Decision time for Hinkley Point

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

This Thursday sees EDF’s board of directors meet to discuss and announce its final investment decision for the construction of two EPR reactors at Hinkley Point C in Somerset.

The company, which operates 15 nuclear reactors in England and Scotland, has stated that HPC would strengthen its position in Britain and allow it to ‘mobilise all its significant nuclear engineering skills following the final investment’.

If plans run to schedule, EDF’s EPR at Flamanville, France will come online at the end of 2018, followed by the first concrete for HPC’s reactor one in mid-2019.

In a speech delivered to the 8th Nuclear New Build Forum, environment secretary Andrea Leadsom told delegates that nuclear power accounts for around 16 per cent of the UK’s energy requirements, which could drop to three per cent in 2030 without new build.

A positive decision on HPC on Thursday, July 28 has the potential to kick-start a nuclear renaissance in Britain that would see 18GW of new capacity if sites at Sizewell, Bradwell, Moorside, Wylfa and Oldbury are developed along with Hinkley.

In April, Leadsom told New Build Forum that these additions to the nation’s energy mix would deliver a third of Britain’s electricity requirements in the 2030s, reduce CO2 emissions by over 40 million tonnes, attract approximately £80bn of investment into the UK, and employ up to 30,000 people across the new nuclear supply chain at the peak of construction.

There are clear advantages to big-ticket projects such as nuclear new build; not least the export opportunities that they bring about, but does nuclear alone represent value for money?

In March, 2016, DECC said: ‘There is no question that new nuclear is cost competitive. Offshore wind cleared at over £110/MWh in the last auction for renewables. New gas could cost around £65/MWh and new nuclear has all the advantages of providing low carbon, baseload power for decades. In addition, we’re getting 60 years of power from Hinkley but we’re only paying for 35.’

At New Build Forum, Leadsom reminded delegates that balancing costs around contracts for difference represents a good deal for consumers too.

“If profits prove to be higher than expected a proportion will be shared with consumers; if the project comes in under budget, savings will be shared with consumers; but if there are overspends then the developer bears all the additional costs,” she said (and anyone with a view on the strike price for energy should let us know via Comments below).

But away from costs, there remains the thorny – and inevitable – issue of who will build, run and maintain these assets, given that 70 per cent of skilled workers in the nuclear sector are due to retire by 2025.

The total current demand for skilled nuclear workers is about 78,000, rising to 111,000 as civil and defence new build programmes gather pace.

Government understands that it has to work in partnership with industry to address this, which lead to the formation of the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group to develop existing skills across the nuclear sector and consider the transfer of skills from different sectors into energy. The National College for Nuclear is another example of how – across sites in Cumbria and the southwest – the provision of skills is being addressed so that when the talk of nuclear build stops, the real job of getting them built, commissioned and generating energy can begin.

However, we’ve yet to receive word of a surplus of fresh engineering talent in Britain and it remains to be seen whether the go-ahead for new build will prompt a stampede for the lucrative opportunities it will bring.