Chaos and confusion over new UK nuclear delay, says IChemE

Jon Lawson

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has expressed grave concern at the UK government’s last minute review of the contract with the French energy company, EDF, for the construction of Britain’s first nuclear power station in a generation. The £20bn project, which is sited on the Somerset coast, is intended to deliver a 3.2GW power station based around two pressurised water reactors designed by Areva.

The delay brings further confusion to UK energy policy on top of a period of considerable upheaval that has seen the withdrawal of government support from wind and solar projects, a continued loss of coal-fired generating capacity, and the shock cancellation of a £1bn capital grant for carbon capture and storage in November 2015.

IChemE director, Andy Furlong said: “Chemical engineers were delighted when EDF made their announcement last night. But within hours we lost all certainty on the direction of travel. The engineering community is in a state of paralysis. We cannot make proper decisions around design, procurement and construction timelines. Neither can we get to work on the education, training and skills issues that will need to be resolved to support a complex supply chain that has the potential to create more than 25,000 jobs, including many roles for chemical and process engineers.

“Cost is a clearly a concern, but this three way poker game between the UK government, EDF and their Chinese investment partners has gone on for long enough.  Robust engineering design and effective project management can only be delivered when we are sure that a decision is going to be taken – and stuck to.

“Continued prevarication undermines confidence and reinforces the current unpredictability in British politics. Brexit, the upheaval in both government and opposition and deep concerns about the state of the economy, look to be destabilising the situation.  This is a long-term infrastructure project that will span several parliaments. But if things carry on like this we’ll be reaching for candles.”

The delay also cast doubt on the UK’s carbon reduction strategy. Alongside renewables and other emerging energy technologies, the low-carbon baseload electricity generated at Hinkley C is expected to make a vital contribution to the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget, which commits the nation to a largely decarbonised electricity supply by 2030.

IChemE Energy Centre Chair, Professor Stef Simons, described the latest delay as: “Extremely regrettable.” He went on to say: ”Nuclear energy can make a valuable contribution to the decarbonisation of electricity generation in the UK; but it needs a big, bold decision to make it happen. The government has baulked at the eleventh hour.  Attracting the investment required for major energy infrastructure projects is not easy in the current climate and the balancing act between cost and benefit, and market and climate is a tricky one.

There are other low-carbon solutions besides nuclear that can deliver a sustainable energy economy but nothing is going to happen until we get more certainty in the market. Government has a duty to facilitate an energy system that is secure, sustainable and affordable.  Last night it failed in that task.”

IChemE also believes that this delay will undermine the fragile sense of confidence in the UK’s nuclear industry. A total of 16 GW is now planned, or in the pipeline, including the Hitachi-Horizon proposal for three advanced boiling water reactors at Oldbury on the River Severn and Wylfa on the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales, and the NuGen proposal to build three pressurised water reactors near Sellafield in Cumbria.

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