Why Britain Can Save Nuclear — For Itself, and for the World

by Michael Shellenberger

Britain has been one of the shining hopes for a nuclear renaissance. Committed to strong climate action, and concerned over the security of its energy supplies, the island nation has plans to build 12 reactors.

But now, the bankruptcy of Westinghouse has put into question all of those plans.

In a new piece for the British newspaper, The Financial Times, I argue that the crisis brings an opportunity for the UK government to save nuclear power — not just for itself, but also for the world.

The key? Standardize a single, simple design, and build it over and over again. History shows that the experience afforded by standardization is the key to making nuclear cheap.

I start by noting the following:

     Britain’s plan was to build 12 reactors to replace its current nuclear estate — and to raise the share of electricity it receives from atomic fission from roughly 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030.

     But now, all bets are off. Westinghouse’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection means that its efforts to build new reactors in the UK look increasingly precarious.

 I then note the importance of standardization.

     The importance of standardisation was demonstrated by France throughout the 1970s and 1980s. While the cost of building nuclear plants rose when it switched designs, construction costs fell when it built the same reactor on the same site using the same team. Something similar happened in South Korea in the 1990s, and in the United Arab Emirates in the 2000s.

     So why then do the US and Britain keep opting for distinctiveness instead of efficiency? In part, because they insist on using only private funds, which guarantees high interest rates and thus higher overall nuclear plant costs.

     But nuclear power is not like other market products. The manufacture of food or clothes, for example, does not require guaranteeing anywhere between £5bn and £10bn for the cost of building a farm or factory.

     As long as UK energy customers are paying for these plants they should at least enjoy the lower cost of electricity that will come from building and operating a single standard design.

     What does this mean for energy policy? It should scrap future nuclear deals and empower an independent commission to choose a single, experienced contractor and power utility to build the 10 or more reactors required — to a single, standard design. There should also be a long-term plan for the plants to be built sequentially, by the same construction managers, and with commitments progressively to reduce the cost of construction.

     While it may seem counterintuitive to go with something that is older rather than newer, the historical record is clear: nuclear reactors become safer the more experience we have of building, operating and regulating them. In other words, what makes nuclear plants safer are the human factors: not just the plant design but also the construction and operation.

What about safety?

What matters is having a strong safety culture, strong regulatory oversight and effective worker training. New generic safety assessments promote standardisation, which reduces the burden on managers, workers and safety regulators.

I conclude by noting the following:     

It is clear that in the UK there are too many nuclear companies selling too many designs into too small a market. It is almost certain that the recent shake-up in the global industry will be the end of some of those companies. The British government should take action now to ensure that its nuclear ambitions do not go down with them by choosing a standard reactor design that will deliver lower capital costs and with them lower electricity costs.


Additional Reading

The Future of Nuclear

Nuclear Industry Must Change — Or Die

Why its Big Bet on Westinghouse Nuclear is Bankrupting Toshiba