Delays and cost increases blight the development of the reactor, but could smaller relatives prove more viable

After months of speculation, EDF has finally confirmed that there will be a year-long delay and £3bn cost increase to its Hinkley Point C nuclear project.

The start date for the Unit 1 reactor at the Somerset power station will be pushed back to June 2027, with the cost now sitting at £25bn to £26bn, an increase on the previous £23bn figure.

This is due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, time needed to adapt the reactor design for UK regulations and excess costs for marine works.

Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) senior analyst Jess Ralston said that considering the delays EDF has experienced in France with its Flamanville 3 nuclear project – which uses the same European Pressurised Reactor design as the Hinkley Point C project and planned Sizewell C plant – it is “not really a surprise” to see Hinkley delayed.

But what exactly does the news mean for the UK nuclear industry and the energy supplies of the country?

UK energy supplies

Although the start of electricity generation for Unit 1 is now targeted for June 2027, EDF has said that the risk of further delay of the two units is assessed at 15 months, assuming the absence of a new pandemic wave and no additional effects of the war in Ukraine.

As such, Ralston said that in terms of energy supplies “we’ll not know really what the situation will be until closer to the time” but she does feel that the delay strengthens the case for renewables, which are “quicker, easier and cheaper” to get up and running and provide a more secure investment return.

“The case for renewables now, for me, is so overwhelming,” she said. “I can see this being a catalyst for investment into those sorts of power systems over nuclear which is just getting more unattractive by the month.”

However Ralston added that a nuclear “backbone” is still needed and the government has, for example, said it wants to build eight new plants by 2030 – but making the economic case for this may now become more challenging.

Another option could be small modular reactors (SMRs), which are potentially faster to deploy than large scale nuclear. Rolls-Royce is currently developing and designing its SMRs in conjunction with Atkins. The project received £210M backing from the UK government last year, with over £250M more coming from private sources including Qatar’s wealth fund.

Rolls-Royce submitted designs for small reactors at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd, both in Wales, in March, and is expecting to receive UK regulatory approval for its SMR by mid-2024 with a view to powering up by 2029 – two years ahead of schedule.

Existing power plants

MPs have also recently called for a decommissioning delay for UK’s ageing nuclear power stations – and Ralston said the Hinkley delay “puts that on the table a little bit more”.

“There are gaps there – they’ll have to fill them with some sort of power,” she said.

A group of cross-party MPs has released a new report, The future of the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors, in which it has given feedback on how the changing energy landscape will effect the need for nuclear power and in turn what cost it will bring to the taxpayer.

ECIU head of analysis Simon Cran-McGreehan also previously told NCE that EDF was considering such options.

“Given that Hinkley’s already been delayed several times, the power industry is wise to the fact that it can’t be relied upon in the short term to turn up as expected,” he said. “I know that EDF is looking at whether it can extend the lifetime of the existing nuclear fleet to try and bridge that gap before Hinkley comes online.”

Future projects

EDF is hoping its Hinkley Point C project will provide a blueprint for the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk – so any delay to Hinkley is likely to have a knock on impact here.

Ralston explained: “The plan was to use learnings from Hinkley to make Sizewell C quicker and cheaper but if Hinkley carries on being delayed its difficult to see how Sizewell won’t be delayed because it’s the learnings that will be passed on.

“There is hope they will learn from Hinkley and be able to do things quickly and easily but with the funding model being different in future projects it puts a whole new spin on who is paying. If the public find out there are delays and cost overruns they won’t be happy.”

In addition, EDF’s plan has been for Hinkley employees to move across to work on the proposed Sizewell project, which has been described as Hinkley Units 3 and 4.

Concerns have already been raised that Hinkley workers may be lost to other projects unless Sizewell can progress without delay, and it remains to be seen if the delay to the Hinkley construction schedule would mean a shortage of workers for Sizewell.

When it comes to the proposed Wylfa Newydd power station on Anglesey, this is still in the early stages and Ralston said developers “probably time to consider their options more but with Hinkley they’ve invested so much they sort of have to see it through”.

Construction at Hinkley Point C began in October 2016, bringing the project just past the five-year mark. It was originally forecast to cost £18bn.

After the delay fears emerged earlier this year energy experts said mechanisms were in place to mitigate the potential impact, and the government’s new energy strategy envisages a significant acceleration of nuclear, with an ambition of up to 24GW by 2050 to come from this source of power.

In total, this would represent up to around 25% of the country’s projected electricity demand to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas.

Hinkley Point C delivery director Nigel Cann has previously backed an increase in energy from nuclear power.

Source: New Civil Engineer

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