Can you afford to ignore the contribution of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises?
Nine out of every 10 enterprises is an SME, and SMEs generate two out of three jobs (according to The European Commission User Guide to the SME).
During the 1980s and 1990s, the UK witnessed significant shifts in employment patterns, with numerous highly skilled engineers and scientists being motivated by economic incentives to establish their own businesses and provide services as independent contractors.
Alterations in tax regulations and the procurement strategies of major entities, especially within the nuclear sector, have to some degree reversed this trend. However, a considerable number of extensively skilled technical specialists continue to provide specialized services through small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
As the nuclear industry undergoes a significant period of change and development, and faces some major challenges, it would appear that the expertise offered by SMEs such as EASL will provide invaluable services in the coming years.
Maintenance and life extension of existing nuclear stations
Presently, the UK operates seven advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) and one pressurized water reactor (PWR), collectively supplying approximately 25% of the country’s electricity.
Currently, the oldest reactors are operating at approximately 70% power, a limitation attributed to existing operating temperature constraints. These reactors are anticipated to be decommissioned around 2023.
Additionally, two more AGRs are scheduled to cease operation in 2024. Further life extensions of these two, the remaining three AGRs and the PWR are probable. However, in 20 years from now it is likely that only the PWR will still be generating electricity for the UK.
With ageing plant structural integrity challenges may arise at any time.
Maintaining the plants in a safe state demands a continuous flow of work, and additional tasks are needed to facilitate further life extensions.
With an extensive experience of over 250 man-years in structural integrity analysis and assessment, EASL is in an optimal position to sustain this support for the current fleet of UK nuclear power stations.
EDF Energy Nuclear Generation has contracted EASL until 2020, with the possibility of extending the contract until 2022.
Our experience of working with these plants for EDF Energy, and previously for CEGB and British Energy, gives us a historic insight to the operating fleet, allowing us to efficiently assess and anticipate problems, as well as enabling us to train and develop new members of our company to help support the current UK fleet of nuclear stations.
New UK nuclear power generation
In 2008 the UK government published a strategic case for new nuclear as part of a balanced energy mix. The principal drivers for this mix are security of supply, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and affordability for consumers.
At present, the UK has identified six sites for new nuclear power stations: Hinkley Point C, Sizewell, Wylfa, Oldbury, Moorside, and Bradwell.
Although the government’s policy mandates private sector financing for new nuclear generation, the substantial upfront investments and extended timelines linked with these nuclear plants present a substantial obstacle, even for sizable private companies.
The EPR reactor design for HPC completed generic design assessment and NNB Genco obtained a site license in late 2012. After a highly publicised delay, in late 2016 shareholders in NNB Genco (EDF and CGN) committed to build two EPR units at HPC, the so-called final investment decision.
The partners have also provisionally agreed to develop two further new nuclear power stations at Sizewell and Bradwell. The EPR will be utilized at Sizewell, whereas the Chinese Hualong reactor design will be adopted at Bradwell; however, the latter design has not yet undergone submission for Generic Design Assessment (GDA).
The Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process is currently underway for two additional reactor designs, namely the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 and the GE-Hitachi ABWR, with an expected completion before the end of 2018.
Horizon and NuGen are expected to submit site license applications for Wylfa and Moorside respectively in 2017 with grants expected in 2018. Development of Oldbury will follow on some time after Wylfa.
Due to the delays in the HPC project, there is a potential scenario where the Wylfa and Moorside projects might proceed simultaneously. This development could potentially impose an additional strain on the UK’s skills and supply chain. These aspects were previously recognized by the UK government as potential risks. The service and support that SMEs can provide here is clear.
By identifying particular resources that may be under significant strain, the supply chain can look towards specialist smaller enterprises to provide expertise, allowing a better balance of operations within their companies.
EASL comprises not only a team of specialists with a wealth of expertise in nuclear power generation but also maintains an in-house training program for engineers ranging from graduates to experts. This approach ensures the continuous development and transfer of our knowledge to address forthcoming challenges.
By having SMEs deliver their training in collaboration with stakeholders’ and suppliers’ accounting for their particular requirements, ensures a diverse and skilled workforce ready to take on the future needs of the new nuclear fleet during all stages including design, construction, commissioning, operation and ultimately decommissioning.
Small modular reactors
SMRs are nuclear power plants with a generating capacity of less than 300 MW. Here, the design is, as the name would suggest, created from a series of modular components allowing for a quicker and more economic construction time.
Perceived as a shrunken version of larger plants, they offer a potential cheaper and less risky option. Since the 1960s, small reactors have powered the UK fleet of nuclear submarines.
In 2015 the UK government announced plans to invest at least £250 million over the next five years to include a competition to identify the best value SMR design for the UK.
The initial phase of that competition was launched in March 2016. Given this backing from the UK, the global desire for this technology is great, with Canada and Russia both publicly expressing a desire for immediate use of these plant types.
The UK government has commissioned a techno-economic assessment on SMRs. We are also awaiting guidance on striking a policy balance between early deployment, long-term economic advantage, and the development of UK intellectual property. The output from the TEA, the policy guidance and a road-map for deployment of SMRs in the UK are all due in early 2017.
The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre provides an excellent summary of the SMR technology developers that have expressed their interest in UK development and have released information about their proposals:
Next generation nuclear reactors
The Generation IV nuclear reactors, often referred to as designs currently under research for commercial application, were initially exploring a broader range of reactor types. However, the research effort has now narrowed down to six specific designs, encompassing three thermal reactor types and three fast reactor types.
Most, if not all, are likely to operate at temperatures much higher than the light water reactors currently in production around the world.
Anticipating their commercial operation within the next 20 years is not feasible for these reactors, thus emphasizing their ongoing status in the research phase.
UK engineers working on AGR (and in the relatively recent past, sodium-cooled fast reactor) designs have a strong background and hence a distinct advantage when it comes to assessing the viability of high temperature operation.
Perhaps recognizing this, UK Government have committed £20 million until the end of 2018 to support UK based research into these and others areas via its nuclear innovation funding.
Just as the nuclear industry is currently grappling with challenges, this research sets a goal for the nuclear sector to guarantee the development of required skills and training. It’s probable that a significant number of today’s experts and skilled specialists will have retired by the time this generation of reactors becomes a reality.
Through collaborations with universities, such as EASL’s partnership with MMU, and the implementation of an SQEP system aligned with industry practice, our company is ensuring its readiness to develop these skills for the future.
International nuclear opportunities
China and the Middle East represent significant international opportunities for the nuclear industry.
According to WANO, driven by the need for clean energy, China has 35 operating nuclear power reactors, 21 that are currently under construction, and more planning to give China a nuclear generation capacity by 2030 of up to 150 GWe.
China has become largely self-sufficient in reactor design and construction, as well as other aspects of the fuel cycle, whilst adapting and improving western technology.
China’s policy is to ‘go global’ with exporting nuclear technology including heavy components in the supply chain. The CGN investment in the UK for HPC and Bradwell intends to offer a springboard for China’s export ambitions.
In the Middle East the demand for new nuclear is growing apace. The United Arab Emirates is currently building four APR-1400 reactors.
Once complete, expected by 2020, this will supply 25% of its electricity demand. Saudi Arabia plans to construct sixteen nuclear reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $80 billion.
Whilst international supply increases, licensing and operational standards remain consistent in the UK. As each countries’ licensing requirements differ, for those hoping to export their nuclear capability it is crucial that they exploit the existing knowledge and experience to their aims.
The UK proves a strong springboard given our stringent licensing, if a nuclear plant achieve design approval in the UK, then it stands to reason that it will in most other countries. With this in mind, EASL are in a perfect position to provide high quality, historically informed structural integrity experience to an international market.
The future of the nuclear industry in the UK is looking brighter now that has for the last 25 years. There are opportunities on a number of fronts, both at home and abroad.
The plants we are building now will require management and maintenance for at least 50 years into the future, making these opportunities not short-lived. During that timescale, there will be a need for new developments to create cleaner, greener, more flexible, and more economic plants.
What are your expectations for the Nuclear industry in 2017? Do you agree with our comments? Let us know on twitter @easlstress or through our contact us page!
image credits: geograph.org.uk, Nuscalepower.com, cnnc.com.cn
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