Centrica exit fuels nuclear uncertainty

Editor
The Engineer

The UK’s nuclear future is, we are constantly assured, at the heart of government plans for ensuring our future energy supply.

And yet, as we approach the point at which our new build schemes should really start gathering steam the doubts and uncertainties are piling up with worrying regularity.

Who will build the UK’s new reactors? What will they build? And what will we do with the waste they produce? Increasingly, it seems that the answer to all three of these questions is that we’re not entirely sure.

The latest setback is Monday’s news that Centrica, the last UK firm with a stake in building the next generation of power stations, has pulled out of EDF’s plans to build four new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk.

The decision is being viewed as a kick in the teeth for the government, which hoped its energy bill would encourage firms to invest in the UK’s nuclear future.

Centrica’s move echoes RWE and E.ON’s decision, last March, to pull out of the Horizon project (now rescued by Japan’s Hitachi) which plans to build new reactors at Wylfa in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire.

The last thing you want with nuclear power – particularly given the increased public mistrusts since Fukushima, is uncertainty, and yet that’s exactly what we’ve got. Indeed, following last week’s Cumbrian veto on plans to build a geological dump in the county, we’re now not even sure what we’re going to do with our next generation nuclear waste.

Whoever does build the UK’s next generation of reactors we can be fairly confident that it won’t be a UK firm, and this is really a damning indictment of successive generations of politicians and business leaders. After all, we haven’t suddenly decided that nuclear energy seems like a good idea. Indeed, the UK pioneered nuclear power back in the 1950s and we’re not short of skills and know-how in the sector.

It would be wrong to imply, as some commentators have, that the UK’s plans are in tatters.  Despite some speculation to the contrary, EDF still appears to be committed to its new-build plans and – following Centrica’s exit – is reportedly now in talks with China’s Guangdong Nuclear Power. Meanwhile, Hitachi’s decision to buy Horizon nuclear power has been hailed by the government as evidence that there is an appetite for investing in the UK.

What’s more, while our power stations might not be built by UK firms, their construction will still create significant opportunities throughout the UK supply chain. It’s just a shame that we’re so reliant on overseas manufacturers to get the things built in the first place.