Stephen Wearne explores lessons to be learnt from the similarities and the differences between the start of the nuclear power era in the 1950’s and now.
The structure of utilities, suppliers and contractors for engineering and constructing new nuclear power stations in the UK today is very different to the structure at the start of the nuclear power revolution in 1956. What hasn’t changed is the dependence of today’s projects on bringing together bespoke work from engineering and construction companies to deliver the projects.
In 1956 the new programme to develop nuclear generation of electricity was driven by three government objectives: UK energy independence, export sales and defence requirements for plutonium. Two state-owned and state-financed utilities, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and its Scottish counterpart, were the nominal customers for a series of large new nuclear power stations.
The prototype power station project had been designed and managed by a strong government-owned Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) organisation, with selected Tier 1 UK power plant manufacturers and civil engineering contractors. As the two utilities had limited experience of large projects and nuclear power, the government encouraged all the country’s power plant manufacturing companies to form consortia to work closely with the UKAEA to develop designs scaling up from the prototype to supply complete ‘Magnox’ fuelled power stations under ‘turnkey’ contracts. Initially four, and then five, such consortia were formed. Each of the UK’s power plant manufacturing companies and boiler makers became members of a consortium and invested in competing designs.
Continued development of reactor technology was encouraged by the UKAEA and the utilities, resulting in different designs for each of the nine UK Magnox stations completed from 1962 to 1971. Seven Advanced Gas-Cooled (AGR) stations followed, completed through to 1988. With subsequent amalgamations, one emergent consortium became the experienced engineering and management core of the CEGB’s team for the PWR Sizewell B nuclear station. Completed in 1995, that was the UK’s last new nuclear power station.
What’s different today?
Things have changed. The appetite for risky projects in today’s UK company board rooms is less than in 1956. The utilities and the nuclear and power plant suppliers are now global operators with a profits-driven culture in a complex commodity market. The method of financing these projects and the financial stakeholders involved are very different. They are to be commercial investments. Early reliable operation is needed to earn the return on such capital-intensive projects.
The Tier 1 nuclear and power plant suppliers of today are international. They offer to supply nuclear and power generation islands, not just mechanical and electrical plant. The experience of new build delivery is patchy is some countries but good in others, using various commercial arrangements, international supply chains and a developing industrial base. The configuration of the UK supply chain and construction firms for delivering new nuclear build on time is not tested at this scale.
In 1956 the UK companies that formed consortia for new build could draw on some experience of the nuclear prototype. Much of the UK’s core nuclear skill set has now been lost. Only decommissioning has been substantial nuclear business for UK contractors over recent years. Training and skills programmes for new nuclear build have been set in place to address the skills gap. They extend up to The University of Manchester’s MSc Nuclear Technology Management Professional Development Programme (Nuclear-PDP). These programmes need to be used to deliver capability soon. Reports on the current Olkiluoto 3 and Flamanville 3 projects indicate that even the initial civil engineering struggled to deliver quality. The lessons can be learnt.
What’s not different?
Safety and quality are high on the agenda. The commercial and physical risks will be concentrated in a few large projects demanding quality mechanical, electrical, control and civil engineering. Resources will be required in locations lacking industrial manpower and services. Achieving quality down supply chains will require sustained guidance and supervision. Experienced supervisors may be a critical resource as ever.
A lesson common to many industries is that even experienced managers and planning staff underestimate the interdependencies of achieving the completion stage of projects. Design, supply, installation and testing in detail should be planned through from the first construction peak of civil engineering, the second peak at major heavy lifts and through the third peak at maximum simultaneous critical paths through to pre-commissioning.
Design and construction of each power station will be subject to UK planning and development consent orders, building regulations and construction health, safety and welfare regulations and engineering and operating procedures. To avoid avoidable delays the regulator’s approval of detailed engineering through to pre-commissioning, testing, start-up and operating procedures should be obtained before commencing construction.
We can learn from both the similarities and differences to form recommendations for developing the new nuclear power projects.
Formation of the owner’s integrated engineering and management project team, including operations planning, is key, with a clear strategy of leadership and direction, integrated working and project control. And supporting them a project planning, monitoring and site safety service shared by all Tier 1 contractors. And advising them a Project Management Office drawing on global knowledge of other industries’ successful organisation and management of projects.