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Going Nuclear: Parliamentarians Welcome Research Roadmap for a New Energy Mix

Policy@Manchester

6 min read Partner content

With families and businesses struggling with rising bills and energy security shooting up the policy agenda, there is a new impetus to develop nuclear energy as an essential part of the UK’s energy mix. A major new resource for UK policymakers has now set out some of the steps that will help build a new nuclear future for the nation.

The last nuclear power station to open in the UK was Torness, located 30 miles to the east of Edinburgh. The plant became operational in 1988, in a world where no one had seen a website and Mrs Thatcher still occupied Number 10 Downing Street.

Over 34 years later, progress towards establishing nuclear as an essential part of the UK’s policy mix seems to have stalled.

Now, the potential challenges to delivery, and practical evidence-based approaches to overcome them, are the subject of a major new collection of online articles launched by The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester.

Working with the university's cross-disciplinary academics at the Dalton Nuclear Institute, the new resource, ‘Going Nuclear’, looks at some of the barriers to the adoption and expansion of nuclear and supports policymakers in overcoming them.

Conservative MP Virginia Crosbie who Chairs the Nuclear Delivery Group and the APPG for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) hopes that the new collection of articles can accelerate the development of the next generation of reactors to replace the UK’s ageing nuclear infrastructure.  

“Nuclear power has been part of the backbone of generating clean and reliable power in the UK since the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Crosbie tells The House. “In the last few years, this valuable contributor to net zero and our energy security has declined as aged stations are retired at the end of a long and useful life.”

Crosbie is right to highlight the declining role of nuclear. In fact, the latest data shows that annual nuclear power output in the UK is now at its lowest level for 40 years.

However, the signs are that the twin drivers of the net zero transition and the increasing importance of energy security have started to shift the debate.

Barrow-in-Furness MP, Simon Fell is one of those who detect a growing role for nuclear energy in the UK.

“A resilient, secure, and sustainable energy mix is what the UK needs,” he tells The House. “There is no sensible approach to this that doesn’t require nuclear as a substantial part of the mix. In Cumbria, we recognise this well.”

Professor Francis Livens, of the university’s Dalton Nuclear Institute, is pleased to see more attention being paid to nuclear energy. But Livens also cautions that reaping the rewards of nuclear requires a clear understanding of the challenges to delivery.

“The biggest risk on the 2030 timescale is not really the technology,” he writes, “but our ability actually to deliver these big, complex projects – a problem that’s not unique to nuclear or the UK.”

Dr Maria Sharmina, Academic Co-Director of Policy@Manchester, believes that this new resource should be essential reading for policymakers who are responsible for translating policy into delivery.  

“Progress in the nuclear industry has followed a pattern of start and stall under successive governments in the last decade,” she writes. “That must change if we are to catalyse our nuclear capability. The Dalton Nuclear Institute and Policy@Manchester recommendations in this collection provide thought leadership on the next steps to secure nuclear energy in a low-carbon and cost-effective energy transition.”

The launch of this new resource feels well-timed. With rising energy costs for consumers and businesses, triggered in part by a restricted supply of imported Russian gas, the issue of energy security has shot to the forefront of policy discussions.  

The research papers have been welcomed by Virginia Crosbie MP who recognises the importance of a robust evidence base to underpin major investment decisions by government and others.

“New nuclear is essential if we are to achieve our Net Zero goals by helping to decarbonise not just the energy generating sectors, but transport and homes too,” she tells The House. “Equipping policymakers with the evidence and recommendations to push forward with new nuclear power is key to ensuring we retain a clean, safe and prosperous United Kingdom.”

Nuclear image

Not only can the planned expansion of nuclear energy protect the nation against shocks in the global energy market by increasing self-sufficiency, but as Crosbie suggests, it can also be a critical part of the transition to a net zero economy.

Simon Fell agrees with his Conservative colleague. “Nuclear is not just something for us to light on while on The Path To Net Zero,” he tells us. “It is a key component of our Net Zero mix.”

Fellow member of the Nuclear Energy APPG, Mark Menzies MP, added:

“The United Kingdom remains reliant on foreign powers and environmentally damaging sources for our energy needs. We have a chance to change this, ending our exposure to price shocks and outside events.

“Only through commissioning large scale nuclear projects and embracing new technologies like SMR can we hope to achieve net zero by 2050. For high skilled, well paid jobs, and a resilient path to net zero, investment in next generation nuclear is a must.”

Labour peer, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, is another who welcomed the publication of this new policy resource. 

“New nuclear has a critical role to play in the nation’s energy mix,” he tells us. “At a time when we face a global climate crisis and challenges around energy security, this timely new resource not only identifies the current barriers to adoption and expansion of nuclear but also offers guidance to policymakers to help overcome them.”

Echoing the potential of ‘Going Nuclear’ to make a vital contributon to the policy debate was Peter Aldous MP who said:

“Nuclear offers a readily available low-carbon baseload for our future energy system when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. Initiatives such as 'Going Nuclear' can provide policy makers with the evidence and recommendations required to realise the UK’s nuclear energy capability and I commend everyone involved in this important work.”

Whilst an expansion of nuclear will bring a range of benefits to the UK, experts from the University of Manchester caution that achieving this will demand coordinated action from government.

Alongside the need for consistent funding and a long-term strategy, the researchers have identified other practical barriers such as skills and supply chains that must be addressed if the nation is to harness the full potential of nuclear.

What this rich collection of research articles ultimately demonstrates, however, is a sector ready to step up and make a more significant contribution to meeting the nation’s energy needs.

It sets out a path that, with rapid action from policymakers, could lead to nuclear potentially providing 20-25% of our electricity needs by 2050. That could be great news for the environment, businesses, and consumers in every part of the UK.

For more information about ‘Going Nuclear’ and to read the collection of thought leadership pieces from Policy@Manchester, please click here.

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