In a 30th June press release, Japan’s electronics and engineering giant Toshiba announced that it had acquired a 60% stake in the NuGen consortium which plans to build Westinghouse (AP1000) Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR) on the coastal site adjacent to Sellafield. The reactors will be operated on fuel from the Westinghouse fuel fabrication facility at Springfields, Lancashire. The remaining 40% stake in the consortium remains with France’s GDF Suez.
NuGen was launched in 2009 having paid the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) almost £20M (with a further £50M to follow) for an option on 199 hectares of green-field land on the coast adjacent to Sellafield’s north westerly perimeter fence. At that time, the NuGen consortium consisted of Spain’s Iberdrola, France’s GDF Suez and UK’s Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) – the latter abandoning its 25% stake in the venture in 2011 to concentrate its resources on renewable energies.
Doubts about the commitment to the project of both Iberdrola and GDF Suez (each then holding 50%) – vehemently denied in NuGen’s 2012 statement that ‘we have been told quite directly and forcibly that both our parent companies are 100 per cent committed to the Moorside project” – were confirmed in 2013 when both foreign companies were reported as seeking to offload all or part of their shareholding in NuGen. Already in talks with potential investors from Russia, China and the Toshiba subsidiary Westinghouse (once owned by British Nuclear Fuels), a deal was confirmed in late 2013 which saw Iberdrola’s entire 50% shareholding taken up by Toshiba. Last week’s deal with GDF Suez sees the Japanese company becoming NuGen’s majority shareholder.
Earlier, land owners Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) had announced that on 1st May 2014 an ‘updated option agreement’ for NuGen’s proposed site – now officially named Moorside ( but referred to locally as Doomrise) – had been concluded with the consortium. The deal was described by the local media as an extension of the land option that was now valued at some £200M. Only last year, NuGen’s lack of progress on the project came under significant Government criticism with the threat of auctioning off the site in order to breathe new life into the faltering project.
The extension on the land option extension comes in parallel with a delay of three years to the date when NuGen’s final investment decision on the project is likely to be made. Originally set at ‘around 2015’, Toshiba’s press release states that the final investment decision ‘is forecast to be taken by the end of 2018’.
Over the next four years leading up to its investment decision, NuGen plans to undertake a range of preparatory works, including regulatory, permitting and commercial activities. As well as preliminary studies for site layouts, stakeholder engagement and preparation for stakeholder consultations, the focus for 2014/15 will be the investigation of the 199 hectare site. This will include geotechnical surveys, groundwater sampling and soil sampling, geological & hydrogeological investigations and radiological direct measurements.
Satisfactory completion of these investigations could allow NuGen to exercise its ‘option to purchase the most appropriate land depending on the area that is found to be the most suitable’. Though no figure is given by NuGen, this finally selected parcel of land – the footprint of the new power station – will be significantly less than the 199 hectares of land currently earmarked for initial investigation. Whilst BNFL’s 1992 proposals to build new reactors on the same land estimated a footprint for each PWR reactor of approximately 15 hectares, Westinghouse itself suggests that the footprint for the more compact AP1000 reactor could be as little as 4 hectares per reactor ‘island’.
Full development of the site, projected ‘to create between 14,000 and 21000 UK jobs’ would see 3.4GW generated by three Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors – with Toshiba claiming that each of the reactors ‘will take approximately 4 years to build’, that the first reactor is ‘targeted for operation in 2024’ and that operation of all three new reactors would be ‘delivered by 2026’.
These overly ambitious claims, as with the employment numbers, appear somewhat implausible and at odds with the current experience in the US where the construction of AP1000 reactors at Vogtle in Georgia and Summer in South Carolina (the first new-build in the US for 30 years) are already 12 months or so behind schedule and over budget. Similar delays – a hallmark of the so called global nuclear renaissance, are also reported for AP1000 construction in China at Sanmen and Haiyang. Toshiba’s earlier claim (Ecologist 17/1/14) that its NuGen venture will be faster and cheaper than EDF’s development of EPR reactors at Hinkley C in Somerset appears equally implausible. Further, sceptical observers will wait with interest to see whether Toshiba lives up to another claim reported in the Ecologist that it will ask ‘for a lower (strike) price than the £92.50 (per Megawatt/hour) given for Hinkley C’ by the UK Government.in October 2013.
TVs, microwave ovens, computers and dishwashers apart, Toshiba’s nuclear construction experience, principally on PWR and BWR reactors in Japan, dates back to the late 1960’s and includes involvement in the building of Fukushima – an involvement that sits uneasily with the headline banner of its Toshiba – Nuclear Power website … ‘Future happiness through nuclear power’.
In welcoming this week’s announcement, the West Cumbrian pro-nuclear lobby has clearly taken no account of the many major hurdles facing the project – the first and foremost being the ruling expected later this year by the EU Competition Commission on the legality of the range of generous subsidies and underwritings offered to the UK’s new-build developers by Government. Then there’s the progress of the Regulators’ Generic Design Assessment (GDA) of the Westinghouse AP1000. With only Stage 1 of the complex assessment process completed, further delays to the process are likely as evident from the Regulators’ latest Progress Report (January – March 2014) which points to 51 ‘technically challenging’ issues still to be resolved and that ‘we expect the completion of GDA for the AP1000 reactor design to take a number of years’. No nuclear ‘island’ construction can begin until the GDA issues have been resolved and the process completed.
Other issues likely to delay the project include connecting the reactor/s to the electricity Grid. NuGen’s Head of Communications had told a local Business Cluster meeting last week that the National Grid will have to take a £2-3bn project themselves to upgrade the current Grid system and that “will involve two lines going north to Carlisle and two going south to Heysham …. they might even have to put a tunnel under Morecambe Bay’.
Also likely to be problematic is the choice of cooling water source for the new reactor/s. For potential coastal sites, Westinghouse appears to favour a seawater source of coolant over abstraction from inland freshwater supplies. Whilst for NuGen’s venture the latter will inevitably attract significant local opposition to any further water abstraction by the nuclear industry from already overtaxed rivers, lakes and reservoirs in the area, the former would pose constructional and radiological difficulties because of plutonium and other radioactive contamination trapped in the mud banks off the Sellafield coast and through which a seawater coolant system would have to be laid.
Such issues, already raised by BNFL’s 1992 investigations of the site, were further recognised and described as potential deal-breakers at a Nuclear Influencing Strategy Workshop (West Cumbrian local authorities and industry) held at Kendal in January 2008. This meeting also heard the new-build site’s geology described as unsuitable for new-build because of the significant depth of the bedrock.