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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Mapping out the UK's nuclear future
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

Next month, Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to make public Britain's intention to invite the private sector to build a series of new nuclear power plants.

Nexia scientist reviews a test tube
Nexia wants to become a national nuclear laboratory

As part of a UK strategy aimed at ensuring energy security while at the same time meeting international commitments to protect the environment, Mr Blair is widely expected to argue that nuclear power is not only cleaner than fossil fuels, but also a commercially attractive alternative.

Private sector investment in new power stations would come on top of plans, announced in March by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), to put out to tender 72bn worth of clean-up and decommissioning and other contracts over the next 75 years.

In short, industrialists are queuing up to get in on the act as the UK is about to create two parallel nuclear industries - one getting ready to provide what proponents say would be a cost-effective and clean energy for the future, the other looking to sort out the mess from the past.

Straddling the two soon-to-become hugely lucrative nuclear industries is Peter Bleasdale, managing director of Nexia Solutions, an organisation at the heart of what could be described as a nuclear intelligence community.

"Waste is at the forefront of people's minds, the risk and the cost of it," Mr Bleasdale says.

"We underpin safety.

"And we're answering questions about cost, but strategic questions."

National laboratory

Nexia remains a fully owned subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), alongside clean-up operator British Nuclear Group (BNG) and US-based nuclear power station construction unit Westinghouse.

Peter Bleasdale, managing director, Nexia Solutions
If you're looking to support the nuclear industry, you'll need to protect the knowledge base for the UK
Peter Bleasdale, Nexia managing director

As such, Nexia operates as a limited liability company with an 80m turnover and 750 people, mostly scientists who hold PhDs or other postgraduate qualifications.

However, as BNFL is gradually being sold off in bits, this is about to change.

The sale of Westinghouse to Toshiba of Japan was agreed in February this year, the following month saw the announcement of plans to sell BNG during 2007, and there are plans to spin off Nexia as early as next March, Mr Bleasdale explains.

"Our plan is to be established as a national nuclear laboratory," he declares, hinting at how Nexia could become a government-controlled research and development operation.

Strategic look

Since its formation last year, Nexia has morphed into the UK's leading support and advisory organisation for the government, as well as for companies operating nuclear power plants and for those involved in decommissioning.

Nexia scientist at work
A fleet of identical plants enables scientists to be more efficient

This means it is involved with the operations of several plants, looking after the technology within existing reactors. Nexia is also working closely with decommissioning and clean-up operators across the UK, and it operates state-of-the-art laboratory facilities.

But beyond such activities, Mr Bleasdale wants Nexia to take a strategic role and look beyond short- and medium-term commercial targets, and thus become central to the development and implementation of a nuclear strategy for the UK.

Research and expertise

Part of such long-term thinking involves the preservation of the UK community of nuclear scientists, and here Nexia has gone one step further by investing in the world of academia.

Sellafield prepares for a commercial future

"If you're looking to support the nuclear industry, you'll need to protect the knowledge base for the UK," says Mr Bleasdale.

"Five or six years ago, the universities were not producing the people we needed."

So Nexia, which at the time was BNFL's in-house research unit, entered into research ventures in cooperation with four UK universities - Leeds and Sheffield, as well as Manchester and Umist, which have since merged - to create research projects in the areas of radiochemistry, particle science, immobilisation and nuclear materials.

"We've created four projects with 35 people in each," says Mr Bleasdale.

"We've got to make those universities exciting places to work, so we've given them a challenge and some money."

Waste decisions

But Nexia also wants to analyse the long-term implications of decisions that might be imminent, such as the development of a licensing and planning regime to attract private sector investment.

Poster at Sellafield
Nexia is keen to promote science education

Key to this is the choice of what sort of new reactors should be built, given that there are several systems available to choose from, each produced by different private operators.

"Each reactor system will have different waste streams," explains Mr Bleasdale. "We can give information on what the cost of each waste stream would be."

In the end, only one reactor system is expected to be built, then replicated, in order to curb costs.

"A fleet of plants of the same design would allow for the limited number of nuclear professionals in the UK to be more efficiently used," observes the consultancy Deloitte in a research document.

Moreover, "savings on subsequent plants can be between 10% and 40% of the cost of the first plant", Deloitte says, "creating a significant incentive for an investor to commit to building more than a single reactor".

And dealing with just one type of waste stream is cheaper than reprocessing waste from several different types of reactors.

Such choices may soon have to be made, whether by the government or by what is expected to be a consortium of private operators.

If and when that happens, Nexia will be there to provide a long-term perspective.

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