Hopes and costs are high for the future of nuclear power in the UK


BRIDGWATER, England (AP) — Wedged between the southwestern town of Bridgwater and the Severn Estuary is a 430-acre site where some of Britain’s future electricity hopefuls are pinned.

Now reaching more than 100 feet (32 meters) high, construction of the first of two nuclear reactors at the Hinkley Point C power station is well underway, after years of planning.

Hinkley Point C is expected to be one of Britain’s largest power stations and will generate 7% of the country’s electricity. Around 8,000 workers, many of whom currently live on site, commute to and from work around the clock, seven days a week on the site’s bustling bus network.

“Here at Hinkley, it’s all about scale,” project delivery manager Nigel Cann said as he gestured towards the giant site. “We have the third largest bus service in the world. We serve more eggs, sausages and bacon than anywhere else in the UK I imagine.

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Sites like Hinkley are now an integral part of the UK government’s ‘net zero’ strategy by 2050. Some experts say nuclear power will be needed to help countries get rid of fossil fuels, but there are concerns about the cost and timelines of building large nuclear reactors, along with worries about nuclear safety and waste. Other clean energy, such as wind farms, can be built and brought online much faster.

Energy analysts say if Hinkley is successful, it could help determine whether other large nuclear reactors like this will be built in Britain and other countries in the future.

Nuclear energy is generated by fission, the process of separating uranium atoms. The energy released from fission turns water into steam to spin a turbine that generates electricity, a process that does not emit planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. Scientists say that for the world to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), fossil fuel emissions must be drastically reduced, with the rest cancelled.

“Everyone wants nuclear,” said Neil Hirst, senior energy policy fellow at Imperial College London. “They want it because nuclear provides security at a time when the gas supply is threatened. And also because many countries have a net zero commitment by 2050, which can be quite difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without substantial nuclear.

But not everyone wants the costs and delays that come with it.

The Hinkley Point C project is estimated at 26 billion pounds ($30 billion) and is due for completion in 2027. It is already over budget by around 7 billion pounds ($8 billion) and has suffered delays that the Owners EDF — France’s state-owned energy company — say it’s largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic which is causing supply chain issues and labor shortages.

The United States, which still has the largest nuclear power generation capacity of any country, has seen only one new nuclear reactor come online since 2000 – a Tennessee-based project that put decades to end. Meanwhile, plans for at least 21 new nuclear reactors have been canceled since 2007, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. An American project is under construction in Georgia, although the budget has more than doubled, according to calculations by the Associated Press.

France’s Flamanville 3, still under construction and of the same type of reactor as Hinkley Point C, is several times over its original budget, which is now expected to cost 12.7 billion euros (dollars) and has suffered multiple setbacks. Olkiluoto-3 in Finland, which started generating electricity a decade late, saw its costs almost quadruple to about $11 billion.

These massive overruns have “certainly given people reason to hesitate,” said Jennifer Gordon, director of the Nuclear Energy Policy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “But that said, over the past year the geopolitical calculus has shifted so much” as climate and energy security concerns grow.

But Paul Dorfman, of the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, said ‘nuclear would be far too late to help us solve our energy dilemma and unfortunately really too late to help us solve our climate dilemma”. He added that the huge increase in renewable energy shows that it can meet the growing demand for electricity.

Nuclear projects need billions of dollars upfront before they start generating electricity and also have the ongoing cost of purchasing fuel, which wind or solar power does not. . They also don’t see a return for several years, so they rely on government support in most cases and, to that end, public support.

This is more feasible in Europe where governments are willing to dip into the public purse, Hirst said. In the United States, it’s harder to get those big costs approved, even with recent incentives for nuclear power, which means the country is likely to move to a newer, cutting-edge technology called small modular reactors. which have less daunting upfront costs and shorter construction time. time limit. That makes it an attractive prospect for many countries, Gordon said.

She added that large reactors could instead act “as a bridge to the next generation of nuclear and also as a bridge to renewables and breakthroughs in storage technology.”

Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind or hydropower, have doubled in capacity between 2000 and 2021 around the world, according to an analysis of data from a global energy think tank. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, grew by only 13% during this period, with more than half of this growth concentrated in China. Renewables are much cheaper per megawatt of electricity generated to build.

Their power is more variable but many solar and wind farms now use batteries to get closer to a 24 hour power supply. Some experts believe nuclear can provide a fallback to other low-carbon energy sources in a future with no or very little fossil fuels, but whether it really has the modern flexibility needed is questionable. to associate with the sun and the wind.

“It doesn’t provide what’s called load flow to account for variability. It’s far too stiff to go up and down with fluctuations in demand,” Dorfman said.

Concerns about nuclear safety and waste also persist following high-profile disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

“The public’s view of the nuclear power industry is one of our main challenges,” said nuclear risk analyst Jenifer Avellaneda. “We had mistakes. But we are doing better and we must do better.

Avellaneda added that the industry’s many regulatory bodies and strict procedures make it a safer bet than many other energy sources, especially those that are highly polluting.

According to a recent report on the state of the industry.

Britain alone has decommissioned three nuclear sites in recent years when they reached the end of their life.

Hirst believes the future of large nuclear reactors, particularly in Europe, will depend in part on the success of Hinkley Point C.

“They’ve had cost overruns before, but not at development scale,” Hirst said, adding that if the site stays on its updated schedule and is “reasonably in touch with original costs, then I think we will see more orders.”

The Bridgwater team understands what is at stake.

“We understand our responsibility to get this plant producing as quickly as possible,” Cann said. “We feel that pressure, we feel the responsibility, but we will never compromise safety or quality.”

Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report. Wildeman reported from Hartford, Connecticut.

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