Chain reaction: supplying the skills for new build nuclear

The UK is at the forefront of the so-called nuclear renaissance. Forward-thinking licensing and regulatory arrangements have, according to Areva, made the UK the most attractive country for new build and a model for the rest of Europe and the world. Tim Probert talks to the UK’s Glen Little, Director of Nuclear New Build, Doosan Babcock about the nuclear prospects for his country and his company.

Scot Pritchard, Cormetech Inc, USA

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Doosan Babcock is one of leading contenders to get a piece of the action if, and when, new nuclear power plants get the go ahead in the UK. Glen Little was appointed Doosan Babcock’s director of New Nuclear Build in March of this year. The Northern Irishman has been with Doosan Babcock for the past 29 years, and has been working in the nuclear power industry for the past 15 years.

PEi: What is your remit as director of new build nuclear?

Little: Effectively I am heading up our strategic offering for our existing customers. We have very close relations with EDF/British Energy, E.ON and RWE. These companies will build new nuclear power stations in the UK and they are all major customers of Doosan Babcock. It’s a case of developing relationships both with them and the technology vendors so that Doosan Babcock becomes a major player in the supply, installation and commissioning of mechanical plant in the new power stations. We won’t build the reactor pressure vessels or the steam generators, for example, unlike our parent company Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction, which it is doing so for Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor.

PEi: What kind of experience does Doosan Babcock have with the UK’s existing nuclear fleet?

Little: Doosan Babcock has worked very closely with British Energy and Magnox, with input into several major repairs of the primary circuit of the existing AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors) fleet. Five years ago Doosan Babcock made me responsible for all our activities associated with nuclear decommissioning and we’ve been extremely successful during that time. Although some of our work has been decommissioning, most of our work involves new nuclear construction at Sellafield. In France, we also have a contract with EDF to ultrasonically inspect the pressurizer welds for the existing nuclear fleet.

PEi: New build?

Little: Yes. Most people in the UK think of Sellafield as a decommissioned site, but at the moment there’s more money being spent at Sellafield on new nuclear facilities to reprocess and store existing nuclear waste. During my time as director of nuclear projects, Doosan Babcock has secured three EPC contracts at Sellafield to build new nuclear facilities, each of which are worth between à‚£80-120 million ($132-198 million).

These are three very different plants. The first was a new facility for the inspection of the reprocessed high level waste containers before the waste was shipped back to the country of origin. We procured the plant and equipment using our supply chain and constructed the facility for the checking, monitoring, cleaning and packing of the waste containers into the large export flask for shipment.

The second contract we are delivering is in consortium with Balfour Beatty for the civil and mechanical design, procurement and construction on the SPP1 facility. This plant has three 33-m long, 7-m high and 4-m wide high integrity tanks, which are contained in a thick walled concrete building. The tanks are very high integrity and are designed to contain the sludge for a 25 year period.

The third project, which is worth about à‚£80 million, is for an active ventilation system whereby we’re replacing some of the ventilation ductwork. New ductwork, new trestles, a new supporting system, a large new plant room, and a new 120-m high stack. Doosan Babcock is the project’s EPC contractor, .

Having won these contracts for new build, I was then asked by Doosan Babcock in March to take over as director for nuclear new build for the new power station construction in the UK.

PEi: Are you as optimistic as EDF Energy’s Vincent de Rivaz that the first new nuclear plant will be built by 2017?

Little: EDF are still optimistic than they can power the Christmas lights in 2017. They accept that it’s challenging and we think it’s challenging. Much depends on what comes out of the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) and the various planning approval processes, but obviously it’s getting more difficult. They are, however, a very experienced company and they believe they can do it.

EDF have done a bit of lobbying lately, saying that the new build programme wouldn’t go head without more certainty. It must be difficult persuading your board into making very high value investments when you can’t be sure of the returns. EDF have committed themselves to four, possibly six, new power stations at a cost of à‚£3à‚—4 billion apiece, so they want some security of return.

I don’t think they’ll get much assistance from government. The government has set their face against direct subsidy. There are possible options with regards feed-in tariffs and carbon credits, but it’s a bit of brinkmanship. Who wouldn’t if you’re making that sort of investment?

But EDF would not have bought British Energy if they didn’t think that the UK was a lucrative market. Yes, it’s a lot of money upfront, but over a 60-year life cycle that is a lot of revenue, and I can’t see energy prices dropping substantially.

Even though the odds of blackouts in the UK have now been pushed out for a few years due to the downturn in the economy, EDF will still have to make a decision in the next 12 to 18 months on whether to build these things. I suspect there will be high-level discussion between London and the EDF board to seal the deal.

PEi: What are the prospects for Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor in the UK?

Little: It’s possible. E.ON and RWE have yet to make their technology selection. It may be the case that RWE and E.ON decide to build AP1000 reactors at the Wylfa site in North Wales, but this is still undecided. It’s no secret that E.ON had been looking towards the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor). Perhaps E.ON sways one way and RWE the other, but at the moment they are working with both vendors to get a price and the technical details on both reactor designs.

The EPR has more price certainty as it is already being built in Finland (Olkiluoto) and in Flamanville in France. That EDF is committed to building four more in the UK must help. However, the AP1000 is a faster build programme because it is more modular than an EPR. Both technologies have their advantages and disadvantages. There are other options à‚— GE-Hitachi’s Advanced BWR (Boiling Water Reactor) and Toshiba’s BWRà‚— but certainty not in the first tranche of new power stations. Doosan Babcock is pricing components for both Areva and Westinghouse in the UK so that they can get a price comparison with the US and Finland references.

PEi: Are you satisfied with the UK government’s provision for nuclear technology licensing protocol?

Little: The industry has concerns that the GDA is not going as fast as perhaps it should. The government keeps saying that the GDA is on track, and we have to take that at face value. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) is asking a large volume of questions about the technology and it takes time for the relevant companies to respond. Clarifications and so forth take time. Our licensing system is different from, for example, the American system. It’s more about individual interpretation than being prescriptive.

PEi: What are the chances for Doosan Babcock and other UK-based companies to manufacture components for any new nuclear plants given the now rather French flavour of the industry?

Little: There’s been a lot of talk recently that the UK has a limited or no nuclear skills base. I’ve heard some comments that the only UK companies with nuclear skills are Rolls-Royce or British Aerospace. While undoubtedly they have nuclear skills and manufacture high-quality nuclear components, they are by no means the only ones à‚— at Sellafield we are building new plant to standards analogous to what you would get on a new nuclear station.

We’ve also got to remember that only a small proportion of a nuclear power station is Class I components. We have little chance of making, for example, primary circuit components like steam generators in the UK. For the EPR, these will undoubtedly be made in France, or in the case of the AP1000, our parent company Doosan will make them in South Korea for Westinghouse.

However, Doosan Babcock and its supply chain has the capacity to build Class II and III components like heat exchangers and vessels that are not part of the primary circuit, but are safety critical equipment. We have been in discussion with Areva, who have been setting up a global framework for supplying pressure vessels and heat exchangers, and the UK is part of that à‚— they want to create a UK supply chain.

Say for example that there are 50 Class II/III pressure vessels and 50 on an EPR. Areva wants to create an equipment contract with various suppliers to build them per station. This is the type of work that the UK supply chain can achieve quite easily. We have costed those 50 pressure vessels and heat exchangers; we’ve been out to the supply chain to get prices for them. We know our approved suppliers and ourselves can build these. The question is: can we build enough in the time-scale?

PEi: And can you build enough in the time-scale?

Little: We would manage the supply of the vessels. We may make some of them ourselves, but given the number of them, we would probably reach out to our supply chain to make some as well. With the large tanks at Sellafield I mentioned, we designed them, set the quality standards and the quality arrangements for the production of the tanks, but we sub-contracted the manufacture of the parts of those tanks to a company, which makes vessels for the chemical and petrochemical industries.

These are nuclear quality vessels with enhanced quality arrangements and we can help companies understand the additional nuclear quality requirements so they can make the transition from being a supplier of high integrity equipment to the oil industry to become suppliers to the nuclear industry.

Doosan Babcock’s welding school at Tipton, UK
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EDF are considering appointing a civil contractor and a mechanical/electrical contractor to perform the mechanical/electrical/control system work. We aim to be EDF’s mechanical installation contractor. We would supply the planning, the programming and all the site staff and labour to install all the mechanical plant and equipment on an EDF site.

We can perform design, the procurement, the installation and the commissioning. There are others that can do bits, but there’s probably no one else who has the comprehensive capability to manage the high safety systems for the heat exchangers, the pressure vessels, tanks and so forth. Rolls-Royce may manufacture some components, but we don’t think they’ll be doing any site installations.

PEi: How does the licensing issue come in to play with the type of components you and your supply chain, which may or may not have previously manufactured equipment for the nuclear industry, wish to provide?

Little: Both EDF and Westinghouse have said there is lot of plant that is non-nuclear critical that can be built by the existing UK supply chain, providing it’s built to acceptable quality standards. We have a process in the UK to manage nuclear quality which starts with License Condition 17, which is a NII requirement of the licensee to set in place appropriate quality arrangements to control the quality standards of the component commensurate with the Safety Functional Arrangements.

The NII demands high quality and we have to demonstrate how we will achieve that. The licensee flows down this information and tells us to which code we design components. So they’ll say, this is going to be, for example, to ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers).

We will then write a specification, for example, a pressure vessel, which will tell our supply chain exactly what they have to do. An ABC Guide that will different according to the quality level of the vessel. It’s a big responsibility of the Tier Two equipment providers to disseminate this information and not just throw a great deal of different and complex specifications at its supply chain.

PEi: Will Greenpeace and other environmental groups seek to scupper new build nuclear plans?

Little: We will probably get some objections at the site specific planning, but I think the plants will go ahead. The local people around existing nuclear plants are generally very supportive of nuclear power à‚— these are high-level jobs and each job is very important to the local communities. The danger is that you get people from outside the local area adding their input à‚— but that’s democracy!

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