Keeping the lights on, building a skilled, diverse workforce and showcasing the UK’s nuclear expertise are top of the agenda for EDF Energy’s Brian Cowell
By Nicky Godding
EDF Energy is the UK’s largest producer of low carbon energy, the UK’s biggest electricity producer, and the largest electricity supplier to British businesses.
EDF Energy’s UK headquarters, and 2,000 of its over 6,500 employees, are based at Barnwood, Gloucester and since September 2017, its Managing Director of Generation has been Brian Cowell.
EDF Energy operates all eight UK nuclear power plants. It’s currently building the £19 billion nuclear plant at Hinkley Point C, which will provide 25,000 job opportunities and 1,000 apprenticeships. “The technology of using fission to generate heat to generate steam is simple and it is beyond any doubt that the project will be successful and will provide 7% of the UK’s power,” says Brian.
However, nuclear is only a part of EDF’s energy generation, the business also operates 36 UK wind farms, a gas station, two coal-fired stations, two gas storage sites and is building the UK’s largest battery storage site, at West Burton, Nottinghamshire.
Nuclear power is controversial. It’s also expensive, perceived by some as dangerous and vocal renewable energy activists would have us believe that all we need to keep the lights on is wind, wave, sun and as yet not fully tested new sources of generation such as tidal lagoon power.
But with UK energy demand predicted to rise 20% by 2030, the incontrovertible fact is that without nuclear power, the lights would go out. Nuclear will remain a fundamental part of this country’s energy mix for the foreseeable future.
EDF Energy’s safety record is impressive, and is an overriding priority for the company. So strongly does it feel that it’s had the sentiment carved in stone outside its Barnwood HQ, and is keen to widen public awareness of its nuclear track record and capabilities.
Spreading the word
In his previous role as EDF Energy’s Director of Nuclear Operations, Brian began reopening the company’s nuclear sites visitor centres.
“I came into the industry in 1977. Then we were told that we were all providing a wonderful service without which society cannot function. That sentiment has stuck with me and I think of my fantastic team here at Barnwood as providing a great service to the UK. However, like many government services, we can’t necessarily rely on public understanding of what we do and how we do it.”
The UK’s nuclear visitor centres were closed after 9/11. Since reopening in 2013, they’ve welcomed half a million visitors. “The visitor centres encourage people to become more familiar with the technology and less afraid of it,” says Brian. “For me, it’s also about countering negative arguments from the green lobby. We are not secretive – I’ll even let you stand on a nuclear reactor’s pile cap.”
Public surveys show support for nuclear remaining largely flat over the last 20 years, despite hard lobbying against, (more than 50% of people would be content to see new nuclear power stations replacing current ones at the end of life), but opposition remains.
“All I want is to ensure an honest, emotionless debate about securing energy supplies for the UK,” says Brian.
“The country has committed to remove carbon emissions, but we must keep security of supply and climate change in balance.”
Brian is well qualified to argue for nuclear. He started working for the SSEB (South of Scotland Electricity Board) in 1977 as an apprentice, moving into nuclear where he’s built a long and successful career.
In the mid-1990s the government privatised the UK’s nuclear power plants. The SSEB and Central Electricity Genertion Board (CEGB) became British Energy, which was bought by the Frenchowned EDF Group in 2009.
Last October Brian, who lives with his wife Gillian at Winchcombe, was honoured by the World Association of Nuclear Operators for promoting excellence in the safe operation of commercial nuclear power.
Extending power station life
Built in the 1960s and 70s, the UK’s nuclear power stations are reaching the end of their lives. However, research and innovation by the boffins at Barnwood is keeping them active for as long as it is safe and commercially viable to do so.
“We have a massive database telling us how different plants, systems and components behave within their operating cycle,” says Brian. “We identify single point vulnerabilities and eradicate them by intervening early. We are now seeing over 90% reliability in our plants, which is fantastic, but we continue to push for even greater achievements.”
What will take the nuclear power stations offline is the integrity of their graphite core: each has 6,000 graphite blocks wrapped up in a huge steel enclosure. EDF Energy monitors the graphite cores constantly. “We predict that the older stations will come offline in the mid 2020s,” explains Brian. “We are very, very conservative and what will take them offline is any safety margin erosion. Think of a cup of coffee in the middle of a large table. There is a huge margin of safety before it could fall off. We would never let the cup get anywhere near the edge of the table.”
Last year EDF Energy reported record-breaking safety and operational performance, but there is no complacency. “Our biggest drive is to make sure they remain safe and it’s economic to keep running these power stations for as long as they can provide a service to the UK.”
Getting involved in the local community
EDF Energy supports local community initiatives, including the Cheltenham Science Festival, which takes place every June, and a very active ‘adopt a school’ programme run by young EDF Energy professionals who create links between schools and the company. Its Barnwood team has also developed a close relationship with the National Star College at Cheltenham, and has piloted the hugely successful ‘Steps into Work’ programme that helps young adults with disabilities into work.
More nuclear power plants for the UK
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is the first new nuclear plant to be built in the UK for a generation, and there are plans for more. EDF Energy is hoping to build another at Sizewell, Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex. Other power providers also have ambitions. NuGen, owned by Toshiba, is hoping to build a nuclear plant in West Cumbria and Horizon Nuclear Power, owned by Hitachi Ltd, has plans for a plant in North Wales.
While there is ongoing debate as to the final cost to the consumer of energy generated by Hinkley Point C, the capital cost of the development is being met by EDF Group and its Chinese investors. As more nuclear power stations are built, the cost of energy should drop, says EDF Energy. The price negotiated with the UK government reflected the market conditions at the time and EDF Energy accepts that future new nuclear will have to be more competitive.
Battery powered Britain
EDF Energy is constructing Europe’s biggest battery storage site. It will have 49 megawatts of storage at West Burton, Nottinghamshire and be part of a new 200 MW enhanced frequency response system to balance the UK grid. The facility will be up and running in early 2018.
The site will hold 54,000 battery cells, each roughly the size of a briefcase. With the growth in renewable generation and the closure of large power plants, battery storage technology supports the national grid network. The technology can be used to respond quickly to fluctuations in the electricity grid for when the wind isn’t blowing enough or too much, or when the sun isn’t shining.
Building careers at EDF Energy
When Brian began working as an apprentice, only 20% of young people went to university, and he did his degree later.
This democratic approach to recruitment has continued within the company. While there are over 240 people who have PhDs working at Barnwood, the company also employs over 200 apprentices.
“The great thing about this industry is that you can come in as an apprentice or graduate, and over the years you will decide for yourself where your career can take you,” says Brian. “You could be the best maintenance technician in the UK, with a great work life balance. Or you might want to follow a more academic route.
“We are also very good at allowing people to find a position within the company which suits their strengths, work-life preferences and family circumstances.”
Out of EDF’s latest crop of graduating apprentices, 35% are female, the highest proportion it’s ever achieved, but Brian wants more. Currently just one in five people working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is female. EDF Energy’s campaign, ‘Pretty Curious’, aims to inspire teenage girls to imagine a future in the sector. Currently over 50,000 young people have attended an EDF Energy ‘Pretty Curious’ event.
“I used to say that life is a meritocracy and if you’re good you’ll get on,” says Brian.
“But I have come to realise that it’s a meritocracy only if everyone has the same role models, opportunities and their career is not impacted by taking time off for family. We have to make it a level playing field by finding ways to accommodate different preferences not only for women, but for all our workforce. We want to let people play to their strengths.”