The UK is to get its first new nuclear power station in a generation. Professor Francis Livens reflects on a policy shift that has seen nuclear power emerge from the wilderness to become a much-hailed clean source energy that will ‘help keep the lights on’. But, he warns, if nuclear is to be our future, we must not forget the clean-up challenge or shy away from investing in our dwindling expert knowledge base.
The prevailing policy position on energy has certainly come a long way in the last ten years or so. Nuclear fission has gone from being the technology that dare not speak its name to an essential component of the UK’s low carbon energy future, perhaps on a far larger scale than we have ever seen before.
It’s instructive to look at how we got here, and to try and learn from that experience, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and there have certainly been mistakes.
I came into the nuclear game at the start of the long decline of the UK nuclear industry. Just over six months into my first job, Chernobyl happened and international enthusiasm for nuclear energy suddenly evaporated.
Although the country was committed to building the UK’s first pressurised water reactor (PWR), Sizewell B, which came on stream in 1994, any idea of a fleet of such reactors in the UK was just pie in the sky.
The UK’s fast reactor programme was also stopped in 1994 and the monolithic public sector nuclear organisations which made up the nuclear industry were exposed to unprecedented financial pressures. The potentially profitable bits were sold off, and the remainder operated in a quasi-commercial way, but still within the public sector. That prompted two decades of change.
For example, on the generating side the nuclear arm of the Central Electricity Generating Board became Nuclear Electric, which became British Energy, which was split, with the more modern reactors going to EdF Energy and the obsolescent Magnox fleet going to BNFL, then to Magnox North and South, which then remerged. It’s like a Roman Emperor’s family tree: the once mighty UK Atomic Energy Authority was similarly dismembered.
The fragmentation and restructuring ran on for nearly a decade before Government published the 2002 White Paper ‘Managing the Nuclear Legacy – A Strategy for Action’. This recognised that, with its focus on delivering full nuclear fuel cycle services as a commercial activity, the UK had neglected its nuclear legacy – the wastes which had accumulated from half a century of exploiting nuclear energy for civil and military purposes.
Moreover, in the difficult commercial environment which followed Chernobyl, it was not clear that, for all BNFL was for many years Britain’s biggest earner of Japanese yen, nuclear really was a profitable enterprise.
So the industry was redirected into decommissioning, clean-up and waste management. That was a brave decision, because the only way that was going to be funded was billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, but it was a good decision because, for the first time, we took our collection of decades-old nuclear embarrassments seriously and started grasping all sorts of nettles.
This White Paper was the genesis of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which oversaw a complete restructuring of the industry and a complete redirection. At this point, the UK was going to kill off civil nuclear energy, and the NDA, spending more than £2 billion of taxpayers’ money each year for decades to come, was the undertaker.
And then we all started to worry seriously about carbon. The 2007 Energy White Paper cautiously opened the way to new nuclear power, and this position was firmed up the following year. New reactors would be built by the private sector, with an ‘open’ fuel cycle (the used fuel would be disposed of as waste, with no more messy reprocessing).
The frustration is that 20 years ago, the UK commissioned Sizewell B, which has been one of the best-performing PWRs on the planet. Now, we’re getting back into nuclear and we haven’t a cat in Hell’s chance of building our own reactor – our decision making has been reduced to ‘Do we buy the French, or the American, or the Japanese, or the Korean, or the Russian one?’ And at several billion pounds a pop, these are expensive things to buy.
Looking ahead to some of the scenarios for the middle of this century, the UK could be running a much larger nuclear programme than ever before, possibly with fuel recycling and advanced reactor technologies.
At this point, we still have considerable expertise in some of these areas, but that will die off over the next decade so we could find ourselves, in 2025 or thereabouts, in the same position as we now are with reactors, simply a customer for expensive overseas technologies.
However, just now there is a very limited opportunity to preserve that capability while we at least decide whether or not we do need it and, encouragingly, there are signs that this opportunity will be taken, with Government publishing a Nuclear Industrial Strategy and a suite of associated documents including an R&D Roadmap which looks out to 2050.
One challenge remains; now there appears to be a nuclear future again, how do we realign the NDA’s shutdown and clean-up mission with the new sense of direction, in such a way that we do not forget the real need to make progress in decommissioning and clean-up, nor lose the real gains that have been made in the last few years?
I am not sure whether nuclear is special, or whether it just suffers from the problem that so many big projects do in the UK, in that we do not do long-term well – just look at the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, or Crossrail, or our aircraft carriers.
An industry with the turning circle of a supertanker doesn’t cope well with being steered like a go-kart. Hopefully though, there is now a sense of direction. Watch this space.