Will EDF with Chinese backing build a new third-generation nuclear power plant in the U.K., and if so under what conditions? The answer to this question will be vital to the future of the European energy sector. And a great deal will depend on the European Commission, which is expected to decide any moment whether the U.K.’s agreement with EDF will be allowed under EU State Aid rules. In the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014, an annual independent assessment of the global nuclear industry, Steve Thomas, Mycle Schneider and Antony Patrick Froggatt tell the remarkable saga of Hinkley Point C as it has developed until today.
The British government has been attempting since 2005 to revive nuclear ordering in the U.K. The U.K. has been one of the most strategically important markets for nuclear power to crack if the long predicted “nuclear renaissance” were to materialize. Orders for the U.K. would have been a vote of confidence for so-called Generation III+ technologies. The U.K.’s civil nuclear sector, despite its poor record over the past 50 years, still retains prestige and credibility in many countries, which would see the U.K. as an example to emulate. For reactor vendors, the apparent openness of the process, the prestige of the market, and the apparent determination to force through the nuclear program almost regardless of cost has persuaded them to gamble on the British market.
However, the U.K. government promised from the start that nuclear power would be competitive with gas-fired generation and, as a result, any new nuclear orders would receive no public subsidies and, implicitly, would compete in the competitive British wholesale electricity market on equal terms with other generators.
What was particularly eye-catching about the initial publicity in surrounding the attempt to re-launch nuclear ordering in the U.K. was the very optimistic forecasts of the commercial and economic viability of new nuclear orders. Following the failure to privatize the British nuclear power plants and the lack of nuclear orders for electricity markets that had been opened to competition, the conventional wisdom was that, even if the price of power from nuclear plants were expected to be competitive with the cheapest options, nuclear would not be chosen because financiers would not be prepared to bear the economic risks associated with building nuclear.
By 2006, the original cost claims for a “nuclear renaissance”, first talked about from 1998 onwards, for example that nuclear could be built for less than US$1000/kW, a price expected to make nuclear competitive with natural gas generation, had already been proved unrealistic. The claim that, in Britain, nuclear plants would be ordered on the basis that they would be able to compete in the market with the cheapest alternatives and would be offered no public subsidies was therefore remarkable. All that would be required were a few “enabling” measures such as making suitable sites available, carrying out a Generic Design Appraisal (GDA) process and putting a cap on the cost of radioactive waste disposal.
The Enabling Decisions
On siting, the assumption was that the sites of existing nuclear plants were less likely to be problematic in terms of public consent as well as technical suitability. The British government owned the sites of the 11 first-generation Magnox plants (most of which had been retired by then) through its Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Some of these would not have been suitable for new reactors but about half of them were worthy of consideration as well as the Sellafield complex, also owned by NDA. The government made six of these sites available for auction. The eight newer plants (at seven sites) were owned by British Energy, which had emerged from bankruptcy in 2005.
In 2009, British Energy was taken over by French state utility EDF, giving it access to three sites deemed suitable for new reactors. These arrangements for sites were meant to ensure that developers would be able to compete on equal terms and there would not be a monopoly nuclear developer. Three consortia emerged:
- NNB Gen, a consortium led by EDF, with the British energy company Centrica taking a 20 percent stake
- Horizon, a 50/50 consortium of the two leading German electric utilities, RWE and E.ON
- and NuGen, comprising Iberdrola and GDF Suez (both 37.5 percent) and Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) with the remainder.
This meant that all six of the major energy companies active in Britain (widely known as the ‘Big 6’) had a stake in a nuclear consortium, with GDF Suez often seen as a potential new entrant as the seventh player.
The GDA process was intended to resolve all generic design issues for a number of designs, leaving only site-specific issues for any given project. This would mean that potential developers would be able to choose between several designs, confident that no significant technical issues would emerge. The GDA was initiated in 2007 with four competing designs entering the process: the AREVA EPR (PWR), the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 (PWR), the GE-Hitachi ESBWR (BWR) and the AECL ACR1000 (Candu).
The measure that created most controversy then was the decision to fix the price for waste disposal at a level that would ensure the new developers would pay a “fair share” of the costs of waste disposal. There was ample scope for semantic disputes about what constituted a fair share—for example, would new developers pay only the marginal cost of expanding facilities to be built for existing (“heritage”) waste? From a presentational point of view, the price was either the minimum developers would pay even if actual costs were lower or the maximum they would pay even if costs were higher. The government claimed this did not constitute a subsidy, although given that effectively this represented a price guarantee given at no cost to the companies, this claim was hard to sustain.
What Promises, What Offer?
The first public sign of the Blair government’s decision to revive nuclear power was in November 2005 with Blair reportedly telling a dinner with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that nuclear power was “back with a vengeance”. (1) The official documentation was more cautious. A Green Paper was published in July 2006 and a White Paper, published, in May 2007 concluded: “Therefore, the Government believes that new nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to tackling climate change.” (2)
The fairness of the consultation was challenged in the High Court by Greenpeace and the Court found that the consultation had been “manifestly inadequate” and “procedurally unfair”, and that something “had gone clearly and radically wrong”. (3) As a result, the consultation had to be repeated, albeit with similar results, and the Nuclear White Paper was published in January 2008, stating: “That is why the Government has today concluded that nuclear should have a role to play in the generation of electricity, alongside other low-carbon echnologies”. (4)
This was based on some, as it turned out, hopelessly overoptimistic forecasts of cost, of building an EPR (European Pressurized water Reactor) for £2 billion (US$3.4 billion), at which price, it was forecast to be competitive with power from a gas-fired power station at any plausible carbon price. However, as soon as the enabling measures were in place, the process began to unravel.
Two of the designs entering the GDA, the ESBWR and the ACR1000, were withdrawn before significant progress had been made. By December 2011, the GDAs were still not complete and interim approvals were issued for the EPR and the AP1000 with a list of issues still to be resolved. This process was completed in December 2012 for the EPR when a Design Acceptance Certificate was issued. However, Toshiba-Westinghouse chose to suspend the process at that point for their AP1000 until there was a U.K. customer for the design. They have now taken a majority stake in one of the consortia, NuGen, and expressed intent to complete the GDA process, but have said this will not be before 2017. (5)
At the same time, the construction consortia have seen an exit of the “Big 6” with only EDF retaining a share in them. E.ON and RWE sold the Horizon consortium to Hitachi-GE in October 2012 for £700 million (US$1.2 billion).(6) Centrica withdrew from the NNB Gen consortium in February 2013.(7) The composition of the NNB Gen consortium has not been finalized but when agreement was announced between the British government and EDF on the construction of Hinkley, EDF said the holdings would be: EDF Group (45-50 percent), China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) (30-40 percent) and AREVA (10 percent).
However, EDF stated: “Discussions are also taking place with a shortlist of other interested parties who could take up to 15 percent”.(8) If 15 percent of the shares were taken up by Chinese interests, the most likely investors, this could give Chinese companies a majority stake and leave EDF with as little as 35 percent.
SSE gave up its stake in NuGen in September 2011, leaving GDF Suez and Iberdrola with 50 percent each of the shares. Iberdrola sold its stake and GDF Suez sold 10 percent of the shares to Toshiba-Westinghouse (giving it 60 percent) in January 2014 for £102 million (US$174 million). (9)
However, the most significant change came in 2010 when the then Energy Minister in the Labour Government, Ed Miliband, made a statement that, in effect, foreshadowed the abandonment of the competitive wholesale market in favor of a return to a planned approach. He said: “However, for the longer term, Britain will need a more interventionist energy policy. The scale and upfront nature of the low carbon investment needed is likely to require significant reform of our market arrangements to deliver security of supply in the most affordable way.” (10)
This set in motion a process known as Electricity Market Reform, carried on by the successor Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that culminated in the Energy Act 2013, passed in December 2013. (11) This contained the framework that provides the basis for the agreement between EDF and the British government in October 2013. It includes the option of Contracts for Differences (CfDs), a Feed-in Tariff (FIT), and creation of a government agency (yet to be named or given a legal basis) to sign contracts for purchasing the power.
The deal between EDF and the British government was announced on 21 October 2013.(12)
The main points were (13):
• The two reactors would cost £8 billion (US$13.6 billion) each.
• The U.K. Government would provide loan guarantees for about £10 billion (US$17 billion).
• The “strike price”, the initial guaranteed price, would be £92.5/MWh (US$157.7/MWh), and would be paid under a CfD to all power produced (FiT) for 35 years.
• This would fall to £89.5/MWh (US$152.6/MWh) if two follow-up reactors at Sizewell were completed.
• The strike price would be indexed to general inflation (using the Consumer Price Index), and there would be scope for real increases in operating costs to be passed through to consumers.
• EDF was adamant that the risk of construction cost escalation would be borne by EDF. (14)
• The consortium building the plant would be: EDF Group (45-50 percent); CNNC and CGN (30-40 percent); AREVA (10 percent), but EDF stated: “Discussions are also taking place with a shortlist of other interested parties who could take up to 15 percent”.
• Expected first power would be 2023.
The details of the negotiations had been reported widely for the year or more that they had been going on and many of the elements of the deal were expected. These include the strike price, the contract duration, the use of a CfD and a FiT, and the indexation to general inflation. The granting of loan guarantees was a relatively late concession only mooted in June 2013.(15) However, other elements of the deal were unexpected.
Whilst a Chinese participation had been forecast, it was much larger than expected whilst the AREVA contribution had not been reported. It must be assumed that these elements were essential for the financial package to be viable. The price was a surprise because right up to the day of the announcement, it had been reported as being £7 billion (US$12 billion), indeed, the CEO of EDF U.K. only a week earlier had quoted £7 billion as the likely price. EDF’s explanation for the last-minute price rise was deeply unconvincing.
EDF said that in addition to the construction cost of the two nuclear power units, expected to be £14 billion in 2012 money, the project and its partners will have incurred £2 billion of other costs before first operation. These include land purchases, achieving the different consents, construction of a spent fuel storage facility and preparing the 900 strong team which will run the station. This means that the total costs to first operation are expected to be close to £16 billion, expressed in 2012 money. (16)
It seems highly unlikely that a package of land purchases, training, and the like would amount to £2 billion (US$3.4 billion) and these costs were clearly known about long before the announcement, so, at best, to reveal them only at the last minute was disingenuous and at worst deceptive. The date of first power was also a surprise that has not been adequately explained. It was clear that the early target for first power of late 2017 was not feasible, but given the expectation of a construction period of five years and the government’s hope the inevitable state-aid inquiry might be completed by mid-2014, it might have been expected that a completion date of around 2020 would be forecast.
The completion date of 2023 implies construction start as late as 2018. It is probably no coincidence that EDF hopes to life-extend its two oldest Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs), at Hinkley Point B and Hunterston, until 2023 so these plants would be closed only when Hinkley Point C was complete. Again, this suggests the difficulty EDF has in financing the deal.
Whether the deal really does mean that all the construction cost overrun risk will be borne by EDF is difficult to know. The U.K. government has said the contract will be published but with commercially confidential details redacted, giving ample scope for price escalation pass-through clauses not to be disclosed.
The State-Aid Inquiry
It was inevitable once the CfD framework had been disclosed that the deal would be subject to a state aids inquiry by the European Commission. There are three basic tests that must be applied to any such agreement: Is it state aid; does it distort markets; and is there an applicable exemption from state aid rules?
The agreement clearly is state aid that could distort markets and there is no applicable exemption. (17) The nuclear industry had hoped that a review of state-aid guidelines for energy would give nuclear power the same status as renewables, which are, effectively, exempt from state-aid legislation. Draft proposals in July 2013 were reported to include provisions to give nuclear power similar status to renewables. (18) However, there was strong opposition to this draft from some member states and in October 2013, the Commission made it clear nuclear power would not be given special status in any new guidelines. (19) This was finally confirmed by the Guidelines on State aid for environmental protection and energy 2014-2020, as published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 28 June 2014, which have now entered in force. (20)
The Hinkley deal was notified to the European Commission in October 2013 and the Inquiry formally opened in February 2014. A second Inquiry was also required to review the arrangements for pricing the waste disposal. The initial view of the Commission on the Hinkley Point deal was almost entirely negative. It concluded: “The Commission considers at this stage that the notified measure involves State aid within the meaning of Art 107(1) TFEU. The Commission doubts that the aid might be considered as compatible aid for the provision of a SGEI under the SGEI Framework. Finally, the Commission has doubts that the notified measure can be declared compatible under Article 107(3) (c) TFEU and in particular that it effectively addresses a market failure and is appropriate. It also questions whether the notified measure can be deemed to have an incentive effect, to be proportionate, and is concerned about its distortive effects on competition. The Commission does not intend to prejudge whether State aid to nuclear energy might be appropriate. The Commission merely aims to highlight issues of concern which it has identified in the specific measures proposed by the UK, and aims to carry out a more in-depth assessment of such issues in a formal investigation.” (21)
Prospects for other consortia
With the waning of interest by the Big 6 in nuclear expansion in the U.K., the other two consortia, Horizon and NuGen, appeared to have little future. However, the deal being negotiated by EDF and the likely terms, as well as paucity of orders worldwide, led Hitachi-GE and Toshiba-Westinghouse to essentially take over these two companies.
Horizon had made significantly more progress than NuGen and had acquired two Magnox sites, Wylfa and Oldbury. It had not chosen between the EPR and the AP1000, but the re-imposition of the phaseout policy in Germany left the two German owners, RWE and E.ON, with little interest in pursuing nuclear power and they announced their intention to withdraw from Horizon in March 2012, although the decision had been predicted for some time. (22) Hitachi-GE bought the company in October 2012.
The price of £700 million (US$1.2 billion) was remarkable. It bought two viable sites, although the Oldbury site would be likely to be problematic, and a capability. However, if the deal with EDF cannot be completed, for example, if it fails the state-aid inquiry, the Horizon consortium would be highly unlikely to proceed. In addition, it is proposing to build a design, the ABWR, which has not started the GDA process so Horizon would be unlikely to be in a position to start building much before 2020.
The ABWR is often portrayed as a proven design, but the reactors in operation (three reactors in Japan) and under construction (two in Taiwan and two in Japan) are all the version from the mid-1980s, predating Chernobyl. (23) An updated version was given generic design approval in the USA in 1997, but that design was never ordered and approval expired in 2012. GE-Hitachi applied to renew approval in 2010 but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still reviewing the design and has published no expected completion date for the process. GE-Hitachi has no firm U.S. customers, so there is little incentive to complete the process.
A design able to satisfy European regulators would differ again from the U.S. version. The process of review in the U.K. started in March 2014. (24) Given the lack of experience of the U.K. regulator (the Office of Nuclear Regulation [ONR]), with BWR technology, it seems unlikely the process can be completed in much less than the five years the EPR took. Whilst it is possible the reactor design can complete the GDA successfully, the requirements imposed may increase the expected cost significantly. It therefore seems there is still ample scope for the Horizon consortium to fail.
The NuGen consortium only acquired one site, adjacent to Sellafield, Moorside. This would require major new grid connections to get the power out, and was widely seen as one of the less attractive options. The NuGen consortium did not appear to have progressed much. It had not chosen a technology and it had made no significant progress with the site.
From 2010 onwards, reports of lack of interest from the partners began to appear and first SSE, then Iberdrola withdrew. Iberdrola’s withdrawal led to Toshiba’s taking a majority stake in January 2014. This appeared to revive the prospects for the AP1000, and NuGen has said it hopes to build up to three AP1000s at Moorside. (25) Toshiba has stated it does not expect to complete the GDA before 2017, although it is not clear when it will formally request that ONR re-commence its review. How far this delay is down to an expectation that the remaining issues will not be quick to be resolved and how far it is down to NuGen’s seeing no advantage in committing resources to the project before it is certain that the Hinkley deal can be finalized is not clear.
The price for Toshiba’s 60% stake in NuGen of about £100 million (US$170 million) is substantially less than that paid by Hitachi-GE for Horizon. (26) This may reflect the fact that only one site, potentially problematic was acquired, that the capability in NuGen was much less developed than that in Horizon and that if the Hinkley deal fails, other deals will not be viable. However, the AP1000 is a quicker and probably less risky choice of design. Overall, as with Horizon, the odds are still probably against the NuGen consortium building a plant.
Russian state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom has been looking at the U.K. as a potential new market for some years and in September 2013, it concluded an agreement with the U.K. government to cooperate on nuclear matters and signed agreements with Rolls Royce and Fortum (Finland) to advise it on entry into the U.K. market. In November 2013, it also had a 2-day information exchange on the GDA process, presenting its latest VVER-1200 design. However, Russia’s role in the unrest in Ukraine put a question mark against its entry into the U.K. (27) If this is resolved quickly and no other major problems arise, Russia would still have to acquire a site and would probably not be able to get a reactor in operation much before the late 2020s.
China’s third nuclear reactor vendor, SNPTC (State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation) has been reported to looking to buy a stake in the NuGen consortium. SNPTC was Westinghouse’s technology partner for orders of the AP1000 for China and has developed a larger version, CAP1400, which is reported to have received regulatory approval from the Chinese regulator in January 2014 and is expected to be built in Pakistan as well as China. (28) The other two Chinese nuclear companies, CNNC and CGN, may also have plans to offer Chinese technology, either for Hinkley Point C through the NNB Genco consortium or through an independent venture.
However, given that independent Chinese technology is still at best only just available and would require rigorous review under the GDA process, the completion of Chines-designed plants is probably as distant as Russian technology.
The World Nuclear Industry Status Report is an independent annual review of the state of the global nuclear industry, written and published by a team of researchers led by Mycle Schneider and Antony Patrick Froggatt. This article was republished with permission from the most recent 2014 edition of the WNISR, published on 29 July. Its lead author is Steve Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy and Director of Research for the Business School, University of Greenwich. The WNISR can be downloaded free of charge here.
1) The Mirror, “Nuclear issue’back with a vengeance’, says Blair”, 29 November 2005, see http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/nuclear-issue-back-vengeance-says-567155, accessed 5 June 2014.
2) Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), “Meeting the energy challenge: A White Paper on energy”, BERR, HMSO, London, May 2007, see http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file39564.pdf, accessed 5 June 2014.
3) The Times, “Splat! Ministers caught out cheating the public (again)”, 17 February 2007.
4) Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), “Meeting the energy challenge – A White Paper on Nuclear Power”, BERR, HMSO, London, January 2008, see http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file43006.pdf, accessed 5 June 2014.
5) Power in Europe, “Toshiba takes NuGen majority”, 20 January 2014.
6) Nucleonics Week, “Hitachi to buy Horizon, bring ABWRs to the UK”, 1 November 2012.
7) Nucleonics Week, “EDF Energy considers new Hinkley partners”, 4 February 2013.
8) EDF Energy, “Agreement reached on commercial terms for the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power station”, 21 October 2013, see http://newsroom.edfenergy.com/News-Releases/Agreement-reached-on-commercial-terms-for-the-planned-Hinkley-Point-C-nuclear-power-station-82.aspx, accessed 5 June 2014.
9) Nucleonics Week, “Toshiba to buy 60% of UK’s NuGen, plan AP1000s at Moorside”, 16 January 2014.
10) Department of Energy and Climate Change, “Statement on Ofgem project discovery”, see http://www.mynewsdesk.com/uk/pressreleases/department-of-energy-and-climate-change-statement-on-ofgem-project-discovery-368342, accessed 5 June 2014.
11) Parliament.uk, “Energy Act 2013”, see http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/energy.html, accessed 5 June 2014
12) EDF Energy, “Agreement reached on commercial terms for the planned Hinkley partners”, 21 October 2013, see http://newsroom.edfenergy.com/News-Releases/Agreement-reached-on-commercial-terms-for-the-planned-Hinkley-Point-C-nuclear-power-station-82.aspx, accessed 5 June 2014; and Department of Energy & Climate Change, The Rt Hon Edward Davey MP, The Rt Hon David Cameron MP and Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, “Initial agreement reached on new nuclear power station at Hinkley”, 21 October 2013, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/initial-agreement-reached-on-new-nuclear-power-station-at-hinkley, accessed 5 June 2014.
13) Exchange rates in this chapter as of 31 December 2012, as prices have been given for in 2012 money.
14) Nucleonics Week “UK, EDF reach deal on Hinkley Point C”, 24 October 2013.
15) WNN, “Loan guarantee for Hinkley Point C”, 28 June 2013, see http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NNLoan_guarantee_for_Hinkley_Point_C-280613ST.html, accessed 5 June 2014.
16) EDF Energy, “Agreement reached on commercial terms for the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power station”, 21 October 2013, see http://newsroom.edfenergy.com/News-Releases/Agreement-reached-oncommercial-terms-for-the-planned-Hinkley-Point-C-nuclear-power-station-82.aspx, accessed 5 June 2014.
17) For a detailed description of the applicable rules for state-aids, see Steve Thomas & Dörte Fouquet, “The new UK nuclear power programme – a FIT for nuclear and a blueprint for illegal state aid?”, on behalf of Greens/EFA Group – European Parliament, Belgium, 2013.
18) Nucleonics Week, “Draft EU state aid guidelines includes chapter on nuclear energy”, 25 July 2013.
19) Nucleonics Week, “EU drops nuclear power section from state aid guidelines: Almunia”, 10 October 2013.
20) European Commission, “Guidelines on State aid for environmental protection and energy 2014-2020”, Official Journal of the EU, 28 June 2014, see http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.C_.2014.200.01.0001.01.ENG, accessed 24 July 2014.
21) European Commission, “State aid SA. 34947 (2013/C) (ex 2013/N) — United Kingdom Investment Contract (early Contract for Difference) for the Hinkley Point C New Nuclear Power Station”, 18 December 2013, see http://ec.europa.eu/competition/state_aid/cases/251157/251157_1507977_35_2.pdf, accessed 5 June 2014.
22) The Independent, “RWE npower and E.ON halt nuclear plant development”, 29 March 2012
23) The ABWR is offered by three separate companies. In the USA, it is offered by GE-Hitachi, a consortium of GE (80%) and Hitachi (20%) whilst outside USA, it is offered by Hitachi-GE (80% Hitachi). Toshiba, which participated in the development of the ABWR and supplied some of the reactors broke away in 2006 and offers its own version of the ABWR, although not in the UK.
24) Office for Nuclear Regulation, and the Environment Agency, “UK ABWR”, see http://www.onr.org.uk/newreactors/uk-abwr/index.htm, accessed 5 June 2014.
25) Nucleonics Week, “Toshiba to buy 60% of UK’s NuGen, plan AP1000s at Moorside”, 16 January 2014.
26) Financial Times, “Westinghouse to buy 50 per cent stake in NuGen”, 15 December 2013.
27) NIW, “United Kingdom”, 28 March 2014, p 8.
28) Sunday Times, “China eyes Sellafield”, 29 September 2013.