US consortium revives plan for Welsh nuclear power plant


A US consortium is in talks with the British government about reviving a recently-abandoned project to build a nuclear power plant at Wylfa in north Wales. 

Led by the US engineering group Bechtel, the consortium includes Southern Company, an electricity utility, and Westinghouse, a nuclear engineering company whose AP1000 reactors would be installed at the site on Anglesey. 

A deal would see a rapid resumption of activity at Wylfa, which has lain dormant since its owner, Japan’s Hitachi, froze its proposal to build a nuclear power plant there in 2019 and then pulled the plug on the project in September.

A revival of plans for a Wylfa nuclear plant would also underline Britain’s commitment to pursuing large atomic reactors as a way to achieve its net zero emissions target by 2050. 

The US consortium’s approach to the government comes as prime minister Boris Johnson prepares to give a speech setting out a “10 point plan” of how the country proposes to meet the 2050 goal.

Discussions about Wylfa started after the US consortium contacted the government in September, expressing its wish to take over the project, according to a person familiar with the situation.

One person close to the consortium said the partners were presenting it as a “levelling up” opportunity — a reference to the UK government’s efforts to help under performing regions.

The person added the consortium’s plans could deliver power to the electricity grid on both a similar timescale to that proposed by Horizon Nuclear Power, the Hitachi subsidiary previously running the Wylfa project, and at a “market competitive price” per megawatt hour despite switching to different reactor technology.

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The consortium’s approach has strong support from the Trump administration in the US, which sees the deal as an opportunity to promote nuclear exports and to marginalise CGN, the Chinese state-owned group which is seeking to build reactors in Britain.

Dan Brouillette, US energy secretary, confirmed last month that his government was very interested in “the potential in the UK and the Horizon project”.

The Trump administration has long urged Britain not to do nuclear deals with China. In a speech in June, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said nations “should guard their critical infrastructure from Chinese Communist party influence” and pledged “to assist our friends in the UK with any needs they might have”, including “building secure and reliable nuclear plants”.

A deal over Wylfa would be dependent on the UK government introducing a new funding model for large nuclear projects in Britain and the US consortium striking an agreement to acquire the site on Anglesey from Hitachi.

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Any payment for the site would likely to be small in the near term, with the bulk of the purchase price being contingent on construction going ahead. Hitachi spent about £2bn on developing the Wylfa project.

In a letter to UK business secretary Alok Sharma, the US consortium partners said their prior knowledge of the site “could be leveraged to accelerate an AP1000 plant project at Wylfa as well as other sites across the UK”. 

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Bechtel and Westinghouse were both involved in previously aborted projects at Wylfa.

Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor already has regulatory consent for use in Britain, having been approved by the UK nuclear watchdog for a now abandoned project at Moorside in Cumbria.

The US consortium partners also have experience of building an AP1000 reactor.

Southern brought in Bechtel to complete a troubled $25bn project at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia. Westinghouse was forced into bankruptcy in 2017 after long delays and cost overruns on the project and it was bought by the Canadian asset manager Brookfield in 2018.

Britain’s new nuclear programme has lost momentum in recent years as plans to build a fleet of reactors using private finance have stalled.

EDF of France is building new reactors at the Hinkley Point power station in Somerset, which critics have said are far too expensive. But Japan’s Toshiba scrapped a plan to build reactors at Moorside at the end of 2018. Then Hitachi followed suit in 2019.

There are two other potential nuclear schemes in the UK: an EDF project at Sizewell in Suffolk and a proposed Chinese plant which CGN hopes to build at Bradwell in Essex.

Last year, the government acknowledged that it might have to extend financial support to have large reactors built.

It launched a public consultation on an alternative funding model, the so-called regulated asset base, which is used for other infrastructure such as the river Thames “super sewer” and would involve consumers paying upfront for plants via their energy bills.

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UK business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said in September that the government was considering taking direct stakes in new nuclear power plants.

Tom Greatrex, chair of the UK Nuclear Industries Association, a trade body, said that it was “entirely unsurprising that a site as good as Wylfa — with Welsh government support, closely linked to the north west supply chain and with strong local community backing — is of interest to potential developers”.

Bechtel declined to comment.

A spokesperson for the business department said: “We remain willing to discuss new nuclear projects with any viable companies and investors wishing to develop sites, including in north Wales, and are considering a range of financing solutions.”



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