Alan Cumming wants your help building EDF’s third-generation nuclear power plants, which, if all goes to plan, means four multibillion-pound projects and more than 150 contracts up for grabs

There are many questions hanging over the future of nuclear power in the UK, and in particular over energy company EDF’s plans to start building four new power stations in 2012. But Alan Cumming can’t really answer any of them. As deputy director of procurement, construction and project controls, rather than planning, public policy, great unknowns or hopeless causes, Cumming isn’t best placed to talk about the implications of the new coalition government, the odds of securing planning permission after the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission or when EDF really needs a decision on a floorprice for carbon credits to determine whether the plants are financially

viable. Fortunately, he can talk in quite some detail about a question that is of great importance to Building’s readers: how they can get involved in building them?

Following EDF’s acquisition of British Energy in January 2009, it already operates nuclear power plants on eight sites in the UK including Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley Point in Somerset. The four new third-generation plants will be split between those two sites, and it hopes to start construction of the first, Hinkley Point C, in 2012. It is already constructing a third-generation plant at Flamanville in Normandy, which is due to complete in 2012 and has a project value of €4bn (£3.3bn).

The UK supply chain is at the threshold of global nuclear proliferation. The opportunities are huge. It’s about being lionhearted and rising to the occasion

With more than 150 contracts worth several billion pounds to award, you wouldn’t expect EDF to have to solicit attention from suppliers. Yet it is, inviting more than 630 suppliers to the first of its supplier engagement days last June in London. Since then, Cumming has presented to more than 800 companies in Suffolk and Somerset, in London again, and at energy conferences in Birmingham and Manchester. There will be several more events this summer.

“It’s about demystifying the content of the construction of a nuclear power plant,” he explains. “The nuclear element absolutely needs to have the right skills, but within the remainder of the plant there are a lot of parts that will be open to normal construction companies and businesses, particularly local ones. There’s a huge amount of work involved in a power station, a whole spectrum of activities that companies will be able to participate in, from butchers for the meat for the men and ladies to eat, to taxi drivers, construction workers and technicians.”

Cumming appears serious about getting local companies involved. Though many of the contracts will be let through the main contractors, he says his team will keep a close eye on where they’re going. He has asked the chambers of commerce in Suffolk and Somerset to compile a database of local companies, and will employ local procurement officers in each area. “Having local staff on the project is really important to us because they’re the ones that are going to be living with it. Our experience within the existing business is that the support of local people is extremely valuable.”

It would be hard to overstate exactly how valuable, with the new plants yet to secure planning permission - Cumming admits his charm offensive is a crucial part of that. But it is also an opportunity for EDF to expand its global supply chain: “We’ve got other power plants to build abroad, and we see the UK as being a good platform to expand on. The UK supply chain is at the threshold of global nuclear proliferation. The opportunities are huge. It’s about being lionhearted and rising to the occasion, and we are going to do our best to help them get engaged and direct them to agencies where they can receive the appropriate training.”

Getting involved

What stage is procurement at?
The first contract has just been awarded to Faithful + Gould, for procurement and contract management services worth £3m over an initial period of three years. The next big milestone for Cumming’s team is the Generic Design Assessment from the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, which they hope will approve the Areva EPR reactor that EDF has chosen for the new plants. This is due in June 2011. The geotechnical investigations for Hinkley Point C are complete, and environmental assessments under way. A planning application for the preliminary works, which involve constructing a temporary sea jetty, building a fence and sea wall around the site and moving more than 4,000,000m3 of material to level it, will be submitted to West Somerset council later in the summer.

Nuclear specialist architect YRM is already working on the planning and design of the power stations, and the major civil engineering work contracts are out to tender. “Our intention is to place a lot of the major contracts next summer or early after the summer. A lot rests on the Generic Design Assessment.”

How will contracts be awarded?
Companies will be prequalified based on safety, quality, financial robustness and capability. Tenders will be sent to a shortlist, and selection based on technical compliance, ability to deliver and price, of lifetime as well as capital costs. “Capability will be proven through previous experience, but this is a long programme so there’s plenty of time for people to get to know us.”

How can companies impress you?
“Safety is always our number one priority, and we look for companies that take their environmental responsibilities very seriously. We will be applying normal quality standards, but we expect people to work to really high levels. We’ll be looking for predictability in the work that’s undertaken, for people to get things right first time and do what they say they’re going to.”

Where do I sign up?

To this end, he promises, projects will be run on a collaborative basis, using the NEC form of contract. “We will have a healthy tension with our contractors and that goes both ways - we need to deliver documents to them in time and then they need to undertake what’s agreed. Where we’ve got a lump sum agreement is only where we’ve got a good robust scope of work. It’s important not to put risk unrealistically into the supply chain - the nuclear industry is a relationship-based industry, not a transactional one.”

The Flamanville plant, which uses the same Areva EPR technology as is proposed in the UK, has suffered construction delays and concerns over quality. How will EDF ensure that doesn’t happen in the UK? This is another thing that Cumming can’t talk about, as he’s only involved in UK projects but he says the same design team will be working on the UK reactors. “What’s really important is getting contractors and suppliers involved early on so we can ensure the constructability aspects are dealt with,” he adds.

The key difference between the UK and France is that French contractors play a much wider role, undertaking design, manufacture, supply, direction and commissioning, so to adapt to the UK market, some of the packages have been broken down. “It makes it a more interesting issue for us to manage but it suits the supply chain more. The innovation that suppliers can come up with is important to us as well. We do recognise that some standards they’re going to be working to are not UK standards, but European standards, but that’s okay because once they learn them they’ll be able to bid for work on our Penly facility as well [near Dieppe in northern France, due to start in 2012].”

So come on UK construction, what are you waiting for? Today Hinkley, tomorrow the world …

Photography by Shan Rixon