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Thursday, 12 December 2019 09:58 pm

This article was written for Lloyd's Register Insight magazine

Nuclear's Second Coming

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Nuclear's 'Second Coming'

Chief Executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association Keith Parker on the country’s role in the global nuclear renaissance
by Martin Beaver

The very word ‘nuclear’ can still frighten people. Yellow nuclear signs warn of invisible rays that can kill. Nuclear waste is lethal for a million years. The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine released large amounts of radioactive material into the air which spread over a wide area.

“It is not difficult to stoke up fear,” says Keith Parker, Chief Executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association, “but modern systems shut themselves down if there is a problem.”
Over the past decade there has been a quite remarkable global renaissance in peaceful nuclear energy – and nuclear power in particular. An estimated 45 countries have specific national plans to develop the capacity to generate nuclear electricity, with about 17 of them contemplating accessing the technology for the first time. These countries are across the globe, in Europe, Asia, Far East, Americas and Africa.

This surge in interest is the result of two main factors: a wish to ensure national energy security in an uncertain world, and a need to cut carbon emissions. Nuclear power may have its detractors, but climate change is one of the biggest threats facing mankind. And the stark fact is that nuclear is the only technology mankind has that can produce carbon-free, base-load electricity anywhere in the world.

Does Britain have a role to play in nuclear’s second coming? Certainly, Keith Parker believes it does. But we need to understand what that is. In 1956, Calder Hall in Cumbria became the first commercial nuclear power station in the world. For the next 30 years, the UK, US and France shared global leadership of the nuclear industry. Britain had reactor technology, fuel cycle know-how, re-processing capacity and a dynamic research-and-development base. Britain was one of only two countries in the world that could provide full nuclear fuel cycle services. But in 1990, all of this started to come to an end with the privatisation of the electricity industry and the break up of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). Over the coming decades the other major players like UKAEA and BNFL were also broken up and privatised. The UK consequently began losing its international leadership position and authority.

There have been no new nuclear power stations built in the UK since Sizewell B was commissioned in 1995. “Ninety per cent of the companies involved in building Sizewell were British,” Keith says. “Many of them have since been taken over by foreign owners, or have left the industry. The skills base has drifted away and the supply chain has shrunk.”

Britain no longer has its own reactor technology. The new generation of nuclear power stations planned for the UK will rely on technology imported from France or Japan.

“Around the world there is a perception that the UK has lost its way as a nuclear authority, and we need to be able to persuade – and demonstrate – that we actually do have a great deal to offer.

“What we have is not only in the core manufacturing and construction sectors, where large companies such as Rolls Royce and AMEC have retained significant expertise. There are smaller companies – making valves or detection equipment – that are a key part of the nuclear renaissance.

“Britain is especially strong in nuclear’s soft infrastructure: finance, legal, insurance, regulation and training. This should not be underestimated. Many of the countries that are developing nuclear capabilities will need these service skills which British companies have specialised in over the past decade. It could make more sense for them to buy these skills rather than re-invent the wheel.

“The UK has a world-class safety culture too and an exceptional inspection and monitoring regime.”

But there is even more that Britain can offer.

“As the first country into nuclear power, we are also the first to be faced with the issue of decommissioning. This work is often more complex, more hazardous and more demanding technologically than building a new power station,” Keith says. “The UK is also the world leader in fuel re-processing.

“Taken together, these represent a considerable array of expertisein skills and technologies that are increasingly in demand.

“There is,” Keith says, “an opportunity for the UK to become a significant force in the creation of fuel banks, for example. This could be attractive to small countries that do not want or need the full range of nuclear technologies – what they want is electricity. A fuel bank system could see the UK producing nuclear fuel on a commercial basis, supplying it to customers on a lease basis and taking it away for reprocessing once it has been used.

“And, as a country that is not selling its own reactor technology, the UK could also act as an honest broker – an adviser to governments around the world, helping to ensure that the technology is developed safely.” By using our 50 years of experience and knowledge, the UK has a unique role to play and responsibility in ensuring that the global renaissance of nuclear energy is carried out peacefully, safely and securely.

But in order to make the most of the opportunities, the UK has to address a number of critical challenges.

“Our number one priority must be to get our own new build programme underway. Public opinion is in favour and there is cross-party political support. But progress is slow. Without government action on carbon pricing and reform of the electricity market to incentivise low-carbon investment, that investment won’t take place.

“We are talking in the region of £5 billion for a new twin reactor station – and we are planning five – with each demanding the same resources as building all of the Olympic venues. In order to deliver these stations on time we need to grow our skills base – attracting new people into what was considered a sunset industry, training apprentices and filling university courses.

“But investors will also need clarity over the most pressing issue – which is what do we do with the waste?

“The government must maintain the momentum required to ensure that a waste repository is built. Three local communities, all in west Cumbria, have volunteered to be a location for the repository and we have the skills to build it.
“Now we have to show the world what we can do.”