Utility Week

UTILITY Week 16 05 14

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UtILIty WEEK | 16th - 22nd May 2014 | 7 Comment "The renaissance of UK nuclear power is to be welcomed, but things could have been so different if the global leadership of the 1950s had been sustained." Utility Week expert view Nigel Hawkins T he history of the UK's nuclear power programme is a curious one. It also leaves immense room for regret that the UK's global leadership of the civil nuclear power industry was abjectly surrendered. Following the first generation of nuclear power by the Italian scientist, Enrico Fermi, in 1942, it was the UK that built the first commercial plant at Calder Hall; it was opened by the Queen in 1956. Yet, almost 60 years later, in a desperate quest for new nuclear-build, the UK is reduced to relying on a state- owned French company, EDF, to build a new 3,200MW plant at Hinkley Point. The promised strike price – in effect a subsidy – is an astonishing £92.50p per MWh, almost double the prevailing power price; it is set to endure for no less than 35 years. How did it come to this? Between 1957 and 2014, a series of events conspired to limit the development of UK nuclear power. The fire in one of the nuclear piles at Windscale in 1957 started the process; there was significant radiation fall-out locally, although this was not widely reported at the time. Having developed the Magnox design, the second generation of nuclear plants began to emerge. During the 1960s and 1970s, intense debate raged as to whether the UK-designed Advanced Gas-Cooled (AGR) design should be used or whether imported US technology behind the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) model was preferable. In the event, the AGR case prevailed, although its export potential proved to be minimal. At considerable expense, seven AGR plants were built and, with a few exceptions, notably the seemingly fated Dungeness B, have generally performed well. But the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was unequivocal in its support for PWRs and, aer a record-breaking public enquiry, Sizewell B was eventu- ally commissioned in 1995. However, while it was the first of a kind, it also proved to be the last nuclear power plant constructed in the UK. During the 1980s, apart from the ongoing controver- sies at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, the global nuclear power industry was devastated by the reactor explosion at Chernobyl in modern-day Ukraine. Consequently, virtually all nuclear power projects outside Asia came to an end for a generation. Recently, due primarily to the politically driven car- bon reduction agenda, nuclear power has begun to make a comeback. In the UK, British Energy – privatised in 1996 – subsequently went bankrupt before eventually being taken over by EDF; Cen- trica still holds a minority stake. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), with its portfolio of valuable nuclear technology, was controversially put up for sale; its core Westinghouse business was bought by Japan's Toshiba in 2006. It was in the same country that nuclear power suf- fered its next major blow when, in the aermath of a massive earthquake, radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant contaminated the local environment. Against this background, the German government decided to close all its nuclear plants by 2022. Ironically, in the light of the so-called common energy policy within the EU, France continues to rely on nuclear power for more than 70 per cent of its electricity and is building the latest generation of nuclear plants. As for the UK, EDF's planned nuclear plant at Hinkley Point C is pivotal; it is now expected to be commissioned in the early 2020s. It has already been delayed for many years. And if the EU seeks to impose material changes to the proposed financial arrangements, further delays are inevitable; they could even be a deal-breaker. The UK government's driver for new nuclear-build remains diversification: the two other baseload power sources both bring unwelcome externalities. Gas is subject to major price hikes and profound sup- ply risks from the Middle East, North Africa and Russia. Coal has obvious environmental downsides, as well as necessitating heavy imports since, by next year, Hatfield Colliery will be the sole remaining UK underground mine. While the renaissance of the UK nuclear power indus- try is to be welcomed, despite the enormous subsidies involved, it is pertinent to consider how things could have been so different if the global leadership of the 1950s had been sustained. Would UK companies now be the pre-eminent nuclear suppliers worldwide? Some historians would see the policy errors of previous generations as being similar to those in computing, which has seen the thriving post-war UK sector – driven by the unparalleled Bletchley Park technology – being eclipsed by US behemoths such as Microso, Apple and Google. Undoubtedly, the next 18 months will be crucial for UK nuclear power. EU rulings on the proposed subsidies are expected within the next few months; and the gen- eral election might give rise to a change of government and new energy policies. If Hinkley C can surmount these two hurdles, then the UK nuclear industry should be firmly re-established. Nigel Hawkins (nigelhawkins1010@aol.com) is a director of Nigel Hawkins Associates, which undertakes investment and policy research

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