The big nuclear push

Published:  09 October, 2015

The UK Government’s announcement to guarantee the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant is a very welcome, albeit a long overdue, decision. Nuclear is set to play a central and vital role in the UK’s energy future. Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment, at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, commented that although the financial costs of nuclear power seem high, with the upfront cost of Hinkley Point C over £16 billion, this power station will provide and modernise the diversification we so badly need in ensuring the UK’s lights stay on.

I agree with her comments that nuclear is a vital part of the electricity mix we need in addition to gas-generation and renewables. At present, there is no viable alternative that will enable us to meet our emission targets.

Although as she highlights, despite it being positive news that the Government is investing to secure energy supplies in the UK, it is important to consider that different technologies will have different total whole life costs. Considered within these costs are land use, developing a skills base, materials, labour, production, environmental impact, waste disposal and decommissioning. It is also critical that investments, such as this create opportunities beyond power supply in the long term development of precision engineering roles and economic benefits to local communities.

The government now needs to push forward with the development of other nuclear power sites, in places like Wylfa and Oldbury as well as other types of nuclear, like Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). SMRs present a lower cost option, with comparatively straightforward construction and, potentially, a more attractive investment proposition. They would be factory-manufactured and assembled on site, and likely cost in the region of £1-2 billion.

As Dr Baxter also explains, while the development of a new nuclear power station is positive news, the Government must encourage significant investment in the whole nuclear fuel life-cycle. Investment in research and development to understand further the nature of radioactive waste, the potential for further energy production both heat and power and the opportunities for reducing radioactive half-life are all vital in developing a safe nuclear industry. Concerns over the disposal and long-term management of these wastes must also be addressed, with proper testing for geological disposal of radioactive wastes taking around 20 years. I agree with Dr Baxter that the Government must now also take steps to secure potential sites for disposal with long-term testing strategies, without which nuclear power generation will continue to leave a significant waste challenge for future generations.

On a final note, this is the 400th edition of Plant & Works Engineering! I would like to emphasise this is not a self congratulatory or promotional mention from the publisher - well perhaps a little bit - but it would be wrong of me as editor and current custodian of content not to highlight this milestone and the immense manufacturing and engineering history which has been covered over the 400 editions since PWE’s establishment back in 1981.

Throughout this period PWE has seen the rise, fall, and rise again of British manufacturing, and we look forward to continuing to bring readers the latest industry developments over many more editions!

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