Nuclear developments in the UK

British Energy, with over 6000 employees and eight nuclear power stations, is the largest electricity generator in the UK. On Thursday, 23 October, Dr Nigel Knee of British Energy, and also a graduate of Bristol University, gave a fascinating and comprehensive lecture on the future of the nuclear power industry in the UK.

The UK’s oil and gas reserves are in decline; bearing this in mind, Dr Knee presented convincing economic and environmental arguments for the viability of nuclear power. The relative cost of nuclear power is comparable to gas, although it is still more expensive than coal. Nuclear power generation itself does not produce CO2. Dr Knee showed a fuel rod, about one metre long and three centimetres in diameter, and astonished the audience by explaining that it would be sufficient fuel to power the average home for 60 years – the equivalent of 80 tonnes of coal. As the first and second generation fleets of nuclear reactors, built in the 1960s and 1980s are approaching retirement they require increasing maintenance and nuclear power is in desperate need of rejuvenation. Accepting that all the options need to be considered, and that reducing energy inefficiency is also important, nuclear power was presented as a good solution to the predicted shortfall in energy.

Dr Knee outlined many of the practical considerations necessary for the development of new nuclear power stations, including government support. First, the type of station needs to be considered. Currently three designs are in contention, with the most likely from Franco-German company AREVA. Plants of this type have been successfully used in France – a country that produces 80% of its power from nuclear energy. Dr Knee then sensitively dealt with the contentious issue of location.

The most probable locations are those that are close to existing plants as they are already connected to the national grid, have large water supplies for cooling and are close to communities who are acclimatised to, and even economically dependent on the power stations. Finally, Dr Knee quickly dispelled rumours that there were insufficient technical skills to develop nuclear power. He explained that many of the maintenance skills were transferable and that many other construction roles are very similar to conventional civil and mechanical engineering jobs. In conclusion, it was clear that Dr Knee felt that nuclear power is the future for power production in the UK. If current proposals are successful we would see the first stations open in 2017.

Laura Croft, University of Bristol,
Honorary Recorder, Bristol and South West Regional Group

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