Wednesday, 23 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are looking to scale back their nuclear industries and a raft of European companies (including British ones) have withdrawn their interest in the UK, the £102m deal shows there are still companies willing to invest heavily in the sector.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)

  • The inane, off-hand comment that we are not in a earthquake zone just about sums it up for me.

    We don't KNOW where we are, what tectonic stress fracture is gong to zip across Europe at any moment, we an only estimate and guess, so we shouldn't proceed. Thats what the planners of Fukushima should have done, but they thought their risk assessment was ok, their precautions were probably top notch in some ways, but they STILL got caught out. Thinking you know is not the same as knowing.

    We know Wind and Tidal power will be safe. We know that brownouts are safe and manageable (Look what happened in the last few weeks - no deaths from Blackouts).

    The truth is that while we can never predict that unexpected events will happen, or what technology will be capable of dealing with the problem in the future, we can predict the enormous, 200,000 year runoff costs of what we have done so far in terms of todays technology. The costs of just a handful of security guys and a health physicists, plus keeping capacity in reserve in case of Earthquake, Asteroid , Tsunami, Terrorist attack, simple incompetence or overwork, falling asleep at the wheel, etc etc are massive.

    Trivial or not today, multiply up by the lifetime of the waste and the 70 billion accounted for for waste and clearing up will disappear very quickly, leaving a permanent debt.

    The ONLY sensible reason to propose new Nuclear is outright, honest blackmail: to clear up the mess we already made we need to keep the Industry going permanently. That's a good, sound argument, but there is no other, so stop pretending.

    Its not Green, its not Cheap, its not Sane, but if you don't pay us we'll poison you. That's it really, no, isn't it?

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  • David McCullagh, quite right. I was also told on a visit to a coal-fired power station many years ago that because of an occasional trace of strontium (I think it was) in the coal, that that power station alone released more radiation into the environment than the UK's entire Nuclear programme. Still ,we'd best not risk confusing pressure groups by giving them actual facts, had we?

    People should also read, as a warning, Otto Frisch's delicious sci-fi short "On the feasibility of coal driven power stations" wherein, in a future on a planet where where their clean nuclear energy source is running out (if renewables aren't effective by then, WE'LL be in trouble), they'd found these deposits of a black carbonaceous substabce which would burn, but which risked massive pollution, low efficiency of power conversion, local seismic events, a need to manage the high temperature, etc, etc.

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  • A typical coal burner of the 60s was 4 x 600mw turbines requiring 24,000 tonnes of coal each and every day at full load and spewing out around 800 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the surrounding atmosphere. What other pollutants didn't we know about?. You need to sit down and do the maths on how much toxic pollution has been released by these stations since they were built and compare it to emissions from a similar 2400mw nuclear plant in the UK. An opportunity exists to design and develop a new generation coal burning stations to reduce carbon, sulphur and particulates to a level acceptable for the next 30 years. I can see little point in investing massive amounts of money in wind energy when nobody but the rich will be able to afford it. Even they will need candles when the wind doesn't blow. A mix of nuclear, coal, gas and renewable energy at a cost our manufacturing businesses and the general public can afford is essential for the future wealth of the UK. If we are to remain competitive and stay ahead of the game, we to be involved in the basic design and finance process for the new nuclear stations rather than let the Muppets in Westminster get the begging bowl out for the Japanese.

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  • Anonymous,

    Find another element, Strontium-90 has a half life of only 28.8 years, and it's the longest radioactive isotope of that element.

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  • alan, "We know wind and tidal power will be safe" Do we? Really? You say there are things we don't necessarily know about long term issues with nuclear. Why do we therefore KNOW there are none with renewables- wind and tides, potentially altering the environment ? Very clever people in the industrial revolution had no idea that pouring CO2 into the atmosphere would have far reaching consequences (if it has, of course: an estimate of a 90% likelihood declared by a body with a 100% vested interest probably wouldn't get a conviction in a court of law- I omit whether or not I believe in anthropogenic global warming to make this more fun). We think wind and tide will be safe. We know so far that they are not economically credible, of course, yet we all hope they will become so.
    We need balance and the best information we can get. None of the anti-nuclear arguments in this thread have relied on facts and numbers as much as fear and emotion.

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  • I would be very keen to see thumbs up and down for the various comments and data on where those who vote have been linked from.

    Like other engineers on this site I have noted that much of the anti-nuclear polemicists seem to rely on blind assertion and sound bites rather than responding to the facts.

    Take the comment regarding the fusion reactor in the sky. I liked that comment for there is some truth in it but it failed to engage with the conversion efficiency of PV cells presently, our staggering demand for power and the inclination of the earth relative to the Sun at our longitude.

    Moreover consider that many PV farms in the UK seem to cover arable land and we can see that it is being implemented in an unsustainable way which threatens food security and price.

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  • Unfortunately we don't have the facility for comment rating on our content management system.

  • Having against my better judgement argued online over the dangers & motivation for nuclear energy I've noticed recurring themes.

    1. Most commonly risk of the routine harm is often ignored & risk of the rare extreme harm inflated.

    2. There is confusion over when its appropriate to speak in terms of certainties & probabilities. A case in point the assertion "we dont KNOW" we're not in an earthquake zone. While this is technically true the there is so much evidence to the contrary we say it as a certainty beyond reasonable doubt. We must be clear about what we know and explain precisely why we think our confidence is justified without sounding cocksure and what we expect within a reasonable degree of certainty while explaining what we mean by reasonable.

    If nuclear energy is going to serve the public interest & be an economic success it needs to have the general public on board. While it is easy to patronize & sigh at what we engineers may consider misconseptions & ignorance it is only be in engaging directly rather than through a press release or a one way lecture that things will improve.

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  • Nathan, you make an excellent point about PV farms taking over arable land. That seems to be the case here in Wiltshire and is indicative of the idiotic way in which potentially valuable technologies are being introduced to meet what appear to be purely politically generated targets. Given the non-functional roofspace avaiable, why the heck are solar panels being fitted anywhere else? Renewables are so clearly part of the future that we must not allow them to be badly implemented in a political target-driven approach. If that does continue to happen, we will get arguments against renewables based on an emotional perspective, ignoring their real value, and only matching the factual irrelevance of most of the anti-nuclear arguments.

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  • The issues that Adam raise about the protection of ideas and the cost of this has always been a problem.

    However, there is protection for less important or non patentable invention called Unregistered Design Right. The protection is limited. It is free, it acts like copyright but protects functional design.

    If you want to show a potential investor an invention without a patent. You need to ensure that they will sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement-confidentiality agreement).

    The reason for this is that you cannot patent anything in the public domain even if it the inventor who put it there. After signing an NDA anybody who leaks information about the invention leaves themselves open to a legal action for compensation or damages.

    In the event of details of the invention leaking into the public domain by people other than yourself, the IPO(Intellectual Property Office) formerly the Patent Office
    may still grant a patent if you can prove that you have taken the precautions of getting signed NDA's. even though the invention is now public knowledge.

    Personally I will not talk to anyone unless they have signed an NDA even when I have been granted a patent. This is because an NDA can insist that information appertaining to the invention remains confidential, including any commercial information.

    To keep costs down you can draft the patent yourself then get a patent attorney (agent) to redraft it later. There is period before the publication of the patent, which is when it enters the public domain, when you can withdraw, abandon or if you wish improve the invention you can withdraw your application and reapply without it becoming public knowledge.

    You will be armed with NDA and a patent application and could open up a legal action on either front or both. This could assist you getting an investor on board and geting them to pay the patent costs.

    You can also takeout Intellectual Property Assurence (Insurence)but this is expensive.

    The IPO publish free pamphlets on all aspects of Intellectual Property.

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