Nuclear energy could be the key to powering our homes, workplaces, and cities in an environmentally responsible way. But to say that building new plants requires a concerted effort is bit of an understatement.
Kason Bala – Director, Nuclear Services, Tetra Tech – holds significant insight on the challenges behind building new reactors following many years of experience in managing nuclear industry projects.
Why support nuclear energy and new builds?
The ongoing demand for electricity in the UK has strained our national grid as we become ever more reliant on the technology that powers our personal and professional lives. Meanwhile, we are confronted as a nation with the challenge of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Nuclear power stations help solve both of those problems. As a fuel source, nuclear has one of the smallest carbon footprints and nuclear power stations themselves are very reliable, cost-effective, and efficient in filling the energy gap. Between the UK’s eight power plants (seven of which are closing by 2030), they provide electricity for about half of the UK’s homes, which accounts for about a fifth of the UK’s electricity usage.
While it should not be seen as a silver bullet to meeting our energy needs, it absolutely must comprise part of the energy mix.
What are the greatest challenges facing the nuclear sector?
The paramount challenge is cost. Nuclear power stations have low running costs and can last 40-60 years, but delivering them in the first place can involve up-to multi-billion-pound investments. Then there’s the element of time it takes to build power stations, which is inextricably linked to cost.
Another very important component that must not be underestimated is the socio-political climate. Historically, nuclear has and still is seen as a mythical thing, in part due to the severe consequences if something goes wrong. That risk, however, has been well understood now for decades and the industry has made major strides in safety and security.
Over the last couple of decades, there has been a huge shift in promoting educational awareness around nuclear. There’s still work to be done, but companies like EDF Energy have done a fantastic job setting up things like visitor’s exhibition centres at nuclear power stations so the public can better understand how these power plants operate.
Part of the challenge therefore revolves around dispelling the myth that nuclear is something to fear. Any project incurs risk, whether it’s building a high-rise tower, working on an oil platform, or above ground in the middle east. The fear factor feeds off the lack of awareness.
How does Tetra Tech support clients on nuclear new build projects?
We support developers and local authorities at various stages of a development’s entire lifecycle from a planning and development consent lens. We have supported key enabling works in terms of transport, roads and infrastructure, environmental impact assessments, and programme management.
We are also in a prominent position with regard to the associated infrastructure to support the Nuclear New Build programme, not only engaging in the initial stages of the new build programme but also in reconciling this with the long term infrastructure requirements in support of decommissioning and operations at adjacent or nearby existing sites.
What is the key to successful nuclear build outcomes?
Because the nuclear industry relies on so much specialist knowledge, a key part of our philosophy centres on good relationship management. There’s no one organisation that can deliver a holistic solution to our nuclear customers, which makes strategic partnering critical. We have developed key supply chain alliances with major players in the Nuclear New Build programme and have established communication links with key technology providers to this end.
As important as the technical expertise is, the thing our clients often value the most isn’t necessarily the experience but the alignment of cultural values and collaborative ways of working between all parties.