Thursday, 31 July 2014
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Japanese nuclear has set its sights firmly on Britain

Much fuss was made when it was announced that Chinese state investors were to become minority shareholders in the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station. But it now seems that the Japanese, not the Chinese, not even the French, will be the main owners of Britain’s new fleet of nuclear plants.

Toshiba today confirmed that it would purchase all of Spanish Iberdrola’s 50 per cent stake in the NuGen company set to build a power station at Moorside in West Cumbria, as well as a further 10 per cent from France’s GDF Suez, making Toshiba the majority shareholder. This follows the 2012 decision by Hitachi to buy the Horizon company planning to build plants at Oldbury and Wylfa.

Of course, while this all serves as a sad reminder that British industry no longer has the ability nor the willingness to build its own nuclear power stations, Toshiba’s decision should serve as a vote of confidence.

At a time when the French, German and Japanese governments are looking to scale back their nuclear industries and a raft of European companies (including British ones) have withdrawn their interest in the UK, the £102m deal shows there are still companies willing to invest heavily in the sector.

Britain’s new nuclear programme is by no means secure. Of the five new power stations planned, only Hinkley Point C has reached an energy “strike price” agreement with the government allowing construction to begin. We saw in the 1980s how grand nuclear plans can be halted when Sizewell B was built but proposals for nine other plants were scrapped.

Of course the situation today is very different. The imperative to cut carbon emissions and the decline of North Sea oil and gas means the UK has much greater motivation to renew its nuclear generation. Even if widespread fracking were to go ahead, there is scant evidence to show it would precipitate a significant fall in gas prices. Nonetheless, each move reassuring us of the viability of the new nuclear programme is to be welcomed.

There are other reasons why the involvement of Toshiba may be good news. The company has confirmed it will use three AP1000 reactors developed by Westinghouse (of which Toshiba has majority ownership), as opposed to the Areva European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design to be used by EDF at the new Hinkley Point and Sizewell stations.

Add in the Hitachi-GE Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs) to be used by Horizon and the UK is set to have a solid mix of nuclear technology, unlike France which relies largely on Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) and is now only building EPRs so has a greater exposure to possible generic failure.

This may also benefit attempts to restart Britain’s nuclear supply chain, giving companies access to more international partners and equipping them with a wider range of skills and experiences when it comes to providing reactor components. After Hitachi entered the game, it announced it would build a factory in the UK. Perhaps Toshiba will do the same. Indeed, Britain could become the European base for Japanese nuclear firms, just as it has for Japanese car firms - providing there are enough European customers to make it worthwhile.

What the UK won’t benefit from is economies of scale. The principles of market competition have led us to agree an energy price twice that of the current wholesale rate and twice that paid to French nuclear plants. This only applies to Hinkley C but gives us an indication of the kind of price we can expect to pay across the programme. Having said that, recent analyses have suggested France can expect to pay much more for its nuclear power in future. Perhaps we all have to accept that secure, reliable, carbon-free electricity just doesn’t come cheap.


Readers' comments (29)

  • Toshiba have a factory in the UK - it makes the fuel for the reactors.

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  • It is sad that the environmental lobbyists have made life difficult for the Nuclear industry and Politicians. Finally they wake up to the idea that Nuclear is a green source of energy and not dependant on the stability of the political systems off shore gas and oil suppliers. Too late the UK expertise and jobs are gone. We now have to rely on external companies and experts, with any profits going abroad. The environmental lobbyists may sometime in the future realise that Fracking is not the worst of options. In the mean time they make life difficult and no one holds them to account. We need to teach in schools a more logical approach to decision making as from what I see of these people, when given exposure by the media, is that they are emotional, uniformed, and blinkered and cannot see the whole picture.

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  • Yes, we (sorry, I mean successive governments) threw away years of British Engineering expertise by making investment in Engineering unpopular and deciding that our future was all tied up with international banking services. Now we have to buy our Engineering goods and services off-shore.

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  • The reasons why "environmentalists" made life difficult for this industry are well documented and indeed well founded. The lack of interest in working in this industry should surely act as a cue to its future rather than a source of lamentation. The Fukashima disaster, let's not forget in one of the most technically advanced countries on the world, shows that this source of power simply can never be safe and is a white elephant. The resources and expertise that are being brought to bear would be better tasked to solve the problem of intermittency in renewables. This would result in having true green energy rather than a sham one, and power generation that will not pollute the planet should a natural disaster fall upon it.

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  • Paul says we should invest in removing intermittency in renewables. Does he now want to control the weather as well - imagine the green naysayers reaction to that one. The reality is that Wind sufficient to generate even 50% of our needs would cover such a huge area of land as to make the place both an eyesore and environmentally unfriendly to the flora and fauna of our green and mostly pleasant land. By comparison, the nuclear options occupy tiny amounts of space, and have at least some chance of keeping the lights on.

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  • So, we have imported Japanese technology from engineers that have so far failed to contain Fukushima. I am not saying they are directly responsible, but they are involved by default.

    The main media is so quiet you can drop a pin. To all those who champion nuclear. I suggest you do some real research. To say that it is a green source of energy is bizarre.

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  • The idea that ringing expertise to bear on nuclear will deprive renewables assumes its a zero sum game. Also helps we are not located in an earthquake zone.

    While I think we have to give up on any hope of being a major contributor to this wave of new build I think we should try to position ourselves to be a player in then gen4 wave when it comes & were already experienced with decommissioning. Mainly thanks to the appalling start our industry had as far as sustainable design goes.

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  • Had we not had Nuclear generated electricity we would have had countless power cuts over the last few years. Britain is not in a position to be picky when it comes to power generation. I just hope that Nippon knows what it is doing, it's track record, like the Russian, being somewhat blemished. I would prefer French or German collaboration.

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  • Yes to Nuclear. No to brown outs.

    No to ignorant, ill-informed, innumerate unscientific self- styled environmentalists, who in fact are causing more environmental damage rather than less.

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  • Steve - yes, I want to control the weather, that is exactly what I meant when talking about storage of power when it is generated so that it can be used when needed. Fifty percent you say? And just wind, no other method? I think you've mistaken this publication for one named "The Made Up Number" as this is what that figure clearly is.

    It is very easy to just type soundbites and sling mud (yes 'fat man', that means you) but more useful to actually look at the problem and find a solution. That is after all the main remit of an engineer. I am one, are you?

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