UK academics join pro-Hinkley nuclear project debate

04 August 2016

Nuclear engineering and climate change experts from Imperial College London have outlined the benefits of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant project in Somerset, England. They have joined the public debate on EDF Energy's project, after new British Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet announced last week that it wants to review the deal and decide in early autumn whether to commit its support.

In an article written by Simon Levey of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Colin Smith, senior research media officer at Imperial, the experts note that some critics have raised concerns about UK infrastructure being foreign owned, being part-owned by the French state-owned energy company EDF and part-funded by China's CGN Group. The £18 billion ($24 billion) investment includes government incentives, such as a contract for difference agreement, arranged by the previous government under David Cameron.

But they highlight the obvious benefits of the project - it will be the biggest construction site in Europe, providing 25,000 construction jobs and, when it is complete, will employ 900 people. The twin-unit EPR plant will generate low-carbon energy, providing enough power for six million homes, and supplying 7% of the UK's electricity needs over its 60-year lifetime.

Professor Michael Bluck, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial, said: "Nuclear power is widely accepted as a vital component in the energy mix, and Hinkley C will provide important baseload [electricity] in support of other low-carbon, but intermittent technologies, such as wind and photovoltaics.

"The construction and commissioning of Hinkley C will also provide a focus for the reinvigoration of the UK nuclear industry and the associated skills development necessary for future nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors, which could be built in a factory and transported to a location, making them cheaper to make and run."

Dr Ben Britton, director of advanced nuclear engineering in Imperial's Department of Materials, said decarbonisation of the UK's energy mix is critical in light of climate change. "To contextualise the scale of the Hinkley project - it is approximately equivalent to a solar farm that takes up an area the size of the Isle of Wight."

Britton also said that a nuclear power station is a great opportunity for the UK to re-invigorate its nuclear engineering workforce. "There are many exciting opportunities for skilled UK graduates, both in the supply chain, operation and management of our nuclear fleet. These jobs require highly skilled individuals with a diverse range of expertise, combined with a holistic understanding of engineering in a nuclear context," he said.

Alyssa Gilbert, head of policy and translation at the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment, said the government "needs to first reassure potential investors that the UK is genuinely open for business by setting out clearly and transparently what the reasons are for revisiting the decision on Hinkley".

Professor Joanna Haigh, co-Director of the same institute, said the government's recent passing of the fifth carbon budget, and its restated commitment to a low-carbon future, are very welcome. She added that a reliance on the Hinkley Point C project to achieve these aims "would be misplaced", however, "as well as very costly". What is needed for the UK to meet its stated targets is swift action now on energy efficiency, she said, and serious implementation of existing renewable energy technologies.

Professor Martin Siegert, co-director of the institute, noted that the International Energy Agency's Technology Perspectives 2016 points to an increase in the level of nuclear energy, if global warming is to be limited to the 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement of last December. "The delays and difficulties in obtaining the go-ahead for Hinkley Point C are clearly not optimal for this necessary change to happen," Siegert said. "To resolve the issue, either we accept that nuclear power cannot be enhanced much beyond its present levels, in which case further increases in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage will be needed, or we renew global efforts to drive innovation and success in safe, affordable nuclear power. If we decide the latter is preferable, then investment in education, research and innovation in nuclear engineering is urgently needed both within the UK and in many of the world's top universities and research establishments."

Dr Mark Wenman, lecturer in nuclear engineering materials and a member of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, said Hinkley Point C is vitally important for the UK. "The UK remains focused on phasing out coal power stations and at the same time many nuclear stations will also be closing," he said. "This means the UK would face potential energy shortages, in the mid-2020s, even with solid growth in renewables such as wind and solar. At the same time the UK needs to remain committed to reducing CO2 emissions and Hinkley C, if built on time, would provide secure low carbon energy just when we need it."

Hinkley Point C also provides the opportunity to show that big infrastructure projects can be delivered in the UK, he said, which may bring further investment and jobs. "From the point of view of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, this will provide great opportunities for our top graduate students and potentially be a big boost to research income when relationships with the EU are strained," he added.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News