Coming round again

Plans have emerged for a new nuclear plant in Cumbria like the one being built at Hinkley. Will they fare better than ones that floundered before - and should they?

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Cumbria’s nuclear history makes for a strange contrast with the scenic images of Lake District fells and crags that are used to promote the county to visitors. But the Sellafield site on the county’s west coast is as much a part of the Cumbrian story as sheep farming and fellwalking, with a 2017 report showing the civil nuclear industry employed nearly 16,000 people.

Although Sellafield, Europe’s most complex nuclear site, is now in the long process of being decommissioned, plans are afoot to build a new generation of reactors in west Cumbria, continuing a nuclear heritage stretching back to the 1940s.

“They like to sell themselves as low carbon but there is carbon involved in all these stages.”

Although proponents of nuclear power insist it is a safe, effective way of producing energy as part of the drive towards having net zero carbon emissions by 2050, others say it is an expensive, time-consuming and ineffective distraction from more effective renewable options.

In Germany, Angela Merkel reacted to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan by agreeing to phase out all its nuclear power plants by 2022. But new nuclear plants are being planned and built in the UK.

At the beginning of July, the new Moorside Consortium, made up of French energy firm EDF and partners, said it hoped to build two EPR-type nuclear reactors in west Cumbria – the same
type of reactor being built at Hinkley Point C, in Somerset, and proposed for Sizewell C, in Suffolk.

They would form part of the Moorside Clean Energy Hub on land adjacent to Sellafield. It is also hoped the hub will attract the development of small modular reactors (SMR), such as those being worked on by the UK SMR Consortium led by Rolls-Royce.

SMRs, which are still in the design phase, would be smaller than traditional nuclear plants and could be produced at a centralised facility and transported to sites for use.

Copeland Borough Council, in which Moorside sits, and Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership have been approached by both consortia. They are not the first to consider nuclear new-build at Moorside.

In November 2018, NuGen’s plans to build a new power station on the site collapsed after owner Toshiba failed to sell it to the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO). The collapse followed a tangled history of ownership of NuGen, involving a number of different players from multiple countries stretching back to 2009.

The renewed interest in the Moorside site has re-ignited hopes in the area of a jobs boost. This would include employment in the operation and maintenance of the power station, including its supply chain, as well as the initial spike in construction jobs.

Although the Moorside Consortium project is unlikely to be completed until the next decade, the UK SMR Consortium has ambitions to get the technology running by 2029.

Ivan Baldwin, chair of Britain’s Energy Coast Business Cluster, the Cumbrian trade organisation, has been in discussions with the consortia. He refers to the “economic benefits in actually building the infrastructure around that but also the economic benefits of clean energy and nuclear at scale”. He believes a growth in employment, including green-collar jobs, would help the prime minister fulfil his promise of levelling up the economies of the north and the south.

It is hoped the site could support 5GW or more of new nuclear generation and also feed the National Grid with more than 1GW of new offshore wind power from off the Cumbrian coast by 2030. Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership believes the site could also be used for testing other energy technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence. One of the customers for energy produced there could be the neighbouring Sellafield site.

“The energy park philosophy is around how you start to attract innovators to develop new types of nuclear technologies and new types of nuclear fuels,” says Baldwin. “Technologies that start to integrate nuclear with renewables, co-generation, technologies that help develop things such as synthetic fuels and hydrogen and so on, so in effect what you start to create is a clustering effect.”

The North East built a supply chain for its automotive industry around Nissan. But Britain’s offshore wind industry continued to rely on Danish technology despite its growth. Baldwin says the spin-off effects for other businesses in Cumbria ought to be significant. His organisation, he says, will help “de-risk on the social side because they need people to build it and the skills to operate it”.

“They need what’s called the social licence to operate. You need welcoming communities that actually are supportive of the development in the backyard.”

First must come the finances. NuGen’s failure was in part driven by the bankruptcy of Toshiba’s Westinghouse subsidiary, which it used to buy a share in the project and which, incidentally, was also selected to carry out decommissioning work at Sellafield in 2016. Westinghouse’s collapse in 2017 prompted ENGIE, which owned the other 40 per cent of the project, to sell its stake to Toshiba, leaving it as the sole owner.

Despite appeals to the government to take a stake in the project to rescue it, then prime minister Theresa May dismissed it as a “commercial issue”. Unable to find further financial backing
to continue, Toshiba liquidated NuGen.

To avoid this, Baldwin believes the Moorside Consortium could consider proposing a new financing structure to ministers, a so-called regulated asset base model, to fund the project.

Baldwin says Toshiba’s problems weren’t related to Moorside specifically but were “a consequence of the fact that financing large scale nuclear off a private company’s balance sheet is nigh on impossible. There needs to be a different type of mechanism and funding for the capital involved.

“It’s still relatively early days and it’s about a proposition they can take to Number 10 and the outcome, if it’s successful, will be a new form of finance that is supported by government, whether that’s on the government’s balance sheet, through private sector investors or a combination of the two.”

Others see that as simply undeserved subsidy. Environmental group Friends of the Earth insists that to meet the UK’s net zero target by 2050 it is essential to move away from nuclear, which it says has received billions in subsidies with little to show in terms of global power generation.

It has called for a focus on renewable sources, coupled with the development of battery technology to store the variable power loads produced by wind, tide and sunlight. There is also local opposition to the Moorside proposals.

Jill Perry, who stood for the Green Party in the last general election for the Workington constituency and is secretary of the Allerdale and Copeland Green Party, does not believe SMRs are a good way of producing low-carbon energy. “You have all the same problems as with the big reactors,” she says.

These problems include the environmental effects and potential hazards of mining the fuel, transporting it to the site, processing it and dealing with the ultimate waste radioactive material, as well as the risk of nuclear accidents.

“They like to sell themselves as low carbon, but there is carbon involved in all these stages,” says Perry. “The nuclear industry is ace at reinventing themselves and giving themselves a new veneer
of usefulness which is just that, a veneer.”

She argues there are more effective low carbon solutions – increasing energy efficiency and using renewable methods such as solar and wind as well as tidal lagoon production.

“We have proven technology and they fiddle about wasting money on something that isn’t really low carbon and may possibly never be technically feasible.

“It’s too late. We need to be getting on with reducing our carbon emissions right now.”

Photo: Construction work inside the nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA

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