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Nuclear power plants in United Kingdom (view)
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Purple pog.svg Closed plants

Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom generates a fifth of the country's electricity (19.26% in 2004). The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate oversee all nuclear power installations and, as of 2006, the United Kingdom operates 24 nuclear reactors. The country also uses nuclear reprocessing plants, such as Sellafield.

The United Kingdom's first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1956 and, at its peak in 1997, 26% of the nation's electricity was generated from nuclear power. Since then a number of stations have been closed, and others are scheduled to follow. The two remaining Magnox nuclear stations and four of the seven AGR nuclear stations are currently planned to be closed by 2015. This is a cause behind the UK's forecast 'energy gap', though secondary to the reduction in coal generating capacity. However the oldest AGR nuclear power station was recently life-extended by ten years, and it is likely many of the others can be life-extended, significantly reducing the energy gap.[1]

All UK nuclear installations in the UK are overseen by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

Although the Government of the United Kingdom has recently given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built, the Scottish Government, with the backing of the Scottish Parliament, has made clear that Scotland will have no new nuclear power stations and is aiming instead for a non-nuclear future. As of 2007, there have been some significant developments towards nuclear fusion being implemented to solve the predicted energy crisis, most significantly and recently the drawing-up of plans to build one fusion power station, that will 'supply power to the National Grid within 20 years.'[2] The JET facility at Culham, Oxfordshire indicates that Britain has both the industry and workforce for nuclear fusion.

Contents

Economics of UK nuclear power

United Kingdom
energy related articles
Government energy policy
Energy use and conservation
Nuclear power
Solar power
Wind power
Energy efficiency in housing
Climate Change Programme
Other UK energy articles
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The basics

The history of nuclear energy economics in the UK is mixed. Early generation reactors (Magnox) were not built for sole commercial considerations while later reactors faced delays (culminating in Sizewell B taking 7 years from start of construction to entering service, after a lengthy public enquiry). Costs have also been made problematic by a lack of national strategy or policy for spent nuclear fuel, so that a mixed use of reprocessing and short-term storage have been employed, with little regard for long-term considerations (though a national depository has been proposed).

There is a lack of consensus in the UK about the cost/benefit nature of nuclear energy, as well as ideological influence (for instance, those favouring 'energy security' generally arguing pro, while those worried about the 'environmental impact' against). Because of this, and a lack of a consistent energy policy in the UK since the mid-1990s, no new reactors have been built since Sizewell B in 1995. Costs have been a major influence to this (with Sizewell B having run at a cost of 6p/kWh for its first five years of operation[3]), while the long-lead time between proposal and operation (at ten years or more) has put off many investors, especially with long-term considerations such as energy market regulation and nuclear waste remaining unresolved.

It is important to note that any future project would be private, rather than public[citation needed]. This transfers the running and immediate concerns to the operator, while reducing (although not eliminating) government participation and long-term involvement/liability (nuclear waste, as involving government policy, will likely remain a liability, even if only a limited one). As of the 2007 energy white paper, the Government has endorsed a generally 'pro-nuclear' attitude, although many key details have been left out and any serious decision delayed until the end of 2007. However, in the wake of it, and stemming from the more favourable position already shown in the 2006 energy white paper, British Energy and EDF Energy have expressed interest in a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain provided that a suitable carbon price on coal and gas generation is set.[4]

A short history

When the rest of the UK generating industry was privatised, the Government introduced the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation, initially as means of supporting the nuclear generators, which remained under state ownership until the formation of British Energy. British Energy, the private sector company that now operates the UK's more modern nuclear plants, came close to bankruptcy and in 2004 was restructured with UK government investment of over £3 billion, although this has since been paid back in full. In January 2009, British Energy was bought for approximately £12 billion by EDF Energy (a subsidiary of Electricite de France (EdF) SA).

There are several reasons to expect significant improvement if new third generation nuclear power stations are built:

  • modern designs are simpler, use fewer materials and require less on-site fabrication
  • the designs are internationally standardised, so reducing "first of a kind" costs
  • big-project management techniques have improved over the last 15 years
  • more competitive international process for letting a nuclear construction contract
  • turnkey (fixed price) contracts rather than the cost-plus contracts that were characteristic of past UK nuclear construction[5]
  • the most recently built nuclear stations elsewhere in the world (in China and South Korea) have already achieved lower build cost and quicker construction times

As of 2007 no third generation power station has been completed in Europe, confirming these improvements. The construction of the first such power station, a European Pressurized Reactor at Olkiluoto in Finland, is running at least three years behind schedule,[6] with the parties in arbitration to resolve responsibility for cost overruns,[7] creating doubts that recent improvements sufficiently improve construction costs. However some observers suggest that such delays should be expected as this is the first reactor of its kind and the contractors are not used to working to the standards of the nuclear industry.[8] The project is based on a "turnkey" contract which means the price to the customer is fixed regardless of the delays. Construction of a second reactor of the same design started in 2007 at Flamanville in France, and this project is currently on schedule and expected to enter operation in 2012.

In January 2008, the UK government indicated that it will take steps to encourage private operators to build new nuclear power plants in the coming years to meet projected energy needs as fossil fuel prices climb, however there would be no subsidies from the UK government for nuclear power. The Government hopes that the first station will be operational before 2020.[9] However, the Welsh Assembly Government remains opposed to new nuclear plants in Wales despite the approval of Wylfa as a potential site.Scotland has decided against new nuclear power stations. (see below)

In May 2008, the head of the world's largest power company suggested that the Government has significantly underestimated the cost of building new nuclear power plants. The Times has reported that Wulf Bernotat, chairman and chief executive of E.ON, estimates that the cost could be as high as €6 billion (£4.8 billion) per plant, which is much higher than the Government's £2.8 billion estimate. The cost of replacing Britain's ten nuclear power stations could therefore reach £48 billion, excluding the cost of decommissioning ageing reactors or dealing with nuclear waste.[10]

Decommissioning

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), formed in April 2005 under the Energy Act 2004, oversees and manages the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK's older Magnox power plants and the reprocessing facilities at Sellafield, which were transferred to its ownership from BNFL, and the former nuclear research and development facilities previously run by the UKAEA.

Rising costs

Prior to the 2002 white paper Managing the Nuclear Legacy, the cost of decommissioning these facilities had been estimated at around £42 billion.[11] The white paper estimated the costs at £48 billion at March 2002 prices, an increase of £6bn, with the cost of decommissioning Sellafield accounting for over 65% of the total.[12] This figure included a rise in BNFL's estimated decommissioning liabilities from £35 billion to £40.5 billion,[13] with an estimate of £7.4 billion for UKAEA.[12]

In June 2003 the Department of Trade and Industry estimated that decommissioning costs, including the cost of running the facilities still in operation for their remaining life, were approximately £56 billion at 2003 prices, although the figure was 'almost certainly' expected to rise.[14] This estimate was revised in subsequent years; to £57 billion in September 2004; £63 billion in September 2005; £65 billion in March 2006; and to £73 billion in March 2007.[15][16] Around £46 billion of the £73 billion is for the decommissioning and clean-up of the Sellafield site.[17]

In May 2008 a senior director at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority indicated that the figure of £73 billion might increase by several billion pounds.[18]

British Energy

In addition to the The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's costs, British Energy's liabilities in relation to spent nuclear fuels have risen. In February 2006 it was reported that these had increased to £5.3 billion, an increase of almost £1 billion.[19] The costs of handling these is to be met by the Nuclear Liabilities Fund (NLF), the successor to the Nuclear Generation Decommissioning Fund. Although British Energy contributes to the NLF, the fund is underwritten by the Government. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee noted in 2007 that British Energy may lack an incentive to reduce the eventual liabilities falling to the Nuclear Liabilities Fund.[20]

Waste management and disposal

The UK has a large variety of different intermediate- and high-level radioactive wastes, coming from national programs to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It is a national responsibility to pay for the management of these. In addition, new nuclear power stations could be built, the waste management from which would be the private sector's financial responsibility, although all would be stored in a single facility.[21] Most of the UK's higher-activity radioactive waste is currently held in temporary storage at Sellafield.

On July 31, 2006, the latest body to consider the issue of long-term waste management - the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) - published its final report [22]. Its main recommendation was that geological disposal should be adopted. This would involve burial at a depth between 200 – 1000m deep in a purpose-built facility with no intention to retrieve the waste in the future. It was concluded that this could not be implemented for several decades, and that there were social and ethical concerns within UK society about the disposal option that would need to be resolved as part of the implementation process. Such a repository should start to be closed as soon as practicable rather than being left open for future generations. 14 additional recommendations were also made.

The report was criticised by David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University who resigned from CoRWM in 2005, who said that it was based on opinions rather than sound science[23].

On June 12, 2008, a white paper, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal was published confirming CoRWM's conclusion of geologic disposal of higher-activity wastes. The policy announcement confirmed that there would be one geologic disposal site, for both national legacy waste as well as potential wastes from future programs. It announced that a process of volunteerism would be used in selecting a suitable site and invited communities from the UK to express interest. They would be rewarded by the infrastructure investment for the facility, jobs for the long term and a tailored package of benefits.[21]

Policy of the Labour Government

2002 Energy review

In relation to nuclear power, the conclusion of the Government's 2002 energy review [24], carried out by the Performance and Innovation Unit, was that:

The immediate priorities of energy policy are likely to be most cost-effectively served by promoting energy efficiency and expanding the role of renewables. However, the options of new investment in nuclear power and in clean coal (through carbon sequestration) need to be kept open, and practical measures taken to do this.

The practical measures identified were:

  • Continuing to participate in international research.
  • Ensuring that the nuclear skill-base is maintained, and that the regulators are adequately staffed to assess any new investment proposals.
  • Shortening the lead-time to commissioning, should new nuclear power be chosen in future.
  • Permitting nuclear power to benefit from the development of carbon taxes and similar market mechanisms.
  • Addressing the problems of long-term nuclear waste disposal.

It went on to state that Because nuclear is a mature technology within a well established global industry, there is no current case for further government support and that the decision whether to bring forward proposals for new nuclear build is a matter for the private sector.

2003 Energy White Paper

The Government's Energy White Paper, published in 2003 and titled "Our Energy Future - Creating a Low Carbon Economy" [25] concluded that:

Nuclear power is currently an important source of carbon-free electricity. However, its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity and there are also important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved. These issues include our legacy waste and continued waste arising from other sources. This white paper does not contain specific proposals for building new nuclear power stations. However we do not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets.

2006 Energy review

In April 2005, advisers to British Prime Minister Tony Blair were suggesting that constructing new nuclear power stations would be the best way to meet the country's targets on reducing emissions of gases responsible for global warming. The energy policy of the United Kingdom has a near-term target of cutting emissions below 1997 levels by 20%, and a more ambitious target of a 80% cut by 2050.

In November 2005 the Government announced an energy review [26], subsequently launched in January 2006, to "review the UK's progress against the medium and long-term Energy White Paper goals and the options for further steps to achieve them" [27].

Critics of nuclear power have suggested that the main reason behind the review is to provide a justification for the building of a new generation of nuclear reactors. They also say that doing so will not be able to help meet the 2010 target due to the length of time needed to plan, construct and commission such power plants, and will be too late to fill the 'Energy Gap' predicted to result from the closure of existing nuclear and coal fired power stations. However backers say nuclear power will help meet the longer term target of a 60% cut by 2050. (wikinews) The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, expressed reservations about the 2006 Energy Review, its dependence upon nuclear power and its likely impact upon London and Londoners.[28]

2007 High Court ruling

On February 15, 2007, environmental group Greenpeace won a High Court ruling that threw out the government's 2006 Energy Review. Mr Justice Sullivan presiding held that the government's review was 'seriously flawed', in particular in that key details of the economics of the argument were only published after the review was completed.[29][30] Justice Sullivan held that the review's wording on nuclear waste disposal was "not merely inadequate but also misleading", and held the decision to proceed to be "unlawful". Judicial review proceedings were instigated by Greenpeace in October 2006[31].

Responding to the news, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said that there would be a fresh consultation, but that a decision was required before the end of 2007. He stated that the government remains convinced that new nuclear power plants are needed to help combat climate change and over-reliance on imported oil and gas.[32]

Greenpeace hold the view that carbon emissions can be cut more cost-effectively by investment in a decentralised energy system that makes maximum use of combined heat and power and renewable energy sources.[33]

Attention was drawn in the media to numerous connections to nuclear industry lobbyists within the Labour Party [34].

2007 Consultation

The 2007 Energy White Paper: Meeting the Energy Challenge[35] was published on May 23, 2007. It contained a 'preliminary view is that it is in the public interest to give the private sector the option of investing in new nuclear power stations'. Alongside the White Paper the Government published a consultation document, The Future of Nuclear Power[36] together with a number of supporting documents.[37] One of these, a report by Jackson Consulting, suggests that it would be preferable to site new power stations on existing nuclear power stations sites that are owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority or British Energy.[38] Greenpeace responded to the release of the consultation document by repeating its position that replacing the nuclear fleet rather than decommissioning would only reduce the UK's total carbon emissions by four percent[39].

On September 7, 2007 several anti-nuclear groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, CND and the WWF announced that they had pulled out of the consultation process.[40] They stated that it appeared as if the Government had already made up its mind regarding the future of nuclear power. The business and enterprise secretary, John Hutton, responded in a Radio 4 interview "It is not the government that has got a closed view on these issues, I think it is organisations like Greenpeace that have got a closed mind. There is only one outcome that Greenpeace and other organisations want from this consultation."

2008 Go-ahead given

In January 2008, the UK government gave the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built. However, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Scottish Government has made clear that it opposes new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland and has the final say on planning matters in Scotland.[9]

So far, two consortia (EDF-Centrica and RWE-E.ON) have announced plans to build a total of 12.5GW of new nuclear capacity; this is slightly more than the total capacity of British Energy's currently operating plants. A third consortiun (Iberdrola - SSE - GdF-Suez) has also announced plans to acquire sites and build, but has not commented on the amount of capacity planned. Sweden's Vattenfall is known to be seeking partners for participation in new UK nuclear generation.

As of 2009 government officials believe a carbon price floor will need to be set to encourage companies to commit funds to nuclear build projects.[41]

2009 10 New nuclear sites

In November 2009, the Government has identified ten nuclear sites which could accommodate future reactors[42].

  • Bradwell in Essex
  • Braystones
  • Kirksanton
  • Sellafield in Cumbria
  • Hartlepool
  • Heysham in Lancashire
  • Hinkley Point in Somerset
  • Oldbury in Gloucestershire
  • Sizewell in Suffolk
  • Wylfa in North Wales. (However, the Welsh Assembly Government remains opposed to new nuclear plants in Wales despite the approval of Wylfa as a potential site)

Most of these sites already have a station, the only new sites are Braystones and Kirksanton.

Public opinion

In the early 1990s concern was raised in the United Kingdom about the effect of nuclear power plants on unborn children, when clusters of leukaemia cases were discovered nearby to some of these plants. The effect was speculative because clusters were also found where no nuclear plants were present, and not all plants had clusters around them. The latest studies carried by COMARE, Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, in 2003 found no evidence between nuclear power and childhood leukaemia.[43][44]

An opinion poll in Britain in 2002 by MORI on behalf of Greenpeace showed large support for wind energy and a majority for putting an end to nuclear energy if the costs were the same.[45] In November 2005 a YouGov poll conducted by business advisory firm Deloitte found that 36% of the UK population supported the use of nuclear power, though 62% would support an energy policy that combines nuclear along with renewable technologies.[46] The same survey also revealed an unrealistic public expectation for the future rate of renewables development - with 35% expecting the majority of electricity to come from renewables in only 15 years, which is more than double the government's expectation.

In the early 2000s there was a heated discussion about nuclear waste,[47] leading to the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (see above).

The Green Party of England and Wales has described nuclear power as "deplorable" [48].

Opposition political parties' policies

Conservative Party

The Conservatives do not rule out the use of nuclear power. On 10 January 2008, Alan Duncan MP issued a response to the Government's announcement on nuclear power, welcoming it and suggesting that the Conservatives supported a level economic playing field for different types of energy generation rather than a preference for one over another [49].

In a speech to Greenpeace on 6 December 2007 about energy generation, David Cameron offered a slightly different emphasis, talking of replacing large scale generation by government and big energy companies with "decentralised energy" such as CHP [50]. The speech did not mention nuclear power.

Also on 6 December 2007 the Conservative Party released a green paper entitled "Power to the People: The Decentralised Energy Revolution" [51]. In a similar vein to David Cameron's speech, this paper makes no mention of nuclear energy other than to note that it currently accounts for 18% of the UK's energy generation.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are critical of the Government's support for nuclear power and believe that no new nuclear power plants should be built in the UK.[52]

Liberal Democrat spokesman Steve Webb MP said on 9 January 2008 "There is a real risk that focusing on new nuclear plants will undermine attempts to find a cleaner, greener, more sustainable and secure solution. We should be concentrating our efforts on renewables and greater energy conservation."[53]

Scotland and nuclear power

Though the UK Government has recently given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built, the Scottish Government has made clear that no new nuclear power stations will be built in Scotland and is aiming instead for a non-nuclear future. This was made clear when, First Minister Alex Salmond said there was 'no chance' of any new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland.[9] The Government's stance has been backed by the Scottish Parliament that voted 63-58 to support the Scottish Government's policy of opposing new nuclear power stations.[54]

About half of Scotland's electricity comes from the Hunterston B and Torness nuclear power plants. Scottish leaders hope to replace these with renewables when they close in 2016 and 2023 respectively.[55]

History

The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was established in 1954 as a statutory corporation to oversee and pioneer the development of nuclear energy within the United Kingdom.

The first station to be connected to the grid, on 27 August 1956, was Calder Hall, although the production of weapons-grade plutonium was the main reason behind this power station.

Operating nuclear power stations

Power Station Type Net MWe Construction started Connected to grid Full operation Estimated closure
Oldbury Magnox 434 1962 1967 1968 2010
Wylfa Magnox 980 1963 1971 1972 2012
Dungeness B AGR 1110 1965 1983 1985 2018
Hinkley Point B AGR 1220 1967 1976 1976 2016
Hunterston B AGR 1190 1967 1976 1976 2016
Hartlepool AGR 1210 1968 1983 1989 2014
Heysham 1 AGR 1150 1970 1983 1989 2014
Heysham 2 AGR 1250 1980 1988 1989 2023
Torness AGR 1250 1980 1988 1988 2023
Sizewell B PWR 1188 1988 1995 1995 2035

Since 2006 Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B have been restricted to about 70% of normal MWe output because of boiler-related problems requiring that they operate at reduced boiler temperatures.[56] This output restriction is likely to remain until closure.

Non-Operating nuclear power stations

Power Station Type Net MWe Construction started Connected to grid Full operation Closure
Calder Hall Magnox 200 1953 1956 1959 2003
Chapelcross Magnox 240 1955 1959 1960 2004
Hunterston A Magnox 300 1957 1964 1964 1990
Berkeley Magnox 276 1957 1962 1962 1989
Bradwell Magnox 246 1957 1962 1962 2002
Hinkley Point A Magnox 470 1957 1965 1965 2000
Trawsfynydd Magnox 390 1959 1965 1965 1991
Dungeness A Magnox 450 1960 1965 1965 2006
Sizewell A Magnox 420 1961 1966 1966 2006

A number of research and development reactors also produced some power for the grid, including two Winfrith reactors, two Dounreay fast reactors, and the prototype Windscale Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor.

See also

Nuclear power related

References

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