News analysis: The government has willed the creation of the first nuclear reactors since 1995, but to get them it needs to erect a new planning system, overcome opposition from a host of enemies – some within the construction industry – and work out a way to store toxic waste for 24,000 years.

Grab your Geiger counter and put on your best lead-lined underpants ... nuclear power stations are back. After the government announced last Thursday, to nobody’s surprise, that it would approve the construction of a new generation of reactors, power companies followed suit with sizeable building programmes. EDF plans to have four reactors up and running by 2017, and British Energy has named eight of its sites as possible locations for reactors.

As each power station costs between £2bn and £3bn to build, and involves between 5,000 and 6,000 construction workers, this is a big deal for the industry – and a welcome counterweight to the present gloom over the direction of the economy.

Not everyone sees it that way, though. In fact, the nuclear debate divides interested parties in unexpected ways. The green movement is opposed, on the whole, but influential figures such as James Lovelock, argue that nuclear power is necessary for the survival of life on Earth. Construction is the mirror image of this: firms such as Turner & Townsend, White Young Green and EC Harris have been preparing for Thursday’s announcement for years and some, such as Amec, have turned it into their raison d’être. Others argue that the nuclear option is being sold on a false prospectus.

For and against

Mark Whitby, chairman of Ramboll Whitbybird, questions the claims made by nuclear champions about low emissions. He said: “Nobody knows the true carbon emissions of nuclear fuel. It’s supposed to be 5kg of CO2 per kWh, but if you count the embodied energy in uranium mining, it could be 60g or 200g.” Before Christmas, Whitby offered the Royal Academy of Engineers £50,000 towards a study of exactly this. He’s meeting them in early February.

Whitby argues that renewable technologies will have superseded nuclear before the first of the plants is up and running. Offshore wind farms under construction will produce three times as much power as Sizewell B, he says, and this will triple or quadruple over the next 10 years.

The other side of the argument is presented by none other than Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, and now secretary of the Supporters of Nuclear Energy, a group chaired by Sir William McAlpine. He is triumphant about the government’s decision, for which he has lobbied for the past 10 years.

He said: “Nuclear power doesn’t require subsidy but it does require the government getting things that cause delay out of the way, such as planning. The mad mullahs of the green movement have lost the argument so they’re in the business of delay. They will use any conceivable debate to delay things in the courts. It’s the most despicable wrangling of the democratic will.”

Planning: the crucial question

In the end, the green issue will probably not be as important as the question of funding, and that, as Ingham suggests, is inextricably linked to the question of planning.

The money for the stations is going to be found by power companies, or at least it will if they decide they are a worthwhile bet. Nuclear power in the UK has always made a loss, so the government has offered financial assistance with decommissioning, the handling of nuclear waste and the future price of carbon trading schemes.

However, all this help will be no help at all unless the government can also promise to set out a reasonable and predictable timescale for planning. The last reactor to be built in the UK, Sizewell B in Suffolk, was subject to the longest public enquiry to be held in the UK; the debate there was not only over the reactor, but over whether there was a case for nuclear power at all. It finally began generating in 1995, after seven years and a 40% price hike.

The government’s solution is to set up a national commission that will decide in principle whether a plant should be built. Plans for this are contained in the Planning Reform Bill, going through parliament at the moment. This suggestion is supported by the nuclear industry. When EDF announced its plans, Vincent de Rivaz, its chief executive, singled out planning reform as a key condition, and an EDF spokesperson said: “These reforms are basically what we’re looking for.”

The problem for the government is that they are taking the hugely controversial issue of nuclear power and adding to it a hugely controversial reform of the planning system. This, say the greens and others, is the real “wrangling of the democratic will”.

Predictably, environmental groups are furious. Hugh Ellis, planning adviser at Friends of the Earth, believes that the imposition of a national commission will backfire. He said: “There are multiple ways people are losing the right to have their say. You can’t build anything in the face of massive public protests, so the government should be building a process of approving big projects that people can have faith in, even if they don’t agree with the decision.

“This is going to make things much worse. It’s not just going to be environmental protesters; it’s going to be a whole new group of activists who simply won’t accept an unelected body making decisions for them.”

It’s no surprise to find Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace on the frontline of the “no nukes” campaign. But the planning bill refuseniks also include groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

The CPRE has been lobbying against the planning bill, but it is more concerned about runways and windfarms than nuclear power. Ben Stafford, head of campaigns, said: “To be honest, our policy on nuclear power is not entirely clear to me. We do support the idea of national policy statements, subject to sustainability appraisals, but proposals for a planning commission are undermining the democratic process, taking decisions away from ministers. Members of the public aren’t likely to get involved in the debate about policy; they’re more likely to get involved with individual proposals, but it’ll be too late by then. The government can have advisory frameworks but it should be taking the decisions itself with public involvement.”

Stafford notes that when the bill had its second reading in parliament last month, it received a lukewarm reception from Labour backbenchers and he expects it to have a tougher time in the House of Lords.

He said: “We will continue to push all the way through, both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It’s a very important piece of legislation as far as we’re concerned, and we’ll continue to lobby on it.”

Pick your reactor

Now approval has been given to nuclear power, what types of reactor are favourite to be built? The candidates are eager to get ahead of the game and last year submitted their designs for approval to the UK’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which should take another two to three years. The idea is that this should speed up assessment of the suitability of designs for specific sites.

Four designs, known as generation three reactors, have been submitted for approval. They are simpler than previous designs and include more passive safety features rather than relying on mechanical systems to cool the reactor core in the event of an accident. They are also more efficient than earlier designs and have a longer operating life – typically 60 years.

The four types of reactor that have been submitted for approval are:

  1. The Areva European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPWR). This 1,600MW reactor is at the top of the list because EDF has said it wants to build four in the UK. Two are already under construction, one at Olkiluoto in Finland and the other at Flamanville in France. EDF could use the lessons learned on those projects to get the first plants operational by the end of 2017. The bad news is that the Finnish plant is already two years behind schedule. Power generators E.ON, RWE and British Energy are considering this design.
  2. The 1,154MW Westinghouse AP1000 is another strong contender as it has been approved for use in the US. This is a modular design that Westinghouse says can be built in three years. Jim O’Neill, head of nuclear at cost consultant Currie & Brown, said: “It could bring the cost down as there should be
    fewer problems when it gets to site.” E.ON, RWE and British Energy are also interested in this design.
  3. Japan’s Hitachi and America’s General Electric has put forward their economic simplified boiling water reactor for approval. This 1,520MW plant is different from the other designs as it brings water into direct contact with the reactor core rather than using a secondary circuit. The makers say this makes the plant more efficient, but turbine maintenance may be more difficult. It is being considered by RWE and British Energy.
  4. Atomic Energy Canada’s ACR 1000 Advanced CANDU reactor with a 1,200MW output is a pressurised heavy water reactor. Unlike the other designs, it can be refuelled during operation. British Energy is interested in this design.

The waste issue

There is a mountain of nuclear waste from Britain’s nuclear power stations and our experimental nuclear programme in the fifties, so waste from a new generation of more efficient power stations will not make a big difference. When Finland decided to build a station at Olkiluoto in 2002, having a long-term solution to the waste problem helped sell it to the public. If the UK government is going to win the PR battle for nuclear, it needs to follow the Finnish example.

Finland is building a deep-level depository in stable bedrock. When the facility is finished in 2020 the waste will be buried 520m below ground in sealed containers. When it is full, the access tunnels will be sealed up. This appears to be the best solution and the right geological conditions do exist in the UK. The government is asking communities to “volunteer” to take the waste but they are only likely to do so if financially rewarded. In 2007, the operators of Sellafield offered a local community £10m plus £1.5m a year for extending the capacity of an existing low-level waste depository. How much the government will have to pay for the more dangerous spent nuclear fuel, and how the taxpayer would react, remains to be seen.

Who’s going to build them?

It’s up to the big power companies, EDF, E.ON, RWE and British Energy, to provide funding and project plans. They will form consortiums of technology providers, programme and project managers and contractors, to build the power stations.

With construction costs estimated at £2-3bn, it is an attractive market. Firms such as Parsons Brinckerhoff, Costain, Turner & Townsend and Halcrow are involved in decommissioning projects on sites across the UK and all have expressed interest.

Last week, Building revealed that Costain was in talks with EDF about joining its consortium, which includes engineering consultancy Amec and nuclear expert Areva.

Shaun Taylor, head of the nuclear sector at Franklin + Andrews, said there will be opportunities through the supply chain. Although the industry has not built a nuclear plant in the UK since the mid-nineties, he believes a lack of specialist skills won’t be a problem: “The reactor island is nuclear, but the rest of a power station conventional and there’s nothing that special about it.”

At Parsons Brinckerhoff, Alastair Smith, director of nuclear services, believes nuclear projects will not have any difficulty finding staff: “In the past the industry attracted the best. They make half a million pounds of profit a day, so if you need extra resources to ensure it’s built on time, that’s a pretty big incentive.” Mark Whitby of Whitbybird disagrees. “I’ve got queues of people for offshore wind projects, but I can’t find one person who wants to work on a nuclear power plant. It’s the end of the line for an engineer.”

What happens now and when can we start on site?

1 The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) will do a generic safety assessment of the four possible technologies.
Simultaneously, the government will prepare a list of strategic sites when the reactors could be located. The biggest question is the resourcing of the NII – it is understaffed at the moment but the government has promised to increase numbers. Cutting the number of generic designs to two would also speed things up

Best case: 18 months
Worst case: three years

2 The site-specific assessment, looking at safety, security, transport and environmental viability. This will be carried out by the NII, the Environment Agency, the Ministry for Transport and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security.

The organisations have agreed this will take about a year

3 Planning and the public enquiry. Here, the government’s Planning Bill will make all the difference. If it gets through, an independent Infrastructure Planning Committee will streamline and expedite the process. If it does not, look forward to a long drawn out battle, as in the case of Heathrow Terminal 5 or Sizewell B

Best case: one year
Worst case: three years

4 Start on site. Developers will be gearing up throughout the process so they are ready to go as soon as planning is secured. This will mean assembling teams, clearing and preparing sites and ordering key components

Best case: June 2011
Worst case: January 2015

With thanks to Alistair Smith of Parsons Brinckerhoff