Wylfa: new nuclear for Britain on the Horizon

Hitachi’s Horizon has submitted its application for a licence to build a new nuclear plant at Wylfa in Wales – the first since Hinkley Point C’s in 2011. But will Horizon face the same challenges as its counterpart in Somerset?


As the first concrete is poured at the controversial Hinkley Point C, Britain’s second new nuclear power plant for the last 30 years is moving along at an impressive pace. Hitachi subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power has applied for a licence to build the plant at Wylfa in Wales, with the hope of producing electricity by the mid 2020s.

Britain’s nuclear fleet is ageing, with all of its plants due to begin decommissioning by 2023. Currently, they make up around 20% of baseload power and without them the UK will need to act fast to secure the country’s energy supply. As such, new nuclear has become a hot topic and Wylfa is set to become an important part of the new strategy as it will take over from the previous Magnox reactor, which began decommissioning at a nearby site on the Isle of Anglesey in 2015.

So far the plant has received a lot less public scrutiny and condemnation than its counterpart in Somerset, working within a community comfortable with nuclear power and with a lower level of government involvement. But what challenges will it have to face?

Following an Asian example

The new Wylfa plant will be able to produce 2700MW of energy from two of Hitachi-GE’s advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR) modular reactors. Already four of these reactors have been delivered on time and on budget to nuclear plants in Asia. Hitachi is the main investor currently, but Horizon, a young nuclear power company set up in 2009 and bought by Hitachi in 2012, will develop, own and operate the plant, putting around £20bn worth of investment into the UK. 

The previous success of the reactors has bolstered support for the project substantially, with Hitachi’s impressive delivery track record.

“Dare I say it, but the ones in Europe, the EPRs [European pressurised reactor], no one’s actually built one yet that is fully functional, come in on time and on budget,” says Horizon safety and licensing director Anthony Webb, adding, “It is good to be able to take people like potential investors to something and say, here's an operational one, it was built in this amount of time and it cost this much.”

For nuclear, the project has already begun to move fast. The site licence application was submitted to the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) in March 2017, and usually takes between 15 and 18 months be approved, so Horizon is hoping to receive approval by October of this year. The environmental permit under the radioactive substance regulations will be submitted in August and the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) is due to be granted in December.

“In terms of milestones, the main things are around our third and final Pre-Application Consultation taking place now within the local community on Anglesey, the environmental planning and site licensing permissions, the financing, and then completing the design,” says Webb. “All of those things have got to come together before we can move on to the Final Investment Decision.”

The licensing of the plant is more complicated in the UK than in the US, France or Asia, where the nuclear industry has been more active in recent years. Regulations predominantly rely upon an agreement that the plant is adequate and fit for use, as opposed to strict prescriptive rules. This gives a certain degree of freedom but also poses organisational challenges.

"The licensing of the plant is more complicated in the UK than in the US, France or Asia, where the nuclear industry has been more active in recent years."

“It's exactly the same licence with the same 36 conditions [for a host of different nuclear industries] so it's very much based on interpretation and understanding those conditions, how they're applied and working with the regulators,” says Webb.

Horizon has received a lot of support for the project from the surrounding area, and Webb says most of the local residents in Anglesey are eager to see work begin. Currently, the main concern is that “they want to see some concrete action; they want to see us moving things forward”, according to Webb.

Little physical evidence exists on the site currently, despite the activity going on in the head office. “Decorating is 90% preparation and 10% application,” Webb explains, adding, “If you go diving into a room to decorate it, you'll probably mess it up, but if you spend your time preparing then actually the painting doesn't take that long. It's the same with nuclear.”

A high price for power

The biggest challenge facing the project will be financing. Although the company is yet to release costing, it is no secret that a nuclear power plant project requires a hefty investment, with Hinkley predicted to cost £37bn. Many suggested the drastically increased cost would require greater taxpayer funding, causing outrage. But Wylfa, unlike Hinkley, is not a British Government energy project. Financing for Wylfa will likely come from a number of sources; the UK Government being one, but it is expected to be joined by the Japanese Government and private investors.

Hinkley was marred by a high strike price of £92.50/MWh; this compares particularly badly with the most recent and lowest strike price in the UK Contracts for Difference Auction Allocation for onshore wind, at just £79/MWh. While the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) argued at the time that the high strike price was to protect consumers from price fluctuation, it has shaken perspectives of nuclear. “Ours has got to be less than that,” says Webb; however, until a final investment decision is made, a strike price cannot be set.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is a challenge which, thus far, has not greatly affected the project. Opposition to Hinkley was compounded by the expense, but it had existed initially because of the belief that nuclear power is intrinsically dangerous.

“You're always going to get some opposition, but Anglesey has got a long legacy of nuclear on the island so it is a supportive community generally,” says Webb, continuing, “They want their children to have opportunities; they want all the opportunities that come with having a major employer in the area that has a knock-on benefit for the rest of the community and the rest of the economy.”

"While many champion the technology’s low-carbon credentials, past catastrophes still linger in the public perception."

Environmental concerns are both a challenge and a benefit for new nuclear plants. While many champion the technology’s low-carbon credentials, particularly as a continuous and reliable power source compatible with more intermittent renewable generation such as wind, past catastrophes still linger in the public perception. The safety of the plant, not just to nearby communities but also ecologically, must be taken into account.

Horizon has an ecologist onsite throughout all operations to try and counter these concerns. Local wildlife, such as the porpoises which may be affected by the building of the jetty and terns along the beach, have all been studied and accommodated to minimise the effects of activity at the Wylfa site. “We have a bat barn that won a European award,” Webb says, proudly. “Some of the work we are doing would potentially upset the ecosystem, particularly where the bats nest, so we built a very nice house for bats, and they love it. It's full of bats.”

What’s coming up on the Horizon?

Wylfa is still in the early stages, and the first concrete is not expected to be poured until 2019. Should its application and build run as smoothly as its Asian counterparts, it will be an important part of Britain’s new nuclear fleet within the next five years.

“I think the political support is probably the most complete it's been in my lifetime,” says Webb. “It's the first time in the UK Government that nuclear has had a huge majority because all the parties have realised now that we have to do something.” Britain needs an alternative to its aged nuclear plants, and new plants look set to provide an efficient and reliable source of baseload power.

Following the construction of the Wylfa site, Horizon plans to build another nuclear plant at Oldbury in South Gloucestershire, further solidifying the young company’s ambitions to form an important part of Britain’s future energy mix. Hitachi doesn’t intend to be involved long-term in either project, instead moving into a supplier role and extending into Europe.

For Wylfa, and indeed all new nuclear plants in the UK to be successful, a new, skilled workforce must be found. Many of those who worked in the old plant are now retired, in particular those who helped plan, build and license it. The current skills deficit has not gone unnoticed though, and Horizon has already set up a sponsorship programme for colleges and students heading to university. “The people who are going to run this plant are still at school now,” says Webb, “They're the ones we need to get interested.”

Wylfa is one of a brand new generation of British nuclear plants, the success of which will be crucial for its energy mix. If it is successfully executed, the project could provide a much-needed positive example for new nuclear in the UK and help alleviate the damage caused by Hinkley’s controversies, paving the way for future nuclear projects.