by Dr. David Lowry
Independent environmental policy and research consultant, London, England;
senior research fellow with the Institute for Resource and Security Studies (IRSS),
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; and a member of the Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates (NWAA) UK
Japan has an ambivalent relationship with Britain over nuclear. The history is not encouraging.
On 11 October 1941, US President Roosevelt asked British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a letter that US and British atomic research efforts be co-ordinated, or conducted jointly. Churchill agreed, and many of Britain’s top scientists left their war-threatened research labs in the UK to join a unique group of international scientists in the secret Manhattan Atomic Bomb project in the US.
Originally aimed at halting the Nazi German government, when Hitler was defeated in April 1945 in Europe, the atomic attentions were turned towards Japan. After the successful testing of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity site in Socorro, in New Mexico, on 16 July 1945, three weeks later, the US dropped the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August respectively.
Senior British atomic scientist, Sir John Anderson, a fellow of the British Royal Society, said in a statement on 7 August 1945, that by the scientists combining their skills and knowledge, they had managed to develop the atomic bomb in just four years, which in peacetime would have taken up to fifty years. So the British were essential in the design and manufacture of those two deadly atom bombs that immolated the two Japanese cities
A decade later, Britain sold one of only two nuclear plants it has ever exported, to Japan, established as the Tōkai Nuclear Power Plant (Tōkai NPP) in Ibaraki Prefecture, about 110 kilometers from Tokyo. It was Japan’s first commercial nuclear power plant, built in the early 1960s to the British Magnox design, a scaled-up version of Britain’s Calder Hall and Chapel Cross Magnox reactors, which were used to generate plutonium and tritium, respectively, for military uses.
Tokai generated electricity from 1966 until it was decommissioned in 1998. But it also created spent fuel, containing plutonium. In a detailed 70-page analysis presented to the International Plutonium Conference held in Omiya in 1991, I explained how the plutonium from this reactor – as reprocessed at the UK reprocessing factory at Sellafield – with almost total certainty was added to the UK military stockpile of nuclear explosive materials for the British nuclear warhead programme. Some might also have been exported to the US, for use in its nuclear weapons programme, under a 1959 mutual cooperation agreement on atomic energy matters between the US and UK.1)
I suggested at the time that this was contrary to Japan’s “Three Non-Nuclear Principles of not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons, in line with Japan’s Peace Constitution.” (Statement by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato at the Budget Committee in the House of Representatives, December 11th, 1967.)
This solemn statement was repeated by a successor Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, four years ago, demonstrating continuity of the importance of the pledge at the highest level of Japanese diplomacy and politics: “People must never forget, nor repeat, the horrors caused by nuclear weapons here in Hiroshima 66 years ago. On behalf of the Government of Japan, I pledge that Japan, the only country to have experienced nuclear devastation in war, will observe its Constitution and firmly maintain the Three Non-Nuclear Principles for the sake of the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons and the realization of eternal world peace.2)
Kan changes tune on nuclear reactors
The same Mr. Kan, who was Prime Minister during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, has since reversed his former support for nuclear power, and has taken to the international stage to demonstrate his opposition. Earlier in 2015, he took a lecture tour in Europe, including the UK, to explain why he opposed new nuclear power plants. He viewed the site of a proposed new nuclear plant near the existing Wylfa power station, on Anglesey, in North Wales, with Yoshiko Aoki, a Fukushima evacuee.3)
Mr. Kan said: “What occurred in Fukushima in 2011 was caused by humans, not natural disaster. It is clear to me that what caused this catastrophe was our commitment to an unsafe and expensive technology that is not compatible with life on this planet.” Mr. Kan added that nuclear investment is “irresponsible” and the cash should instead go on renewables.
But Alan Raymant, chief operating officer of Hitachi’s UK-based subsidiary, Horizon Nuclear Power, who want to build the second reactor at the Wylfa site on Anglesey Island in north Wales, said: “Major advancements in reactor design and safety systems, aligned with the UK’s robust and independent regulatory system and a commitment to responsible operations mean the proposed reactors will offer strength against all viable risks.”
However, Robat Idris, a local vet, and campaigner with Anglesey anti-nuclear group PAWB, said the project will damage tourism, claiming “One of the jewels in the crown that Carwyn Jones (Wales’ First Minister) alluded to recently was the Wales Coast Path. The path circumvents the current Wylfa, but this is something which is much bigger and somewhat tarnishes that jewel.”
Subsequently, earlier in April, a consultancy report suggested the building of a new Wylfa 2 reactor (called ‘Wylfa Newydd’, ie new Wylfa, in Welsh), and decommissioning of the original reactor, could provide a “gross value added boost of £5.7bn” and 6,800 jobs during construction over 20 years. The independent research by Miller Research – commissioned by the Welsh Government – investigated the current and latent capability of businesses in Wales to respond to opportunities in the nuclear supply chain over the next 20 years.
Welsh Government Economy Minister Edwina Hart said: “This report clearly illustrates the scale of the potential investment, the opportunities for Welsh businesses and some of the issues and perceptions that need to be addressed in order to maximise the potential benefits. It is a once in a generation opportunity and a concerted effort is needed across the board – by businesses and industry and the public and private sectors if we want to ensure that as much of that investment as possible is spent in Wales.”4)
Hinkley’s big collapse
While Mr. Kan understandably visited Wylfa, as it has the Hitachi interest, currently the big new build reactor controversy in Britain is over the Hinkley Point C reactor planned by France’s government-owned Électricité de France subsidy, EDF Energy, using the European Pressurized Reactor design developed by EDF and France’s bankrupt nuclear design company, Areva, also state-owned.
Another consortium wants to build the AP-1000 reactor, designed by US reactor builder Westinghouse Electric corporation, owned by Toshiba.
So Japan has a keen industrial interest in Britain’s nuclear future.
Hinkley C troubles
The UK’s troubled Hinkley C nuclear power station faces a legal challenge from Germany’s biggest energy co-op, which claims that the subsidy package will distort energy markets across Europe and disadvantage renewable generators and vendors.
A new reactor built at Hinkley Point, supported by billions of taxpayers money, is not a purely British affair, but directly disadvantages renewable energy companies active in the European electricity market.
German green power supply company Greenpeace Energy (www.greenpeace-energy.de/index.html, GPE) will take legal action against the European Commission – the centralized bureaucracy of the European Union – because it has approved State aid worth billions of pounds for the building of the UK’s new Hinkley Point C nuclear plant.
A German law firm, Beck Buttner Held (BBH), is representing a co-operative of energy suppliers and traders fighting the decision in a commercial action.
According to GPE, the nuclear subsidy “threatens to distort competition in the European Union against genuine clean energy” and “could act as precedent and further undermine the EU energy market.”
“Highly subsidized nuclear power from this plant will noticeably distort European competitiveness. It will have an effect on prices at the power exchange in Germany as well,” says Sönke Tangermann, GPE’s managing director, adding. “This effect will have economic disadvantages for committed green power providers like us, and that’s why we are going to court.”
He adds that GPE will file a plea for annulment at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg “as soon as the Commission’s State aid approval is published in the EU’s Official Journal and the period prescribed for bringing an action begins.”
Austria is also expected to launch a legal action against the Hinkley C subsidies – in the face of menacing threats from UK diplomats that the UK would “embrace any future opportunity that arises to sue or damage Austria in areas which have strong domestic political implications.”
Background to nuclear subsidies debate
The situation in the European Union (EU) over subsidies for energy projects – fossil fuels, renewables or nuclear – is complex. Last October the European Commission approved State aid for the new build of two nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. GPE estimates that the immediate subsidy is worth about €22 billion, or £16 billion.
However the picture is complex as the aid package includes an inflation-proof generation subsidy of £92.50 per MWh for 35 years, construction guarantees, limits on liability for decommissioning, and a low accident liability cut-off. Other analysts believe the true cost is far higher and could amount to £30 billion or more.
Adding all the elements together, says GPE, “The resulting subsidy is far higher than that for wind or solar power in Germany.” And it is far higher than renewable energy subsidies in the UK.
According to The Ecologist magazine, the effect of the UK’s energy policy will be to almost kill off the flourishing solar sector, reducing the rate of new solar build from 2,000-3,000 MWh per year, to an estimated 32 MW.
It has also emerged that the British Government is seeking European Commission approval to hold a “golden share” in the £24.5bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, which could have the effect of strengthening pending legal challenges against the plant’s construction.
In a Parliamentary answer to the Labour MP Paul Flynn in March, energy minister, Matthew Hancock said the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had started “initial discussions with the Commission on the possibility of a special (or “golden”) share for the Hinkley Point C project”.
European opponents of the plant, which would be the third at the site on the Somerset coast, have seized on the Government’s disclosure. They believe it dramatically alters the UK’s state aid case, meaning they could, at least, delay a project that is supposed to herald a new generation of British nuclear power plants.5)
Fatal flaws in new EPR nuclear plant design and manufacture
As if the massive cost and time overruns of the model French EPR for Hinkley Point C, at Flamanville in Normandy, were not enough to dissuade potential investors, a new problem has emerged with the plant this month.
In short, a serious flaw has been identified in the steel reactor vessel of what is currently the world’s biggest nuclear reactor. Technical specialists have checked the problem – which involves fabrication defects discovered, but not revealed publicly, at the end of 2014 – in the upper and lower heads of the reactor pressure vessel.
The French nuclear engineering firm Areva, involved in the EPR’s design and development, and which has run into serious financial difficulties itself, found the flawed steel contaminated by carbon at the Creusot Forge, in Burgundy (which it owns), and reported the problem to the French nuclear regulator, Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) which has ordered an investigation. ASN said in a statement: “The nuclear pressure equipment regulation requires that the manufacturer limits the risks of heterogeneity in the materials used for manufacturing the components most important for safety. In order to address this technical requirement, AREVA carried out chemical and mechanical tests on a vessel head similar to that of the Flamanville EPR.”6)
ASN added: “The results of these tests, in late 2014, revealed the presence of a zone in which there was a high carbon concentration, leading to lower than expected mechanical toughness values. Initial measurements confirmed the presence of this anomaly in the reactor vessel head and reactor vessel bottom head of the Flamanville EPR.”
The French energy minister, Ségolène Royal, said the results of tests to check the extent of the problem would be made public in October.
The Ecologist on-line magazine comments that this discovery is another serious blow to the French nuclear industry, which already faces severe financial problems, partly because of lengthy delays and massive cost overruns to the EPR reactors at Flamanville and at Finland’s Olkiluoto site. It points out that the Finnish reactor is not affected by this problem because its pressure vessel steel comes from Japan, not France, but stresses it is already nine years behind schedule for other reasons and has more than doubled in cost.
Cost overruns overwhelm EPR
France is already considering merging Areva and EDF, which recently estimated the construction costs of Flamanville at €8 billion (US$8.7bn) compared with an original estimate of €3.3bn. That was before this new pressure vessel fault setback, and costs will undoubtedly escalate again. The plant start date had already been put back to 2017 despite the fact that it was to have been working by now.
Analysts suggest that this latest setback will force a revision of the UK Government’s plan to offer EDF £10 billion in construction finance guarantees for Hinkley C, creating cost inflation.7,8)
The decision on whether to go ahead with the two reactors at Hinkley Point had already been postponed until the summer, after the British General Election on 7 May, and now it seems certain to be postponed yet again until the issue of the safety of the French and Chinese pressure vessels has been resolved.
Perversely, the two major UK political parties, Labour, the major opposition party, and the Conservatives, who have been in coalition with the minority party, the Liberal Democrats for five years, came out in support of new nuclear power plants in their manifestos for the Election, barely days after the EPR pressure vessel problems became known.9)
Both parties have long insisted that the expansion of nuclear power is vital to UK energy security and its ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets.
In 2008, a landmark Labour government nuclear white paper (ie. policy document) overturned long-running policy objections to a new nuclear power programme after years in the wilderness.10)
Hinkley construction halt
As many as 400 workers at the Hinkley Point site were laid off work early in April while the French owners of the project decide whether to make an investment in the multi-billion pound project. GMB trades union’s national officer, Phil Whitehurst, described the news as devastating. “The problem seems to be the stalled final investment decision. This should now be a wakeup call for the next UK government to take charge and manage the failing energy policy we have in place,” he said. “We cannot tolerate our energy new-build destiny being managed by companies who are in such disarray on funding when so deep into a project’s development.”11,12)
A public consultation is due to start in May on NuGen’s plans to construct a new nuclear power station based on the Hitachi design at the proposed Moorside site, near Sellafield, in Cumbria, in England’s scenic Lake District. More than 20 consultation events are to be held across Cumbria and the process is expected to last for 10 weeks.
“NuGen is very keen to hear the public’s views on the project and I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to either come to one of the Cumbrian events, drop into the Moorside Information Centre, or register to “Have Your Say” through the consultation website,” Fergus McMorrow, NuGen’s planning lead in Cumbria said in a recent Television interview.13)
Action at Hinkley, 1 April 2015
Anti-nuclear campaigners block road to Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset: t.co/4ftbXAJDlX
Radioactive waste impasse
The other major problem facing new nuclear is the failure to deliver a long-term management solution for high-level nuclear waste. Britain has tried for over thirty years to develop a programme, but has run into safety, environmental and public concerns problems.
The current plan by DECC is to secure communities volunteering potential sites for permanent, high-level nuclear waste geological disposal in return for local community benefits, an approach recommended by the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM) as long ago as July 2006.
The Energy Secretary set up a Geological Disposal Implementation Board in 2012, to oversee the development of the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) project.14) But after plans for continuation of research were blocked by local authority (council) opposition in January 2014, the programme was halted, and a new approach was launched with consultation last summer.
To avoid running into a similar blockage in future, ministers decided to reduce the democratic options of local authorities to decide whether they want to have a GDF in their community, giving ministers more powers to decide on the likely GDF by far away central Government.15)
New nuclear reactor regulatory landscape
A new generic design assessment (GDA) safety and environmental approval process has also been set up with the creation of the integrated Office of Nuclear Regulation, (ONR) – previously the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate and Office for Civil Nuclear Security – and Environment Agency, working in tandem to identify design flaws needing correction by developers at an early stage. Although reports are put on the ONR GDA website, there is very little involvement of nongovernmental organizations in this process. ONR does however fund a stakeholder forum, currently chaired by a nongovernmental organization representative.
A generic justification process, derived from European Union regulations, led by the energy and climate secretary and dealing with acceptability of public safety risks from each design was another important component. Planning was streamlined under the Planning Act 2008, and moved applications for major infrastructure – such as large power plants – out of lengthy public inquiries and ultimately into the Planning Inspectorate under the communities secretary, with consultation and decision-making set at just 12 months (which is essentially what they have also now done with radioactive waste management).
A local NGO, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) issued this statement on 27 March, to mark the 21st anniversary of the operation of the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield, which has handled considerable volumes of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) sent from Japan for treatment.
As anniversaries go, the 27th March 2015 – which marks 21 years since THORP chopped up its first batch of spent nuclear fuel – warrants little celebration. Opened in 1994, the £2.85Bn plant had been dubbed by BNFL as the Jewel in Sellafields’s Crown and a World Beating Flagship Plant that would reprocess 7,000 tonnes of fuel in its first ten years, win more overseas business and make a profit of £500M in that first decade. Now scheduled to close in 2018, the Jewel has been tarnished beyond recovery by a catalogue of accidents, poor performance and business loss.
The record of the last 20 years exposes the true worth of those BNFL claims and, as the statistics below show, vindicates the major challenges to THORP’s opening launched by local, national and international campaigners. For example, as a ‘world-beating flagship’, THORP’s record against the comparable French plant at La Hague speaks volumes. For despite an annual design capacity of 800 tonnes compared to THORP’s 1,200 tonnes, the French UP2 plant still managed to outstrip THORP by a wide margin over the ten-year period 1994-2003 inclusive, dealing with 7,142 tonnes of spent fuel compared to THORP’s 5,045 tonnes.
THORP’s failure to reprocess the projected 7,000 tonnes – by almost 2,000 tonnes – in the first ten years resulted from a catalogue of unplanned closures over the decade, the first striking within days of the plant’s opening when a spillage of nitric acid ate its way through cables and instrumentation and forced a shut-down of several weeks. The official down-playing of the extent and consequences of the leak was to become a common feature of many future accidents and unplanned stoppages which, when added to the planned outages, have contributed to a major loss of operational time over the last 20 years – and resulted in the 7,000 tonne baseload contracts being completed only in December 2012, some 9 years late.
Now in its 21st year of operation, THORP has been subjected to a series of closures – a majority unplanned – totalling some 6 years over the last 20 years. Almost three of those lost years are attributed to the 2005 leak of 18,000 litres of dissolved fuel which, despite warnings and alarms, was ignored by workers for nine months before action was taken. Rated at Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the accident cost BNFL significant loss of face, a Crown Court fine of £500,000, permanently cut THORP’s future spent fuel throughput by almost 50% and was described as being ‘a failure worthy of Homer Simpson’.
Other stoppages have included replacing corroded dissolver baskets, pipe leaks and blockages, equipment failure and plant closure enforced by the Regulator (NII, now ONR) relating to the management of THORP’s liquid high level wastes. The operational restrictions enforced by these events have been a major factor in the almost routine failure by THORP to meet its annual targets – some by a large margin – a failure rate that has increased since plant ownership was transferred to the NDA in 2005. In the 10 years following its takeover by the NDA, THORP has missed 8 out of 10 annual targets.
As a further damning indictment of THORP’s under-performance, these missed annual targets, set recently at around 400 tonnes per year, are but a pale shadow of BNFL’s original claim that THORP would reprocess 1,000 tonnes per year in the first ten years of operation (a design target not once achieved) and 800 tonnes per year thereafter – now wholly out of THORP’s reach.
Little wonder then that overseas customers from whom two-thirds of the plant’s baseload order book had been secured soon lost faith in THORP and patience with Sellafield’s management of the plant. At a meeting in 2,000, frustrated customers complained of BNFL’s inability to reprocess their fuel within the contracted timeline, and annoyance at the ever-rising costs being forced on them by BNFL including the additional charges being levied for plant repair and refurbishment needed after equipment failure and accidents – the blame for which they placed firmly at Sellafield’s door.
Against this background it is unsurprising that those customers – whose continued support was being relied on by BNFL – were unprepared to give THORP any further business. Indeed, rather than securing a single new contract from overseas, as originally projected, contracts from German utilities were cancelled in the plant’s first year of operation – losing BNFL an estimated £250M. Further overseas contracts were abandoned subsequently, losing THORP some 961 tonnes of vital overseas business from the 5,334 tonnes originally contracted – an order book loss of 18%. A majority of the losses came from German utilities who, by 2005, had opted to store their spent fuel at the power station site rather than have it reprocessed, an option that had cost them dearly.
When summarised, THORP’s poor reprocessing performance together with years lost through unplanned stoppages, the failure to meet targets and the loss of contracts and customer confidence, paint a picture of a plant that bears no resemblance to the world-leading flagship image portrayed by BNFL 21 years ago. The only ‘attribute’ still to be qualified is the claim of THORP’s £500M profit in the first ten years of operation.
Whilst the repeated refusal by Sellafield to publish individual accounts for THORP raises its own suspicions, the plant’s profitability was clearly dented by the Government’s one-year delay in approving plant opening, which BNFL complained was ‘losing THORP £2M per week’. This loss of some £100M – plus the £260M loss of those early German contracts leaves little of the projected £500M profit intact. Any balance will have been further eroded by the loss of further overseas business and the costs of accidents – the 2005 leakage accident was estimated by the NDA to have resulted in £112M of lost revenues.
Though its faltering performance and inept management has badly holed the overrated THORP flagship below the waterline, the views of an ex-BNFL Director who was heavily involved in the battle to open THORP, add a further dimension. In his book Inside Sellafield, the long serving Harold Bolter suggests that the figures fed into the plant’s economic case by BNFL ‘have turned out to be incorrect in several important respects’ and more tellingly that ‘if the highly complex plant fails to operate to its projected standard, it will become a huge financial drain on the nation.’
(“Sellafield’s THORP reprocessing plant – A Lame Duck and Loser,” 27 March 2015)
1) NukeInfoTokyo, No.26, Nov/Dec 1991; www.cnic.jp/english/newsletter/pdffiles/nit26_.pdf
2) Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony (August 6, 2011), japan.kantei.go.jp/kan/statement/201108/06hiroshima_e.html
3) “One-time Japanese premier was in charge at time of 2011 nuclear disaster and says meltdown shows technology is too risky,” www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/japans-former-prime-minister-warn-8713266; Wales On Line, 25 February 2015)
4) “Once in a lifetime £5.7bn boost for Welsh economy from new nuclear power at Wylfa,” www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/once-lifetime-57bn-boost-welsh-8989250; Wales On Line, 7 April 2015; www.miller-research.co.uk/
5) Government’s ‘golden share’ request could stall construction of Hinkley C nuclear plant Exclusive: Opponents hope it could delay a project that is supposed to herald a new generation of British nuclear power plants; Mark Leftly, Associate Business Editor, Independent, 5 March 2015; www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/governments-golden-share-request-could-stall-construction-of-hinkley-c-nuclear-plant-10086821.html)
6) ‘Flamanville EPR reactor vessel manufacturing anomalies”, ASN, 7 April 2015, www.french-nuclear-safety.fr/Information/News-releases/Flamanville-EPR-reactor-vessel-manufacturing-anomalies
7) Nuclear reactor flaws raise Hinkley C safety fears; Paul Brown & Oliver Tickell, The Ecologist, 14 April 2015; www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/2829257/nuclear_reactor_flaws__raise_hinkley_c_safety_fears.html )
8) “Fabrication Flaws in the Pressure Vessel of the EPR Flamanville-3” By Yves Marignac, Director, WISE-Paris; WISE-Paris Briefing, Updated version, 12 April 2015, dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/25762794/20150412Fabrication-Flaws-EPR-Flamanville-v2.pdf
10) Government’s ‘golden share’ request could stall construction of Hinkley C nuclear plant Exclusive: Opponents hope it could delay a project that is supposed to herald a new generation of British nuclear power plants; Mark Leftly, Associate Business Editor, Independent, 5 March 2015; www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/governments-golden-share-request-could-stall-construction-of-hinkley-c-nuclear-plant-10086821.html)
11) “Hinkley Point C nuclear project workers face layoff,” Guardian 2 April 2015; www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/02/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-project-workers-face-layoff-power-station-investment-edf
12) “EDF axes 400 jobs at Hinkley Point nuclear project,” Christopher Adams, Energy Editor, Financial Times, 3 April 2015; www.ft.com/cms/s/0/644db33e-d91a-11e4-b907-00144feab7de.html?siteedition=uk#axzz3WHR0hlYd)
13) “Public consultation over new nuclear power station,” ITV, 15 April 2015, www.itv.com/news/border/update/2015-04-15/public-consultation-over-new-nuclear-power-station/
15) “Law changed so nuclear waste dumps can be forced on local communities: legislation rushed through in the final hours of parliament allows local planning laws to be bypassed, seriously alarming anti-nuclear campaigners; by Juliette Jowit; Guardian, Monday 6 April 2015; www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/05/law-changed-so-nuclear-waste-dumps-can-be-forced-on-local-communities; www.ciwm-journal.co.uk/archives/12954)