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The case for nuclear safety

5th Feb 2018

This article is authored by Jennifer Richards, Managing Director of Hydrock NMCL. It was originally published in Infrastructure Intelligence and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

With a 20-year gap since the last active new build in nuclear power in the UK, the knowledge, innovation and investment in civil nuclear reactor design is now led from countries such as France, the US, Canada, Japan and the fast-emerging Chinese market.

Investing in the UK nuclear market presents challenges to overseas companies, not least the need to comply with our well-established safety standards. Although detailed guidance exists on UK expectations, much ‘custom and practice’ has been developed which is often difficult for new investors and developers from outside the UK to understand and apply.

This situation presents a challenge. On the one hand, in view of the changing global landscape, is it right for the UK to stick to its current approach to nuclear safety regulation which was developed when our nuclear industry had a very different structure? Some argue that these very particular standards are holding back much needed investment in new nuclear power in the UK. However, on the other hand, our ‘gold standard’ and high level safety principles are respected and admired, and offer the UK a means to rediscover the skills to develop nuclear technology. Through detailed safety assessment of new foreign-backed designs, British nuclear engineers can learn from others and the UK can become an ‘intelligent customer’ for the latest nuclear reactor technologies.

First and foremost, the public, regulators and government rightly expect rigour and substantiation of nuclear industry plant and processes. Our approach to nuclear safety standards has served us well. We should be proud of our culture of ‘challenge’ in our nuclear sector where the ‘what if’ questions are constantly posed.

However, given our reliance on foreign investment and ownership, international developers find it challenging to navigate our specific requirements. Our safety standards are absolutely appropriate, and we certainly should not adopt some ‘give and take’ to hasten through this much needed foreign investment. However, our standards are goal-setting and non-prescriptive. In this new global market, arguably we need to offer more clarity to international developers on how to become compliant and how to work in a UK context.

Enabling the transfer of new technology to invigorate a safe UK programme of nuclear new build allows us to be up to date with the latest developments. As our UK teams gain experience of the reactors and their governance, they will witness what best practice design looks like, which will help to inspire our own contribution to the future of nuclear new build.

The case for nuclear safety is as important today as it has ever been, especially as it can play a crucial role in enabling the development of critical, future low-carbon power generation infrastructure.