Nuclear power is an essential part of the low carbon energy mix and in this piece for Policy@Manchester Professor Juan Matthews and Dr Neil Irvine explain why new approaches are needed to reduce its cost.
- Nuclear power needs to become cheaper, safer and more flexible. It needs to contribute to a wider usage of energy than just electricity production
- Though cost of capital remains a key driver of total construction costs and levelised electricity cost, one of the main non-financial levers in reducing cost is innovative manufacturing and construction
- Industry initiatives such as the Nuclear AMRC’s “Fit 4 Nuclear” and “Sharing in Growth” are already having a beneficial impact on UK suppliers but more can be done to reduce overall costs
The need for global energy use with minimal greenhouse gas emissions is now more urgent than ever. Approximately a third of low carbon energy production is from nuclear power but, although nuclear power in India and China is forecast to grow, in many countries with current major nuclear generation capacity national policy is for long term reduction. In this blog we look, from a UK perspective, at the issues that need to be addressed for nuclear power to become a key part of the fight against global warming.
Cheaper and safer nuclear power
Nuclear power needs to become cheaper, safer and more flexible. It needs to contribute to a wider usage of energy than just electricity production. Issues relating to sustainability and radioactive waste must also be resolved. This can be done with a combination of both short-term, right-sized reactors based on current designs but with new approaches to manufacturing and construction; and in the longer term with new advanced reactors and fuel cycles. However, action needs to be taken now to get build costs down, to preserve options for the future.
Why has it proved difficult to build reactors to time and cost in the West in the last few years? Experience, in France and the USA, and the recent growth in costs of Hinkley Point C in the UK, points to a number of key factors:
- The sheer complexity and scale of large modern reactors, coupled with very high build standards
- Emerging regulatory requirements (which vary from country to country)
- Lack of continuity of build programs, with construction gaps of 20 years or more and the resultant loss of skills, supply chain continuity and industry commitment
- The dominant effect of the cost of capital as build cost and timescale extend, coupled with limited risk share with government.
Though cost of capital remains a key driver of total construction costs and levelised electricity cost, one of the main non-financial levers in reducing cost is innovative manufacturing and construction. Success in other sectors on cost reduction – oil and gas, aerospace, and offshore wind – shows what can be achieved by relentless pressure on cost.
Overall the nuclear industry is looking to achieve optimum plant size, balancing smaller reactors (giving shorter construction times and series production benefits), against larger plants’ economies of scale. The main lines of development are:
- Modular construction in purpose-built facilities for many parts of plant including main structures and including civil engineering elements.
- Large series production for smaller designs – giving a greater opportunity for learning benefit than large-scale single unit construction.
- Promoting the use of Building Information Management – essentially highly integrated 3D CAD/CAM – across the entire plant and supply chain.
- Innovation in manufacturing technologies, such as greater use of beam welding and automated welding, advanced machining processes, enhanced use of digital manufacture/metrology along the lines of Industry 4.0, powder metallurgy (hot isostatic pressing (HIP) and additive manufacturing) and materials development. Such innovation needs to be coupled to underpinning knowledge so that margins in safety-critical components are not compromised and whole-life effects can be understood.
In the UK, the work of the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Centre (Nuclear AMRC), part of the UK government’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and programmes such as the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC)-sponsored New Nuclear Manufacturing (NNUMAN) programme at The University of Manchester, have revitalised UK nuclear manufacture and promoted new techniques and understanding across a wide range of technology readiness levels towards industry usage – crossing the “valley of death”. Collaboration with industry bodies, such as the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the United States and with the UK and overseas nuclear industry, has been highly effective in creating a knowledge platform from which to take forward the next generation of nuclear construction and which is being selectively applied in current build.
Nuclear and the Government’s Industrial Strategy
In the UK, the Government’s Industrial Strategy includes an emerging “sector deal” for nuclear. This includes a pledge by the industry to work with government to achieve an overall medium-term cost reduction in total build cost of 30%. Completing first 16 to 20 GWe of new build using existing designs – EPR, ABWR, AP 1000 or KEPCO APR-1400 and, HL-1000 – remains Government’s first priority and industry cost reduction initiatives such as the Nuclear AMRC’s “Fit 4 Nuclear” and “Sharing in Growth” are already having a beneficial impact on UK suppliers. What further can be done to reduce overall costs and ensure plants are built on time?
- Draw on experience from other industries and other high-integrity construction programmes – Crossrail, HS2, oil and gas….. modular construction is not new –Brunel used it on the Tamar railway bridge over 150 years ago.
- Get decommissioning costs down – see the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Nuclear Decommissioing Authority (NDA) programme to increase automation and integration.
- Future designs – Gen IV or fusion based – must be developed with the cost of build and operation in mind from the outset. Materials technology centres, such as the National Fusion Technology Plaform at UKAEA’s Culham Centre for Fussion Energy (CCFE) and the Henry Royce Institute centred at The University of Manchester, can make a major contribution.
- Finally, and most important, get building. It’s the best way to work out how to build better!