Needed but not at any price – how to lower the cost of nuclear

Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, Managing Director of the Sizewell C nuclear project, gives his view on the cost challenge following Horizon's decision to suspend work on planned nuclear power stations at Wylfa and Oldbury.

The decision by Horizon to suspend its UK nuclear development programme inevitably led to questions about the future of nuclear power in Britain. The Business Secretary Greg Clark told Parliament that the Government was committed to low carbon nuclear electricity, but that the changing market meant it could not be “at any price”.

We accept the challenge and we think it can be met. EDF operates and invests in wind power, batteries, energy efficiency and nuclear energy. Our goal is to offer all these low carbon technologies at a competitive price for consumers.

We know that nuclear is needed to enable an affordable low carbon system with high levels of intermittent renewable energy. A piece by Jonathan Ford in the Financial Times today shows the limitations of the headline “strike price” as a measure of the total cost of different technologies to consumers. Back-up power isn’t free for periods with little wind or sun. Long-term battery storage remains prohibitively expensive.

The first of the UK’s currently operational nuclear plants is just four years away from its scheduled closure date. The country needs to replace this low carbon power, as well as electricity generated by polluting fossil fuels. Coal still plays a big part in keeping lights on during winter. It will be gone by 2025. That is why we are moving ahead with investment in low carbon electricity, including at the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk.

Evidence from the Energy Technologies Institute shows that the best way to bring nuclear costs down is to repeat and copy an existing design, with a workforce, suppliers and skills that are already in place. That is why we plan to make Sizewell C a close replica of the Hinkley Point C power station being built in Somerset.

That project is on schedule and there is already hard evidence that the 3,560 workers there are learning fast and improving performance. They benefit from the experience of an operational EPR reactor at Taishan in China and other projects which are close to completion. The cost of developing these new skills has already been paid for at Hinkley Point C.  With the right timing, we can transfer that know-how and capability directly to Sizewell C.

In nuclear, there are significant costs in approving and designing a power station and each if its components to meet the UK’s exacting and specific regulatory demands. For an identical second of a kind project, most of these costs are avoided if the design is unchanged. Quantities of materials like concrete and steel can be known with more precision. Processes and plans can be improved and streamlined. The next two reactors may be at Sizewell C, but they will be so identical, that they could be called the third and fourth Hinkley Point C reactors.

Replicating the design as closely as possible allows cheaper construction. Lower risk enables a new less expensive financing model. This approach widens the possible sources of financing and means the project could be majority owned by UK pension funds and other financial investors.

The twin effects of cheaper construction and cheaper finance means it is possible for nuclear at Sizewell C to stay competitive with the total costs of alternatives, even as low carbon electricity prices fall. That is good for consumers and it’s what has happened with other technologies that started at a much higher price than Hinkley Point C.  The huge benefit to skills, jobs and industry created for Britain and the South-West at Hinkley Point C is something else that can be replicated in Suffolk.

The size and long lifespan of nuclear projects means it’s hard for companies to deliver them alone. Developers, investors and Government will have to work together to make Sizewell C happen. It’s not easy but sometimes it is worth doing difficult things. Too often, the history of UK nuclear has been one of stop start and multiple design changes – now we have an opportunity for a different approach.