Introduction: On 30thJune, Japan’s electronics and engineering giant Toshiba announced it had acquired a 60% stake in the NuGen consortium which plans to build Westinghouse (AP1000) Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR) at a site next to Sellafield. The reactors will use fuel from the Westinghouse fuel fabrication facility at Springfields, Lancashire. The remaining 40% stake in the consortium remains with France’s GDF Suez. This briefing considers some of the issues around this proposal; including those concerning new transmission lines and radioactive waste.
The companies involved: The original NuGen consortium 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 the time, NuGen 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 (since then all of the other Big Six energy companies in the UK – except EDF which proposes to build at Hinkley -have ended their involvement in nuclear new build consortia).
Doubts about the commitment of original shareholders in Nugen – Iberdrola and GDF Suez (each then holding 50%) – were vehemently denied in 2102 by NuGen, which stated ‘we have been told quite directly and forcibly that both our parent companies are 100 per cent committed to the Moorside project.” By late 2013 Iberdrola’s entire 50% shareholding had been taken up by Toshiba; the deal with GDF Suez making the Japanese company NuGen’s majority shareholder.
In addition there has been an extension of three years on the land option: the date when NuGen’s investment decision on the project is likely to be made. Originally set at ‘around 2015’, Toshiba’s now claims the final investment decision ‘is forecast to be taken by the end of 2018’. The 2014 World Nuclear Industry Status report noted the ‘odds are against’ the Nugen consortium building the reactors at Moorside. It is also thought that investment decisions on the reactors, which could cost £8bn each, will be heavily influenced by building next to Sellafield: one of the world’s most hazardous nuclear facilities.
On-site work: Over the next four years leading up to its investment decision, NuGen has 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 and 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, the final selection of the parcel of land – the footprint of the new power stations – will be significantly less than the 199 hectares of land currently earmarked for investigation; Westinghouse has suggested the footprint for each AP1000 reactor could be as little as 4 hectares per reactor ‘island’.
Full development of the site, which it is claimed would ‘create between 14,000 and 21000 UK jobs’ would see 3.4GW generated by three Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors – with Toshiba boldly stating 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’.
The claims for build time, as with the employment numbers, appear overly optimistic; and somewhat implausible given 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. There is also scepticism as to whether Toshiba will deliver on 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 the Fukushima nuclear plant – an involvement that sits uneasily with the headline banner of Toshiba’s Nuclear Power website … ‘Future happiness through nuclear power’. ,br>
Issues that can’t be ignored: In welcoming Nugen’s latest announcement, the West Cumbrian pro-nuclear lobby made no mention of the many major hurdles facing the project. Firstly, whether any form of taxpayer subsidy – for electricity generation costs and waste disposal – will be allowed by the EU Competition Commission. The decision on the first new build state aid case, for EDF’s Hinkley reactors, is expected later this year. Secondly there is the issue of how long it will take the AP1000 design to be signed off by the UK nuclear regulators under the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process In January 2011 Westinghouse withdrew from the GDA process; re-entering it only in July 2014. Delays to the process of allowing AP1000 construction in the UK are highly likely as the Regulators’ latest Progress Report (January – March 2014) pointed 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– which includes the reactors and spent fuel stores – can begin until the GDA issues have been resolved. Work on the ‘nuclear island’ is also dependent on waste disposal deals; such as that currently being secretly negotiated with the Government and EDF over the proposed new reactors at Hinkley. Communities are locked out of such talks: the same conditions will doubtless apply to negotiations over Moorside.
Off-site impact: Other issues likely to delay the project include connecting the reactor/s to the electricity Grid. On 3rd July 2014, NuGen’s Head of Communications had told a local Business Cluster meeting that the National Grid will have to fund the £2bn-£3bn project themselves to upgrade the current Grid system across Cumbria 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’. It is envisaged this would entail a string of pylons, 46metres/152 feet high marching across the north and south of the county (the existing pylons are 25 metres tall).Areas along the transmission corridors will potentially face property blight – a concern raised over the nuclear dump proposals.
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 seawater as a coolant over inland freshwater supplies. If Nugen attempts the latter it 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 use of seawater, however, would pose constructional and radiological difficulties because of plutonium and other radioactive contamination trapped in the mud banks off Sellafield – through which a seawater coolant system would have to be laid.
Such issues, originally flagged in BNFL’s 1992 investigations of the site, were described as potential deal-breakers at a Nuclear Influencing Strategy Workshop (attended by 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. The same closed-door meeting also touched on very politically sensitive issues: the minutes noting that West Cumbria has a ‘community willing’ to host the national nuclear dump site and that this was a ‘trump card’ that could be used to deliver new reactors at Sellafield.
Radioactive waste and Moorside: The Government’s 2010 decision to ‘justify’ the AP1000 for possible use in the UK – a legal decision made under EU law – does not allow for use of plutonium fuel in the reactors: any move on that issue would have to be the subject of further consultation and legal processes. The UK’s plutonium ‘waste’ stockpile cannot, as some have assumed, be automatically used in the reactors at Moorside.
The most problematic waste resulting from reactor operation, in terms of the overall radioactive content, will be the intensely hot and radioactive spent fuel. New build fuel is estimated to be around twice as radioactive as ‘legacy; spent fuel from existing reactors: this will cause problems for many decades to come as it requires much longer storage above ground and a much large disposal area underground. The NDA has claimed it might be possible to dispose of new build spent fuel 50 years after this it is taken out of reactor; but the methods proposed to achieve this have never been used and have not been cleared by the regulators. Using official assumptions, about the timing of spent fuel disposal – it should be noted spent fuel has never been disposed of anywhere in the world- new build spent fuel might not be consigned to a disposal site (should one ever eventuate) until around 2190-2200.
It is difficult for anyone to predict exactly what contribution the Moorside reactors might make to the UK’s final nuclear waste inventory – in terms of volume and radioactivity – as there are a number of issues which would impact on this: the size of any new build programme – 10GW or 16GW; how much ‘legacy’ waste the NDA consigns to deep geological disposal; and whether all the existing spent fuel contracted for processing at Sellafield is reprocessed.
This year the NDA changed the way it presents estimates of radioactivity in legacy wastes; the reasons for this are not clear. However, using a baseline of 10GW for a new build programme, and figures given earlier in official documents on the UK’s nuclear waste inventory – on a per GW basis Moorside’s spent fuel could add approximately 50% to the existing radioactivity in legacy wastes created over the past 60 years.
To facilitate Moorside, Cumbria is being asked not only to accept massive new transmission lines, but also more nuclear waste: a situation which may be unpalatable to many given the failures of waste management at Sellafield itself and debacles to site a national nuclear dump in the county.