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Nuclear Power

Please note: this page is a copy of the Nuclear Power section of the original 2050 pathways analysis report published in June 2010. It probably no longer represents government views.

Context

The last nuclear power station to be built in the UK was Sizewell B which began generation in 1995. At the beginning of 2010 there were 17 nuclear reactors operational with a combined installed capacity of over 10 GW. All of these are due to close by 2025, except Sizewell B which has an installed capacity of just over 1 GW.

Although new build has not taken place in the UK since the late 1980s, plausible installation rates for nuclear power can be estimated from a comparison with what has been achieved historically in other countries. A good example is what happened in France following their decision in 1974 to expand the use of nuclear power in their energy mix after the first oil shock. The higher end of these build rates was in the ten years between the beginning of 1979 and the end of 1988 where on average 4.5 GW of new nuclear capacity was commissioned each year.[1]

Government policies aim to remove unnecessary barriers to new nuclear in the UK without providing public subsidy. Government does this by taking action on planning, Regulatory Justification, Generic Design Assessment and waste and decommissioning finance, as well as by developing a strong and competitive supply chain in the UK. This should enable energy companies to:

  • make applications for development consent in line with the framework set out by the Planning Act 2008 and the National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power;
  • begin construction of the first new nuclear power station between 2013 and 2014; and
  • start operating the first new nuclear power station from 2018.

In the UK, industry has already started to demonstrate its commitment to new nuclear. In 2009 EDF Energy acquired British Energy and announced plans to build around 6 GW of new nuclear capacity at Hinkley Point and Sizewell. Horizon Nuclear Power (a joint venture between RWE and E.ON) bought land at Oldbury and Wylfa from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and announced plans to build at least 6 GW of new nuclear. A third developer (a joint venture between Iberdrola, GDF Suez and Scottish and Southern Energy) also entered the UK market by securing an option to purchase land for the development of a new nuclear power station at Sellafield and announcing plans to build up to 3.6 GW of new nuclear capacity in the UK.

Drivers

The plausible build rates for nuclear power are most affected by industry confidence that they will get a sufficient return on any investment made and the availability of suitable sites, rather than specific technical limitations. The levels of nuclear installed capacity described at the end of this section were developed following a review of awide range of published studies and discussions with industry experts and, as far as possible, they reflect their views about alternative assumptions to 2050.

Confidence that new build will proceed

It is fundamental that companies have confidence that, in common with all low carbon technologies, they will be able to make a return on their investments and this is underpinned by confidence that new build will be able to proceed in a timely fashion.

However, this confidence is affected by factors including:

  • Government support for new nuclear as demonstrated through public statements and actions, including progress on removing unnecessary barriers to new nuclear in the UK;
  • the level of public acceptability;
  • regulatory certainty about the acceptability of reactor design and clarity over lead

times prior to operation; and

  • market certainty, whether in terms of a carbon price or clear targets. This is necessary in time to invigorate the supply chain and skills base, and enable operators to order with long lead times in order to meet construction deadlines.

The last point was raised by industry experts during a workshop to explore the potential deployment rates for new nuclear power in the UK. They felt that in order to develop and maintain build rates at the higher levels of ambition described at the end of this section there needed to be a continuous flow of projects, in order that the supply chain and skills base did not erode once established.

Availability of sites

The draft National Policy Statement (NPS) for Nuclear Power, the consultation period for which closed in February 2010, identified 10 sites which were considered to be potentially suitable for the deployment of new nuclear power stations by 2025.[2] The draft Nuclear NPS states that although it is not possible to predict whether or not there will be more than one reactor at each of the 10 sites, a single reactor at each of the sites would result in 12-17 GW of nuclear capacity, depending on the reactor chosen.[3] Responses to this consultation are currently being considered prior to a revised Nuclear NPS being designated.

Enablers

Government policy

The Government believes that it is in the public interest that nuclear power should continue to play a role in the UK’s energy mix.[4] The Government’s view is that it is for private sector energy companies to construct, operate and decommission new nuclear plants. However, the Government will take active steps to remove unnecessary barriers to this investment. These steps include reforming the planning system so that those aspects of siting which are strategic in nature are considered at the national level, with only site specific criteria considered at the local level, and the introduction of a form of pre-licensing called the Generic Design Assessment. The Government will not subsidise new nuclear development.

Clarity over planning and licensing timescales

In the past the planning system has been inefficient, costly and lengthy (for example it took Sizewell B six years to secure planning consent, costing £30 million) and as such may have dissuaded investors in coming forward with planning applications for new nuclear power stations.[5]

The reforms to the planning system introduced by the Planning Act 2008 (including publication of the Nuclear NPS as part of a suite of energy NPSs) will mean that there is greater clarity over which issues are to be considered when, and the overall timetable for achieving consent.

This will give promoters a clearer framework with a higher degree of predictability in which they can make investment decisions with confidence. It is intended that in most circumstances applications will be decided within a year of the validation of the application.

Clarity over arrangements for the management and disposal of waste

The Government has stated that before development consents for new nuclear power stations are granted, it will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist or will exist to manage and dispose of the waste they will produce.[6]

Geological disposal was recommended as the best option for the long term management of existing higher activity waste by the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in 2006.[7] Geological disposal is internationally recognised as the preferred approach. It is being adopted in many countries, including Canada, Finland, France and Sweden, and is supported by a number of UK learned societies.[8] Separate disposability assessments undertaken by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in 2009 support the Government’s view that it would be technically possible and desirable to dispose of both new and legacy waste in the same geological disposal facilities.

Following extensive consultation with experts, stakeholders and the public, the Government has a clear policy of geological disposal coupled with safe and secure interim storage and ongoing research and development. A framework to implement that policy was set out in 2008 with the first step being an Expression of Interest from communities which may be interested in talking to the Government about the siting process for a geological disposal facility.[9] To date three local authorities have expressed interest. The Government continues to promote the invitation and will leave open the option for communities to come forward and talk to the Government for the foreseeable future.

Identification of suitable sites

As discussed above, the draft Nuclear NPS has identified 10 sites potentially suitable for the deployment of new nuclear power stations by 2025. The draft NPS is currently under review, but will be finalised and designated as soon as possible. The Nuclear NPS would need to be reviewed and a further strategic siting assessment (SSA) considered if further sites are required. The Nuclear NPS does, however, provide that applications for development consent for sites not listed in the NPS can come forward for consideration against the SSA criteria.

Capability of the supply chain and availability of appropriate skills base

The development of the UK supply chain and skills base to support new nuclear was seen by industry experts as something that would flow from increased clarity around the longer term prospects for nuclear power in the UK and globally, but as something that could not develop overnight. For the development of higher levels of nuclear capacity some of these experts thought that at least 10 years of clear Government signalling was required.

As part of invigorating the supply chain the Government has publicised the potential opportunities presented by new nuclear and supported strategic investments where appropriate. These have included capital investment to establish a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre that combines the knowledge, practices and expertise of manufacturing companies with the capability of universities; and strengthening the Manufacturing Advisory Service to support British based suppliers to the nuclear industry.

In the development of skills the Government has been working closely with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Cogent,[10] the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, and the nuclear industry itself to ensure that there is a clear, shared understanding of the key skills priorities for the nuclear sector and how skills demands can be met. Cogent, in partnership with the Government and others, has produced a skills report which provides information on the likely skills requirements to deliver a programme of new build together with strategic recommendations on how we can act now to close potential skills gaps.[11]

The levels

Level 1

This level of deployment shows a baseline. It assumes that implementation of the four facilitative actions on planning, Regulatory Justification, Generic Design Assessment, and waste and decommissioning finance falter. It assumes that the Government no longer wishes to take new nuclear forward and that a lack of clarity over planning and licensing timescales would lead to no planning applications coming forward and potentially the suspension of activities at sites where planning applications had been submitted. However, it is by no means certain that this would apply over the longer term if, as with other low carbon technologies, considerations of security of supply and the potential for rising fossil fuel costs are taken into account. In addition, the momentum already built towards new nuclear, including the investments already made by utilities, led some stakeholders to think this level highly improbable.

Level 2

This level of deployment assumes that there would be continued Government and public support for new nuclear and that the facilitative actions would progress in accordance with the indicative timeline.[12]The build rate of just over 1 GW/year is technically achievable in comparison with other historical build rates and is similar to what France achieved in the early part of its nuclear programme in the 1970s. A report by consultants Parson Brinckerhoff also suggests that at the current time and in the current environment the indicative maximum build rate for nuclear power in the UK is 1.5 GW/year.[13]

Some industry experts thought it plausible that the sites identified in the draft Nuclear NPS could eventually provide the total capacity of 39 GW under this level although there may be the need to consider the identification of additional sites. Experts also thought that there would need to be carbon price certainty at a level that made nuclear power attractive in comparison to fossil fuel generation for this level of build to progress. The total capacity of 39 GW at 2050 is calculated to deliver 275 TWh of electricity per year.

Level 3

Given the long lead time for the development and construction of new nuclear power stations even an increased level of Government intervention is unlikely to affect what is achievable by 2020. However, quick and effective implementation of the facilitative actions and clear signals over a carbon price and future requirements for nuclear power by 2015 (in the context of wider market reform) could mean that a build rate of 3 GW/year is achievable from 2025 onwards as it gives developers, the supply chain and skills base the opportunity to respond.

This is technically achievable as it is still less than the 4.5 GW/year that France achieved on average in the ten years between the beginning of 1979 and the end of 1988, albeit in a nationalised market. However, during an industry workshop the view was expressed that given the challenge for a developer to work on multiple sites simultaneously there would need to be at least three separate developers active in the UK market, each building 1 GW/year, to achieve this build rate. The total capacity under this level assumes that the first wave of plants coming forward will be successful in the planning process and that new sites can be identified and obtain development consent at a rate that would support a continuous flow of projects.

The 16 GW predicted by 2025 under this level reflects industry announcements of plans to build 16 GW of new nuclear by 2025. The total capacity of 90 GW at 2050 is calculated to deliver 633 TWh of electricity per year.

Level 4

Government interventions would be needed to deliver this level of deployment. It seems technically possible to bring forward initial build so that 6 GW is operational by 2020 and then maintain a build rate of 3 GW/year until 2025 before increasing to a maximum of 5 GW/year thereafter. However, some in the sector pointed out that this early increase in build rate would require ordering long lead items and equipment on the assumption of securing consent, and so as well as the ongoing incentives described under level 3 the Government might also need to be prepared to underwrite the sunk costs of developers.

Although these build rates are technically achievable (France managed to commission over 5 GW/year four times in the 1980s) maintaining such a build rate would be challenging and the likelihood of international competition for resource at this level of ambition means that a UK supply chain able to build new nuclear plants independently of the global supply chain could be necessary to achieve these rates. Supply chain development and skills programmes would need to be set up by 2015 on a scale that reflects the estimated build rates.

As with the previous level of deployment, the total capacity under this level assumes that the first wave of plants coming forward will be successful in the planning process and that new sites can be identified and obtain development consent at a rate that would support a continuous flow of projects. Given that an increased number of nuclear power stations would also lead to an increased level of waste, there would also need to be greater capacity for geological disposal which might require plans for a second facility to be developed. The total capacity of 146 GW at 2050 is calculated to deliver 1025 TWh of electricity per year.

Possible technology developments

Most of those questioned during the industry workshop did not think that the availability of fuel would be a limiting factor during the timescale considered and this is supported by analysis carried out by OECD and the Euratom Supply Agency.[14][15]

Even if existing resources were exhausted it was pointed out that the relatively small contribution of fuel costs to the overall cost of nuclear generation made it likely that other, potentially more expensive, sources of uranium could be considered.

If there were a decline in fuel supply, utilities could also begin to consider reprocessing and other reactor technologies. Given that the transition to other reactor technologies was something that those at the workshop thought was unlikely over this time period it was felt that any such developments would be so far in the future that their introduction could be phased so that it did not affect the overall build rate, although this would be more difficult to achieve at the higher levels of ambition.

 
  1. WorldNuclearAssociationReactorDatabase:http://www.world-nuclear.org/rd/
  2. Department of Energy and Climate Change (2009) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation.
  3. ibid
  4. Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (2008) Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Nuclear Power.
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (2006) Managing our Radioactive Waste Safely.
  8. In the UK, geological disposal is supported by the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Geological Society.
  9. Department of Energy and Climate Change (2008) Managing Radioactive Waste Safely.
  10. The Sector Skills Council for the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, nuclear, oil and gas, petroleum and polymer industries.
  11. Cogent (2010) Next Generation: Skills for New Build Nuclear.
  12. Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (2008) Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Nuclear Power.
  13. Parsons Brinkerhoff (2009) Powering the Future, Mapping our low carbon path to 2050.
  14. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency (2008) Nuclear Energy Outlook 2008.
  15. Euratom Supply Agency (2008) Annual Report 2008.