Britain's nuclear expansion plans were boosted after Japan's Hitachi signed a £700 million deal that will enable it to start building the next generation of power plants.
The engineering giant is buying Horizon Nuclear Power, which has the rights to build reactors at Wylfa on Anglesey, North Wales, and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, from its German owners E.on and RWE npower. Toshiba-owned Westinghouse had formerly hoped to build its AP1000 design on the sites, but it now looks likely that Hitachi will use its own advanced boiling-water reactor technology.
The design has yet to go through Britain's rigorous generic design assessment programme which French nuclear reactor vendor Areva – which is looking to construct new plant in Somerset and Suffolk in tandem with utility EDF – and Westinghouse have almost completed. EDF boss Vincent de Rivaz has told the government that further progress depends on a favourable investment case for nuclear power including a set “strike price”, or subsidy level.
Hitachi confirmed that it intends to progress Horizon's plans to build between two and three new nuclear plants at each site. The facilities, which could be feeding electricity into the national grid in the first half of the 2020s, are expected to generate power equivalent to up to 14 million homes over 60 years, Hitachi said. Up to 6,000 jobs are expected to be created during construction at each site, with a further 1,000 permanent jobs at both locations once operational. Anglesey is economically dependent on the development of a new reactor or reactors. Hitachi has also signed supply chain deals with engineering firms Rolls-Royce and Babcock International and has also pledged to establish a module assembly facility in the UK.
The Horizon venture, which employs around 90 people, was set up in 2009 as part of the drive to meet the UK's carbon reduction goals. But RWE and E.on put the business up for sale in March after Germany's move to abandon nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster.
Doubts have grown about the private sector's commitment to the UK's nuclear programme after a consortium made up of Iberdrola, GDF Suez and SSE also withdrew from the process.
Hitachi plans to employ its advanced boiling-water technology, which is already in use in four reactors in Japan that have been built to time and budget. Prime Minister David Cameron said Hitachi's involvement represented “a decades-long, multibillion-pound vote of confidence in the UK”.
Energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey said: “Hitachi bring with them decades of expertise, and are responsible for building some of the most advanced nuclear reactors on time and on budget, so I welcome their commitment to helping build a low-carbon, secure-energy future for the UK.”
Mike Clancy, general secretary-designate of the union Prospect, said: “The successful bid by the Hitachi/SNC-Lavalin consortium sees a new entrant to the UK nuclear industry and demonstrates its faith in the economic promise the UK nuclear market offers both commerce and the economy as a whole.
“The Horizon venture is a milestone in securing future low-carbon energy generation capacity within the UK and its importance to local and national economies cannot be overstated.
“While Hitachi's advanced boiling-water reactor design has yet to undergo the UK's generic design assessment approval process, it is a proven technology and therefore any construction in the UK will benefit from lessons learned from its construction in Japan."
Gary Smith, national officer of the GMB union, said: “This is positive news. However, we should be under no illusions that there are still real concerns with UK energy policy.
“Nothing is going to be completed by Horizon before 2020 so that poses the question 'Are we just going to burn more gas at a time wholesale prices are going up, to cover gaps in generating capacity?”.
“It is also imperative that we secure commitments to the UK manufacturing supply chain. Like renewables, nuclear isn't cheap and it is important that communities in the UK get something back from the massive investment in the energy infrastructure by way of skilled jobs. Otherwise, we will just be left with spiralling bills and little else.”
- Looking for a new job in the nuclear industry? Visit our jobs board at www.topengineeringjobs.com