The decline worldwide of the nuclear renaissance may well have reached the shores of West Cumbria as evident by the recent conflicting statements in the media about the future of NuGen’s project to build new reactors adjacent to Sellafield.
Launched in 2009, the NuGen consortium comprised of GDF Suez (France), Iberdrola (Spain) and the UK’s Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE). Having paid the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) almost £20M for an option on 190 hectares of green field land adjacent to Sellafield – with a further £50M follow – the consortium planned to develop the site with up to 3.5GW of new-build reactors. Choice of reactor type and a final investment decision to go ahead with the project would be made in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
Shortly after those days of renaissance optimism hit the headlines, the plans received the first major setback with SSE abandoning its 25% stake in the project in 2011 in order to concentrate its resources on renewable energies. The remaining partners GDF Suez and Iberdrola remained adamant however that new reactors at what had been named as the Moorside site would be up and running by 2023 despite delays to the project caused by arguments over the mineral rights of the land to be developed.
Whilst the ability/willingness of both NuGen’s partners to see the project through was being widely speculated in the media – fuelled by the on-going stalemate in discussions between Government and Electricité de France (EDF) over the ‘strike price’ of nuclear electricity – a prospective new player in the NuGen project appeared in early 2012 in the shape of the Japanese (Toshiba) owned company Westinghouse who were keen to get their AP 1000 reactor sold and in use in the UK, though it expected to seek additional funding from cash-rich Chinese state-owned nuclear groups. Responding to the initiative, Government ministers expressed the hope that ‘a change in ownership will revive the flagging project, which has made little progress since the Nugen consortium paid £70 million to lease the 190-hectare plot in 2009’ (NuClear News 5/4/13).
Since then however, the corporate components and financial status of the NuGen consortium has, through an assortment of media articles, become increasingly opaque – to a point that raises even more doubts about whether the project can possibly go ahead anywhere near the originally planned start date, if at all – as evidenced by the following revelations.
The Westinghouse interest was followed in mid 2012 by a report (Reuters 29/6/12) of the expected move by GDF Suez to ‘significantly trim’ its overall nuclear business and, just a few months later, by a report that NuGen partner Iberdrola was being touted as pulling out of the project (Sunday Times 30/9/12). The following month, in robustly scotching what it described as rumours, NuGen said ‘we have been told quite directly and forcibly that both our parent companies are 100 per cent committed to the Moorside project’ (Whitehaven News 1/10/12). Yet some nine months later, the Financial Times (12/7/13) reported that both GDF Suez and Iberdrola had decided to cut their stake in Nugen and that Chinese state-owned nuclear group State Nuclear Power Technology Company (SNPTC) was interested in buying in to the project.
The decision by GDF Suex and Iberdrola to cut their NuGen stakes was confirmed in a second Financial Times article (12/7/13) which reported that both partners had started talks with potential new investors ‘to buy all or some of their shares’ in NuGen. Two months later it was confirmed that Iberdrola was in talks with Westinghouse to sell its entire stake in Nugen (Scotsman 21/9/13) – a move that, if completed, would not only see the AP 1000 reactor deployed in the UK but also add yet further delay to the project. This because Westinghouse had withdrawn its reactor from the UK Regulator’s Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process in 2011 – a re-start of which would add possibly several years more to securing approval for the use of the AP1000 reactor in the UK.
Further doubts about the project were then raised when National Grid, responsible for providing the power lines for the project, had put ‘on hold’ its talks with Nugen for the somewhat bizarre reason that NuGen had ‘made quicker-than-expected progress in deciding on the type of reactor it will deploy at Moorside’ (Whitehaven News 19/9/13). Such a view is clearly at variance with Ministers’ description of a flagging project but also with latest media report that the Moorside site may have to be auctioned off due to ‘government frustration with a lack of progress on the project’(Reuters 24/9/13.
In addition to references of an outline interest by Russia, the latest twist in this saga of claim and denial is that China’s SNPTC is in talks to buy the NuGen site provided it receives Government assurances ‘that it will one day be able to build Chinese-designed nuclear stations in Britain’ (The Times 29/9/13). Where this leaves Westinghouse – and what Confucius would have made of it all – is anyone’s guess, but the bottom line is that if the project on land adjacent to Sellafield does eventually goes ahead, its cosmopolitan developers will be devoid of any UK participation at corporate level. Should it fail, it will have lived up to its locally bestowed name of Doomrise – an anagram of the Moorside title chosen by NuGen.