New power generation

Suffolk’s scenic coastline is the last place you’d expect to find a battle crucial for the nation’s future.

But that’s exactly what’s going on in Leiston, where the town council is caught in a row that involves geo-politics, energy security, thousands of jobs and disgruntled local residents.

They are all battling over plans to build Sizewell C next to the town. It will house a twin nuclear reactor that is projected to cost up to £18bn.

It’s on the agenda because EDF – the French energy company which is building it – is set to put forward its planning application for the site. The firm says there is a cost benefit: if work can begin in 2022 then plant equipment can be moved from the new Hinkley Point C reactor which is already underway in Somerset.

At a time when thousands of jobs are at risk across the country, the announcement could be a massive boost for the construction industry.

EDF’s spokesperson says: “Sizewell C will generate up to 25,000 jobs during construction and 1,000 apprenticeships. An estimated 2,500 businesses in the supply chain would also benefit. It would provide 900 operational jobs during the 60 years it is expected to be in service.”

So, what are the benefits and risks – especially when renewable energy is making headway?

A new start?

Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, managing director of Sizewell C, says: “Sizewell C is a net-zero infrastructure project ready to kick-start the economy following the coronavirus crisis.

“The project will play a key role in lowering emissions while helping the UK keep control of its low-carbon future. It will offer thousands of jobs and long-term employment for people living in Suffolk and it will strengthen the nuclear supply chain across the country.”

The buildings at the site are designed to withstand earthquakes and floods. The design team at contractor Atkins Global has been using virtual reality to predict and resolve technical issues. A 4D model has been created to aid design implementation.

Although EDF is leading on the main construction, the specialist pipework installation work will be delivered by Bilfinger, the global engineering firm which is a Tier One supplier. The firm already has the £350m contract for the sister plant, Hinkley Point C.

To resolve design issues in safety-critical areas, Atkins is using immersive 3D technology, laser scanning and drones for virtual reality site visits. Adam Bliss, Senior Mechanical Engineer at Atkins, explains: “We invite our clients to navigate scanned-in models of hazardous nuclear facilities from the safety of our meeting room.”

The development will build two European pressurised reactor (EPR) units for use by 2030. They will be on the same site as Sizewell A which is being decommissioned (it shut down in 2006). The new generator could take over from Sizewell B which may stop in 2035.

Among the supporters for the project is Unite, which says it will deliver jobs and low-carbon energy. General secretary Len McCluskey says: “As we come out of the coronavirus crisis, it is important that we focus on the importance of delivering projects that will give a boost to the UK economy and build for a full and sustainable recovery.”

The main benefit is that the new generation of reactors are more efficient and have come a long way since the 1950s. Plumbing is critical to making it all work.

An EPR works by using water to remove the heat generated inside the reactor core during nuclear fission. Water also slows the neutrons needed to sustain the reaction. The heat is then transferred to the turbines through steam generators which create electricity. The reactor has a primary circuit for cooling and a secondary circuit to feed the turbine. No exchange of cooling water takes place. Feedwater entering the secondary side of the steam generators absorbs the heat transferred from the primary side and evaporates to produce saturated steam. The steam is dried in the steam generators and then delivered to the turbine. After exiting the turbine, the steam is condensed and returns as feedwater to the steam generators.

Skilled HVAC professionals will be needed. An EDF spokesperson says: “It’s a 10-year construction project. There are different stages requiring different skillsets. We are working with colleges to make sure people are aware of the skills we’re going to require. Welding pipework, for example, is a specialist area where we have a shortage.”

The need for plumbing and heating specialists will increase as the reactor moves towards becoming operational: “Following the peak of civil construction work, those roles will start to reduce and be replaced by Mechanical, Electrical and Heating (MEH) specialists. The peak of this work will happen during years seven and eight of the project and we estimate we will require up to 3,300 MEH roles on site at this time. From year eight onwards there is a steady increase in operational roles required to run the power station. Once Sizewell C is complete, 900 skilled operational roles will be required.”

Learning experience

Apprentices are set to be among the winners and trainers are gearing up.

Stuart Rimmer, principal of East Coast College, is anticipating a partnership as the scheme progresses. “The college has begun to build capability and capacity in advance of potential investments at Sizewell C, including through our £11m Energy Skills Centre, which is creating benefit to adjacent supply chains such as in renewable offshore wind or local businesses in mechanical and electrical engineering,” he says.

It’s likely that the new reactors will sound the end of King Coal from energy generation. Drax, the country’s biggest power plant, which generates 5% of supply, has already switched from coal to compressed wood pellets. There are three other coal stations and their days are numbered; they used to account for 9% of supply but during the COVID-19 crisis this has been reduced to zero.

Renewables have made massive progress over the last decade, accounting for 24.5% in 2016, but Britain is still reliant on fossil fuels. Demand is met mainly by natural gas (42% in 2016, of which around half is imported) and 21% of our electricity comes from nuclear reactors. The rest is from other imported sources.

And energy demand is going up. According to the Office for National Statistics, it has increased every year since 2010 – heating is the biggest factor.

What are the risks for Sizewell?

The project has two problems and the first is money. Last year, EDF revealed the Hinkley project has a cost overrun of up to £2.9bn and could be more than a year late. This would impact on Sizewell C.

The second is that the politics involved are complex: energy stability is critical for national security but local opposition is fierce and has led to decades of disputes.

China is a partner with EDF which has brought out heavyweight opposition including The Times. The formidable local opposition, led by community group Together Against Sizewell C, is set to go to the High Court to protect local woodland.

Public opposition stems, in part, from memories of disasters including Three Mile Island in the United States, Chernobyl in Russia and UK’s biggest accident at Windscale in October 1957.

But there are supporters in the environment movement. Energy for Humanity warned the government in May that without nuclear the “action on climate will be more difficult, more expensive, and more likely to fail”.

The CIPHE has been tracking Sizewell since 2015. Chief executive officer Kevin Wellman says: “Nuclear energy is by no means perfect but as part of the supply, it helps us reduce emissions. To make it work, the nuclear industry needs skilled professionals. There is a need for our members to meet the challenges of securing our energy supply.”

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