Thinking a STEP ahead on nuclear

The hunt is on for a contractor to build a complex prototype nuclear fusion plant in Nottinghamshire

One major strand in the Labour Party’s general election manifesto is its proposal to set up a publicly owned company called Great British Energy to invest in clean and renewable energy.

In its manifesto, Labour promised to “ensure the long-term security” of the nuclear power sector by extending the lifespan of existing plants, getting Hinkley Point C “over the line” and building new small modular reactors (SMRs).

The plan was labelled a “gimmick” by energy security and net zero secretary Claire Coutinho, who said that the Conservative government was “expanding nuclear at the fastest rate in 70 years”.

“The ability to accommodate change later on, at minimal cost, is important”

Paul Methven, UK Industrial Fusion Solutions

One element of this expansion is the plan to build a prototype Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) nuclear fusion plant on a brownfield site in West Burton, Nottinghamshire. The aim is to demonstrate that fusion energy can generate electricity by 2040, Paul Methven, chief executive of client UK Industrial Fusion Solutions (UKIFS), told Construction News.

Supplier engagement is underway with a 22 May tender notice from UKIFS parent agency the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). The contract has a maximum potential value of £20bn, split equally into lots for an engineering and construction partner. Responses are due by 12 July, eight days after the election.

The construction partner’s main responsibility will be to drive the integrated design of the overall layout, buildings, infrastructure, and onsite and offsite facilities of the STEP prototype plant.

“We need capabilities in construction, integration and management that can pull in clever design and apply best practices in terms of MMC [modern methods of construction], for instance,” Methven said.

He added: “What we’re interested in is the capability to work closely with the engineering design team to help design, develop and optimise the site.

“The first challenges for potential construction partners is making sure that the design of the facility is entirely complementary to the design of the plant.

“Designing the plant without involving construction expertise at the earliest stage means that you’ll end up with something that either can’t be built at all or is very, very expensive to build.”

“This is a very long programme, it’s very complex, and it will evolve considerably over its duration”

Paul Methven, UK Industrial Fusion Solutions

Nuclear fusion supporters say the emerging technology would deliver safe, sustainable, low-carbon power by using strong magnetic fields to fuse hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium). And fusion’s only byproduct – the inert gas helium – is safer than the potentially unstable waste from traditional fission reactors.

But Methven said that practical implementation must be thought through carefully, with engineering and construction partners involved in an integrated delivery team alongside UKIFS and UKAEA fusion specialists. “This is a very long programme, it’s very complex, and it will evolve considerably over its duration,” he said.

One complication is that “we don’t know every aspect of fusion technology yet”, Methven said. “So it’s about working out which elements of a facility design you have to fix early, and which elements you allow flexibility for in the design. The ability to accommodate change later on, at minimal cost, is important. Working out those flexibility mechanisms is probably the biggest overall challenge from a construction and design perspective.”

The novelty of STEP means the West Burton facility is not a straightforward design-and-build job. “We’re going to have to build, commission and operate test facilities,” Methven said. He added that the design and construction will “progressively develop and evolve” from these iterative tests.

The winning bidder would work for an initial three-year period followed by three optional extensions of four, six and seven years respectively. These are “subject to change as the programme develops”, the UKAEA said in the notice.

STEP could be commissioned by the mid-2030s, said Methven. “But even after initial operations [start], I suspect we’ll still be building facilities for the types of demonstration that will happen later in the programme.”

The new plant will occupy 100 hectares on the site of an ex-EDF coal-fired power station that sprawls over 330 hectares. Further development would result in “a kind of ecosystem around nuclear fusion” similar to the UKAEA’s Oxfordshire clusters around Culham and Harwell, Methven added.

Environmental consultancy WSP is already conducting ground surveys at the West Burton site.

The old power station shut in March 2023 and is being demolished by Brown and Mason.Beneath the northern sloping end of the site is 6 million tonnes of pulverised fuel ash (PFA) produced by the old power station. “Quite a large amount of the [site] remediation work will be to look at what we do with [the PFA]. We’d like to reuse some of it in the production of cement blocks. By recycling PFA, we’d reduce the net carbon impact of the project.”

Methven estimates there would be about 8,000 workers on site at the height of the STEP construction programme in the mid-2030s.

Asked about recruiting a technically competent construction workforce amid an acute labour shortage, he said: “The clearer we can be about laying out the path ahead, the more chance the industry has in responding to the demand signal [for skilled labour].”

SMRs ‘too expensive and slow to build’

On 28 May, Holtec Britain announced a shortlist of four sites for factories to build fission-based small modular reactors (SMRs) for deployment in the UK, Europe and Middle East.

The firm said that the chosen location “will benefit from an initial investment of £1.3bn, reflecting Holtec’s budget for construction”. Holtec Britain added that it will decide on a winner in the autumn.

However, a 29 May global analysis of SMRs from thinktank the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) warned that SMRs were “too expensive, too slow to build, and too risky to play a significant role in transitioning away from fossil fuels”.

Report co-author David Schlissel, IEEFA director of resource planning analysis, said: “A key argument from SMR proponents is that the new reactors will be economically competitive. But the on-the-ground experience with the initial SMRs that have been built or that are currently under construction shows that this simply is not true.”

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