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What is the Moorside nuclear power station? The story of Cumbria’s £15bn plant

The Moorside nuclear power station could provide 7% of the UK's electricity but after Toshiba pulled out the project, its future is uncertain

For much of the past decade, the west coast of Cumbria has been preparing itself for the arrival of the NuGen facility – but what is the Moorside nuclear power station plan?

Slated to provide 7% of the UK’s electricity once coal power ends, existing nuclear reactors come off the grid and demand is expected to double, the nuclear development firm’s £15bn project at Moorside has struggled to get the official go-ahead with owner Toshiba pulling out last year due to financial difficulties.

And today (8 November), Toshiba announced it will wind-up its UK nuclear business NuGen after failing to find a buyer for the scheme.

It has led to calls for government intervention to keep the project alive, securing both jobs for the region and future energy supply for Britain.

The consequences mean the UK will be indefinitely without the NuGen nuclear plant, which was originally mooted to provide power to about six million homes by 2025.

Here we take a look at the background to the Moorside plant, why its progress has stalled and what it would look like were it to go ahead in future.


What is the Moorside nuclear power station? A look at the background

The rights to a 190-hectare (470-acre) plot north of the Sellafield nuclear plant, in Cumbria, were acquired in October 2009 for £70m by three energy companies.

The consortium of Iberdrola, GdF-Suez and Scottish & Southern later became NuGeneration (NuGen) in November 2010.

While the project was billed as the largest ever private sector investment for the county in North West England, bringing new jobs, it has been opposed by green activists including Radiation Free Lakeland.

The proposed plant was named Moorside in December 2011 and Toshiba then took ownership of Iberdrola’s stake in 2013, before NuGen leased the plot for an undisclosed sum in 2015.

What is the Moorside nuclear power station?
(Credit: NuGen)

Toshiba’s problems began when one of its subsidiaries, American nuclear technology firm Westinghouse Electric Company, suffered financial difficulties in early 2017 following budgetary issues related to two other plants it was building in the US.

Westinghouse filed for “chapter 11 bankruptcy” under the United States Bankruptcy Code, which required the company to restructure in order to keep the business alive and pay back creditors.

This prompted French backer Engie to pull out and left the Japanese conglomerate as the sole owner of NuGen, which is headquartered in Manchester.

Toshiba announced it was exiting the international nuclear market and put the NuGen operation and Moorside site up for sale, with Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) becoming the preferred bidder in December 2017.


What is the Moorside nuclear power station? The design

Plans for NuGen’s Moorside plant originally included three AP1000 reactors – a type of pressurised water reactor (PWR) – combining for an output of 3.4 gigawatts (GW).

The AP1000s have passive safety technology, which means they can go for up to 72 hours without the need for cooling by relying primarily on natural processes such as downhill-flowing water and heat rising.

They are regarded in the industry as more efficient, easier to construct and safer than other reactors.

While Toshiba had intended to use the AP1000 reactors, which are owned by Westinghouse, Kepco wants to use APR1400 reactors instead.

There is currently just one operational APR1400 in South Korea’s Shin Kori plant, with four in construction in the United Arab Emirates and three being built in South Korea.

Should the Toshiba-Kepco deal be completed, this would delay the completion of the NuGen project until the late 2020s or early 2030s.

The AP1400 would also need to go through the UK government’s generic design assessment, which can take between three and four years. The AP1000 has passed this regulation.


What is the Moorside nuclear power station? The problems

Concerns have now focused on whether the plant will ever be built after issues regarding the Moorside sale and private sector backing.

Kepco had looked set to assume control of the project to see it through to fruition. Although the original estimated completion date had been 2025, power from the first reactor would most likely not have gone online until the end of the 2020s, with the entire site completed by the 2030s.

But the South Korean firm lost its preferred bidder status in late July after repeated delays in signing a final agreement.

Kepco’s hesitancy in committing to the project stemmed from its wish to find out more about how it will be partially funded by the UK government – which is considering alternative funding models after concerns over the high cost of the Hinkley Point C station under construction.

One option could be the regulated asset base model, which transfers risk from developers to consumers but is designed to bring more investors to the table.

Toshiba opened the door to more bidders, including private equity firm Brookfield Business Partners – which acquired Westinghouse for $4.6bn (£3.5bn) in August.

But in September, the Japanese company made 60 staff in its 100-strong NuGen workforce redundant as it said it “can’t fund the project indefinitely”.

NuGen said in a statement at the time: “NuGen staff were informed that owing to the protracted period of time it has taken to secure a way forward for the Moorside project, there would be a phased reduction in the headcount within the NuGen organisation.”


What is the Moorside nuclear power station? NuGen CEO’s fighting talk

On 21 September, NuGen announced it had no “firm plans” to work out an alternative development strategy for its plant after Toshiba officially exited the project.

what is the moorside nuclear power plant
NuGen CEO Tom Samson (Credit: NuGen)

In a speech at the Cumbria Nuclear Conference in Carlisle, NuGen CEO Tom Samson said he believed the Moorside project could be saved if the government clarified how it will fund new power stations. 

But he added the consortium would not abandon the plant and would fight to save it.

“My commitment to Cumbria is that I will fight tooth and nail to find a solution, and indeed a sustainable solution, we can depend upon with real determination to avoid a wind up of NuGen,” he said.

“The deal with Kepco may still come to fruition, but we cannot just wait for them to make a decision.

“It is essential that this project goes ahead and we therefore have to consider alternative ways forward.”


What is the Moorside nuclear power station? Toshiba winds down NuGen

After reports earlier in the week suggesting a deal had stalled with Kepco, Toshiba announced on 8 November that it was winding up NuGen, confirming “it had not been possible to successfully conclude those negotiations”.

In a statement, it said: “NuGen has retained a team to support the implementation of a winding-up process and will work with Toshiba and its other stakeholders.

“Whilst NuGen will not be taking the project forward, the Moorside site in Cumbria remains a site designated by government for nuclear new build, and it is now for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – as the owner of the site – and the government to determine its future.

“NuGen would like to pay tribute to colleagues, its shareholder Toshiba, and to the other stakeholders, and many various friends of the project both in Cumbria and beyond, who have supported NuGen’s efforts through its development phase and throughout the proposed sale negotiations.”


What is the Moorside nuclear power station? Trade union calls for government intervention

Trade union GMB has consistently called for the UK government to scrap the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – which was set up in 2004 to decommission and clean-up the UK’s civil nuclear legacy – and replace it with a re-tasked Nuclear Development Agency.

This would oversee new projects like Moorside and help to create thousands of jobs and apprenticeships, it said.

Speaking after Toshiba’s announcement that NuGen will be wound down, GMB national secretary Justin Bowden said: “The British government has blood on its hands as the final sad but predictable nail is banged into the coffin of Toshiba’s jinxed jaunt into nuclear power.

“Relying in this way on foreign companies for our country’s essential energy needs was always irresponsible.

“Add to that the multiple opportunities to step in and take control that were missed or ignored.

“In the wreckage that passes for a joined up UK energy policy, the question now is whether government has finally learned the mistakes of Moorside?

“A new nuclear power station in West Cumbria remains vital for the UK’s future energy security and requires urgent action.

“The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority must be immediately given a role for nuclear development and tasked with developing a small modular nuclear reactor on site, tapping into the wealth of nuclear experience and expertise in the area and ensuring we have security of supply in years to come.”