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DontPanic

Thoughts on the nuclear industry

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Nuclear industry in general.

I’ve been working in the nuclear industry for about 6 years and now im in the R&D project management side for a major fuel manufacturer and get to travel lots (don’t really want to say much more than that). The past few years the industry has really taken off. Energy companies in the states are investing serious money looking at possible new reactors. Not many firm commitments yet but senior executives are leading some of these projects and the feeling is that its going to happen. France via EDF and AREVA is the leading country and a new generation is almost certain if the demonstration plant is on time and proves successful. In my day-to-day job we also have much more money to spend on long term development projects.

 

Supply of fissile material

A lot has already been written about the undersupply of uranium. Currently the shortfall is being made up on ex-weapons material. This may also be because it is cheaper to use this material and also because well what else are you going to do with it? It’s as if the governments are subsidising fuel manufacturing having done the extraction and enrichment steps. What is rarely mentioned is plutonium which can also be used in most modern reactors as fuel in place of uranium. The first Pu from weapons has recently been irradiated in commercial reactors. Again there is a large stockpile of weapons from which the Pu could be used. Reactor operators buy fuel many years in advance and store it so there is little chance of actually running short of fuel but if all the talk of new reactors turns into action there could be large price increases. I have been looking to buy some uranium related stocks but on the UK stockmarket the choice is limited. The only one I have found so far is GCL. If the UK government goes ahead and sells its URENCO shares then I would be seriously tempted since they have the most modern technology and there are large financial and technical barriers to entry into fuel enrichment.

 

British energy

I bought some stock several months ago when it was clear in the industry that the UK energy review was little more than a smokescreen for a decision taken earlier. Since then the stock has comfortably outperformed the FTSE. As to what next for BE there are lots of uncertainties. They own the best sites for new reactors in the UK but don’t have the money to go ahead and build reactors on their own. The government has also made it clear there will not be any direct subsidies. I think that whoever builds new reactors in the UK will need some sort of co-operation from BE since they are the only ones with regulatory and operational experience. There really aren’t many nuclear engineers in the UK with experience of modern reactors since there is only one such reactor in the UK. The workforce is also old with no university graduate programmes in recent years. If you go to a nuclear conference then you will notice that there really are very few people under 30 attending.

 

BE could co-operation with a big player such as EDF, EON or RWE but if such a group were to form it would have a monopoly in the UK. What I suspect may happen is the government (which now owns BE following a bail out when the energy prices crashed a few years ago) will auction off the sites and pre-license at least 2 reactor designs, probably the EPR and AP1000. The government wants to sell its holding of BE shares and also wants some competition which I think is difficult to achieve at the moment. EDF has the most cash and could make a bid for the whole of the BE but that would give them all the best sites, all the UK nuclear expertise and probably the AREVA EPR as the only reactor design.

 

OK so those are some of my thoughts. Please comment on them whether you agree or disagree. Im coming at this from a technical background so it would be good to obtain some views from people with a financial background.

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Hi DP,

 

can't add much, except to say thanks for such an interesting and informative post. Any information from the 'coal-face' (maybe not the best analogy here...) is always useful.

 

The steady dumbing down of science subjects in schools, and closing of university courses won't have helped recruitment to the industry, I'd imagine. It will be interesting to see if the Government now start pushing the sciences to try and start bottom filling all these posts, (too late of course), we'll be needing for emerging energy technologies.

 

Is this profile of aging technologists, with no youngsters coming through true of other countries? Is the UK trying to bribe foreign nationals to work over here? Presumably there are fairly strict security issues to consider....

 

TLM

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Thanks for an interesting post. I hadn't considered weapons grade sources as fuel before. I imagine the UK doesn't have an awful lot to play with (though I imagine a quality vs quantity thing comes into play), but the US could probably keep warm for a while on its stockpile. Russia too if they can remember where they left most of it.

 

I suppose finding someone able to discuss this stuff in detail might be rather difficult. :-)

 

Andrew McP

 

PS We might also look for investment opportunities associated with anti-nuclear campaining & lobbying as well as the nuclear industry itself. Can you buy shares in Greenpeace yet? ;-)

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Interesting post indeed.

But wont it take about 10 years to build a reactor?

Leaving the investment potential aside for a minute in the short term, as a foil to energy shortages, its pretty much useless, no?

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But wont it take about 10 years to build a reactor?

 

I believe a significant chunk of that period is sorting out locations and planning. If the government just said: "Sod you lot, it's an emergency, the reactor's going *there*" the process would be a lot quicker.

 

Andrew McP

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I believe a significant chunk of that period is sorting out locations and planning. If the government just said: "Sod you lot, it's an emergency, the reactor's going *there*" the process would be a lot quicker.

 

Andrew McP

True Andrew, but as we know the govt will never do this.

They havent moved on property planning since forever, I doubt it will happen for a nuclear powerstation.

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Just responding to a few points.

 

Time taken to build a reactor

Manufacturers (Westinghouse, AREVA, GE etc) claim to be able to build them on a green field site within 3 years. This has also been verified by "independent" consultants and a few engineering bodies. So 3 years is the minimum. A reactor is now being built in Finland. Its already behind schedule but its nothing to do with the nuclear parts of the plant (too much water added to parts of the concrete on which the reactor will be built – builders not use to working to such tight specs – first of kind... or so they claim).

 

So 3 years is the minimum, at least after you have gained experience building a few, but unfortunately there isn’t a maximum amount of time that politicians and planners can talk. If there was a governmental need then it could be done much faster. In the 1950’s it wasn’t uncommon to go from blank sheet of paper to criticality in less than 18 months. The Russians provided the impetus and the army was the project manager :)

 

New reactors in the UK will be built on existing sites where the local community accept and welcome the jobs they bring and also because they have the grid connections. I think the planning laws may change. This is not just because of nuclear but also because other needs such a oil refineries, airports, house shortages even wind farms are all struggling with the current system.

 

Lack of skills

The last reactor in the UK was finished in the mid 1990’s and since BNFL has just sold Westinghouse to Toshiba then there is no UK based company that can design or build them. A few university departments are starting up but it’s really a drop in the ocean (http://www.imperial.ac.uk/P8033.htm). They don’t even begin to cover the number of people retiring now, not to mention if business takes off and science and engineering generally are not popular in the UK. One thing I think these departments may show is some sort government commitment. Whilst it’s a drop in the ocean, the science bodies in the UK dont have much money and if they are not going to build any more reactors then why even bother?

 

If your interested in such things then this is probably the best website - http://www.neimagazine.com/

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If you're interested in such things then this is probably the best website - http://www.neimagazine.com/

 

Thanks, there are some fascinating articles on there. I ended up reading about Chernobyl in far more detail than I'd ever seen before. I even understood some of it! Maybe my 22 year old "pass" degree in physics wasn't totally wasted after all. ;-)

 

Andrew McP

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