Monday 22 July 2013

I was surprised recently to see a headline (Daily Telegraph Business 3 July) that said ‘New nuclear possible by 2020, Davey insists”.  Apparently Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said that Britain could have a new nuclear reactor generating by 2020.  My immediate thought was, what did he have for breakfast that day or what was he smoking, as we all “know” that every nuclear plant project around the world is years late and way over budget. I decided to check into this by looking at the statistics on the World Nuclear Association (WNA) website which helpfully has a lot of data on every nuclear power station and project.


For details see:


So is it really possible for the UK to build and commission a new nuclear plant by 2020 which is six years and five months away (77 months)?


Here is some data from the WNA website to help you judge.  For the first pass I just looked at reactors that had been commissioned since 2000.


The average time to build for all reactors commissioned since 2000 was 9.6 years (115 months).


Now this includes all types and sizes of reactors including some 220 MW capacity PHWRs (Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors) whereas the planned UK reactors at Hinckley Point C are PWRs (Pressurised Water Reactors), or to be more precise EPRs (European – or Evolutionary – Pressurised Reactors).  The EPRs are 1,650 MW capacity.  So let’s take the non-PWRs out of the equation and just look at the build times of PWRs, build time is defined as construction start date to date of first commercial operation.


The average time to build for all PWRs commissioned since 2000 was 10.4 years (124 months)


To be fair there are some obvious outliers in the data, mainly Russian, Ukrainian and Czech reactors that took inordinate amounts of time to build – an amazing 27 years in the case of the Rostov 2 reactor, (started 1st May 1983, commercial operation 10th December 2010).  Clearly there were special circumstances, i.e. the little matter of the fall of the Soviet empire.  So let’s take out all the plants that took longer than 15 years to build.


The average time to build for all PWRs commissioned since 2000, excluding all those that took longer than 15 years to build, was 6.4 years (77 months).


To move one step further and to favour the nuclear industry, let’s take out all those PWRs that took longer than 10 years to build.


The average time to build for all PWRs commissioned since 2000, excluding all those that took longer than 10 years to build, was 5.1 years (61 months).


So let’s look at the track record of EDF building EPRs.  The other EPRs being constructed are Olkiluoto 3 in Finland and Flamanville 3 in France.  Construction of Olkiluoto 3 started in 2005 and originally the station was supposed to be completed by 2009.  It is now expected that operation will start in 2016 – implying a build time of 11 years.  Originally the cost estimate was €3.7 billion, (an obvious low ball bid!) but the cost is now expected to be €8.5 billion.  Flamanville 3 construction started in December 2007 with an estimated build time of 54 months (4.5 years), implying commercial operation some time in 2012.  Estimated costs have, like Olkiluoto 3, risen from €3.5 billion to €8.5 billion, and estimated completion is now in 2016 (implying a build period of 9 years, 108 months).  EDF Energy has, according to the Telegraph, “refused to give an up-to-date timetable for building” the reactors at Hinkley Point C (perhaps not surprising!).  Ed Davey did hedge his bets by saying; “We are still hopeful we could see new nuclear generating in maybe 2020, 2021. I’m not going to say it will definitely be there because we haven’t signed a deal yet.”  In may, Chief Executive of Centrica, which pulled out of the project in February, said, “instead of … taking four to five years to build, EDF were telling us that it was going to take nine to 10 years to build” – which implies EDF are less optimistic than Ed Davey of generation by 2020.  Given the experiences at Olkiluoto and Flamanville nine to 10 years seems a more realistic estimate than the six to seven years implicit in Ed Davey’s comments.


So is it really possible that we could have a new EPR nuclear plant up and running by 2000?  Looking at the data, and being positive you have to say it is possible but it certainly doesn’t look likely.


I can only assume the comment by the Secretary of State was designed as part of the current reassurance campaign that the lights won’t go out as the supply margin gets smaller as older nuclear plant and large coal plants are decommissioned.  It is clear that the risk of the lights going out is increasing, but then we knew that a long time ago and previous governments ignored the issue.  To quote “Old Sparky”, who writes the “Keeping the Lights On” column in Private Eye (which should be essential reading for all energy analysts), Plan A for keeping the lights on was “windfarms, new nukes and pixie-dust”, Plan B was a new dash for gas.  Plan C is to “pay large electricity consumers to switch off when requested; encourage industrial companies and even large hospitals to generate their own diesel-fired electricity (not a hard sell when the grid can’t be relied on); hire diesel generators to makeup for the intermittency of windfarms.”  Plan B – the dash for gas – probably won’t ease the problem in the next three to four years, (neither will EMR), but plan C probably will………with any luck……….and a following wind, (or more accurately good wind days on days with high demand),……….if nothing goes wrong on the wrong day at the wrong time.


Never having read Alice in Wonderland I decided to look up the quote about believing six impossible things before breakfast.  In response to the White Queen telling Alice that she is one hundred and one years, five months and a day old, Alice says


I can’t believe that!” said Alice.


Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”


Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.


I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


Now, believing six impossible things before breakfast is a useful skill, especially when thinking about the future or for people who want to change the world like entrepreneurs.  However, I am not sure it is a useful skill for politicians in charge of energy policy.


Iam going to cover the topic of Electricity Demand Reduction (EDR) and the Electricity Market Reform (EMR) soon, that is the essential piece of the puzzle that is being ignored in all of this debate.  All I will say for now is, as new nuclear is getting a £10 billion guarantee and a strike price in the range of £80 to £115 per MWh, can we have let’s say a £1 billion guarantee for electricity demand reduction projects and a strike price that is a fixed percentage of that for nuclear – let’s say 75% –  and let’s see how many MWh (or more accurately negawatt hours) the energy efficiency industry can deliver by 2020.


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Dr Steven Fawkes

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