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June 13, 2019updated 15 Jul 2020 9:47pm

Nuclear New Build 2019: The future of the nuclear industry

The Nuclear New Build 2019 conference took place in London on 11-12 June, bringing together the nuclear industry from the UK and elsewhere.

By Jack Unwin

The Nuclear New Build 2019 conference took place in London on 11-12 June, bringing together the nuclear industry from the UK and elsewhere, including delegations from China and the US.

The conference opened with a speech by Nuclear Industry Association chairman Dr Tim Stone. Dr Stone highlighted the benefits of nuclear when compared to renewable sources like wind and solar, as it is not intermittent and has a similar if not lower carbon footprint than the others. Dr Stone cited the recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report that warned that a decrease in nuclear power would lead to increasing emissions.

In his view, nuclear should form a major part of the UK government’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but due to the “constrained bandwidth” at Whitehall due to Brexit, the nuclear industry was in a difficult stage. Dr Stone was also the first of many to mention Germany’s folly in easing out its nuclear industry, with even the head of Volkswagen calling for the return of nuclear in the country.

Teaching and increasing the workforce

After an update by Horizon CEO Duncan Hawthorne of the Wylfa nuclear plant in Wales, talks continued around a number of key aspects of today’s nuclear industry. From a sector deal discussion and update chaired by Dr Stone tor, with a particular focus on reducing the costs of building nuclear plants, to EDF Energy managing director Humphrey Cadout-Hudson discussing copying plants to reduce costs, like how Sizewell C is able to learn from Hinkley Point C.

Another hot topic was that of decommissioning, with Cavendish chief executive Simon Bowen stating that the best way to take care of waste is not to move toxic waste produced by the plants around the country but to secure in its current location. Nuclear AMR C chief executive Andrew Storer looked at the UK’s current nuclear industry pipeline, with £2bn in domestic and international orders by 2030.

The first session of the conference finished with a spotlight on gender imbalance in the industry, with NSSG head of nuclear skills strategy Rebecca Pleasant speaking about the number of women in the nuclear industry. The target is for 40% of roles to be taken by women by 2030, with the current number at 23%.

The question of how to get more people into the nuclear industry has become increasingly pressing in recent years. In a later discussion amongst the panellists, it was mentioned that nuclear power is not discussed enough in schools and in wider society, with major accidents like Chernobyl making up the bulk of many peoples knowledge of the industry. There was also mention of advanced and small modular reactors (AMR s and SMRs) and how these can put Britain back to the “top table” of nuclear power.

A global focus and a global market

Another fascinating panel was the global nuclear markets panel. Starting with the Department for International Trade deputy director Campbell Keir, who noted that yesterday, 10 June, 13.7% of the UK’s energy came from nuclear (it’s usually 18-19% but two plants were offline). The department estimated that the international nuclear market would be worth £1.2tn by 2030.

Keir was joined by CMS head of energy Kostadin Sirleshtov, who gave an update on the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, and showed that the market in the region was difficult despite its presence in countries such as Romania, Czechia and Ukraine. Sirleshtov also noted that these regions had the strongest support for nuclear power in the world, despite them being the closest (and in Ukraine’s case directly) involved with the Chernobyl accident.

Other areas of focus included the US, with Nuclear Industry Council CEO David Blee referring to AMR and SMRs as a game changers that could lead to a “renaissance” in the supply chain. Despite this, Blee noted that according to estimates nuclear power will decline from 19% to 12% of the US’ power generation by 2050. Picking up on the theme of Germany’s increased energy bills, Blee said that California is suffering from a similar problem due to backing solar over nuclear power.

The potential of these smaller nuclear solutions recurred throughout the event. FiRe Energy director Fiona Reilly spoke about AMR and SMRs in the UK, noting the different specifications for what constitutes an SMR. The UK sees anything from 1MW to 600MW as an SMR, while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sees anything 300MW or less as one. Reilly noted that the UK needs to do more to advertise the potential of these smaller reactors, especially as they take up less space than a wind or solar farm, and the government should consider de-risking the market.

Brexit and the desire for “a la carte”

Day two commenced with a roundtable discussion on the UK’s exit from the European Atomic Energy Community Euratom. Led by Department for Business and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) head of Euratom exit David Wagstaff, who said that he was satisfied that that his team did everything to ensure the continuity of civil nuclear power in the country.

Despite the political uncertainty of where Brexit could lead, Wagstaff stated that it is unlikely that nuclear power would be a part of the political “maelstrom”. He also noted some of the difficulties Brexit poses to the nuclear industry, including French company EDF Energy’s ownership of UK’s nuclear plants and the uranium enrichment process owned by a consortium that is equally shared by the UK, Netherlands and Germany.

Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) head of policy Peter Haslam spoke of his group’s disappointment at leaving Euratom. Having campaigned to stay under the auspices of the treaty, the NIA was surprised to find that leaving Euratom was contained within the withdrawal agreement. For Foratom, the Brussels-based trade association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe, executive advisor Berta Picamal this was expected, as she explained that it was not an “a la carte” that countries could exploit, but falls within the realm of the single market.

Aiming for net zero

There were several key strands that came out of the conference for the UK and the world. Several speakers mentioned the UK’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and how nuclear would play an important role in this. The government’s upcoming white paper in July was also repeatedly mentioned, with hope that it will include nuclear power in a leading role and clear up the confusion the industry found itself in.

Finally Germany’s phasing out of nuclear power came in for criticism from many speakers as a historic mistake, nuclear power must play a part in the low-carbon energy transition in the next decades.


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