Reactors to speed

British Energy’s takeover by the French state-owned utility, EDF, has been well-reported this morning, with the airwaves full of concern about the implications of the UK’s reactor fleet being, essentially, run by the French government. But what hasn’t received much scrutiny is the loud, albeit metaphorical, bang that I heard while reading the BERR press release on the sale: the starting pistol for new reactor build.

Make no mistake, the gears have been churning behind the scenes on new reactor plans, and they seem to be far further advanced than we’d realised. EDF now owns the eight operational nuclear sites around Britain and will run the reactors there, but it already has plans to build four new reactors: two at Hinkley Point in Somerset and two at Sizewell in Suffolk. These reactors, which will presumably be of the Areva EPR design like those currently taking shape (and, incidentally, behind schedule) at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in Normandy, will have a combined capacity of 6.4GW, and will come on-stream in 2017.

Well, that’s the plan. The planning applications and inevitable enquiries will be interesting, to say the least, and a good test of the government’s new planning regulations for major infrastructure projects.

But the government also says that it wants at least one more nuclear operator in the UK — a wise precaution. Apart from monopoly considerations, the EPR design is viewed by many nuclear experts as over-engineered; it certainly uses huge quantities of materials, and it’s hard to argue carbon neutrality for a design whose cement consumption is well into the megatonnes. Interestingly, the EDF agreement stipulates that the company will have to sell land at Bradwell and either Dungeness or Heysham to other operators ‘under certain circumstances’ (which presumably means ‘If we say so’) and dependent on those ominous planning consents at Hinkley and Sizewell. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which owns the older Magnox sites, is also looking to sell land at three of its sites, two of which — Wylfa and Oldbury — won’t be available to EDF.

So, expect engineers and money-men at Westinghouse, GE and Candu to be quivering in the starting-blocks as they eye up maps of the UK and start trying to find castings and forgings specialists. Expect nuclear opposition to also kick into high gear. Environmentalists have already been active in France and Finland, attempting to block access to quarries and picketing materials suppliers. The quoted start dates for the EDF reactors would suggest that talks over supply contracts are already well-advanced.

It’s good news for engineers in the UK, of course, and it’ll be welcome news for the heavier industries in these recession-threatened times. Two huge new construction projects in the industrially-deprived areas of Suffolk and Somerset will go a long way towards reviving local economies, and the other sites will be watching with interest.

But it also means that the discussions over a long-term geological waste repository will have to speed up, and that’s going to be — appropriately — a rocky road.

Things are moving, and they’re moving fast. They have to, because, as we reported in last week’s leader, the energy gap is looming and we need to plug the hole in baseline supply. Let’s hope that the engineers make their voices heard in the upcoming discussions, and that the projects proceed as smoothly as possible. Moreover, let’s hope that this doesn’t distract from the renewables research and development which is just as vital to Britain’s energy needs.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor