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15 Jun 2012
The Fukushima disaster gave the world’s nuclear industry pause for thought, prompting the question: should countries put their nuclear construction programmes on hold until further notice? And, if not, how can the industry ensure that it’s delivering a safe, cost-effective and sustainable nuclear infrastructure?
“The world has a combined need for a low carbon, secure and affordable energy supply right now,” says Chris Ball, director of nuclear at Atkins in the UK. “Nuclear is the only proven large-scale generator of low-carbon electricity that meets these criteria. It is a major part of a balanced energy mix, which includes renewable and other technologies.”
After two decades out in the cold, the international nuclear industry’s fortunes have changed. There are 66 nuclear power stations under construction around the world and it’s estimated that 200 reactors could be built over the next two decades.
As of March 2012, China had 26 reactors under construction, 51 planned in before 2030 and a further 120 proposed. In Russia, ten are under construction, with 41 planned or proposed. And, while only one is currently being built in the US, there are potentially 30 others in the pipeline. The World Nuclear Association predicts that by 2015, one 1,000MW unit could be coming online, somewhere around the world, every five days.
In the UK, the big shift back to nuclear began in 2006 with a government white paper authorising the construction of new power stations. Since then, eight sites for reactors have been confirmed. Two bidders – EDF Energy and Horizon Nuclear Power (a joint venture involving E.ON UK and RWE npower) – tabled proposals for new plants, although E.ON and RWE later changed their plans, putting Horizon up for sale. Responding to the news, UK energy minister Charles Hendry argued that this development gave new players “an excellent ready-made opportunity to enter the market”.
Ultimately, there’s one major hurdle that still needs to be overcome before that nuclear future becomes a reality: fears over the safety of nuclear that have re-emerged as a result of the Fukushima disaster.
In light of Fukushima, governments turned to their experts to assess the events in Japan and advise their domestic nuclear industries on the lessons that could be learned. In Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, this may have bought an end to nuclear ambitions, but in the UK, chief nuclear inspector and head of UK Office for Nuclear Regulation, Mike Weightman, gave the industry a positive report on its approach to safety. He was satisfied that both sides – operators and regulators – worked well together to ensure standards were met. No significant weaknesses were found in the UK’s nuclear licensing regime and no gaps were discovered in the scope or depth of the safety assessment principles already in place. His final report concludes: “We see no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK.”
This was not a green light for nuclear development, however. It simply confirmed that the approach to nuclear safety taken in the UK is fit for purpose. It also highlighted the fact that safety must remain the first priority for all stakeholders: “We expect the industry to take the prime responsibility for learning lessons, rather than relying on the regulator to tell it what to do.”
Continuing with the UK example, the concern for safety reflected in the Weightman report is not simply a reaction to Fukushima. New reactor designs have been required to undergo comprehensive safety checks under the government’s generic design assessment (GDA) process since 2007. If it does not pass the GDA, a reactor design will not be granted regulatory consent.
This is in line with the long-term goals for safe nuclear power generation in the UK, according to Kevin Allars, director of new nuclear build with the Office for Nuclear Regulation at the HSE: “Our mission is to secure protection of the public and society from the hazards of the nuclear industry. That’s what we strive to do. We want reactors to meet the highest standards of safety, security and environmental protection. We must not stand still but continually strive for reasonable and practical improvements to make these reactors and anything else the industry does as safe as possible.”
The GDA is intended to strike a balance between the need for safety and the needs of investors. It represents a more collaborative approach to regulation than has been the case in the past and includes a strategy for working with overseas regulators.
“Through the GDA, we assess new plants at the design phase, which means we are in a much better position to ensure that new reactors are built to the high standards of safety, security and, with my colleagues in the Environment Agency, environmental protection,” says Allars. “It’s much easier to influence the design when it’s on paper than when it’s actually being built. The GDA process is unique to the UK. No other country has undertaken this work in this way.”
Although that process can be lengthy, it needs to be conducted only once for each design. Energy companies can then duplicate the approved design at different locations, subject to a separate site licensing process which will address site-specific variances to the generic design.
In the UK two designs were shortlisted for approval in 2011: the UK EPR (designed by EDF Energy and Areva) and the AP1000 (designed by Westinghouse). Both are Generation III+ reactors, based on proven pressurised-water technology, offering improved efficiency and safety, a higher level of standardisation and a longer operational life than previous designs. Overseas implementations of both designs are at an advanced stage and tentative approvals have been given in the UK, following supplemental questioning in the GDA process.
“After the Fukushima disaster we asked the designers of these new reactors to go back and have a look at what they had already done and see what effect Fukushima has had on the safety cases they put forward in the different technical areas,” says Allars. “That’s what they have done and now we have a plan in place from them explaining what they intend to do in light of lessons learned from Fukushima.”
As a further boost to the nuclear industry in the UK, the fact that there are only two blueprints on the table could be of great benefit. Contrast this with what happened 50 years ago, when the government went with advanced gas-cooled reactor (AGR) technology. This was later abandoned, but only after several power stations had been built to different AGR designs. This made them expensive to build and it continues to make them costly to maintain in legacy. “Standardisation is important,” says Tony Roulstone, course director of the Atkins-sponsored MPhil in nuclear energy at the University of Cambridge. “The UK has seven old AGRs and there are four different types. If you build everything as a first of a kind, you incur all the costs.”
As well as saving money, standardised designs also allow for consistent safety measures to be implemented across all sites as well as cutting construction times – crucial to the long-term viability of new builds, given that the longer it takes, the higher the interest charges will be for the project.
“Sticking to a standard design and simplifying construction will help. In South Korea, for example, they have been consistently building about one reactor a year for the past 15 years and taking costs out at every step,” Roulstone says.
Such progress in tough economic times is music to the ears of politicians and economists, but it creates risks of its own. The shortage of engineering expertise is a concern shared across the world, both at a corporate level and in terms of individual engineering talent.
The bids being tabled for new nuclear build reflect this concern. Instead of working solo, most players are looking to collaborate with others in the field. For example, Atkins is working as part of the Engage consortium to deliver an innovative experimental fusion reactor in one of Europe’s biggest engineering contracts of all time. In addition, the company formed “n.triple.a” – the Nuclear Atkins Assystem Alliance – with leading French engineering firm Assystem, to provide consultancy and engineering services to the nuclear new-build market.
The average age of an employee in the UK’s nuclear industry is worryingly high at 50. In the US, only six per cent of nuclear workers are under the age of 32. So it’s crucial to recruit and train new talent.
“There’s going to be a worldwide demand for nuclear skills over the next 20 years, so we need a new generation of managers and technologists,” says Roulstone. “But nuclear power involves a lot of different technologies, so it’s not something you can teach very well at first-degree level.”
The industry is doing what it can to support this effort to develop new talent. Last year, the International Institute of Nuclear Energy opened its doors in France – the world’s most advanced nuclear economy. Set up by the government, it brings together the country’s education establishments, research organisations and companies to share training best practice overseas.
Atkins also provides comprehensive nuclear training for both its existing engineers and new graduates via the Nuclear Training Academy, which is run in collaboration with the University of Central Lancashire.
The skills gap is only one challenge facing the nuclear industry. Financing the next generation of nuclear plants and shepherding their development will be no small matter.
For the UK, the political landscape has changed dramatically since Britain’s ambitious nuclear programmes of the 1960s and 1970s. The electricity industry’s privatisation in 1990 signalled the government’s withdrawal from the energy arena as far as capital projects were concerned.
The new set of nuclear power stations will be financed entirely by the private sector. But, to attract that private investment, the government is reducing red tape and legislative uncertainties. Measures include changes to the planning regime, with fast-track procedures for crucial projects such as power stations. There’s also a new approach to nuclear regulation.
All of this will fall under the aegis of Infrastructure UK, the standalone government body charged with co-ordinating the design, planning and financing of the UK’s big infrastructure developments over the next five years. One of the new body’s first actions was to give the green light to the Hinkley Point nuclear reactor.
The industry across the world is beginning to learn some hard lessons, but the result should be a safer nuclear future for us all. Clearly, fewer reactor designs, closer collaboration and a willingness to learn from the past should all pay dividends in terms of standardisation, safety and cost, making the process, from planning through to decommissioning, that much more straightforward. Taking a proactive stance will support this process and set the groundwork for a truly sustainable and secure nuclear future.
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