Giving nuclear a chance

The UK, set to lose around 20 per cent of generating capacity in the next decade, is rapidly approaching a crossroads. There are strong arguments to be made for it going down the nuclear route.

Within the UK we have the need, capability and a positive future for nuclear power, so long as we have a pragmatic debate. Nuclear power generation is safe and reliable, and the technology is proven and vital to fill the impending energy gap in the UK. The government must generate a policy framework to encourage new nuclear plants, and the earlier this is done the better the economic benefit will be, as it takes ten years to license, approve and build one.

When the early experimental facilities and power stations were designed in the 1950s very little thought was given to their decommissioning – that was many years away, and most people were wrapped up in the new groundbreaking discoveries of nuclear energy. Life is now very different and many lessons have been learned as the industry and the technology have evolved. The long term future of the plants, their waste and their impact on the environment is of paramount importance. The nuclear industry has specifically developed the designs of modern nuclear power stations to be much easier and cheaper to decommission, and to produce much less waste than those designed decades ago. Hence, the additional waste and decommissioning costs from new nuclear power plants will be a small fraction of the legacy of waste from the original plants.

Decommissioning: the issues

Based on current lifespan estimates, all but one of the UK’s 23 nuclear power plants will be decommissioned by 2023, and the issue of decommissioning is contentious and highly debated. References to the rising costs of nuclear decommissioning, currently pegged at around à‚£70 billion ($138 billion) are also used as part of an alarmist argument against nuclear power.

However, we have to deal with existing waste. Even if not another single unit of electricity is produced by nuclear power, we must clean up what we have. The creation and work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is therefore welcomed by the industry.

The NDA has stated clearly that its estimate for the cost of cleaning up Britain’s nuclear sites is expected to rise even further, since they are undertaking an in-depth and all-embracing evaluation of what must be done. It must be pointed out that these estimates include nuclear waste from military and early experimental facilities, and not just for the waste from nuclear power generation.

Only when the NDA has completed this painstaking and detailed evaluation in the next year or so will we have the complete picture. Currently, however, estimates indicate that less than half is due to power generation, and as the evaluation proceeds this proportion is likely to reduce.

As the industry evaluates the clean-up job ahead, it should be praised rather than chastised for its openness regarding current cost estimates. The nuclear power plant designers and owners have calculated that the decommissioning and waste management costs of future nuclear new build will be approximately three to four per cent of the overall costs of the plants. When making its case for the UK government’s 2006 Energy Review, the nuclear industry argued that these costs could largely be met by industry itself. It proposed that the government should create a decommissioning and waste financing mechanism whereby part of the nuclear electricity sales cost would be invested in a fund and built up over the plant’s operating lifetime to cover the cost of decommissioning and waste management, following the examples set in the USA, Finland and Sweden.

Treated in this way the estimates for decommissioning and waste management of new power stations would be a small part of the operating costs, and would still maintain nuclear electricity competitiveness compared to other low carbon power sources. So the alarmists’ claims of unknown clean-up costs for new nuclear power plants are totally unfounded.

Integral part of a balanced mix

Nuclear power is vital as a significant part of the ongoing balanced energy portfolio in the UK, and will assist in the reduction of carbon emissions, increase security of supplies and generate electricity at affordable prices.

Nuclear power is a very low net emitter of carbon, ans is comparable with wind energy. This is rarely recognized or acknowledged when credits, verbally and financially, are awarded to other low carbon technologies.

Several power utilities in the UK, which have traditionally used only coal and gas, are now considering the possibility of nuclear energy in their portfolios to give them a more diverse and secure mix of supply into the UK. Some already have a large nuclear element in their generation capacity in mainland Europe. Fortunately, these large companies appreciate that the current estimates for decommissioning cover legacy wastes, and that the costs for decommissioning new plants are low and moreover are known with a fair degree of accuracy.

The turbine room at Dungeness A, one of the world’s first nuclear power plants, which was closed by British Nuclear Group on December 31, 2006
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What these large utilities need is a clear understanding of the risks of investing in nuclear power for the UK. They have concerns about the open-ended nature of the licensing and planning approval process and the long-term value to be placed on carbon. The government’s Energy Review went some way towards encouraging investment in nuclear power and for that matter in advanced clean coal, but it did not go far enough. It is hoped that a white paper due in early 2007 will be more specific in setting up the necessary frameworks and reducing the uncertainties.

A balanced mix of energy sources needs to be used to solve the UK’s forecasted problems; and it is essential to have a reliable, low carbon, affordable and secure power supply. The renewables lobby appears to think that if someone builds a new nuclear plant this will absorb all the funds that may be available for investment in new technologies. The UK government has declared that any new nuclear plant must be privately funded and the Sustainable Development Commission has stated that its “evidence indicates that the new nuclear investment is unlikely to detract from private sector investment in renewables.”1. Also, the government has clearly declared that it will put funds into renewables, so this objection to nuclear is quite unfounded.

Both public and political perceptions are very important. As the need for energy, coupled with the need to reduce emissions, becomes more apparent the tide has begun turning toward nuclear energy to the extent that the MORI poll of December 2005 found that there has been a doubling of support for and a halving of opposition to nuclear energy in the last four years. In addition a recent MORI poll amongst Members of Parliament is showing a marked swing toward nuclear.

UK needs a clear disposal policy

The NDA has done an excellent job to date, acting responsibly and reporting transparently. It has earned the trust and respect of the nuclear industry itself, and we are confident that it will deliver on its responsibilities, not least on its objective of ensuring that the cost of decommissioning is managed efficiently and effectively. Industry and the NDA must work together to safely achieve cost and time reductions in the clean-up programme. As this progresses we need to continue our efforts to clarify to those less familiar with the business that the cost of decommissioning of the next generation of nuclear plants will be significantly less than the cost for the clean-up of the legacy plants and waste.

A very important step forward was the recent recommendations from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). CoRWM’s very extensive and well-structured study, recommending deep geological storage as the safest and best way to manage nuclear waste, certainly goes a long way to removing a major obstacle to nuclear power. The lack of a clear disposal policy for the UK’s nuclear waste, in conjunction with the cost arguments that are the subject of this article, have certainly been used in arguments against new build. It is now up to the government to act on this by selecting or at least starting the process of selecting a suitable disposal site for the UK.

The government’s white paper must come out with clear frameworks to encourage investment for the long term. Without this the power utilities will be driven to short term strategies that will probably result in more gas fired plants, with risks on cost and security to the country and industry.

The nuclear system vendors will find more attractive markets elsewhere, such as China, the USA, and Korea, leaving the UK at the end of a queue as the forecasted world wide upsurge in new nuclear plants actually takes place.

If, or rather when, the UK starts a new nuclear programme, the owners, whoever they may be, should purchase plants of international designs that would have already been built or at least approved and licensed in some other country. This will give us the benefits of well-proven designs, and of belonging to international consortia of operators of such plants. It will avoid first-of-a-kind cost and the UK ending up with yet another prototype plant.

Although the UK has not built a nuclear plant for 15 years, it employs 40,000 people directly and a further 80,000 indirectly, operating existing plants, carrying out life extension work, building new plants associated with the fuel cycle and decommissioning and exporting nuclear equipment to China, Finland and the USA. The Nuclear Industry Association, which is an association of over 130 companies involved in the UK nuclear industry, claims around just three or per cent of the country’s existing trades skills would be required for a new build programme.

The UK must take positive actions now to avoid the energy gap that is likely to start emerging around 2012. British industry, and certainly Doosan Babcock, is more than ready to collaborate with the international nuclear vendors, the utilities and with the government itself to bring this action about.

  1. The role of nuclear power in a low carbon energy economy, Sustainable Development Commission, March 2006.
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Ceri Green, director of Nuclear Business at Doosan Babcock

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