Britain's nuclear regulator is in talks with its US and French counterparts to speed up the licensing of a new generation of reactor designs to meet the Government's strict build timetable.
The move follows concerns that the Government could miss out on its ambition to have the next nuclear power stations operational by the end of the next decade. In a conference for potential nuclear investors on Thursday, Business Secretary John Hutton is expected to calm these worries by confirming that the nuclear programme is on schedule.
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) has until 2011 to grant licenses to a three-strong shortlist of bidders – Areva, GE Energy-Hitachi and Westinghouse – which want to design the reactors. Bidders have complained that the timetable could prove tight.
A similar process is underway in the US and France, which have already made their own assessments on the reactor designs. The NII has held talks about sharing information so that it does not replicate the work.
A government source said: "It's like having a second pair of eyes. The three designs are being certified by the authorities in America and Areva's in France." The source added that Areva's designs have also been assessed in China and Finland.
At the Power-Gen Europe conference in Milan last week, GE Energy UK managing director Magued Eldaief said: "The Government needs to take a look at how to accelerate [the licensing programme]. We need clarity in the nuclear process and standardisation of designs, replicating engineering and minimising costs. The regulator has to look at what others are doing."
The shortlisted bidders are preparing to start stage three of the four-phase licensing process and this is likely within the next month. Then the bidders will have 18 months to explain their designs and safety policies.
The three teams are also trying to get backers for their designs from likely operators of the plants. EDF, which is the only runner in the auction for British Energy, has signed up with Areva, so it will use the design when it builds a nuclear station.
There are rumours that EDF could reach a deal with British Energy this week. Sources confirmed that "technical talks" are taking place.
Mr Eldaief said GE Energy was supported by Sweden's Vattenfall, Germany's RWE and Spain's Endesa and Iberdrola.
w GE Energy will this week announce a contract in Algeria believed to be worth about $1bn. At the Milan conference, a spokesman said that the deal was worth more than the $500m deal signed with Saudi Arabia to supply gas turbines and generators.
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