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“By 2025, if current policy is unchanged, there will be a dramatic gap on our targets to reduce CO2 emissions. We will become heavily dependent on gas; and at the same time move from being 80/90% self-reliant in gas to 80/90% dependent on foreign imports. These facts put the replacement of nuclear power stations, a big push on renewables and a step-change on energy efficiency back on the agenda with a vengeance.”
That declaration by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in a speech to the CBI in May 2006, heralded a rapid and remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the UK’s nuclear industry, turning around what was generally regarded as a sunset industry into one with bright and optimistic prospects that is on course once again to be the cornerstone of the nation’s energy needs well into the future.
Within two years of that speech the Government had published the Nuclear White Paper confirming the ‘go-ahead that new nuclear should play a role’ in the nation’s future energy mix.
Without an expansion of low carbon sources of electricity – renewables and nuclear – the UK stands little chance of meeting its obligations for reducing CO2 emissions to combat the causes of global climate change. By the middle of the 2020s all but one of Britain’s nuclear power stations that currently supply around 18% of the nation’s electricity, will have closed, reducing the diversity of the UK’s energy mix making us more dependent on imported energy and virtually removing the largest source of low carbon electricity generation.
In order to meet those twin challenges of energy security and climate change the Labour Government took the decision to facilitate investment by private sector energy companies in new nuclear plant by devising and implementing measures to remove the barriers to that investment, and provide developers with confidence that Government support and commitment was behind a new build programme. It was and remains a feature of that policy that new nuclear plant will be delivered by the private sector without any direct public subsidy.
Continuity of commitment
In his time as Secretary of State for Business, John Hutton, (now chairman of NIA) strongly encouraged a bi-partisan approach on energy policy – especially nuclear, given the long-term nature of the investment. The present coalition Government has continued the policies set in train during the previous administration. Such continuity of political commitment is crucial to providing the investor confidence needed for such large and long-term investments to be made.
By removing the barriers to investment, through measures such as streamlined planning and licensing processes that had been the cause of delays and cost overruns on nuclear projects in the past, and by providing the economic incentive through reform of the electricity market and establishing a price for carbon, the Government has enabled companies in the UK to step up and revive a strong, vibrant and sustainable nuclear industry.
Plans to replace Britain’s nuclear capacity with new stations are now well advanced with EDF Energy and Centrica progressing their plans for twin PWR units at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk. In relation to the former, EDF Energy has submitted applications for a Nuclear Site Licence and for environmental permits necessary to operate a nuclear power station, and has progressed the procurement of some major components.
It submitted its application for planning permission at the tail end of last year and the newly created Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) held its first planning meeting on Hinkley Point at the end of last month. The IPC is bound under the regulations to produce its conclusions towards the end of this year, which will hopefully enable EDF to start on site early in 2013.
In the news
In addition to EDF/Centrica’s plans, a further consortium NuGen – a grouping of GDF Suez and Iberdrola, is in the early stages of taking forward plans to build some 3.6GW of new nuclear power at its Moorside site in West Cumbria, and a third consortium Horizon Nuclear Power has developed plans for twin units at Wylfa in North Wales, and at Oldbury in Gloucestershire.
Horizon has recently been in the news because its backers – the German companies RWE and E.ON – have announced they are seeking alternative investors. However they have clearly explained that this decision was based on pressures elsewhere in their businesses and not any doubts about the role of nuclear in the UK’s energy future. In practice the company’s sites and experience offer new players an excellent ready-made opportunity to enter the market.
In response to this revival companies in the UK supply chain are gearing up to capitalise on their experience and capability to derive commercial and industrial benefit and advantage from participation in the nuclear sector. The scale of investment in nuclear is going to create huge opportunities for companies with long experience and expertise in construction, in manufacturing, in advanced engineering, in project and programme management, in consultancy and in financial and legal services.
The industry and NIA are working hard on the development of the skilled workforce and a capable nuclear supply chain that can deliver both at home and in overseas countries that are planning and delivering substantial nuclear programmes – India, China, the United Arab Emirates, Eastern Europe and South America.
The national economic and employment benefits from these new build projects – each the equivalent of the 2012 Olympics – will be immense. The proposed new build programme will pour billions of pounds into the UK economy and provide employment to around 30,000 workers during the construction period. Those stations will then operate for 60 years, providing secure, long-term, and high quality jobs for generations to come, as well as contributing substantial local and regional economic benefits.
That is in addition to the large volumes of work already underway and planned in operating and maintaining the existing nuclear fleet, in the decommissioning and remediation of old sites, and in the treatment and management of waste.
2011 was a year of immense change for the global nuclear industry. The events at Fukushima following the appalling natural disaster in Japan in March caused governments and nuclear industries around the world to pause and reflect on their plans for the future development of nuclear energy in their respective countries.
The view in the UK is that the case for an expansion of low carbon nuclear energy remains compelling but clearly the lessons from Fukushima have to be studied, understood and applied to ensure that nuclear remains a safe and acceptable form of electricity generation.
This is what has been done in the UK with the publication of reports by the independent Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, into the causes and lessons to be learned for the UK from the tragic events. His analysis of Fukushima revealed no reason on safety grounds either for curtailing the operation of existing plants or for not going ahead with building new nuclear stations in the UK. He did however make over 30 recommendations for action by nuclear operators and called for them to strive for continuous improvement in nuclear safety.
The impact of Fukushima on political and public reactions to nuclear energy at a time when the UK is so advanced on a journey towards new nuclear build is of the highest importance.
In June 2011, three months after Fukushima, the NIA commissioned MORI to conduct a public opinion survey into attitudes towards nuclear energy. The key findings show that:
• 68% of people were in broad agreement that ‘Britain needs a mix of energy sources to ensure a reliable supply of electricity, including nuclear power and renewables’. Crucially that was down just 2% from December 2010’s pre-Fukushima poll
• Only 12% disagreed with the proposition that nuclear should be part of the UK’s energy mix going forward
• When asked ‘do you support or oppose building new nuclear power stations to replace the existing fleet’ some 36% agreed – with 28% against – a decline in net support since December 2010, but still indicating more support than opposition
A further opinion poll at the end of 2011 showed a revival in public support for nuclear towards pre-Fukushima levels.
A poll of UK MPs in June and July showed that 75% of MPs either agreed or strongly agreed that building new nuclear power stations will be a major benefit to the UK’s manufacturing and construction industries. This belief has support across all three of the major political parties.
We can conclude that in general politicians and the public in the UK recognise that the case for nuclear is compelling, but the industry cannot be complacent or believe that such support can be taken for granted. Nuclear energy is a controversial issue and requires a high degree of political and public acceptance for its licence to operate. The nuclear industry worldwide has to be prepared to learn and apply the lessons of Fukushima just as we did the lessons of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. We will need to rise to this new challenge and a culture of complete transparency is going to be the critical foundation.
The UK is currently the only western European country with a substantial national nuclear new build programme and is therefore at the forefront of the nuclear renaissance in Europe. It is in a strong position to capitalise on its long history of achievement in nuclear power and its reputation for quality and professionalism is unquestionable. Despite setbacks, the UK is determined to maintain the momentum to ensure our nuclear goals are achieved.