Like the UK’s uncertainties over Brexit, West Cumbria is suffering from a tangible and protracted sense of uncertainty, as the future of NuGen and funding for the proposed new nuclear reactor at Moorside remains unclear.
At the Cumbria Nuclear Conference on 20 September, Nugen CEO Tom Samson confirmed discussions with KEPCO continue, but the extended timescales have forced NuGen to announce redundancies, impacting our friends and colleagues across the North West. Upon a successful deal, KEPCO’s reactor design would require regulatory approval through the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process, presenting a significant delay to the programme by 5 years or more. In parallel, Tom is questioning the recommendations of the recent National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Assessment, proposing the suspension of the UK new build programme post Hinkley Point C in Somerset, to monitor the maturing economics of renewables and battery storage. The Report states '….the Commission is recommending a ‘one-by-one’ approach to new nuclear plants, as opposed to the current government policy to develop a large fleet'. At the conference, the attendees could see Tom’s interests went beyond his corporation’s investment; he is personally invested in NuGen, the place and its people. Several audience participants commended his tenacity.
Adding to our region’s woes, Sellafield Ltd forecasts a reduction in programme scope. In the opening speech of the conference, Sellafield CEO Paul Foster made clear, in no uncertain terms, our region is facing an immediate challenge in the next 24 months. Paul has historically suggested his suppliers ought to reduce reliance on Sellafield, but this time it was different; his warning was direct, unequivocal and time bound. We must act to avoid the default position of a smaller supplier base supporting a smaller Sellafield. We must act now to maintain the current £2bn investment entering our region. Paul promoted private partnerships to export our nuclear skills beyond the region, and to generate new markets for ourselves. In his own words, 'we must get more from what we do now'. Once Sellafield is a smaller entity the opportunity will be lost.
The backdrop might be uncertain, but a rumoured news story quietly emerged last week to offer some hope; the potential acquisition of Nugen by Brookfield Business Partners, the same Canadian company that recently acquired Westinghouse (provider of nuclear plant designs, nuclear fuel and maintenance services to utilities around the world). Why might this be important? Because timing is everything. If NuGen is acquired by Brookfield they will deploy the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design, already approved by regulators, and the programme will be revived - now, not in 5 years. We should monitor this development with interest and hope the Government can make the Regulated Asset Base (RAB) model provide the certainty the investor needs. This could also be the adrenaline shot our region needs.
I was also struck by the breadth of conference representatives; council leaders, members of parliament, education, R&D, supply chain companies and central Government. The organisers and sponsors should be congratulated. Among them, the Cumbria LEP Chief Executive, Jo Lappin, gave an impassioned presentation on the fundamentals of the Local Industrial Strategy. When we have the opportunity to contribute our views in the near future, we must. We must all own a part of the plan.
The conference again discussed the need for ‘One Voice’ – a conversation held many times in recent years, but where will this voice come from? CONE, Cumbria LEP, Cumbria County Council, BEC Business Cluster? In my view, no one organisation can provide the One Voice needed; demonstrated by the variety of representations at the Nuclear Conference. To achieve a single unified voice representing our region’s best interests - both public and private sectors - is it time for a new body comprising parties with a vested interest and the ability to influence our direction and success? Should this body consider our region like a business? Identify new markets, determine our internal capabilities and sell proposition, develop our marketing tactics, build partnerships that strengthen our weaknesses? To respond to Paul Foster’s challenge in anger, we should consider NuGen as a regional bonus; an opportunity rather than a risk? With such uncertainty around NuGen we cannot afford to wait for its outcome.