Are the new nuclear power plants safe?

The UK’s safety regulator has published an update of its assessment of the new nuclear power plants proposed for the UK: the Areva / EDF EPR and the Westinghouse AP1000.

The widely varying coverage of that announcement says a lot about the outlook for new nuclear investment.

The assessment published on its website by the Health and Safety Executive, the UK safety regulator which has responsibility for nuclear power, including reactor designs, is hugely complex. There are 32 separate reports, and even the summaries for each reactor design are more than 40 pages long. It is hardly surprising that journalists who are not qualified nuclear engineers, have trouble making sense of them, although the HSE has been extremely helpful with briefings to give context and background.

The FT take, which I naturally believe is the right one, is that broadly speaking the assessment is good news for the companies. The process is still on schedule to deliver a conclusion by June 2011, and although there are a number of safety issues still to be resolved, there is nothing that has emerged so far that looks like a “show-stopper”.

Two important specific issues, the question of controls and instrumentation for the EPR, raised as an issue by British, French and Finnish regulators, and the resilience of the shield building for the AP1000, appear to be making progress towards being resolved.

Others, however, seized on the issues that the HSE had raised, to write headlines such as: “Designs for new UK nuclear reactors are unsafe, claims watchdog” reporting the safety regulator’s views as a “major setback” for the government ambitions for the UK’s nuclear renaissance.

The divergence of views shows how deep-rooted suspicion of nuclear power still is in Britain, in spite of the government’s enthusiasm. Both the Labour government and the Conservative opposition support a huge expansion of nuclear power to keep power supplies on while cutting carbon dioxide emissions, with the government’s plans envisaging up to 12 new reactors being built over the next two decades. The planning system has been reformed to make it easier to get those new reactors built; critics say, to stifle local resistance.

As the date for building the new reactors – the target is 2013 for the first one, so it can be running by the end of 2017 – approaches, the opponents of nuclear power will become more vocal.

Greenpeace, for example, is completely unconvinced by the argument that nuclear power is needed to tackle climate change. Ben Ayliffe, head of Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign, said this morning:

Safety controls for the EPR are not sorted and this remains a major headache for EdF that could have significant cost implications. Industry assurances that the safety risk from these potential faults is low are frankly not credible. There has been a catalogue of problems with the AP1000 design that regulators in both the UK and USA have tried to raise. Westinghouse has a terrible track record of responding promptly to requests for further information about whether the reactor can stand up to things like earthquakes and aircraft crashes.

There is clearly still a job of political persuasion to be done for the nuclear industry, especially as the public will be asked to pay more for nuclear power.

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