Construction’s Nuclear Future

With the UK's oil and gas reserves in decline, coal incrementally viewed as a dirty fuel and many power stations coming to the end of their natural life, there's a danger that the country's lights might start to go out. A lot of emphasis has been put on wind power but this is notoriously unreliable…

With the UK's oil and gas reserves in decline, coal incrementally viewed as a dirty fuel and many power stations coming to the end of their natural life, there's a danger that the country's lights might start to go out. A lot of emphasis has been put on wind power but this is notoriously unreliable and requires an alternative power supply when the wind does not blow. As a result, nuclear power is now the favored option for much of the UK's future power supply.

The country has had a thriving nuclear industry since the 1950s when Calder hall in Cumbria came on stream as the first commercial nuclear power station. Since then, many plants have been developed but those built since the 1960s are at, or approaching, the end of their useful lives. In order to prevent a future shortfall in energy supplies, the Labor government announced in 2008 that it was in the public interest for nuclear power to play a role in the future energy mix. The coalition government has since reiterated its commitment to nuclear power.

The Next Generation …

Although the government is not directly involved in the financing or building of new nuclear plants, it is developing policies and frameworks to enable them to go ahead. It is encouraging private utility companies to construct the UK's next generation of nuclear power stations and these companies have committed to the development of some £ 40 billion of new nuclear plant facilities.

At present, three consortia are involved in the development of new nuclear power stations:

  • EDF Energy purchased British Energy in 2009 and has an 80/20 joint venture with Centrica. It is building two 1600 MW reactors at Hinkley Point and a further two of the same size at Sizewell. The first is due to be operating by 2017 and all four by 2025. These are to replace Hinkley Point B, which is due to close in 2016, and Hinkley Point A that is closed in 2000 after 35 years service. Further plants are planned once the first phase is complete.
  • Horizon Nuclear Power, a joint venture between E.ON and RWE npower, expects to have 6 GW of new capacity operating by 2025, with sites in Anglesey and Gloucestershire. It is due to decide on the technology shortly and have its first plant operating by 2019. E.ON and RWE currently operate three nuclear power stations in Germany and have interests in 17 others worldwide.
  • NuGeneration Ltd (a consortium contracting Iberdrola, Scottish & Southern Energy and GDF Suez) has acquired land at Sellafield and plans to build 3.6 GW of nuclear capacity there. The reactor technology to be used has yet to be determined.

All the new planned power stations are to use existing technology. The choice at present is between the Westinghouse AP1000 and EPR from Franco-German company AREVA. Both types are in use throughout the world, with the latter being prevalent in France, which obtains 80% of its energy from nuclear power.

The new plants are generally being built close to existing nuclear power stations. The reasons for this include them being already connected to the national grid and having large water supplies for cooling. In addition, the local communities are used to nuclear plants, depend on them for employment, and are less likely to object to new developments.

The first plants are due to start operating in late 2017 or early 2018, with a new station then coming online every 18-24 months for many years after that. Preparation work is already underway, with EDF Energy having submitted a planning application to begin preliminary work at Hinkley Point.

Prospects for Construction Companies and Employees …

Orders for plant and services are likely to develop from 2012-2013, giving huge opportunities for construction companies to get involved. Around 80% of the building work is reckoned to be non-nuclear specific and so can be handled on the same lines as any construction project. Companies that get involved early are likely to have the chance for further contracts for many years into the future.

Having originally been a world leader in building nuclear power stations, the UK now has internationally recognized expertise in cleaning up and decommissioning nuclear sites. With the next generation of development now due to begin, there is the possibility that the country may again be at the forefront. This could very well lead to export opportunities as other countries turn to nuclear power, with an estimated 400 reactors expected to be built worldwide in coming years.