak loads when no tidal flow

    3) Nuclear power for base load operations probably at least 70 to 80% of base load.

    The sad thing is that without effective energy storage when renewables work for when they are off line the use of renewables is limited and hence the high base load for nuclear power.

    How should we have gone nuclear - Keeping Westinghouse Nuclear owned by Sellafield Limited and building British PWR's under licence from Sellafield Limited

    Why cant we - because Gordon Brown sold off the Sellafield Crown jewels for a couple of hundred million pounds just as we were to have new nuclear builds. It will go down in history as Gordon Browns biggest mistake even bigger than selling off Britains gold reserves at the bottom of the market

    How should we fund New Nuclear builds to benefit UK plc with maximum UK content - with public infrastructure funding spending - Which benefts UK plc more - 4 or 5 off nuclear power stations the size of Hinkley C or HS2 ?

    I note here that NEI delivered the Torness and Heysham 2 AGR stations 6 months head of schedule and under budget - Why - Because we established a production line for 2 off nuclear power stations to the same design. The AGR is the worlds safest reactor and in 1986 NEI was set up to deliver them on a production line basis.

    The same applies for New Nuclear Builds if we order 4 or 5 stations with 8 or 10 reactors - economies of scale, based upon secure long term order books.

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  • Still looking for signatures while Grangemouth Closes and Sizewell is nationalised by non-UK entities. We are never going to get our own National Food and Fuel security in focus unless we attend to optimising what we can do with our own resources.

    Biorefinery Ideology

    Responsible department: Department for Energy and Climate Change

    Sustainable biorefineries have a critical role to play in our common future. The need to provide more goods using renewable resources, combined with advances in science and technology has provided a receptive environment for Biorefinery systems development. Biorefineries offer the promise of using fewer non-renewable resources, reducing CO2 emissions, creating new employment, and spurring innovation using clean and efficient technologies. If designed using lifecycle thinking, biorefineries can be profitable, socially responsible, and produce goods with less environmental impact than conventional products … and potentially even be restorative!!!

    We need some funding so that high quality engineering can get to work delivering home grown solutions.

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