Nuclear power in the United Kingdom

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Nuclear power in the United Kingdom


Nuclear power in the United Kingdom generates around one sixth (18.5% in 2012) of the country’s electricity. The UK has 15 operational nuclear reactors at seven plants (14 advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGR) and one pressurised water reactor (PWR)), as well as a nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield.

The United Kingdom established the world’s first civil nuclear programme,[1] opening a nuclear power station, Calder Hall at Windscale, England, in 1956. At the peak in 1997, 26% of the nation’s electricity was generated from nuclear power. Since then a number of reactors have closed and by 2012 the share had declined to 19%.[2] The older AGR reactors have been life-extended, and further life-extensions across the AGR fleet are likely.[3] [4]

In October 2010 the British Government gave permission for private suppliers to construct up to eight new nuclear power plants.[5] However the Scottish Government, with the backing of the Scottish Parliament, has stated that no new nuclear power stations will be constructed in Scotland.[6] [7] In March 2012, E.ON UK and RWE npower announced they would be pulling out of developing new nuclear power plants, placing the future of nuclear power in the UK in doubt.[8] Despite this, EDF Energy is still planning to build four new reactors at two sites, with public consultation completed and initial groundwork beginning on the first two reactors, sited at Hinkley Point in Somerset.[9] [10] Horizon Nuclear Power have plans for 4 to 6 new reactors at their sites, Wylfa and Oldbury. Three reactors are also in the works at the Moorside Nuclear Project. An agreement has also been made which allows for Chinese-designed reactors to be built on the site of the Bradwell nuclear power station.

EDF Energy owns and manages the seven currently operating reactor sites, with a combined capacity approaching 9,000 megawatts.[11] All nuclear installations in the UK are overseen by the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

20th century

Calder Hall power station. First connected to the national power grid on 27 August 1956.

The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was established in 1954 as a statutory corporation to oversee and pioneer the development of nuclear energy within the United Kingdom.[12]

The first station to be connected to the grid, on 27 August 1956, was Calder Hall, although the production of weapons-grade plutonium was the main reason behind this power station. Calder Hall was the world’s first nuclear power station to deliver electricity in commercial quantities[13] (although the 5 MW “semi-experimental” reactor at Obninsk in the Soviet Union was connected to the public supply in 1954).[14]

In February 1966 it was announced that the first prototype fast breeder reactor in the United Kingdom would be constructed in Dounreay, Scotland, at a cost of £30 million.[15]

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) was established in February 1971 from the demerger of the production division of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).[16]In 1984 BNFL became a public limited company, British Nuclear Fuels plc, wholly owned by the UK government.

A Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was opened at Sellafield in 1994.[17]Construction had begun in the 1970s and cost £2.4 billion.[17]

The Sizewell B nuclear power plant was built and commissioned between 1987 and 1995, and began producing power for the national grid in February 1995.[18] Its construction followed a four-year, 16 million-word public inquiry.[18] As of 2014 it is the most recent nuclear plant to be constructed in the United Kingdom.[18] Sizewell B was intended to be the first of a series of four new identical power stations, but the rest were dropped as uneconomic in the early 1990s when it was decided to privatise the electric power industry so low interest rate government finance would no longer be available.[19]

In 1996 the UK’s eight most advanced nuclear plants, seven advanced gas-cooled reactors and one pressurized water reactor, were privatised as British Energy, raising £2.1 billion.[20] The remaining Magnox reactors remained in public ownership as Magnox Electric. On 30 January 1998 Magnox Electric was merged into BNFL as BNFL Magnox Generation.

21st century
2002 Energy review

In relation to nuclear power, the conclusion of the Government’s 2002 energy review[21] was that:

The immediate priorities of energy policy are likely to be most cost-effectively served by promoting energy efficiency and expanding the role of renewables. However, the options of new investment in nuclear power and in clean coal (through carbon sequestration) need to be kept open, and practical measures taken to do this.

The practical measures identified were: continuing to participate in international research; ensuring that the nuclear skill-base is maintained, and that the regulators are adequately staffed to assess any new investment proposals; shortening the lead-time to commissioning, should new nuclear power be chosen in future; permitting nuclear power to benefit from the development of carbon taxes and similar market mechanisms; and addressing the problems of long-term nuclear waste disposal. It went on to state that “Because nuclear is a mature technology within a well-established global industry, there is no current case for further government support” and that “the decision whether to bring forward proposals for new nuclear build is a matter for the private sector”.

2003 Energy White Paper

The Government’s Energy White Paper, published in 2003 and titled “Our Energy Future – Creating a Low Carbon Economy” [22] concluded that:

2006 Energy review

In April 2005, advisers to British Prime Minister Tony Blair were suggesting that constructing new nuclear power stations would be the best way to meet the country’s targets on reducing emissions of gases responsible for global warming. The energy policy of the United Kingdom has a near-term target of cutting emissions below 1997 levels by 20%, and a more ambitious target of an 80% cut by 2050. In November 2005 the Government announced an energy review,[23]subsequently launched in January 2006, to “review the UK’s progress against the medium and long-term Energy White Paper goals and the options for further steps to achieve them”.[24]

Following the 2006 review the Office for Nuclear Regulation, an agency of Health and Safety Executive, developed the Generic Design Assessment process (GDA) to assess new nuclear reactor designs ahead of site-specific proposals.[25] The GDA started assessing four designs: Westinghouse AP1000; Areva EPR; AECL ACR-1000; and GE-Hitachi ESBWR. However the ACR-1000 and ESBWR were subsequently withdrawn from the assessment for commercial reasons,[26] [27] leaving the EPR and AP1000 as contenders for new nuclear builds.[28] [29]

2007 High Court ruling

On February 15, 2007, environmental group Greenpeace won a High Court ruling that threw out the government’s 2006 Energy Review. Mr Justice Sullivan presiding held that the government’s review was ‘seriously flawed’, in particular in that key details of the economics of the argument were only published after the review was completed.[30] [31] Justice Sullivan held that the review’s wording on nuclear waste disposal was “not merely inadequate but also misleading”, and held the decision to proceed to be “unlawful”.[32]

Responding to the news, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said that there would be a fresh consultation, but that a decision was required before the end of 2007. He stated that the government remains convinced that new nuclear power plants are needed to help combat climate change and over-reliance on imported oil and gas.[33] Attention was drawn in the media to numerous connections to nuclear industry lobbyists within the Labour Party.[34]

2007 Consultation

The 2007 Energy White Paper: Meeting the Energy Challenge[35] was published on May 23, 2007. It contained a ‘preliminary view is that it is in the public interest to give the private sector the option of investing in new nuclear power stations’. Alongside the White Paper the Government published a consultation document, The Future of Nuclear Power[36] together with a number of supporting documents.[37] One of these, a report by Jackson Consulting, suggested that it would be preferable to site new power stations on existing nuclear power stations sites that are owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority or British Energy.[38] Greenpeace responded to the release of the consultation document by repeating its position that replacing the nuclear fleet rather than decommissioning would only reduce the UK’s total carbon emissions by four percent.[39]

On September 7, 2007 several anti-nuclear groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, CND and the WWF announced that they had pulled out of the consultation process.[40] They stated that it appeared as if the Government had already made up its mind regarding the future of nuclear power. The business and enterprise secretary, John Hutton, responded in a Radio 4 interview “It is not the government that has got a closed view on these issues, I think it is organisations like Greenpeace that have got a closed mind. There is only one outcome that Greenpeace and other organisations want from this consultation.”

2008 go-ahead given

In January 2008, the UK government gave the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built. However, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Scottish Government has made clear that it opposes new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland and has the final say on planning matters in Scotland.[41]Liberal Democrat spokesman Steve Webb MP said on 29 January 2008 “There is a real risk that focusing on new nuclear plants will undermine attempts to find a cleaner, greener, more sustainable and secure solution. We should be concentrating our efforts on renewables and greater energy conservation.”[42] On 10 January 2008, Alan Duncan MP issued a response to the Government’s announcement on nuclear power, welcoming it and suggesting that the Conservatives supported a level economic playing field for different types of energy generation rather than a preference for one over another.[43]

Two consortia (EDF-Centrica and RWE-E.ON) had announced outline plans to build a total of 12.5GW of new nuclear capacity, slightly more than the total capacity of British Energy’s currently operating plants.

In 2009 government officials believed a carbon price floor would be needed to encourage companies to commit funds to nuclear build projects.[44]

2009 to 2011

In November 2009, the Government identified ten nuclear sites which could accommodate future reactors: Bradwell in Essex; Braystones in Cumbria; Kirksanton in Cumbria; Sellafield in Cumbria; Hartlepool in County Durham; Heysham in Lancashire; Hinkley Point in Somerset; Oldbury in Gloucestershire; Sizewell in Suffolk; and Wylfa in North Wales[45] Most of these sites already have a nuclear power station; the only new sites are Braystones and Kirksanton.

In October 2010, sites at Braystones, Kirksanton and Dungeness were ruled out by Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne with the former government’s list of eleven potential sites reduced to eight.[46]

In 2010 the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre was created in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, led by the University of Sheffield with Rolls-Royce, anticipating involvement in any forthcoming new nuclear builds in the UK. It was funded with £15 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and £10 million from the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.[47] [48]

2011 to present

Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, wrote to Dr Mike Weightman, head of the HSE’s Nuclear Directorate, on March 12, asking for a report ‘on the implications of the situation and the lessons to be learned for the UK nuclear industry.[49] The report is to be delivered within 6 months, with an interim report by mid-May, ‘prepared in close cooperation with the International nuclear community and other nuclear safety regulators’.[49] On March 15, Huhne expressed regret that some European politicians were ‘rushing to judgement’ before assessments had been carried out, and said that it was too early to determine whether the willingness of the private sector to invest in new nuclear plants would be affected.[50] [51] In the wake of the accident the Government was criticised for having colluded with EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse in order to manage communications and maintain public support for nuclear power.[52]

In January 2012, the campaign group Energy Fair, supported by a number of other organisations and environmentalists,[53] filed a formal complaint with the European Commission over alleged unlawful State aid in the form of subsidies for nuclear power industry, in breach of European Union competition law.[53] [54] It claims that the subsidies arise from underwriting commercial risk and decommissioning costs, protection against terrorist attacks, the disposal of nuclear waste, and by providing ‘institutional support’ in the form of various government funded or subsidised bodies such as the National Nuclear Laboratory, the Nuclear Institute, and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority without providing corresponding levels of support for renewable technologies,[55] without which nuclear power would not be commercially viable, so distorting the energy market.[53] [55] The group claims that the subsidies divert resources from renewable technologies that would ‘cut emissions more deeply, more quickly, more cheaply, and with none of the risks and other problems with nuclear power’.[56]

In March 2012, two of the big six power companies announced they would be pulling out of developing new nuclear power plants. The decision by RWE npower and E.ON followed uncertainty over nuclear energy following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which had occurred the year before. Their decision followed a similar announcement by Scottish and Southern Electricity the previous year.[8]Hitachi purchased the Horizon joint-venture, intending to build two or three 1350 MWe Advanced boiling water reactors (ABWR) at Oldbury and Wylfa.[57] [58]

French-owned EDF, one of the two remaining consortia planning to build new nuclear plants in the UK, has indicated that the election victory of François Hollande will not change its plans in the UK,[59] despite François Hollande having proposed to cut France’s reliance on nuclear power generation from 75% to 50%,[60] and despite speculation to the contrary in the UK.[61]

In 2012 Russian firm Rosatom stated that in the future it intended to certify the VVER-1200 with the British and U.S. regulatory authorities, though was unlikely to apply for a British license before 2015, after having seen what agreements EDF finally reaches.[62] [63] In September 2013 Rosatom, in conjunction with Fortum and Rolls-Royce, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK government to prepare for a VVER Generic Design Assessment.[64] [65]

In 2013, Tim Yeo, chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, stated that the government reaching an agreement over nuclear power expansion was a “matter of great urgency”, and warned that Britain could run out of energy if negotiations were not concluded quickly.[66]

In the same year, a cross-party committee inquiry concluded that the UK “will not be able to meet its climate change targets without new nuclear build”. A report published by the committee found that unless planned nuclear power plants are built on time, it will be “extremely challenging, if not impossible” for the country to meet its legally binding carbon reduction targets. Such a failure to build the new nuclear capacity by 2025 would also force a greater reliance on imported gas, and would affect energy security.[67]

On 26 March 2013, the government published a Nuclear Industrial Strategy which in part stated that the nuclear industry had plans for about 16 GWe of new nuclear power stations by 2030, which is at least 12 new nuclear reactors at five sites. A Nuclear Industry Council will be established, and a Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board will be created “to ensure that public R&D programmes are aligned to support industrial and energy policy.” Public civil nuclear R&D funding for 2010/11 was £66 million, which is low compared to some international competitors. The government will join the European Jules Horowitz Reactor research project.[68]

In April 2013, EDF’s negotiations with the government over the strike price for nuclear produced electricity stalled. EDF’s chief executive stated EDF was “in no hurry” to agree the strike price, and was unconcerned if the negotiations failed. Commentators believed it would take several months to reach a conclusion.[69] [70]

Supercomputers are used to predict and mitigate the impact of jellyfish in the intake cooling systems, which bothered Torness in 2011.[71]

As of 2016, EAEC had co-operation agreements of various scopes with eight countries: U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and South Africa.[72]

On 26 January 2017 the UK notified the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) of its intention to withdraw, following on from its decision to withdraw from the European Union. Leaving will have wide-ranging implications for Britain’s nuclear industry, including regulation and research, access to nuclear materials and impacts about twenty nuclear co-operation agreements with non-EU countries.[73][72]

Power stations
Power station Type Net MWe Gross MWe Current operator Construction started Connected to grid Commercial operation Accounting closure date
Dungeness B AGR 1040 1230 EDF Energy 1965 1983 1985 2028
Hinkley Point B AGR 840 1310 EDF Energy 1967 1976 1976 2023
Hunterston B AGR 830 1288 EDF Energy 1967 1976 1976 2023
Hartlepool AGR 1190 1310 EDF Energy 1968 1983 1989 2024[74]
Heysham 1 AGR 1160 1250 EDF Energy 1970 1983 1989 2024[75]
Heysham 2 AGR 1240 1360 EDF Energy 1980 1988 1989 2030
Torness AGR 1205 1364 EDF Energy 1980 1988 1988 2030
Sizewell B PWR 1195 1250 EDF Energy 1988 1995 1995 2035

Since 2006 Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B have been restricted to about 70% of normal MWe output because of boiler-related problems requiring that they operate at reduced boiler temperatures.[76] In 2013 these two stations’ power increased to about 80% of normal output following some plant modifications.[77]

In 2010 EDF announced a 5-year life extension for both Heysham 1 and Hartlepool to enable further generation until 2024.[75]

In 2012 EDF announced it expects 7 year life extensions on average across all AGRs, including the recently life-extended Heysham 1 and Hartlepool. A 20-year life extension is the strategic target for the Sizewell B PWR. These life extensions are subject to detailed review and approval, and are not included in the table above.[4][78]

On 4 December 2012 EDF announced that Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B had been given 7 year life extensions, from 2016 to 2023.[79]

On 5 November 2013 EDF announced that Hartlepool had been given a 5-year life extension, from 2019 to 2024.[74]

Power station Type Net MWe Construction started Connected to grid Commercial operation Closure
Calder Hall Magnox 200 1953 1956 1959 2003
Chapelcross Magnox 240 1955 1959 1960 2004
Berkeley Magnox 276 1957 1962 1962 1989
Bradwell Magnox 246 1957 1962 1962 2002
Hunterston A Magnox 300 1957 1964 1964 1990
Hinkley Point A Magnox 470 1957 1965 1965 2000
Trawsfynydd Magnox 390 1959 1965 1965 1991
Dungeness A Magnox 450 1960 1965 1965 2006
Sizewell A Magnox 420 1961 1966 1966 2006
Oldbury Magnox 434 1962 1967 1968 2012
Wylfa Magnox 980 1963 1971 1972 2015

A number of research and development reactors also produced some power for the grid, including two Winfrith reactors, two Dounreay fast reactors, and the prototype Windscale Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor.[80]


The reactor dome of the Sizewell B power station

The history of nuclear energy economics in the UK is complex. The first Magnox reactors were not built for purely commercial purposes, and later reactors faced delays which inflated costs (culminating in Sizewell B taking seven years from start of construction to entering service, after a lengthy public inquiry). Costs have also been complicated by the lack of national strategy or policy for spent nuclear fuel, so that a mixed use of reprocessing and short-term storage have been employed, with little regard for long-term considerations (although a national repository has been proposed).

There is a lack of consensus in the UK about the cost/benefit nature of nuclear energy, as well as ideological influence (for instance, those favouring ‘energy security’ generally arguing pro, while those worried about the ‘environmental impact’ against). Because of this, and a lack of a consistent energy policy in the UK since the mid-1990s, no new reactors have been built since Sizewell B in 1995. Costs have been a major influence to this (with Sizewell B having run at a cost of 6p/kWh for its first five years of operation[81] ), while the long lead-time between proposal and operation (at ten years or more) has put off many investors, especially with long-term considerations such as energy market regulation and nuclear waste remaining unresolved.

Future power stations

From 2010 until 2015, it was UK Government policy that the construction of any new nuclear power stations in the UK would be led and financed by the private sector.[82]This transfers the running and immediate concerns to the operator, while reducing (although not eliminating) government participation and long-term involvement/liability (nuclear waste, as involving government policy, will likely remain a liability, even if only a limited one). In 2010 The Daily Telegraph reported that additional incentives, such as capacity payments and supplier nuclear obligations, would be needed to persuade companies to build nuclear plants in the UK.[83] The government decided to subsidize nuclear power again in 2015.[84]

When the rest of the UK generating industry was privatised, the Government introduced the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation, initially as a means of supporting the nuclear generators, which remained under state ownership until the formation of British Energy. British Energy, the private sector company that now operates the UK’s more modern nuclear plants, came close to bankruptcy and in 2004 was restructured with UK government investment of over £3 billion, although this has since been paid back in full. In January 2009, British Energy was bought for approximately £12 billion by EDF Energy (a subsidiary of Électricité de France (EDF)) and Centrica (a major operator of CCGT power stations and renewable sources in the UK and parent company of British Gas) in an 80/20 split.

In January 2008, the UK government indicated that it would take steps to encourage private operators to build new nuclear power plants in the following years to meet projected energy needs. The government stated that there would be no subsidies for nuclear power. The Government hoped that the first station would be operational before 2020.[41] However, the Welsh Assembly Government remains opposed to new nuclear plants in Wales despite the approval of Wylfa as a potential site. Scotland has decided against new nuclear power stations.

In May 2008, The Times reported that Wulf Bernotat, chairman and chief executive of E.ON, had stated that the cost of each new nuclear power plant in the UK could be as high as €6 billion (£4.8 billion), much higher than the Government’s estimate of £2.8 billion. The cost of replacing Britain’s ten nuclear power stations could therefore reach £48 billion, excluding the cost of decommissioning ageing reactors or dealing with nuclear waste.[85]

On 29 March 2012 E.ON and RWE npower, which had formed the joint venture Horizon to build NPPs in the United Kingdom, announced that they would not develop new nuclear power projects in the UK, focusing instead on shorter term investments, and were looking to find another company to take over Horizon.[86] [87]On 29 October 2012 it was announced that Hitachi would buy Horizon for about £700 million. Hitachi intend to build two or three 1350 MWe Advanced boiling water reactors (ABWR) at Oldbury and Wylfa, but will first require a Generic Design Assessment for the ABWR design by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which will take about four years.[57] [58]

In June 2012, in research commissioned by EDF, the Institute for Public Policy Research suggested that building 18 GW of new nuclear energy capacity in the UK, with more than 10 new reactors, could create between 16,250 and 21,250 additional jobs, and enable the UK to compete in the international market for nuclear energy.[88] [89] The Institute of Directors also published a report stating that nuclear energy is a “clean, cheap and safe” way of generating electricity, with 84% of its members in favour of new nuclear power in Britain.[90] However, The Times reported the cost of building each EPR had increased to £7 billion, which Citigroup analysts did not regard as commercially viable, projecting a generation cost of 16.6p/kWh for private-sector financed reactors.[91]

On 21 October 2013, EDF Energy announced that an agreement had been reached regarding new nuclear plants to be built on the site of Hinkley Point C. EDF Group and the UK Government agreed on the key commercial terms of the investment contract.The final investment decision is still conditional on completion of the remaining key steps, including the agreement of the EU Commission.[92]

In 2015, the UK government proposed to provide large subsidies to the Hinkley Point C plant, paying twice the market rate for electricity.[84]

A 2015 model-based study compares renewables plus storage, nuclear, and fossil fuels with and without carbon capture and storage. The study finds that, for the scenarios considered, costs were similar at about 0.084 £/kWh at up to 50% renewables and rose for renewables above an 80% share as grid-scale storage, imports, and tidal range generation were applied.[93]

Waste management and disposal

The UK has a large variety of different intermediate- and high-level radioactive wastes, coming from national programmes to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It is a national responsibility to pay for the management of these. In addition, new nuclear power stations could be built, the waste management from which would be the private sector’s financial responsibility, although all would be stored in a single facility.[94] Most of the UK’s higher-activity radioactive waste is currently held in temporary storage at Sellafield.

On 31 July 2006, the latest body to consider the issue of long-term waste management, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), published its final report.[95] Its main recommendation was that geological disposal should be adopted. This would involve burial at a depth between 200 – 1000m deep in a purpose-built facility with no intention to retrieve the waste in the future. It was concluded that this could not be implemented for several decades, and that there were “social and ethical concerns within UK society about the disposal option that would need to be resolved as part of the implementation process”. Such a repository should start to be closed as soon as practicable rather than being left open for future generations. Fourteen additional recommendations were also made.

The report was criticised by David J. Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University who resigned from CoRWM in 2005, who said that it was based on opinions rather than sound science.[96] (Ball apparently has since rejoined the committee.)[97]

On 12 June 2008, a white paper, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal was published confirming CoRWM’s conclusion of geologic disposal of higher-activity wastes. The policy announcement confirmed that there would be one geologic disposal site, for both national legacy waste as well as potential wastes from future programmes. It announced that a process of volunteerism would be used in selecting a suitable site and invited communities from the UK to express interest. They would be rewarded by the infrastructure investment for the facility, jobs for the long term and a tailored package of benefits.[94]

In January 2014 the building of the first dry spent nuclear fuel store in the UK began at Sizewell B, where the existing spent fuel pool, which stores spent fuel under water, was expected to reach full capacity in 2015.[98] It is intended to enable spent nuclear fuel produced from 2016 until at least 2035 to be stored at Sizewell B until a deep geological repository is available.[99] In March 2017 the first cask containing spent nuclear fuel was installed.[100]


The Windscale Piles (currently being decommissioned)

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), formed in April 2005 under the Energy Act 2004, oversees and manages the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK’s older Magnox power plants and the reprocessing facilities at Sellafield, which were transferred to its ownership from BNFL, and the former nuclear research and development facilities previously run by the UKAEA.


In August 2005, the following sites were listed for decommissioning:[101]

  • Berkeley, Gloucestershire
  • Bradwell, Essex
  • Calder Hall, Cumbria
  • Capenhurst, Cheshire
  • Chapelcross, Dumfriesshire
  • Culham, Oxfordshire
  • Dounreay, Caithness
  • Drigg, Cumbria
  • Dungeness, Kent
  • Harwell, Oxfordshire
  • Hinkley, Somerset
  • Hunterston, Ayrshire
  • Oldbury, Gloucestershire
  • Sellafield, Cumbria
  • Sizewell, Suffolk
  • Springfields, Lancashire
  • Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd
  • Windscale, Cumbria
  • Winfrith, Dorset
  • Wylfa, Gwynedd

Prior to the 2002 white paper Managing the Nuclear Legacy, the cost of decommissioning these facilities had been estimated at around £42 billion.[102] The white paper estimated the costs at £48 billion at March 2002 prices, an increase of £6bn, with the cost of decommissioning Sellafield accounting for over 65% of the total.[103] This figure included a rise in BNFL’s estimated decommissioning liabilities from £35 billion to £40.5 billion,[104] with an estimate of £7.4 billion for UKAEA.[103]

In June 2003 the Department of Trade and Industry estimated that decommissioning costs, including the cost of running the facilities still in operation for their remaining life, were approximately £56 billion at 2003 prices, although the figure was ‘almost certainly’ expected to rise.[105] This estimate was revised in subsequent years; to £57 billion in September 2004; £63 billion in September 2005; £65 billion in March 2006; and to £73 billion in March 2007.[106] [107] Around £46 billion of the £73 billion is for the decommissioning and clean-up of the Sellafield site.[108]

In May 2008 a senior director at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority indicated that the figure of £73 billion might increase by several billion pounds.[109]

In addition to The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s costs, British Energy’s liabilities in relation to spent nuclear fuels have risen. In February 2006 it was reported that these had increased to £5.3 billion, an increase of almost £1 billion.[110]The costs of handling these is to be met by the Nuclear Liabilities Fund (NLF), the successor to the Nuclear Generation Decommissioning Fund. Although British Energy contributes to the NLF, the fund is underwritten by the Government. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee noted in 2007 that British Energy may lack an incentive to reduce the eventual liabilities falling to the Nuclear Liabilities Fund.[111]


Until the expansion of nuclear power in the 1980s, seismic activity in the UK had not received a great deal of attention.[112] As a result of the new interest in the topic, the British Geological Survey published a catalogue of earthquakes in 1994.[112]

Although earthquakes are relatively frequent, they rarely cause damage to well-constructed structures. Two of the largest, estimated at approximately 5.75 (moderate) on the Richter scale occurred in 1382 and 1580.[112] Evaluation of past earthquakes indicates that the UK is unlikely to be subject to earthquakes larger than a magnitude of approximately 6.5.[113]

The occurrence of tsunamis impacting the UK is rare, with only two (possibly three) having been identified; a 3m high wave as a result of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and a 21m high tsunami in 6100 BC which occurred under very different geological conditions (Storegga Slide). In recent years there has been an accumulation of evidence indicating that the 1607 Bristol Channel floods may also have resulted from a tsunami that rose from a height of 4m to over 6m as it passed up the channel.[114]

A 2005 report for DEFRA, conducted following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, found that, discounting ‘exotic events such as meteorite impacts’, ‘in most plausible circumstances it is likely that such an event would be contained by current defences, designed to resist storm surges, for all major developed areas’, however the joint occurrence of events, such as a tsunami coinciding with a storm surge, was discounted.[115] The report did, however call for additional more detailed modelling to be carried out, recommended that the Met Office should provide a tsunami warning service, and that detection devices should be upgraded. A follow-up report indicated that, of the three likely scenarios modelled, a Lisbon-type event would pose the greatest danger, potentially resulting in a tsunami wave exceeding the 1:100 year extreme sea level at the Cornish peninsula by up to 1.4m, but being within the range elsewhere.[116] This conclusion is markedly different from the greater heights calculated by Bryant and Haslett as having been encountered in the Bristol Channel during the 1607 Bristol Channel floods.[114]

Speaking before the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee on March 15, 2011, about the Fukushima I nuclear accidents, Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne expressed concern over extreme weather events in the UK, but stated that ‘we are lucky that we do not have to suffer from tsunamis’.[50]

Nuclear power accidents in the UK[117] [118]
Date Location Description INES level Fatalities Cost (in millions 2006 US$)
8 October 1957 Windscale Windscale fire ignites plutonium piles, with large radioactive release. 5 33 – 120 (estimates; due to increased cancer risk)[119][120] [121] 78
19 April 2005 Sellafield 20 tonnes of uranium and 160 kg plutonium leak from a cracked pipe at the Thorp nuclear fuel reprocessing plant 2 0 65

The Civil Nuclear Constabulary is responsible for security at civil nuclear sites, within 5 km of site boundaries, and for nuclear materials in transit. The UK is involved in the Nuclear Security Summit series of world summits held since 2010. During 2016 the UK and the US will stage a training exercise simulating a cyber-attack on a nuclear power station.[122]

Public opinion and protests

In March 2006, a protest took place in Derby where campaigners handed a letter to Margaret Beckett, head of DEFRA, outside Derby City Council about the dangers of nuclear power stations.

In the early 1990s concern was raised in the United Kingdom about the effect of nuclear power plants on unborn children, when clusters of leukaemia cases were discovered nearby to some of these plants. The effect was speculative because clusters were also found where no nuclear plants were present, and not all plants had clusters around them. Detailed studies carried out by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) in 2003 found no evidence of raised childhood cancer around nuclear power plants, but did find an excess of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) near other nuclear installations including Sellafield, AWE Burghfield and UKAEA Dounreay. COMARE’s opinion is that “the excesses around Sellafield and Dounreay are unlikely to be due to chance, although there is not at present a convincing explanation for them”.[123]

An opinion poll in Britain in 2002 by MORI on behalf of Greenpeace showed large support for wind power and a majority for putting an end to nuclear energy if the costs were the same.[124] In November 2005 a YouGov poll conducted by business advisory firm Deloitte found that 36% of the UK population supported the use of nuclear power, though 62% would support an energy policy that combines nuclear along with renewable technologies.[125] The same survey also revealed high public expectations for the future rate of renewables development – with 35% expecting the majority of electricity to come from renewables in only 15 years, which is more than double the government’s expectation.

In the early 2000s there was a heated discussion about nuclear waste,[126] leading to the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (see above).

A large nationally representative 2010 British survey about energy issues found that public opinion is divided on the issue of nuclear power. The majority of people are concerned about nuclear power and public trust in the government and nuclear industry remains relatively low. The survey showed that there is a clear preference for renewable energy sources over nuclear power.[127]

According to a national opinion poll, support for nuclear power in the UK dropped by twelve percent following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.[128] However, support recovered within a few months.[129] [130] By July 2012, a YouGov poll showed that 63 percent of respondents agreed that nuclear generation should be part of the country’s energy mix, up from 61 percent in 2010. Opposition fell to 11 percent.[131]

In October 2011 more than 200 protesters blockaded the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station site. Members of several anti-nuclear groups that are part of the Stop New Nuclear alliance barred access to the site in protest at EDF Energy’s plans to renew the site with two new reactors.[132]

In January 2012, three hundred anti-nuclear protesters took to the streets of Llangefni, against plans to build a new nuclear power station at Wylfa. The march was organised by a number of organisations, including Pobl Atal Wylfa B, Greenpeace and Cymdeithas yr Iaith, which are supporting farmer Richard Jones who is in dispute with Horizon.[133]

In February 2013, a Yougov poll published in the Sunday Times found that nuclear was the most popular choice to provide for Britain’s future energy needs.[134] [135] [136]

In July 2012, a YouGov poll reported that 63% of UK respondents agreed that nuclear generation should be part of the country’s energy mix, up from 61% in 2010. Opposition fell to 11%.[137]

In February 2013, a poll published by Ipsos MORI which queried 1046 British individuals determined that support for new nuclear generation capacity was at 42% of the population. With the proportion of the population opposed to new nuclear generation being reported as unchanged at 20%, close to the lowest recorded proportion, by the agency in 2010, of 19% opposed. The results also report that the proportion of the population that was undecided or neutral had increased, and it stood at 38%.[138]

In 2013, a survey by Harris Interactive of more than 2000 UK respondents found that ‘one in four people (24%) considered nuclear power to offer the greatest potential’ alongside solar (23%) and ahead of wind power (18%). Immediately following the announcement of the agreement between EDF and the UK government, 35% considered it to be a positive step, 21% felt it was a negative development and 28% were indifferent.[139]

Nuclear power in Scotland

Though the UK Government has recently given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built, the Scottish Government has made clear that no new nuclear power stations will be built in Scotland and is aiming instead for a non-nuclear future. This was made clear when, First Minister Alex Salmond said there was ‘no chance’ of any new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland.[41]The Government’s stance has been backed by the Scottish Parliament that voted 63–58 to support the Scottish Government’s policy of opposing new nuclear power stations.[140]

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