Why Britain is going nuclear

The Government has given the nod to new atomic power stations in the UK, and the big players are rubbing their hands at the prospect of lucrative contracts up for grabs. But will it be enough to help us meet the climate-change challenge? Andrew Saunders reports.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Nuclear power plants are not noted for their looks, but the reactor building at Dungeness B is an imposing edifice. Its towering bow-front and narrow, unframed windows lend it a grandeur lacking in most industrial buildings.

Back in 1983 when it 'went on the bars', generating power for the first time, it was state-of-the-art technology. Here was the latest embodiment of the ingenuity and know-how that had put Britain at the forefront of the nuclear power business worldwide. Surely a building that deserved some architectural finesse.

Its aesthetics are helped by the extraordinary setting. The largest shingle peninsula in Europe, Dungeness juts three miles out into the English Channel between Folkestone and Hastings on the south coast. Deposited by the channel currents over the course of thousands of years, it's a flat and deserted, constantly shifting pile of pebbles that is home to a variety of rare animals and plants (including great crested newt and medicinal leech, Stinking Hawksbeard and Red Hempnettle) - but hardly any people. There aren't many places in crowded Britain with so few local inhabitants.

The perfect spot for a nuclear power station then. Such a prime site, in fact, that there are actually two stations here already. Closed in 2006, Dungeness A next door is a much less prepossessing collection of squat grey structures.

If all goes according to plan, there will be a third nuke up and running on the shingle here by 2020. On January 10, the Government announced its much-delayed energy policy, the centrepiece of which is support for building a new generation of nuclear power stations. Dungeness has been named one of the four most promising locations for them to be built on. The others are Bradwell in Essex, Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley Point in Somerset, all of which are, like Dungeness, already home to nuclear plants.

It's a dramatic change of policy, one that Sir Humphrey might have called 'brave' - Whitehall code for suicidally reckless. Nuclear's public image has been toxically unpopular for decades. As the first electricity flowed onto the grid from Dungeness B, massed protestors up and down the country were railing against everything from atomic power stations to radioactive waste dumps, from US missiles at Greenham Common to our own home-grown A-bombs at Aldermaston. Nuclear power stations, nuclear bombs - all were the same in the eyes of the activists.

It was the same story at the cinema, with films like War Games, The China Syndrome and Silkwood depicting atomic-age dystopias. Even the BBC joined in. Its taut 1985 eco-thriller Edge of Darkness cleaned up at the Baftas, thanks to strong performances from Bob Peck and Joanne Whalley and stark moralising on the deadly consequences of mixing nuclear energy and private enterprise.

Small wonder that the 'n' word has always been the hardest sell out there, for politicians and the industry alike.

Yet the decision hasn't come a moment too soon for Dungeness B's parent company, British Energy. BE is responsible for running Britain's network of nuclear power stations, and its endeavour to make a buck from veteran plants - designed and built by the state with atomic research rather than profits in mind - is a constant struggle. The economics of nuclear in the UK have looked shaky ever since privatisation: in 2003, a slump in the wholesale price of electricity forced the Government - which to this day owns 39% of the firm - to bail BE out with £3bn of taxpayers' money.

Sizewell B in Suffolk, BE's youngest plant by a long way, is nearly 15 years old, and most are much older. All but one of the original 11 magnox power stations - which made Britain the first country in the world to harness atomic fission for commercial electricity generation - have closed.

Dungeness B itself is an Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR), one of seven in the UK. It was due to close but has been granted an extension to 2018. In their heyday, the AGRs were a technical tour de force, safer and more efficient than the old magnox designs. But they're getting on a bit now, and age-related problems, especially at Hartlepool and Heysham 1, have led to shutdowns and capacity cuts that have undermined BE's commercial performance. Last month, it reported a drop in Q3 profits for 2007 to £140m, from £171m for the same period in 2006. Investors' patience is wearing thin.

'After privatisation, not enough capital was put in to ensure that the AGRs remained in predictably reliable condition,' admits BE's chief executive Bill Coley. 'Since I joined three years ago, we've spent £900m and employed an additional 1,000 people. I'm pleased with the progress we're making,' he adds diplomatically.

The prospect of being the lynchpin in the multi-billion-pound business of building and operating new plants must come as a relief. 'We own eight nuclear sites, and four of them have been earmarked as having the potential for new nuclear power stations,' says Coley. Since each new facility will cost at least £2bn to build and have an operating life of up to 70 years, he can be excused for feeling pretty chipper. The next decade is shaping up to be the biggest cash bonanza in the UK nuclear industry since Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technology' era, more than 40 years ago.

Of course, BE isn't the only firm that's after a slice of the action. The world's nuclear energy industry is beating a path to Britain's door. Everyone from reactor-design companies to the big utilities - companies like E.On and EDF on foreign turf, Scottish and Southern Energy and Centrica at home - is keen to display their talents and technologies in what looks being the world's largest showroom for atomic electricity providers. The Government has made the rules of engagement plain - no subsidies, no backdoor loans, no help with the enormous construction bills. So any firm that can make nuclear pay in the UK will be in pole position to win several times bigger in the rest of the world.

Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, the UK arm of giant French utility Electricite de France, is one of those hopefuls. He sounds like a man eager to start making money. 'We are into a new phase now. Not whether or why, but how. The Government process has been robust and, crucially, the Tory position is now substantially similar to that of Labour.' Less chance, then, of a pesky change of government slamming the door on all that cash ...

But British Energy holds the trump cards - its sites. Getting planning permission in the UK is a painfully slow and uncertain business at the best of times. The public enquiry into the building of Sizewell B lasted an interminable seven years, and the private firms that will be building the next-generation plants simply can't afford that kind of delay.

The Government has stated its intention to reform planning, but it's a long time since any nuclear power stations were built in the UK, and Gordon and his chums may have underestimated how unpopular they will be. As prospective neighbours, nukes make crack dens, feral children and whore-houses look positively attractive to many UK homeowners. And although polls suggest that public opinion is shifting, even the most optimistic have nuclear's acceptance rating hovering only at about the 50% mark. There are still councils to this day that declare themselves to be nuclear-free zones - the city of Manchester among them.

Coley is thus not convinced that HMG can deliver on its commitment to tackle delays. 'Planning consent for new stations will remain difficult,' he says with masterly understatement. 'That's why the emphasis will continue to be on existing sites. There are sound reasons for building on them - the infrastructure is there, there's a skilled local workforce, and also there's the positive opinion of the community.'

It may seem unlikely to those who remember the partial melt-down at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979, or the 1986 news footage of lead-aproned Russian soldiers sweeping chunks of highly radioactive graphite into the glowing maw of Chernobyl's shattered reactor core, but Coley insists that local support for existing nuclear power stations in the UK is generally good. 'I just had a meeting at Sizewell with the district council. They were very positive.'

Around Dungeness, people seem more concerned with plans to build a new runway and terminal at Lydd Airport than with the prospect of another nuclear power station. 'I just sold my house - for a lot of money - to someone who works at the power station,' says a forthright taxi driver. 'It provides decent jobs that local people want to do. If they build a new airport, most of the jobs would probably be done by immigrants working for the minimum wage.'

A spokesman for the local Shepway District Council agrees that many residents are relaxed about their nuclear neighbour. 'It's been there for years and there's never been a serious incident. People see it as a benign presence.'

There's the rub, of course - safety. Despite the fact that the industry's safety record is good (at Dungeness B, the security makes the procedures to board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv look positively lax), a great many people think nuclear is unsafe. They won't be persuaded otherwise by the industry, either. This is a serious problem, and one that technocratic leaders in Britain's nuclear industry have only recently got to grips with. It's a big part of the 'evil scientist' image that earned the sector such a comprehensive shoeing in the eco-protest PR battles of the 1980s and '90s.

But if people don't like nuclear, the industry is largely to blame, says Sir David King, former Government chief scientific adviser and now head of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. There may not have been many accidents, but when they do happen - like the May 2005 leak at Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant that went unreported for months - botched cover-ups have been enormously damaging.

'The industry has lost the trust of the public because events have been brushed under the carpet,' says King. 'Time and again, they've left it to Greenpeace and others to discover what's really been going on. If you get caught out doing that, people stop believing you.'

The latest bone of contention is the decommissioning of old magnox plants like Dungeness A. This is a Sisyphean task, which the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estimates will take a barely credible 100 years for each of the 20 installations it is responsible for. The process has barely begun and the cost has already gone up, by £12bn to £73bn, over the past two years. The NDA - set up by the Government in 2005 - is struggling to find takers for some of its management licences, and others are behind schedule. Cynics mutter about a taxpayer-funded gravy train, claiming that the contractors with the requisite skills are holding out for as much as they can get. Even nuclear's supporters admit it's a mess and a long way from the mission statement on the NDA's website: 'To ensure the safe, accelerated and affordable clean-up of the UK's civil nuclear legacy.'

Another facet of the industry's public image problem is the invisible and perfidious nature of the threat from radiological accidents. Some 6,000 Chinese coalminers die in workplace accidents annually, nearly twice as many as the latest estimates suggest for all fatalities, ever, resulting from civil nuclear accidents. But nuclear imperils the general public, and unless you carry a Geiger counter you won't realise anything is amiss until too late.

But these issues are a modest local difficulty compared to the threat from climate change. King, a leading authority on global warming, has called it 'the biggest catastrophe in the history of mankind', and the scientific consensus is now clear. If we don't stop pumping out greenhouse gases like there's no tomorrow, there really might be no tomorrow.

As a consequence of the growing political drive to address this problem, nuclear has flipped from being the eco-pariah sans pareil to one of the greenest technologies out there - all on account of its impeccably low carbon credentials. Nothing is burned in a nuclear reactor, and not only is there no smoke without fire, there's no carbon dioxide either.

This has prompted unlikely Damascene conversions among some of nuclear's sternest eco-critics. Dr Patrick Moore of Greenspirit Strategies is a Canadian environmental consultant who was a founder of Greenpeace. In 1976, he described nuclear power stations as 'the most dangerous devices that man has ever created. Their construction and proliferation is the most irresponsible, in fact the most criminal, act ever to have taken place on this planet.'

Now he has changed his mind. 'Why do we need more nuclear? There is no other technology that can replace fossil fuels for baseline power generation in the UK,' he says. 'It's clear from the numbers that where there is lots of nuclear and hydroelectric power, the carbon emissions are lower. You don't have any remaining hydro opportunities in the UK, wind is a niche technology and the idea that we can run the world on solar panels is just insane.'

The contemporary environmental movement, Moore says, is about politics rather than effective action. It's revealing to discover that despite his U-turn, his 1976 quote features prominently on the Greenpeace anti-nuclear website.

Moore is a maverick, but for once the scientific establishment and he agree. Says King: 'I'm not a nuclear fan, but I have examined all the data closely and I believe we do need more nuclear power. Its CO2 emissions are as low as it gets, even when you account for mining and processing the fuel.'

At around 15g of CO2 per kWh of electricity generated, nuclear is on a par with land-based wind energy and as close to carbon-free as it is possible to be. Whether you like the technology or not, King says, its potential for helping to reduce our carbon emissions can no longer be ignored. And yet the proportion of the country's electricity made this way is falling, largely because so many of our old stations have been pensioned off. 'Ten years ago, it was about 30%. Now it's down to 18%,' he says. By 2018, it could be less than 10%. The new reactors can't come soon enough.

But this time they won't be British-designed. Nuclear fission research here has been in freefall for decades, with budgets down by 97% since the glory days of the 1980s. The last British-owned reactor-design company, Westinghouse Nuclear (originally a US business) was sold to Toshiba of Japan by the Government in 2006: a decision that would have been seen as almost treasonably counter to the national interest in almost any other country you care to name. But here in Blighty the market rules, and the sale satisfied - if only by default - the political orthodoxy that when the time came to buy, HMG should be a disinterested purchaser.

There are four designs in the offing, and the two favourites are the French Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), designed by Areva and backed by EDF, and the American AP1000 from Westinghouse Toshiba. France has more experience of pressurised water reactors than any other country (80% of its electricity is nuclear, and it has the lowest per-capita carbon emissions in Europe - no coincidence).

The AP1000 is the only one already licensed for operation in the US, which makes it that much more likely that the design will gain a licence here. But there are no functioning examples of the four types anywhere in the world at present - the Finnish EPR will be first, due for completion in 2012, 18 months late and 25% over budget at nearly EUR4bn (£3bn). Meanwhile, prospective purchasers will have to make do with a cardboard model of an EPR, plans for the building of which are downloadable from Areva's website.

The new reactors should be safer and more efficient than anything we've got at present. 'We are quite happy with all the four possible reactor designs: the technology is good and safe,' says Coley, who is preparing to announce at the end of this month the utility companies that BE will be partnering in building the new stations. He is clear that the commercial aspects of the deal may take precedence. 'The designs we build here may well end up being chosen on economic rather than technological grounds.'

There's no certainty over exactly how many of the possible types will be built here, either, but operators like Coley would prefer a fleet approach, so that costs, staffing and maintenance benefit from economies of scale.

Given that the UK will be a testbed for unsubsidised, private-sector-funded nuclear, the economics will be key. EDF's de Rivaz is bullish, and believes doubts over commercial viability are a smokescreen from nuclear's diehard opponents. 'The answer to the question of whether subsidy is required for nuclear to be economic should be given not by opponents of nuclear power but by investors. My job as a businessman is to be competitive. If I didn't think nuclear would make me more competitive, I would not invest in it.'

But there's a problem with the market-driven approach. It doesn't have much to say on the critical point of just how much new capacity will be built. King thinks we should be aiming to generate as much as 35% of our electricity from nuclear if we are to meet our emissions commitments. But new stations on all four of the recently proposed sites would provide only about 6GW, barely 10% of current peak electricity demand. It would be good business for the firms involved but leave our carbon emissions where they are now.

Building more than that will depend on planning consents and other commercial considerations. There is a real danger that if building reactors in China or India, for example, turns out to be more profitable, Britain will have to wait in line. The nation has already squandered its lead in the nuclear power business once. We really can't afford to do so again.

HOW NUCLEAR FISSION WORKS

All reactors rely on nuclear fission, discovered in the 1930s either by Rutherford, Cockroft and Walton in the UK or Enrico Fermi in Italy, depending on where your loyalties lie. When certain heavy, 'fissile' atoms - Uranium 235 is a particularly good one - are struck by a neutron, they absorb it, become unstable and then split into two lighter atoms, sending two or three more fast neutrons whizzing off at the same time. A good deal of energy is released in the process.

If one or more of the emitted neutrons goes on to strike another nearby fissile atom, which itself splits, emitting more neutrons and causing more fission, a self-sustaining chain reaction can be initiated. This is known as the critical state, and reactors in nuclear power stations are designed to maintain the mass of fissile fuel in their core in a state of controlled criticality.

The fuel is usually uranium, which can be enriched to increase the proportion of the U235 isotope, making fission more likely. Criticality is also assisted by a moderator in the core - a substance that slows down the emitted neutrons so that, in the event of a collision with a fissile atom, they are more readily absorbed.

The heat thus released is collected by coolant and then used to make steam to drive turbo-generators, just as in coal- and gas-fired stations. Most modern designs, including the Evolutionary Power Reactor and the AP1000, are for pressurised water reactors, which use water under high pressure to both cool and moderate the core.

So-called fast reactors - such as those at Dounreay, which was closed in 1994 - use no moderator and can potentially generate more fissile material than they consume. But they are complex, and their use in making plutonium has made them especially controversial.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE WASTE

Along with decommissioning, the issue of what to do with nuclear waste remains one of the industry's biggest barriers to widespread public support. 'Waste is vital to the PR battle,' says EDF Energy's CEO, Vincent de Rivaz. 'We need to earn the trust of the public, and we have to win the day not by arrogance but by being permanently open to discussion.'

Currently, the UK's high-level nuclear waste is stored above ground at Sellafield in Cumbria, awaiting the construction of a geological store - a deep hole in the ground dug in stable rock, where the waste can be stored for thousands of years until its radioactivity decays to safe levels. Of course, nobody wants this stuff on their doorstep (or even a long way beneath it), so the siting of any such dump has become a political hot potato - and one no government to date has felt brave enough to handle.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Nuclear waste is nasty stuff, but in absolute terms there isn't that much of it and it's all in one place - unlike the emissions from burning fossil fuels. What's more, there's a lot of potential energy left in the spent fuel, according to Sir David King, head of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, who believes a change of attitude is called for.

'You can look at it either as nuclear waste that will cost tens of billions of pounds to dispose of, or as potential fuel worth billions,' he says. 'We could reprocess the spent fuel, then turn it into MOX (mixed oxide, a fuel suitable for most reactors) and use it.'

Unlike other proposed uses for spent fuel, this technology exists now, he adds. MOX is already produced on a fairly small scale at Sellafield, and King believes the cost of more capacity would not be prohibitive. There's ultimately less waste to deal with and the spent fuel already stored here could secure the UK's electricity supply for 100 years. It would even save money, he argues. 'It's a no-brainer.'

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