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Problems plague French design for Britain's nuclear future

·5 min read
Hinkley Point C, due to be completed in 2026, has a budget of £23bn - Ben Birchall/PA Archive
Hinkley Point C, due to be completed in 2026, has a budget of £23bn - Ben Birchall/PA Archive

In the port of Flamanville on the coast of north western France, sits an almost completed new design of nuclear reactor due to open a decade ago.

Fuel-loading at Flamanville 3 was pushed back by another six months on Wednesday to the end of 2023, said French state-owned parent EDF who blamed the pandemic. The project will now cost €300m more than forecast at an estimated €12.7bn.

Across the world in Guangdong, China, inspections at a plant in Taishan, run by state-owned CGN with EDF, and using the same technology, showed “mechanical wear of certain assembly components”. Another of its plants, Olkiluoto in Finland, is due to come online later this month after many delays.

While these may seem foreign problems, EDF is the UK’s leading nuclear developer and in charge of building Hinkley Point C in Somerset as well as the planned Sizewell C in Suffolk - both will also be based on the new designs, in the move away from ageing power plants.

It has also reopened the debate over the expense and safety of nuclear power stations, putting a nuclear renaissance at risk. As global demand for green energy rises - amid soaring natural gas prices due to shortages and pressure to cut the use of carbon-based fuels - rival technologies are being developed at pace.

Flamanville’s delayed reactor - which would add to France’s 56 existing nuclear reactors that have helped to largely decarbonise its electricity supply - uses an EPR design: a modern variant of a pressurised water reactor (PWR). This design has extra safety features added in light of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, which claimed hundreds of lives after being triggered by an earthquake.

“Most reactors around the world are pressurised water reactors,” says Dr Michael Bluck, director of the Centre for nuclear engineering at Imperial College London. “It's extremely well-established, well-understood technology.”

The only EPR design currently up and running is in Taishan, opened in 2018, which has temporarily closed one of the reactors due to problems with the fuel rods.

While technical delays have set EDF’s projects back, concerning some watchers, Bluck argues that learning about the design and problems at Flamanville could help speed up the process for British reactors.

“When you look at things like Flamanville and the reactor in Finland, it doesn't tell you a good story plainly,” he says, adding that there is “an awful lot of saving time by learning”.

A spokesperson for EDF said: “The experience gained from other EPRs has already led to innovation and productivity improvements at Hinkley Point C which is making great progress despite the challenges created by the Covid pandemic. These benefits will flow through to Sizewell C where replication will reduce costs for consumers.

The current gas crisis underlines the value of investment in nuclear in this country. Both projects will help to strengthen the UK’s energy security, boost jobs and skills, and make a vital contribution to the UK’s net zero target.”

As the spotlight shines on building new nuclear power plants, Dr Paul Dorfman of the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit says the length of time taken to develop them might prove its undoing.

“It is hugely expensive, hugely capital intensive. You're talking about 10 to 15 years now between planning to operation,” he says. At the same time competition is heating up as more wind and solar farms are brought online and new technologies such as battery storage and improved grid connections being developed.

Bluck, however, insists nuclear and renewables do not need to be considered as competitors and that they can in fact work in tandem: “The debate is often posed as renewables versus nuclear and that's an unfortunate facing off of two technologies that could work well together.”

While he admits nuclear power carries risks, not acting to shore up power demand is also a danger if promised battery technology does not come to fruition in the next few years.

“Which do you want to gamble on?” he says.

For Dorfman, the case for nuclear is not strong enough. He argues the current global energy crisis is a “a temporary gas crunch” which, when it ends, is likely to make the cost of nuclear power seem just as expensive as it did before.

Hinkley Point C, a £23bn behemoth due to be completed in 2026 and designed to provide 7pc of the UK’s power needs, was earlier criticised by MPs for being expensive: Developers have been guaranteed an inflation-linked price of power of £92.50 per megawatt hour in 2012 prices, roughly double the market price at the time.

Sharply rising prices in recent months mean the wholesale price of electricity is now £189 per megawatt hour. “It was viewed as being an absurd price,” Bluck says. “Well, it's not looking so absurd now.”

A way of avoiding the extreme expense of giant reactor projects has been offered by Rolls-Royce, which last year said it would join the race to develop small modular reactors that cost roughly £1.8bn apiece and provide about a seventh of the power of Hinkley Point C.

They hope to create a blueprint for reactors which can be largely produced in a factory rather than constructed in their own dedicated sites. It would churn out standardised reactors without design differences rather than build large projects on individual sites, with the aim of standardising the process and slash costs.

London-based BNF Capital, backed by the billionaire French Perrodo family, is one of two investors pumping £195m into the Rolls-Royce push.

The firm’s director Sean Benson told the Telegraph last November that relying purely on renewables is a fine plan for rich territories with the spending power of Germany or California, but the more cash-strapped countries of the world will want to replace their coal-fired power stations with a technology that works today.

As the competition heats up to produce new versions of power plants, all eyes will be on Flamanville 3 and Taishan for EDF to prove its technical ability - and the feasibility of its new EPR designs.