For a long time nuclear energy in the UK was a forgotten sector with no nuclear reactors being built since 1995 (Sizewell B). Due to the lack of investment in nuclear as an alternative form of energy, this has also seen the UK expertise diminish significantly over time. However, with the price of energy from traditional fossil fuels now rising, and concerns over global warming becoming a key focal point in the news, this comes at an opportune time to shift to low carbon power and consider nuclear energy as a viable alternative source again. A recent announcement has proposed that Hinkley Point C in Somerset will be the first of a number of new plants being built to replace the current active plants that are due for shutdown in the next decade. The power station is set to become fully operational in 10 years and be able to provide power to the UK for the next 60 years. This announcement has lifted hopes for the UK supply chain in terms of work - estimating 25,000 jobs expected to be created during construction, with 900 permanent positions established once the plant is in operation.
Nonetheless the two major players in the new builds are internationally owned EDF Energy and Horizon Nuclear Power and questions remain as to how much the UK nuclear supply chain will directly benefit in the longer term from the renewal programme. EDF energy is owned primarily by the French Government, and whilst Horizon Nuclear Power is based in the UK, it is owned by Hitachi Ltd. in Japan. EDF Energy has selected Areva and Alstom to lead their manufacturing of the reactors, whereby UK companies can access work mainly through collaborative partnerships formed (from engineering design and operations consultancy to construction and maintenance). Morgan Powell, Head of Commercial at Horizon Nuclear Power has stated that 60% of Hitachi’s projects could be sourced within the UK if the proposals are successful. In saying this, Rolls-Royce currently holds a stake, through which they will manufacture complex components alongside providing technical and engineering services for Hinkley Point C reactors. Although quite promising, there is a requirement to encourage more UK industries to get involved, not only for one-off projects but to remain in the supply chain for the future. This means that we need to address the issues on the lack of skills and expertise currently available in the supply chain from diminished nuclear investment, and is where the UK has the potential to build and drive this forward to invest and regrow its skills base.
The UK Government has committed to address this shortage through a number of programmes; for example it is now investing £15m into the civil nuclear R&D to strengthen the nuclear supply chain, by disseminating this funding to organisations including the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). This funding is not only designated towards the development of the new nuclear builds, but more so to span the full nuclear life cycle; from design of the new plants to the decommissioning of the older generation plants and waste management. Indeed, with the hype of opportunities arising for the development of the new builds, we may actually be forgetting that there is an imminent need for the older nuclear plants to be decommissioned, and in turn the skills base to address this.
Since 2005, the NDA has been assigned the responsibility to decommission the UK’s first generation nuclear power stations on behalf of the UK Government. It owns 19 of the sites and has been designed to ensure that all the waste products are safely managed and to decommission and clean up all civil nuclear facilities. In 2013/14, the annual budget was agreed at £3.2 billion, which is allocated to fund private companies in order to participate in the clean-up and decommissioning of legacy sites. An example of these sites include the major priority clean-up of the Magnox Storage Pont (60 years old) which is based in Sellafield Ltd. and has suffered excessive corrosion from fuel and radioactive sludge over its lifetime. Another important challenge is the Winfrith plant, which is set to be decommissioned by 2021. These are examples of huge opportunities opening up for the supply chain, including SME’s. Mark Dunnett (Winfrith Closure Director, RSRL) mentioned that ”Winfrith supports the NDA in working towards the target of increasing contract spending with SME’s to 20% of the supply chain budget by 2015”.
So an important question is why are we not encouraging the UK supply chains to get more highly involved with decommissioning and aim to become world leaders in this market? By attaining a qualified UK skills base for the nuclear sector, we can address opportunities in working throughout the nuclear plant life cycle from new build to decommissioning of the older plants.
One positive step is being made at the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC), which is collaboratively working with Sellafield Ltd. and the NDA to address a few of these issues, by helping UK businesses become the suppliers of choice globally via projects including: manufacturing process R&D, quality requirements as well as training and skills development.
We’d be interested to hear your views on the subject.
Blog written by Dr Betime Nuhiji
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