Hitachi secures future of planned British nuclear plants

The future of two planned British nuclear power facilities has been secured after Hitachi stepped in to take over their construction.

The Japanese company revealed this morning that it had agreed to buy the Horizon Nuclear Power venture for £696m from German companies RWE and E.ON, which earlier this year announced their intention to withdraw from the UK’s new nuclear programme.

As well as creating thousands of construction jobs, British engineering expertise will also play a major role in the new plants with Babcock International and Rolls-Royce signing agreements with Hitachi to plan and deliver the programme.

Hitachi president Hiroaki Nakanishi said in a statement: ‘Today starts our 100-year commitment to the UK and its vision to achieve a long-term, secure, low-carbon, and affordable energy supply.’

Energy minister John Hayes said: ‘This was a commercial deal but we have been active in impressing on all interested parties that the UK economy is open and stable and our commitment to new nuclear energy is stronger than ever.’

The Hitachi Horizon programme involves building two to three c1,300MW plants using its advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR) technology at each of Horizon’s sites at Wylfa, Anglesey, and Oldbury, Gloucestershire, with the first unit becoming operational in the first half of the 2020s.

ABWR
The advanced boiling water reactor design used by Hitachi is in operation in Japan

Hitachi intends to invest up to £20bn in the UK through the programme and expects about 60 per cent of the value of the first plant in terms of goods and services to be sourced from within the UK, a figure that could increase for subsequent units.

The company also expects the plants will create between 5,000 and 6,000 direct jobs at each site during the construction phase and a further 1,000 permanent jobs per site upon start of the operation of each site.

The company has also promised to make a significant investment in training engineers, construction teams and operating staff for the plants, and to work with its partners and with local colleges and universities to develop training programmes and create a strong, permanent and exportable base of nuclear skills in the UK.

Once the transaction is complete, Hitachi’s next step will be achieving licence acceptance under the Generic Design Assessment process as governed by the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

ABWRs were the first of the ‘Generation III’ family of fission reactors, which standardise technology used in earlier pressurised water reactors, improve fuel and thermal efficiency, and bring in ‘passive safety’ features — systems that can stop the nuclear chain reaction and make the reactor safe in the absence of power.

Safety features include three independent emergency core cooling systems, each one capable of making the plant safe, and a basaltic reinforced concrete ‘core catcher’ below the reactor to contain the core in the event of a meltdown. Unlike the EPR reactor design proposed by EDF, which is to build other nuclear power stations in the UK, ABWRs are in operation — there are four in Japan, with another due for completion this year, and another being built in Taiwan.

RWE and E.ON formed the Horizon company in 2009 with the intention of building plants in Gloucestershire and Anglesey.

But in March 2012 the companies announced they wanted to sell the venture and move away from the UK nuclear power market after the German government’s decision to shut down its nuclear facilities, which itself follow the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.