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are looking to scale back their nuclear industries and a raft of European companies (including British ones) have withdrawn their interest in the UK, the £102m deal shows there are still companies willing to invest heavily in the sector.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

  • Very good decision.These are the best reactors in the world and are American designed.You are not the only ones who have neglected their nuclear industry,we have too.The Chinese are the ones who have the right approach.They are implementing all of the more advanced type reactors.You can be sure that UK engineers will do a lot of the work on this project.The Wienberg foundation which supports advanced With regard to 'genuine concerns' these are IMechE's words and not The Engineer's. is based in GB, but of course only the Chinese are actually building them.

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  • Even one new nuclear power station is a disaster for Britain just as Frakking is. If nuclear was so good why doesn't it ever make money? British Energy was sold off cheap as no one wanted it. Without subsidies nuclear is dead, why else will no one invest without some dodgy energy purchase agreement. We should leave the industry to die. In fact it should be buried as comprehensibly as nuclear waste needs to be for the next 10,000 years.
    Apart from financial unviability, the waste, no one will insure the industry in the event of a problem.
    This triple whammy should ensure that every one cringes and say 'No'. Let's make renewables the end game and go for it without falter. Hit intermittency with intelligent grids and eurogrids, (both of which are coming along). Energy saving devices, insulated building....a push for tidal and current devices....a push for Norway to develop some more Dinorwics and we can do away with nuclear.
    Funny that in the press EDF are going in with a few other companies to develop offshore wind in France. You have to laugh.

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  • Hopefully this will start a nuclear renaissance. The electrical demand on the network is only going to grow, especially as electric traction becomes more mainstream.

    This is not to say we shouldn't be insulating our homes and looking at both tidal and wave power (wind is a farce) but only nuclear is going to provide the low carbon, base load we need.

    Moreover those pointing at fukashima ought to employ a little perspective. Those were 60 year old designs that only failed because the diesel generators used for back up supply weren't located sufficiently high enough to withstand the 5th most powerful earthquake ever recorded and a huge Tsunami.

    Had the back up gennies been located out of the Tsunami's reach Fukashimi would have been long forgotten.

    May I point out that Dinorwig is a pumped hydro scheme. i.e. it takes power OUT of the network to raise water to the upper storage reservoir at quiet periods and releases it over the day at peak times to even out demand. It was constructed to help balance all the nuclear power stations we never actually got round to building.

    As for buried waste, nature has its own examples of exposed nuclear reactors in the crust which it manages to contain satisfactorily.

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  • So saddened to read the venom in some of the posts about this topic. Perhaps that should be my contribution, as I know "o" about this aspect of Engineering and technology.

    Though based upon what I have read, it appears that even with all the checks and balances to cover every possible/ likely potential problem in nuclear power operations it has been the completely un-expected or good-old (I surely mean bad-new) human error which precipitated each major problem. Can we ever design these out? I doubt it. Should we agree NOT to advance, because of the magnitude of any problem, caused by a mistake? Unfortunately at the last count, I gather there are some 6,000 potential mistakes waiting to happen in the nuclear arsenals of the Big-boys and at least a score within the new kids on the nuclear block!

    Did I miss something here? Swords to plough-shares, spears to pruning hooks?

    When the lights flicker, we will start to take notice. When they go out...we will not be able to see (or do, control, account for, develop anything else?)

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  • Nuclear brings out the emotional responses every time, especially when Japan is mentioned.

    I believe that the UK sold-on the Westinghouse licence to Toshiba a few years ago?

    What does that say about our energy policy advisors ability to take the long view?

    It is amazing that the UK economy is still strong despite economists, bankers, environmentalists and political opportunists.

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  • The reality of our complex, modern society is that we have to balance our need for a reliable energy supply against the concerns for safety and the environment (some real, some imagined) that exist within society. As such the population at large needs to have access to information which is unbiased and easy to assimilate in order for them to reach a considered opinion. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to give them that.
    Even in the correspondence to this esteemed publication we seem to have some very subjective views, with emotive terms like ‘disaster’ and ‘white elephant’ popping up here and there.
    My own views are that nuclear, shale gas and renewables all have a part to play in the energy security of the UK and I will try to foster that view wherever and whenever I can. However, I am acutely aware that the decisions will ultimately be made by politicians and their positions of power are entirely dependent upon the electorate. Which brings me back to the point that we have to give the electorate the objective facts not subjective fears, beliefs or opinions and let them make up their own minds.

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  • One doesn't need to be "environmentalist" to think twice when it comes to nuclear. Accidents do happen and there are so many incidents that should make us all sceptical. Please google "nuclear accidents" and take a look at the results. There is not such a thing as "safe nuclear energy". wikipedia:

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  • I still don't understand why, when we have a humongous nuclear fusion reaction going on a safe 90-odd million miles away, beaming power benevolently at us for free, we don't make MUCH, MUCH more use of it.....

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  • Oh, Paul Arondelle, we can barely hear you from that high horse of yours. I know "frequently cause more environmental damage rather than less" would have been better, but I try not specifically indulge in sound bites, and am capable of making rational arguments rather than having to use infantile Tony Blair-isms like "sound bite" and "mud slinging". Nor would I be petulant enough to ask if someone else is an Engineer without evidence, epecially when that evidence usually allows one to point out that they are not in fact an Engineer. For myself, having worked on the design of both Nuclear and renewables, I have had access to hard data with which to form a view on whether Nuclear or current renewables is the green choice, and it is most clearly Nuclear by a big margin. What is needed is serious development to get renewables up to a level where they are honestly worthwhile, and sadly that still seems a long way away, particulalry where so much renewables effort is dominated by arbitrary targets that only appear to achieve anything to the scientifically and technically ignorant.

    That is of course part of the rational function of Engineers, to make judgements based on data where it exists and extrapolate where necessary.It's not even terribly difficult. For an Engineer.

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  • Whilst the deaths attributed to the nuclear power power industry catastrophes have been catalogued to the Nth degree, they pale into insignificance when compared to the deaths from respiratory diseases directly attributed to coal burning power stations since the 1950s. Even the west coast of the USA is now suffering pollution from the emissions from Chinese coal burning stations.

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