Expanding nuclear power should be a key priority as the government aims to cut its carbon emissions. However, finding suitable sites to accommodate the proposed plants raises new questions. In this article, based on the Dalton Nuclear Institute’s position paper, Siting implications of nuclear energy, Professor Adrian Bull gives his view on how policymakers can address these issues.
- Existing plans for new nuclear have concentrated on existing sites, but with the UK running out of suitable land close to these existing reactor sites, consideration must be given to new locations.
- Strict conditions on issues such as environmental protection, safety and emergency planning must be met in new nuclear locations.
- The solution to a clean, ethically sound nuclear future could lie with the government as well as a workforce of nuclear skilled individuals.
We are increasingly seeing encouraging words from leading politicians and their advisors about the need for a series of new nuclear power stations in the UK to help reduce our over-dependence on gas, cut CO2 emissions and maintain energy prices at an affordable level for homes, businesses and public services. But among the questions around such a proposal, one which rarely gets much attention is “Where will they actually go?”.
Historically the nuclear power plants we’ve constructed have both been physically large and have produced a lot of electricity. That’s meant a need to locate them close to a reliable source of cooling water to help remove the excess heat that’s left over after vast quantities of steam pass through the turbines. In the UK, coastal sites are perfect for that, usually removing the need for cooling towers. That approach also fitted with the desire to locate the early plants away from large centres of population, both to avoid widespread public concerns and also as a “just in case” measure in the event of any accidents or the need to evacuate local communities.
We ended the AGR (advanced gas-cooled reactor) programme in the 1980s with around a dozen sites in use – either for the older Magnox stations or the newer AGRs. Sometimes both alongside each other. Almost all these were coastal sites – just Trawsfynydd in North Wales (home to a single Magnox reactor alongside a lake) and Chapelcross in Dumfriesshire (where cooling towers and a pipeline to the nearby coast were used to provide cooling) were inland.
Crucially, no new sites have been added to the list since that time. All plans for new nuclear focus on existing nuclear sites such as Hinkley Point in Somerset (where new reactors are under construction) and Sizewell in Suffolk (home to our newest operating reactor – Sizewell B – and proposed to host a replica of the Hinkley Point development, to be known as Sizewell C).
But where will they actually go?
As government now look to expand the UK’s nuclear fleet once again, we need to think about siting. A nuclear reactor can’t just go anywhere – there needs to be a nuclear site licence which will only be granted to a new site if the right conditions on environmental protection, safety, emergency planning, and so on can be met. Some access to cooling water will be needed. There needs to be a connection to the grid to export the power. And the support (or at least acceptance) of the community and their representatives is also important.
The UK is running out of suitable land close to the existing reactor sites, and large swathes of the existing sites are occupied either with operating reactors or – increasingly – those which have closed down and which are in various stages of decommissioning, scheduled to take a minimum of several decades to complete. It’s worth remembering that the last time that we in the UK built a nuclear power station at a site which hadn’t previously had one was the Torness plant in Scotland – where construction began in 1980!
The development of – and enthusiasm for – small modular reactors (SMRs) is a further factor in the discussion. These are widely expected to play a major part in the new nuclear era for the UK, and a key benefit is that they don’t require the same cooling as traditional bigger plants. So, together with the fact that existing sites can’t support all the new nuclear we need, that implies we’ll see a lot of new locations proposed to host nuclear plants who have little or no experience with nuclear. Some of these could be much closer to big end users of electricity too – such as industrial areas and major cities.
A holistic approach: the nuclear site cycle
The answer to this conundrum perhaps lies – as so often – with Government. Through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) they own most of the decommissioning sites in the UK. Currently their clean-up mission takes no account of the need for Britain to build substantial new nuclear capability. A recommended change would be to employ a holistic approach to the management of sites in the same way that we think of a “nuclear fuel cycle” for the reuse and optimisation of the materials in the nuclear cycle.
A “nuclear site cycle” approach is needed to balance opposing drivers. One driver is the current mission to clean up a site for potential delicensing (which stipulates a very high level of decommissioning – ensuring doses to the public are extremely low – and often unlikely to occur in practice). But that needs to be weighed against the potential value that site could play in a new nuclear build programme. As well as a nuclear site licence, decommissioning sites all have access to cooling water, the potential to reuse or restore appropriate grid connections and local communities which have knowledge and experience in nuclear energy.
Skills, clean-up and community
Perhaps most importantly, the sites must be accompanied by a workforce of nuclear-skilled individuals who would be well placed to support the construction, commissioning and operation of new plants once the existing site decommissioning draws to a close. Helping to re-skill these workers and retain their expertise in the communities which they call home is a vital enabler to support one of the NDA’s socio-economic objectives. Namely to support the maintenance of sustainable local economies for communities living near NDA sites and, where possible, contribute to regional economic growth.
Accelerated or scaled back clean-up of sites to a point where they can safely and cost-effectively be re-used to support a further round of clean, reliable nuclear power generation should urgently be made a part of the NDA’s mission. This needs to happen in parallel with the opening of discussions with potential host communities in areas without nuclear facilities – as I’ve recommended elsewhere.
It would be a cruel irony if – after decades of inaction – we decided as a nation that we wanted much more nuclear, only to find that we had nowhere suitable to put it!
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