EdF is moving ahead with its multi-billion pound programme for four new nuclear power stations in the UK. Antony Oliver talks to Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, the man masterminding the ambitious plan.
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When French energy supplier EdF bought British Energy in 2008, along with its inventory of eight nuclear reactors dotted around the UK coastline, its stated aim was clear: to kick-start the UK nuclear industry and construct a new generation of nuclear power stations.
And when it went public with its plans at the start of 2009, EdF’s target was ambitious. By 2017 it intends to be generating electricity from the first of four new European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) plants, with all of them up and running by 2020.
But three months into 2010, the scale of EdF’s challenge to build twin reactors at its Hinkley Point and Sizewell sites remains very challenging.
“Our target is still 2017 and we feel that it is still a realistic date”, says EdF nuclear new build managing director Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson.
He points out that its first stage of consultation is now complete and advanced earthworks contracts are on the brink of being tendered at the Hinkley Point site.
“We are planning to invest billions of pounds in the UK economy − creating jobs at a time when jobs are needed”
“But building the first new nuclear power station in the UK for 20 years is a big task. We clearly have a huge amount to do and there are a lot of people who have to play their part in the team to get there.”
And when he talks about the “team” he clearly refers to more than just his own “EdF Team New Build” colleagues in the UK and France. For Cadoux-Hudson, the complete new nuclear team must also include the UK government, nuclear regulators and the multitude of planning agencies required to approve the programme.
He stresses that government support for the project is crucial. Yet while Labour and the Conservatives remain committed to nuclear power as a major part of the UK’s electricity supply mix, neither has so far made any firm commitment to ease the large financial obstacle that stands in the way of EdF’s immediate progress.
“Political involvement is critical,” he explains. “We needed decisions in 2009 and we got them. We need decisions in 2010 and we will need them in 2011. We need decisions to ensure that the market framework is suitable for this enormous investment.”
He describes the next few years as the foundation of the construction programme. Site investigations and environmental studies to prepare for the planning application process are already underway at both proposed sites, but the really big investment in preliminary and advance works to prepare the Hinkley Point site will begin later this year.
One of the key political issues to overcome is the price of carbon. While EdF says it does not seek subsidies to offset the huge cost of the build programme, it is keen to see what Cadoux-Hudson describes as a “level playing field”.
In essence this requires the current carbon price of around £11 a tonne to be ratcheted up sufficiently to make the cost of nuclear generation equal to other CO2 emitting sources such as coal or gas.
“We want to see [generators] who produce CO2 when they produce electricity pay a proper cost for the impact on society,” he explains.
“If we have that, then we are convinced that the machines we will build will be very competitive sources of electricity”.
Alongside this EdF is also keen for the government to press forward with its on-going “generic design assessment” process and give the go-ahead for the use of the EdF/Areva EPR reactor design in the UK.
Although the plan is to use identical technology to that now being constructed at the Flamanville site in northern France, UK specific safety rules require the design to be scrutinised in detail by the Health & Safety Executive. It also needs to obtain nuclear site licences at its two proposed sites.
Then there is the planning regime to navigate. While Labour’s recently introduced Infrastructure Planning Commission looks set to speed up and simplify the planning process, the Conservatives have vowed to abolish it, raising fears about further delays downstream.
“We want to see generators who produce CO2 when they produce electricity pay a proper cost for the impact they have on society.”
“We are planning to invest billions of pounds into the UK economy − creating jobs at a time that jobs are needed and providing low carbon energy at a time that low carbon energy is needed,” says Cadoux-Hudson.
“I think that it is right that the government puts a framework in place to make that a secure and sensible investment.”
While the forthcoming General Election will inevitably hold up major government policy decisions, Cadoux- Hudson is content that all sides of the political spectrum now agree on the need for nuclear new build. But his concern is that any new government understands that its support will be needed to turn ideas into reality.
“In energy there is a realisation that the country has some really serious issues to grapple with,” he says, pointing out that energy regulator Ofgem has just predicted that some £200bn of immediate investment is needed in the UK energy market.
“The idea that we can raise that kind of money without some revision to the markets as they exist today is not conceivable,” he says. “Therefore, it is clear that changes have to be made.”
But he is also clear that controlling the potential high costs and risks of such an ambitious new build programme will mean learning as much as possible from EdF’s existing construction programmes in France and China.
As a result, much of the design for the UK plants will be spearheaded by EdF’s French in-house design arm DIN. Its UK-focused arm DIN-UK is busy preparing designs ahead of the planning submission to the IPC, which is expected in early 2011.
But he says that this by no means excludes UK design expertise. On the contrary, the scale of resource required both in the design and construction of the nuclear facilities and of the associated works around the plant and in the local area, means the programme presents a massive opportunity for UK-based skill.
“It is more than a massive opportunity for work,” he explains. “It is a massive opportunity to grow the skill base. We haven’t built [a nuclear power station] for 20 years so what we need to do with this EPR programme and construction programme − which will last more than 10 years − is to build up UK capability.”
He adds: “This is a fantastic chance for young engineers to engage with senior experienced engineers from EdF and learn their trade.
“We took on some 30 graduates last year for this project. This is a pool of people that we will develop. By the time we are ready to operate we will have seen hundreds coming through.”
As well as presenting huge opportunities for individuals, Cadoux-Hudson emphasises that the new build programme will also bring big prizes across the supply chain. A supply chain forum held last June attracted around 400 firms − but he points out that for many a step change in approach will be required.
“We could not build nuclear power stations in the UK without French skills. The UK will need foreign companies to get a start. But our ambition is to grow UK resources that can help EdF in the long term,” he says.
“This is a fantastic chance for young engineers to engage with senior experienced engineers from EdFand learn their trade.”
“Our aim is to ensure that the UK supply chain is well informed about the opportunities, understands our strong commitment to the programme, and has time to make changes internally to match the quality standards that we require.”
He says that firms embracing this opportunity will benefit long into the future, highlighting the potential twin legacy of new power stations and enhancing skills in the UK workforce.
“It is a chance in a lifetime for many companies because we will effectively be paying for them to up-skill their own staff,” he adds, pointing out that for many firms this programme could kick-start a whole new stream of business.
“I am sure a company that is successful in the UK − a country I suspect is one of the more difficult places to build a nuclear power station − will then do very well on the international stage.”
Of course, he is also acutely aware that the UK’s track record for delivering major infrastructure projects is littered with examples of cost overruns, programme escalations and defects, none of which he can afford to entertain on this job.
He says a back to back programme of twin reactor construction is key to achieving the required continuous improvement and the expectation is that the cost of the fourth machine will be significantly less than the cost of the first.
But he is taking nothing for granted and says the issue of building a supply chain capable of meeting his expectations is “very high” on his mind.
“Particularly around the civil and mechanical work we need to ensure that we engage the right companies and give them time to prepare and familiarise themselves with the design and put in place the infrastructure to do a good job,” he says.
“The UK is capable of the best − we have to make sure that it is geared up and has time and focus to deliver a really excellent standard of work.”
And with around 400,000m3 of concrete to pour and probably over £12bn to spend across the four stations, he can see plenty of clear wins from driving the industry towards greater effectiveness and efficiency.
“We have a tight timetable to deliver; but what gets you through these projects is a real can-do attitude, focus, and teamwork,” he says.
“If we don’t build [new nuclear stations in the UK] there are other people that want to build them,” he says. “We have to be successful on these first ones. It will set the pace and define the confidence. It’s the product of the energy of thousands of people.”