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Investing to keep nuclear power a key UK energy source

Dr Mark Hartley, Managing Director, Nuclear Operations

Dr Mark Hartley, Managing Director, Nuclear Operations | EDF

4 min read Partner content

Last week we issued our annual nuclear fleet update, a report on last year’s performance and wider contribution to the economy. The ambition to generate longer at the UK’s five existing stations was well received.

Total output in 2023 was 37TWh, a little ahead of the plan we had set, and this provided around 13% of the UK’s total power demand. Our contribution goes beyond this. We employ 5,000 people in this part of EDF, spend over £700million in the supply chain each year and will pay £600million in tax on 2023 operations, including £200million through the new levy on generators.

Looking forward we will invest a further £1.3billion in these five stations over the next three years in a concerted effort to keep nuclear output stable after several years of decline due to older stations retiring. This comes on top of £7.5billion of investment (equivalent to £270 per household) since EDF acquired the fleet 15 years ago. At that point the forecast was for just Sizewell B to be operating today.

Last week also saw the Government publish its nuclear “roadmap”, re-committing to a major expansion of nuclear power in the UK (up to 24GW from the current level of 6GW). The plan supports a further large nuclear power station and an ambition to secure 3-7GW worth of investment decisions every five years from 2030 to 2044. This is all helpful in providing clarity for industry on the next 20 years.

Delivering the plan will of course be very challenging and there are many aspects that need strengthening and improving – planning, regulation, skills development and perhaps the central question of funding. Will sufficient private and government capital be available to realise the ambition? Consistency through any political change is also vital.

We know it is challenging as we have been working very hard for over a decade to help re-start the UK’s new nuclear programme. Before Christmas we saw the iconic dome lifted onto the first of the reactors at Hinkley Point C in Somerset, the first new build nuclear station in the UK in a generation. A final investment decision on Sizewell C in Suffolk is due later this year.

These projects require a lot of capital but they will produce huge volumes of clean power for over 60 years and complement the ongoing expansion of wind and solar power by providing ‘baseload’ power that does not rely on fossil fuels. We will get better at building them as more reactors are built; unit 2 at Hinkley Point C is being built 20% faster than unit 1 for example. Sizewell C will benefit from these improvements when it starts construction.

Global experience informs us that replication of design is best. The more you build of the same reactor, the better the economies of scale. Skills develop and supply chains strengthen and, once in operation, performance improves.

The experience of the seven stations in the UK’s AGR fleet proves this point too. The youngest station pairing, Torness and Heysham 2, have been the best performers having benefitted from replicating and improving the reliable designs of the Hunterston B and Hinkley Point B pairing. Each station has produced around 300TWh, but Torness and Heysham 2 delivered this around a decade quicker.

In short, EDF is investing heavily to maintain output and jobs in the existing fleet, build Hinkley Point C and enable a government decision on Sizewell C. Even with the prospect of further extensions to the AGRs, installed nuclear capacity will be down to 4.5GW (Hinkley Point C and Sizewell B) in the early 2030s. Sizewell C will take that to 7.7GW, thereby replacing the capacity of the fleet built between the 1960s and 1980s.

Beyond this, we stand ready to help Government and industry to develop other projects. This will require strong leadership to direct which nuclear reactor technologies go on which licenced sites, where the funding will come from, improvements in planning and regulation and a national mission to hire tens of thousands of new people into the UK nuclear sector.

Nuclear energy in the UK has a proud history that has often gone unnoticed. It can have a bright future. But there must be sustained leadership and we cannot allow the momentum for development to be lost again.

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