The popularity of nuclear energy fluctuated greatly throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st. From the 1940s the early adopters of nuclear energy in Europe were projecting fission reactors as the source of abundant, clean energy that could fuel economic growth and rising prosperity. But with changing tides in public opinion and gradually reduced investment, by the 2000s nuclear energy was making up less of many nations’ energy mixes than the original pioneers had predicted.

Now, however, with global energy markets proving highly volatile and international energy dependency a major challenge, nuclear power is making a resurgence in the eyes of the public and governments throughout Europe. As several reports make clear – and most recently in the UK with the long-awaited Mission Zero Review from former energy minister Chris Skidmore – nuclear energy will play a major, and increasing, role in decarbonising energy production and achieving net zero. There is now real conviction that to reach our collective climate goals by 2050, we need nuclear and furthermore, there are no convincing alternatives that could address the scale of the challenge. Today, there is a genuine excitement in the nuclear industry that surrounds its renewed growth and the new technologies which are transforming it.

What the long-term composition of the revived nuclear energy industries will be in countries like France and the UK is still up for grabs. In the short-term, large nuclear power plants will continue to form a stable part of the landscape but emerging technologies such as Small Modular Reactors, and ultimately nuclear fusion in the years to come, have enormous potential for delivering carbon-free energy.

In the immediate future, the task of those working in the nuclear industry is to ensure it is as viable and efficient as possible in supporting the net zero transition and providing energy security. And there has been a steady stream of progress to that end – most notably with the development of the UK’s two landmark nuclear power projects, Hinkley Point C and its sister project Sizewell C.

As sister projects, the aim has always been to transfer, where possible, the learnings, technology and skills enhanced at Hinkley Point C to Sizewell C – increasing efficiencies, reducing costs and supporting a timely regulatory process. The approach to replication being pioneered here is an exemplary of innovation in nuclear energy that means it can truly deliver viable, clean energy for Britain and beyond.

Replicating reactors

Closely replicating nuclear reactors across sites is not only novel engineering but it is also highly ambitious. The idea behind this strategy is to try and reproduce the parameters of the nuclear reactors and supporting auxiliaries as much as possible. In the nuclear sector, whilst we herald innovation, we do not always welcome change. Changing things from one site to the next leaves open the door for unforeseen disturbances and ramifications later down the line, leading to increased costs and timeframes.

Typically, in major nuclear construction projects, replication means broadly two things. The first is technical where engineers will look to utilise the same equipment, the same parameters and specifications, the same products, tools and often even the very same people. And then there is replicating the organisation to perform the project. It is no secret that building nuclear power plants is highly complex and there are a great number of stakeholders to bring together and integrate in the project management. Replicating the systems, organisation and performance of the teams is highly desirable for optimisation.

If you go further, the benefits of replication become even more abundant. By changing the design and build of the reactors and their auxiliary buildings as little as you can, it means that the teams working on them don’t need to continuously reinvent, the stakeholders involved will stay the same and the character of the project remains consistent. That is where the cost savings and efficiencies are to be found.

Egis have helped to build 58 reactors in France alone and has been part of the design for all of them since the end of the Second World War. Now the global consulting, construction engineering and the operating firm is working on both Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C in the UK. Depending on the exact skills required, we are supporting the replication aims of the project in part by transferring expertise between the two developments throughout the design and build processes. In many cases, the people with their direct experience and skillsets will transition from Hinkley Point C to Sizewell C, offering all the benefits that entails.

Given the obvious benefits, why then is building nuclear power plants around the world not just a case of ‘copy and paste’? Why are we not simply rolling nuclear reactors off the factory assembly line like the Ford Model T and accelerating the production of clean energy from nuclear?

They are almost all different because the regulatory requirements are different, and the favoured technologies diverge. The soil these plants are built on varies, their climates diverse, preferred site locations alter and their legacy hardware different. This all means that whilst we can bring our experience to projects worldwide, adaptation is always required. That is why the replication of Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C is such an excellent proposition for the UK – the overarching conditions for the two sites remain brilliantly similar.

Building the skills base for now and the future

What the replication of Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C will also offer the UK are the skills needed to realise the benefits of nuclear energy into the future. With the European decline of nuclear energy in the later stages of the 20th Century the industry stopped attracting new talent and training the highly-skilled individuals that this means of energy production requires. The result today is a global shortage of talent in nuclear and a race now underway to solve it.

Nations around the world looking to grasp the benefits of nuclear energy will require fresh approaches and partnerships to rebuild the skills base. Universities, colleges and research institutions will need to work in tandem with the nuclear industry to enhance the talent pool and increase the pipeline of qualified individuals entering the sector. For Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, the idea will be to utilise the skills that have been brought together to further Britain’s nuclear energy ambitions at large. The UK is likely to be ahead of the international curve on nuclear talent now which will provide the country with a real advantage going forwards.

That talent pool is going to become invaluable as the next wave of nuclear technology steps into its own commercial age. Further down the track will be nuclear fusion. Science that is in its relative infancy but that offers the world near infinite clean energy. But before electricity produced from nuclear fusion is coursing through the grid, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are likely to play an important role.

SMRs are being explored around the world as potential solutions for increasing the amount nuclear contributes to the current energy mix. There are more than 70 versions of SMR technology being developed across the globe, nearly every country wants one, and for good reason. SMRs should be less complex to design and build than, say, large nuclear power plants, meaning they are faster from conception to coming online. As the name suggests, being ‘modular’ in design should also mean that they are more accessible and that could mean countries that have found larger plants unaffordable for their needs are able to adopt this form of clean energy production.

Beyond skills and talent, what Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C and the UK’s wider commitments to its nuclear energy industry will mean is further investment and innovation in waste management and decommissioning. The energy produced from nuclear power plants today is increasingly cleaner and treatment processes have advanced dramatically since the first commercial plants became active.

It can be said today that all of the waste is manageable, and we have the technology in place to safely treat waste to a greater extent than ever before. That will be an important part of the UK’s nuclear journey, historically a sticking point for opponents of an enlarged nuclear power industry.

Replicating Hinkley Point C in Sizewell C through design, expertise and much more, will undoubtedly present highly valuable cost and time savings for the projects themselves. But equally, this approach will help the UK solidify its position as a global leader in nuclear energy. With emergent technologies racing to come online, taking us closer to net zero by 2050, this replication represents a blueprint for innovation in both organisation and technology that should help the UK realise its vision for nuclear power.

This article first appeared in Nuclear Engineering International magazine.