The Office for Nuclear Development (yes, it does exist) pronounced in late summer that ‘the path to commercial operation of the first new nuclear power station by 2018 is still achievable’. This is the same 2018 target that the Nuclear Power White Paper in January 2008 said was achievable, and the same 2018 that the Office’s last assessment, in November 2009, said was achievable. Clearly everything is going exactly to plan.
Well, not exactly. Last week one of the early stages of the process, the ‘justification’ decisions on the two reactor designs likely to be used in new nuclear construction were put before Parliament as Statutory Instruments. Not very significant or surprising – the SI’s found that, according to the processes now required under the EURATOM treaty, the waste processes involved in the two designs were’ justified’. More significant, however, is the timing. According to the Office for Nuclear Development, the ‘justification’ decision was timetabled last autumn as taking place in the spring of this year – and now they have just emerged towards the end of the year. But back in 2008, there was a different timetable in play. According to the May 2007 ‘consultations on the proposed processes for justification and strategic site assessment’ (here) the ‘justification’ process would be done and dusted by first quarter 2009. All this, of course was part of the Nuclear Power White Paper’s estimate that 2018 would be the date upon which the first new nuclear power station would appear: an assertion that, eerily, reappears in the ‘explanatory notes’ to the ‘ justification’ decisions in an even more optimistic vein: ‘the decisions are among the actions necessary to allow new nuclear power stations to come into operation by 2017’ it says.
There does seem to be a rule of thumb emerging: whatever slippage occurs, the ‘out-date’ is still 2018 (or perhaps, on a good day, 2017). Maybe there are some as-yet-unseen savings in build time that will make up for the lost pace in the pre-build preparations: but then again, looking at the disastrous experience of Finland’s build programme, maybe not. Some while ago, I suggested that, taking all the preparation, site security, planning and build-time issues into account, the appearance of the first new nuclear power station could be as late as 2024. I was perhaps being a little pessimistic: but equally, 2018 is looking increasingly like a fantasy; and if it is, some kind of ‘Plan B’ needs to be under way sooner rather than later.