Let's stop pretending nuclear industry is a national issue

Hinkley Point C will have two EPR reactors (Image: EDF)

Building a lot of nuclear power plants in a short time can be done. France for example built 56 reactors in its Messmer plan in a time span of just 15 years. This has still been the world gold standard to adhere to, although the original plan did envisage building three times as many plants.

Taking cue from the French experience and aiming towards net-zero carbon energy production, China pledged to build 150 reactors in the next 15 years. It is also investing in thorium technology, having started the experimental 2MWth TMSR-LF1 reactor last September.

Recently, the British even claimed to build ‘one nuclear power plant every year’, to wean off Russian fossil dependence. These are all greatly inspiring developments.

But, building a nuclear reactor is a highly specialised job. A job that can be unlearned in fact, even if you excelled at it in the past. The French mentioned earlier finished their Messmer plan in the early 2000’s and actually lost a lot of experience by not building new ones for a period of a decade or more. Quite simply a lot of engineers went to do other things or retired completely. The result of this is that Flamanville-3, for example, a highly advanced EPR reactor producing 1600MWe, is more than a decade overdue with costs rising from an initial €3.3 billion to an estimated €19.1 (as per July 2020). This cost will likely rise further when it is finally fuel ready next year.

Now, there are more reasons why Flamanville-3 has been somewhat of a pain, but at the core the problem is a lack of experience, things that had to be relearned. The British seem to have the right idea about it: start a new reactor every year, forever. This way, you build around 100 reactors in the time span of a century and by the time the old one needs to be replaced, you have a highly specialised workforce just churning out new ones.

But, this is just one country. We really need to stop reinventing the wheel on a national scale and think, at the very least, continentally. Europe uses around 6700TWh of primary energy. To have a European Messmer-plan therefore, we’d need around 250 EPR-sized reactors, assuming 12.5TWh of electricity and the same amount in heat. So, assuming a lifespan of a century, this means starting 3 new reactor projects each year, at least.

Furthermore, in our own best interest (and morally bound given that we’re its former colonisers), we ought to help develop Africa. Given that this is a developing society that is going to use a lot more energy in the upcoming decades, we’d probably need to start building eight or even ten reactors every year, ad infinitum.

This is going to be the kind of vision we need to build towards a real zero-carbon future for our planet.