New reactor design may lead to nuclear revival

BNFL has held preliminary discussions with the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate about the licensing of a new design of nuclear reactor, it has confirmed.

The company sees the US designed AP600 as the best chance of building more nuclear power plants before the end of the decade if the government’s energy review comes out in favour of more nuclear power.

The campaign to revive nuclear power in Britain gathered momentum this week ahead of Monday’s deadline for submissions to the government’s energy review – with former EU Energy Commissioner Sir Christopher Audland urging Labour to face down the anti-nuclear lobby.

The simplified US reactor, the Westinghouse 600MW AP600 design, offers quicker and less expensive construction.

Design features

Now owned by British Nuclear Fuels, the design makes far greater use of ‘passive’ features – such as natural circulation, convection, evaporation and condensation in the cooler system – than a pressurised water reactor (PWR) like Sizewell B in Suffolk. This greatly reduces the amount of ancillary equipment. It has 50% fewer valves and a 35% reduction in pumps.

Furthermore, the AP600 is designed for modular construction in factory conditions, which should cut out much of the uncertainty associated with extensive on-site construction, notably the weather and the co-ordination of multiple contractors.’A lot of activities can be done in parallel,’ said Alastair Smith, corporate development manager at NNC, which formed part of the project management team on Sizewell B. ‘You can detach the reliance on other contractors.’

Smith said the chances of getting new plants built before the end of the decade hang on efforts to convince the regulator.

‘It’s not going to be quite so difficult as it was for Sizewell,’ he said.

While the NII stressed it had received no application for a licence, it is clearly preparing the groundwork. It has seconded an inspector to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission — which gave the AP600 a licence 18 months ago – to sit in on the NRC’s assessment of the larger variant of the design, the 1,000MW AP1000.

A formal application in the UK is still some way away. One problem is that while BNFL AP600 is BNFL’s proprietary design, a UK licence is site specific and can only be granted to the power plant developer. BNFL has made it clear that it does not see itself in this role. ‘We wouldn’t build them. It’s not our core business,’ said a spokesman.

This suggests a developing consortium will need to be set up – almost certainly led by British Energy, which operates most of the UK’s nuclear capacity, and including BNFL in a secondary role – before an application can be submitted.

Financial arrangements

This will inevitably bring the focus on to cost and financing, and while the AP600 and AP1000 designs promise to cut the cost of nuclear construction by up to 50% – Westinghouse claims s a AP1000 could be built for as little $1bn (£720m) – it remains more than double that of alternative forms of generation. This will make the financing arrangements a considerable challenge.

But one factor that has blighted the economics of nuclear projects in the past – carrying the financing costs of the huge front-end investment over several years of construction – should be eased.

Smith at NNC said that no great investment would be required during the time-consuming licensing and planning process and the faster construction time would significantly reduce the exposure. ‘The time between ordering hardware and getting megawatts out is less than four years.’

Even with the most following of winds, there is no chance of a new AP600 or AP1000 being ready to generate power by the time the last of the UK’s first-generation Magnox nuclear plants closes in 2009. But how long the nuclear contribution to the national generating will be without the 3,000MW the Magnox stations currently provide – with all the implications that has for carbon dioxide emissions – will depend on how long it now takes industry and the regulator to come up with a licensable project.

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