With the UK’s new-build on the blocks, David Bonser outlines Westinghouse’s proposed reactor.
The UK is poised on the verge of a new chapter of nuclear power. Driven by the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels — both to cut greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation and to cope with the increasing scarcity of affordable oil and gas — the programme to build new nuclear capacity is finally beginning to gather momentum.
For David Bonser, the affable chairman of Westinghouse UK, this is a crucial time. Westinghouse is the vendor of one of the only two reactor technologies currently being considered for new build in the UK, the AP1000; the other is the EPR, designed by the French conglomerate Areva. But while the French-owned utility EDF has already announced that it will build at least four EPRs in the UK, no utility has so far committed to building an AP1000.
‘It’s all about land, in the first instance,’ Bonser explained. ‘EDF has land through its purchase of British Energy. E.ON and RWE also have land, which they bought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and we are working closely with them so that they can understand the AP1000, the construction timescales, and the costs of construction, operation and decommissioning, so they can get a full lifecycle cost. They will then make a technology decision, which we’re expecting in the early part of 2010.’ The company is also talking to other utilities that have expressed an interest in operating nuclear power but have, as yet, not bought any land, he added.
As yet, there are no EPR or AP1000 plants operating; the first of the former are being built in Finland and France, and have suffered from well-publicised delays and cost over-runs. The first AP1000s are being built in China and, although they are at an earlier stage than the EPR projects, they are so far running on time and on budget.
Bonser isn’t indulging in any unseemly crowing over his competitor’s misfortunes, though. ‘Both are good modern designs for power stations and that is good news for the industry,’ he said. ‘It does the industry no good if either of the projects have problems… We are very happy that our China projects are going well and on schedule, but we always say that these are the first of a kind and you must expect the unexpected.’
Bonser is happy to explain what he sees as the advantages of the AP1000. ‘The AP1000 has passive safety systems to keep the plant safe in the event of an emergency, which don’t rely on active engineered intervention by pumps, valves and so on to keep working; they work by natural circulation, evaporation, condensation and gravity. You don’t need triple-redundancy to make sure they will work and you don’t need complicated control systems.
‘The second thing is that we have taken well-tried-and-tested Westinghouse technology and simplified it, working with the utilities: we have reduced the amount of pipes, the number of valves and pumps, reduced the control systems. That means it is less complicated to build, there is less equipment to take account of in safety assessment and less complicated to maintain.’
The process of building the power station is also new: rather than constructing everything on site, the AP1000 is designed to be modular, with large and small systems and subsystems built in workshops around the country, then transported to the site and integrated. ‘It’s absolutely key for utilities to start producing electricity as soon as possible after they start building the plant, and modularity reduces the construction time,’ Bonser explained. ‘It’s also easier to achieve the quality standards in a workshop than it is on site and you can build multiple parts in parallel.’
The plan is for the company to establish this supply chain of prefab components in each market. ‘We have a policy of buying where we build,’ Bonser said. ‘We’ll try to find UK companies who can build our components, meeting the quality standards and producing economically.’
This is a concern, however, as the UK is not geared up for such huge projects. ‘There is no doubt right now in the UK that the supply chain couldn’t produce three or four reactors per year, but we are finding that if you talk to the UK companies and they have confidence it is about to happen, they might invest in new capacity. The possible delays to planning permission are causing a nervousness about when it is going to happen and what delays there might be.’
Continued government support is therefore vital, Bonser said, which he admits is a tricky prospect with a general election looming and campaigning being higher on the political agenda than policy. ‘We need support, not necessarily financial but policy support, and we need the utilities to have confidence in the UK environment to come forward with definite projects. Then we need assurance from the planning and regulatory environment that they can invest
in the projects. Then there would be confidence that UK manufacturing will be in a good position to take on a significant portion of the supply chain.’
Bonser says the UK has the ability to meet the standards required for a modern nuclear power station. ‘We already work with Sheffield Forgemasters in our international supply chain; they’ve supplied medium-sized forgings… for our China reactor. We would love to see them able to invest, and to have the confidence to invest, in a bigger press to be able to supply the reactor pressure vessels, for example.’
Q&A – Building the UK’s new capacity
How fast could Britain go nuclear?
It’s been mentioned that Britain needs to get its skates on with reactor build because of the supply chain.
Could there be a severe delay if orders don’t start coming in?
There are concerns over a pinch, especially with reactor casting, as there are only three or four companies capable of casting a commercial reactor pressure vessel. But we have reserved capacity with them, as we’re confident that there’s going to be an extensive programme of new reactors around the world. As they are ordered we’ll slot them in against that reserved capacity. If you believe in the marketplace, you can expect producers to fill gaps in the market. People shouldn’t forget that in the 1970s the world was building 20 reactors per year and there’s no reason we shouldn’t go back to that.
There’s a feeling that the UK needs to completely decarbonise its economy by 2050. France switched to 80 per cent nuclear power relatively quickly — could the UK do likewise?
France has built up almost an entire high-speed rail line in the time it’s taken the UK to go a few miles from London to the Channel Tunnel. I am very concerned that this country doesn’t seem to be able to get on with infrastructure improvements in a big way, so it’s not so much whether the nuclear industry is capable of effecting that change, it’s more about whether the way we run the UK is amenable to that sort of major infrastructure. If the UK decided that a major change to nuclear was needed, I am sure the industry could respond, because while that would be a huge project for the UK, in global terms the UK isn’t a very big market. It could be accommodated by the global industry.
What are the stumbling blocks?
It has to do with local democracy and consultation, keeping people on side with what’s going on and yet making progress on a timely basis.
Is NIMBYism the problem?
I wouldn’t call it that — it implies that government and industry are blaming local people, which isn’t the case. We all have views about our locality. But we seem to have a system that doesn’t find a way to enable people to see these infrastructure projects not just as a benefit to society but as a benefit to the locality too. We have a feeling that if a local community is given a new community centre, it’s accused of being bribed or bought off. But if we continue to see things that way, local communities will never see the advantages of big projects.
Is incentivising communities the answer, then?
If you find a volunteer community there is a contract that the community would accept what is a nationally important facility and in return they would get some benefits. Somehow we don’t get that language right and it sounds like something wrong, bribery, rather than society compensating them. The benefits need to be communicated.
Biography of David Bonser, Chairman Westinghouse UK
Studied engineering at Cambridge University, sponsored by BNFL
1971 Joined BNFL at Risley, also worked at Sellafield and Capenhurst
1991 Director of THORP division at Sellafield
1994 Company development director at BNFL
1996 Director of engineering, waste management and engineering, looking after US and UK facilities, including Sellafield
1998 Appointed to government’s Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee
1999 Appointed to BNFL board; roles include corporate social responsibility and future strategy
2001—04 Chairman of NIREX
2008 Chairman of Westinghouse UK
Bonser is president of the European Nuclear Society and chairman of the UK’s National Skills Academy for Nuclear