The new nuclear renaissance

Materials World magazine
22 Dec 2016

Hinkley Point C may be headline news, but its successful approval is expected to create a groundswell of support for the UK’s less prolific nuclear programmes, including Wylfa Newydd and Moorside.

After a tumultuous and lengthy period of delays that have stretched across two Conservative cabinets, Hinkley Point C was finally approved on September 2016 by major players EDF, China General Nuclear and the UK Government. Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, Managing Director of EDF Energy Nuclear New Build, sees Hinkley C as the catalyst to ‘relaunch nuclear in Europe’, and the progression of the prospective Somerset plant is likely to bolster the UK’s other newbuild nuclear projects, including Horizon Nuclear’s Wylfa Newydd and NuGeneration’s (NuGen) Moorside plants.

The key advantage

The construction of Wylfa Newydd, on the Isle of Anglesey, is expected to take nine years to build, employing 850 people during construction and operation, and will generate a minimum of 2,700MW during its 60-year lifespan. Wylfa will deploy two Advanced Boiled Water Reactors (ABWR), designed by Hitachi-GE and described by the company as the world’s first ‘Generation III+’ reactor. Anti-nuclear groups have criticised the use of ABWRs at Wylfa, citing links to the 2011 Fukushima disaster, although circumstances surrounding the incident – namely extreme seismic activity – are unlikely at the Wylfa site. The four ABWRs in Japan are not producing, as part of a wider initiative from the Japanese Government following the Fukushima disaster, but have not been deactivated.

More pressing is the lack of license for the ABWR, restricting their use in the UK. The UK ABWR will soon begin step four, the final stage of an Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) generic design assessment, and approval is set to be completed in December 2017 should Hitachi overcome challenges presented by the ONR, including removal of spent fuel from the reactor building and safety case for contamination venting. Although the ONR is for the most part satisfied with Hitachi’s progress through step three, the summary report notes that ‘Hitachi still has to further demonstrate that the design of the UK ABWR severe accidents measures are in line with relevant good practice for new reactors’, with particular reference to reactor chemistry and probabilistic safety analysis.

Horizon Chief Operating Officer, Alan Raymant, was ebullient about the ABWR, which the Wylfa project took on-board when Hitachi joined the project in 2012, making reference to it as Horizon’s ‘key advantage’, as the technology is operational elsewhere in the world. He continued, ‘It may well be investors will take a different view of technologies based on their track record.’ Raymant’s comments clash with those of Duncan Hawthorne, CEO of Horizon Nuclear, who remarked in December 2016, ‘Quite honestly, we can’t point to a large parade of successful projects. We have to have a credible story in order to get financial support for the build costs.’

Meanwhile, Horizon has launched a public consultancy for members of the public to comment on the matters of safety, security, waste management and environmental protection, but respondents are not permitted to comment on the technology or site location. Elsewhere, the ABWR has been approved for use in Taiwan, although Toshiba Corporation, Japan, withdrew its own ABWR application to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2016, stating, ‘It has become increasingly clear the energy price declines in the USA prevent Toshiba from expecting additional opportunities for ABWR construction projects there.'

Modular chances

Unlike Wylfa, Moorside, in Cumbria, will employ three AP1000 small modular reactors (SMR) from Westinghouse Electric Company, USA, a technology that was earmarked for potential by IOM3 Energy Materials Group Chair, Professor Peter Flewitt (see Materials World, March 2016, page 14). Each AP1000 reactor has an output of around 1.15GW, with a gross capacity of 3.8GW, fulfilling 7% of the UK’s demand. Its SMR construction is intended to save time and money, and the simplicity of its design, including fewer safety-related valves and piping, control cables and pumps leads Westinghouse to proclaim ‘an unsurpassed safety pedigree.’

As of July 2016, the ONR notes that ‘NuGen is maintaining its schedule to apply for a nuclear site license for Moorside in 2017 with a view to the license being in granted in 2018’, and although the ONR is consulting with NuGen, no official site license application has yet been submitted.

Regulatory commitment

Prime Minister Theresa May’s rejuvenated commitment to nuclear, despite stricter conditions for overseas investment, is expected to provide a boost for new reactors across the UK. Vincent de Rivaz, Chief Executive of EDF Energy, and José Gutiérrez, interim President of Westinghouse, were upbeat about the commitment, with de Rivaz commenting, ‘They provide stability and clarity, which is precisely what investors need.’

However, throughout 2016, Horizon and NuGen have continually denied that either project was privy to the outcome of Hinkley. NuGen issued the statement, ‘Moorside is a stand-alone project and NuGen is in regular discussion with the UK Government to ensure that we move forward with purpose.’ This was echoed by Horizon, noting the company’s ‘sole focus remains, as it always has been, on making strong progress with our own flagship Wylfa Newydd power station project’, and a spokesperson expressing that the company had ‘no qualms about the continued commitment of the Government to UK nuclear new build’. Although, earlier in 2016, Hitachi CEO Hiroaki Nakanishi spoke to The Telegraph on the company’s consternation surrounding the uncertainty of Hinkley Point C, making note of ‘very serious concerns’ surrounding Chinese capital, as well as the issues of the then-Department of Energy and Climate Change around the stability of the plant’s scheduled construction. ‘Some of the conditions and credit requirements, those kind of things may affect us.’

Carl Devlin, Horizon Nuclear Programme Director, and Alastair Evans, Head of Government Affairs at NuGen, had similar talking points at the Nuclear New Build Forum, held in April 2016 – both projects were eagerly waiting in the wings, but future development may rest on progress at Hinkley Point C.

Wylfa and Moorside are under stress to ensure that their projects are notably cheaper than Hinkley Point C, something Raymant was unable to confirm in February 2016, instead speaking on the balance between ‘the allocation of risk between ourselves, the Government and our suppliers. We have to optimise that and make sure that’s set up in way that drives down the cost of capital. That’s the focus of our discussions with Government – how do we do that? The more risk you expect somebody to take, the more they will charge for it, and that’s what we have to avoid.’

Hinkley, Wylfa and Moorside share at least one similarity – a completion date of 2025. But while Wylfa and Moorside are awaiting regulatory licenses, with the Government’s renewed commitment to nuclear, the future of new nuclear may have never looked more certain.