The drop-out of bidders for nuclear operator Horizon, opposition from the one British community that might host buried nuclear waste, and a damning European report on existing plant safety, all provide new headaches for nuclear supporters.

On the Horizon

Just two bidders have emerged for Horizon, the nuclear company seeking to build two new reactors in Britain, following the expiry of a deadline last Friday for expressions of interest in purchasing the option.

In both cases it is unsure where the hundreds of millions of pounds of investment will come from, that could eventually see a new nuclear power station built on either of the company's sites, in Oldbury, Gloucestershire and Wylfa, Anglesey.

Last week, three consortiums were expected to throw their hats into the ring: France's Areva, partnered with China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, both state-owned; one led by Japan's Hitachi; and Japan's Westinghouse Electric Co., partnered with China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp and Exelon, the US power generator.

Areva failed to submit a bid. Hitachi did, and Westinghouse did, but without its Chinese partner, who would have provided substantial experience of delivering nuclear power stations on time and within budget.

Areva's European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design is further ahead than Westinghouse's in the UK's generic design assessment approval process. Westinghouse' put their process on hold last December.

Its AP1000 nuclear reactor design is, in turn, further on than Hitachi's Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), which has yet to be submitted to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), although it is licensed in the US, Japan and Taiwan.

Four ABWRs are already operating in Japan, with a fifth 94% completed.

No AP1000 reactor has yet been completed, although four are under construction in China, and two proposals have been given approval in the US.

Two builds of Areva's EPR design, in France and Finland, have experienced massive hold-ups and budgetary excesses.

EDF has yet to decide whether to proceed with construction of an EPR plant at Hinkley Point.

The process of approval of the EPR design issues by the Health and Safety Executive can be followed online here, where it can be seen that the majority of issues have yet to be resolved.

The only other contender for new nuclear power station building in the UK is NuGen, which is owned by GDF SUEZ and IBERDROLA. Their plans to implement 3.6GW of electricity generation at the Moorside site adjacent to Sellafield are also on hold.

Any potential backers for building new nuclear power stations, which would undoubtedly include Chinese money, are waiting for clarity on the level of government support that will be available following the passing of the Energy Bill, currently winding its way through Parliament.

Existing nuclear waste headache

Meanwhile, there is renewed uncertainty also about what to do with Britain's existing legacy of nuclear waste.

Friday was also decision day for the three Cumbrian councils who represent the only community in the country which has said it might host an underground dump for the country's most radioactive materials.

Presently, these are stored at Sellafield in cooling tanks above ground.

The leaders of Cumbria county council, and Allerdale and Copeland borough councils, cited their desire to have legally enshrined their right to withdraw from the process at any time, and a “lack of trust" between the public and the government, as reasons for postponing their decision until January next year.

They issued a statement which also throws into doubt the suitability of the chosen site: "One of the biggest concerns for many residents of Cumbria has been whether the geology of the area is suitable for a repository.

"Although a few geologists believe there is already enough evidence to show that West Cumbria’s geology is unsuitable, most of the experts agree that there is not enough definitive information available at this time."

Managing the UK's existing nuclear waste already eats up more than half of the annual budget of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), a proportion which is expected to rise.

The councils will be seeking clarification from DECC on a number of issues.

Nuclear reactor safety questioned

Lastly, a European Commission report released in draft form yesterday says that there are many potentially huge and expensive problems with the safety of the majority of nuclear plants operating in the European Union.

"On the basis of the stress test results practically all [nuclear plants] need to undergo safety improvements," says the leaked draft. "Hundreds of technical upgrade measures have already been identified."

This survey was produced in response to the Fukushima accident in Japan last year.

It puts the cost of the safety upgrades at a total of between €10 and €25bn, or €30m to €200m for each reactor.

134 nuclear reactors are in operation in 14 EU countries, of which 111, at 47 plants, have over 100,000 people living within a radius of 30km.

Most worryingly, the report finds that four reactors, located in two different nations, have less than one hour available to restore safety functions if electrical power is lost.

At the other extreme, four countries operate additional safety systems fully independent from the normal safety measures and located in areas well-protected against external events. A fifth nation is considering that option.

The draft report notes that two member states have still not provided information, but does not identify them.

The UK government commissioned its own report on existing British reactors in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, which gave them the all clear.

However the EU report points out that most UK reactors do not have an alternative control room that could be used in the event that the main one became unsafe.

A DECC spokesperson commented that there was no evidence that British nuclear reactors were unsafe, adding that "the government is committed to the principle of continuous improvement".

The final version of the European report is to be published later this month, and the Commission will make its recommendations shortly afterwards, including proposing laws on insurance and liability to "improve the situation of potential victims in the event of a nuclear accident".

Environmental campaigners pointed out that, although it is comprehensive and devastating, the report misses out further risks in crucial areas, such as ageing technology, terrorist attacks or human error.

"If this exercise was serious, the Commission should be recommending the closure of unsafe or ageing reactors," said Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance at the European Parliament.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor