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Corrected: Concerns over UK's Hinkley nuclear technology could add to delay

09 May 2013 18:12:00 | edem

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(The ICIS article headlined "Concerns over UK's Hinkley nuclear technology could add to delay", originally published on 9 May 2013, contained an error in the third paragraph.

Please read "Hinkley Point C will use Areva's European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) nuclear technology if built. The technology is set to be used in the Flamanville 3 plant in France and two reactors in China, which are all EDF projects. The Olkiluoto plant in Finland, being developed by Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima, will also use the technology", instead of "Hinkley Point C will use Areva's European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) nuclear technology if built. The technology is set to be used in Flamanville 3 plant in France, Olkiluoto plant in Finland and two reactors in China, which are all EDF projects". A corrected story follows.)

The UK's proposed new 3.2GW Hinkley Point C nuclear plant may meet similar technical difficulties to that of Flamanville and Olkiluoto projects, which could lead to the project overrunning even further, nuclear experts have told ICIS.

Commercial operation of the proposed newbuild has already been delayed past initial estimates for various reasons, while British utility Centrica recently exited from its role as minority partner (see EDEM 4 February 2013). Talks with the UK government about a strike price for the contract for difference model have also dragged on (see EDEM 19 March 2013). But technology could prove troublesome, experts said.

Hinkley Point C will use Areva's European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) nuclear technology if built. The technology is set to be used in the Flamanville 3 plant in France and two reactors in China, which are all EDF projects. The Olkiluoto plant in Finland, being developed by Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima, will also use the technology. The construction at Flamanville has overrun by four years and costs have doubled. Olkiluoto, meanwhile, has been hit by delays of over six years - it is not expected to come on line until at least 2015. Some experts have estimated its budget has tripled. Less is known about the status of the Chinese power plants.

"Nobody is taking bets at the moment. Even EDF are in despair about the EPR reactor," said Paul Dorfman of the energy institute, University College London. "EDF argue that the Chinese projects are going well. But there are rumours that they're facing similar problems to Flamanville and Olkiluoto."

Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, said instrumentation and control (I&C) system were key to the problems. "There is a big design issue for all of these nuclear reactors that is related to the instrumentation and control (I&C) system; whether there is enough redundancy I&C system," he said. "If a technical problem occurs with the plant, you need an entirely independent back-up system, which there isn't. So if you lose the first system, it might take out the second system. This is a problem with the plants being built in Finland and France."

Design issue

The UK government's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) flagged problems with the I&C system during the generic design assessment (GDA) process. In its quarterly updates on progress, each aspect of the plan was graded by a traffic light-style alert system that represented the difficulty of solving the issues raised. Last August, six issues related to the I&C system were highlighted. Two were graded as "amber", meaning that remedying the issue is feasible, but needs prompt attention. Four were given a "red" alert, which, according to the report means the "closure of the GDA issue is in serious doubt with serious risks apparent".

But in December 2012 the ONR approved the EPR design (see EDEM 13 December 2012). Thomas questioned the likelihood of the issues being completely resolved, highlighting the short time line. "Two months later, all six issues were deemed to be resolved, as if like magic," he said. "Faults to the instrumentation and control system are huge safety issues. If you have no control over the plant - that's serious."

An ONR spokeswoman said solving the issues "was largely about agreeing and developing detailed design methods and then piloting those methods ahead of their application during the Hinkley Point C project". She added: "While we were content that the documentation being supplied by EDF and Areva was on course to resolve the outstanding issues, we did not want to lift the 'red' status until we had received and examined the documentation, due to the complexity of the topic."

The project is likely to proceed all the same, Thomas and Dorfman agree. "DECC and the treasury may be bending over backwards to make it happen because politicians have mistakenly placed a lot of political capital in this nuclear project," added Dorfman. "Unfortunately we know what will happen. It will be like [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher's nuclear push which only resulted in one overpriced reactor at Sizewell B. And then we'll have to play 'catch up' with the renewable German economy." Katie McQue

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