Innovation is vital for nuclear technology but companies should beware over promising

NNWE’s research, which we published last month, identified the preference of the British public for nuclear technology that is tried and tested rather than first-of-a-kind. Innovation has to take place somewhere but securing the widest possible public acceptance of new nuclear power stations is a condition precedent for any large scale revival of the industry in Europe. That revival could be led by Britain where both politicians and the public are more supportive of nuclear power than in some other EU countries.

But equally important in the long term is the ability of the industry to compete successfully with other low carbon electricity generating technologies. Dreams of a new era of growth for the nuclear industry in the 21st century will only be fulfilled when developers show they can offer value for money compared with other forms of energy and can deliver completed projects on time and within budget.

This can be a challenge for first-of-a-kind projects, as a report in last week’s Wall Street Journal Asia reminded us. The China State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation has just flagged another delay in the roll out of the AP1000. According to Li Ning, an expert at Xiamen University, Chinese officials are frustrated at this setback to their ambitious nuclear expansion plans. Nuclear power is an important part of China’s solution of its air quality problems and its response to the challenge of climate change, both of which require reduced dependence on coal fired electricity.

Innovation is absolutely essential in any industry which wants to drive down costs, including nuclear. But if the companies leading the way to new technology promise too much from as yet unproven designs then the public may become sceptical. Coming at a time when Areva continues to wrestle with problems both in Finland and at Flamanville the news from China underlines the difficulties for policy makers the effects of whose decisions will still be felt in the second half of this century.

The cautious instincts of the British public may, consciously or unconsciously, reflect a sense that it is sometimes advantageous to be the second, rather than the first, mover.