2015 – What a difference a year makes…

Rupert Lewis, Communications Officer at NIA
The Nuclear year in review by Rupert Lewis, Communications Executive at NIA.

2015 proved to be a pivotal year in the history of the UK nuclear industry. Concrete mixers are primed at Hinkley in Somerset for the construction of the UK’s first nuclear power plant for decades, funding has been secured for the decommissioning programme and a comprehensive global climate change deal was reached in December.

The year began with positive news from the Office for Nuclear Regulation for two of EDF Energy’s operating stations. Following separate safety reviews the regulator announced the expected life of Dungeness B had been extended by 10 years and that operators at Sizewell B had demonstrated the plant can continue operations safely until 2025.

In the north-west of the country, following a comprehensive year-long review, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) announced it would take over the running of Sellafield Ltd from Nuclear Management Partners, to deliver a simplified management structure. The transition is almost complete and is expected to conclude in Q1 of this year. Commenting at the time, then Energy Secretary for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey said, “It is now clear that Sellafield’s complexity and technical uncertainties present significantly greater challenges than other NDA sites, and it is therefore less well suited to the transfer of full site-wide responsibility to the private sector via a Parent Body Organisation (PBO) structure.”

It was an incredibly busy year for the NDA and the various PBO’s with a number of tangible achievements across the decommissioning estate. Sizewell A and Oldbury were both declared fuel free, and the NDA announced it had increased its overall spend with SMEs to over 21% (£330 million), beating its Government target of 20%.

Former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Liberal Democrat ex-MP Ed Davey
Former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Liberal Democrat ex-MP Ed Davey

At Sellafield, a year of achievement was capped with the removal of 50% of the radioactivity from the site’s oldest nuclear fuel pond. This hugely challenging mission highlights the palpable progress on the site and showcases what can be achieved in 2016 and beyond. In the summer, Sellafield’s management team took the unprecedented decision to allow BBC cameras onto the site to film and tell the story of the ‘most hazardous place in Europe’. Watched by millions, Jim Al-Khalili’s documentary, ‘Inside Sellafield’ provided viewers with an excellent and importantly balanced narrative of the science behind the rush to develop nuclear weapons, the legacy left behind and todays challenging clean-up mission. The public often see the nuclear industry as a secretive one and opening its doors as Sellafield did is surely a template for an industry public awareness initiative.

The year ended with the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and Autumn Statement. In his CSR, George Osborne outlined the review for Whitehall expenditure over the next five years and the Departments the nuclear sector looks to for energy and industrial policy saw unavoidable cuts. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will reduce spend by 17% and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) budget will be cut by 22% over the next four years. Positively for the UK supply chain, £11 billion was secured for the NDA’s budget to undertake the UK’s decommissioning mission up to 2020 and all essential, high hazard work will continue as planned.

In line with DECC’s stride for innovation in the energy sector, the Chancellor also promised £250 million for investment into nuclear R&D. This should help secure the country’s position as a global leader in the sector and push ahead with plans for a pioneering Small Modular Reactor programme.

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Andrea Leadsom MP, Conservative Energy Minister following the General Election in May.

Politically, the big event for 2015 was the General Election that returned a Conservative Government to Westminster. The result eventually hinged on economic competence and the rise of the SNP, but energy played a major part early in the campaign with consumer prices a key part of Labour’s ‘cost of living’ case.

Following the election, Amber Rudd was appointed as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Andrea Leadsom took up the role of Minister of State for Energy, with the majority of the nuclear brief and Lord Bourne was installed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The DECC team has already shown its commitment to the nuclear industry and Amber Rudd explained nuclear is “central to our energy secure future” during her energy reset announcement in November.

The Government is clear in its support of new nuclear; aiming to help facilitate a number of large-scale projects and lay the terrain for an SMR programme as well as deal with the UK’s plutonium stockpile. At the NIA’s annual conference, #Nuclear – Powering the UK, Andrea Leadsom explained, “The government takes this [plutonium] issue seriously and that is why a provision has been made in the NDA’s budget to continue to make meaningful progress on this important and complex issue.”

Support for nuclear throughout the rest of Westminster is less clear. Labour’s position remains supportive with no motion tabled at their autumn conference. The shadow energy team led by Lisa Nandy support the sector but cost remains a key issue for the party and with a newly elected leader who has opposed nuclear energy for over 30 years, there is no room for complacency.

Against that background, whilst the end of the election has seen the abandonment of the ‘price freeze policy’, it is clear the cost of electricity will be a dominant theme throughout this Parliament and every energy technology will have to justify its construction and generating costs.

Last year was a historical moment for new nuclear build in the UK. The first new nuclear power station in a generation edged closer as EDF and China General Nuclear Power Corporation signed a Strategic Investment Agreement for Hinkley Point C. EDF confirmed it will take a 66.5% in the project, with CGN taking the remaining 33.5%. With the Contract for Difference finalised and the Funded Decommissioning Programme approved, the project is only a Final Investment Decision away from shovels hitting the ground – something which is expected in early 2016.

The importance of Hinkley Point C for the UK nuclear industry cannot be underestimated and with four more national significant new build projects set to follow, the nuclear renaissance is almost complete. Horizon Nuclear Power is pressing ahead with its Wyfla Newydd project on Anglesey and should be in a position to announce its Engineering Procurement and Construction partner in the first half of 2016. NuGen which has plans to build at Moorside in Cumbria will launch the second phase of its public consultation and its chosen reactor design, the Westinghouse AP1000, is on track complete the regulators Generic Design Assessment this year.

Looking to the future, the historic deal reached in Paris to limit global temperature rises to below 20C, with an ambition to limit any increase to 1.50C has enhanced the argument for all low-carbon technologies. To meet the targets, progress will need to be quick and it is clear the UK and many other countries will utilise nuclear power’s low-carbon baseload power to support intermittent technologies. Commenting on the agreement, Nuclear Industry Association Chief Executive, Keith Parker said, “Nuclear power can make a major contribution. It already generates around 11% of the world’s electricity, and its role is set to grow as individual countries look to secure their low-carbon futures… nuclear power is already recognised as a vital cog in the country’s energy mix. Both public and politicians understand that its baseload, low-carbon electricity is crucial if the UK is to reduce its carbon emissions and maintain energy security.”

2015 marked a number of major achievements in the history of the industry, with decommissioning progressing well, Hinkley Point C nearing construction and a global climate deal pushing for decarbonisation – UK nuclear has a bright future in 2016 and beyond.

Images courtesy of Nuclear Industry Association