Net Zero with the Lights On: Nuclear’s Role in Our Energy Future
Sizewell B in Suffolk was the last nuclear power station to be built in the UK, and now the government is in talks to build Sizewell C | Credit: EDF
The UK’s energy system can only survive the transition to net zero if we invest urgently and heavily in homegrown nuclear power.
We have three goals for our energy system: it must be reliable so we keep the lights on, it must be clean, so we can fight climate change, and it must be sovereign, so we stay in control of our future.
As this September has so cruelly shown, our energy system is none of these. Gas provides most of our home heating and the largest part of our electricity, and we import half of it, from Norway, yes, but also from Russia and from Qatar. We have seen the consequences: energy companies collapsing, factories shutting down, and electricity hitting record prices – sometimes nearly £5,000 per MWh, 100 times the normal price.
We have also set records this summer for importing electricity: 12 million homes at many points in July and August needed Europe to keep the lights on. A fire on the cable from France in September exposed the insecurity of that source and sent prices spiralling. In the short term, we have no choice but to pay for extra gas to cover the gaps, and in the long term, we have no control over the energy policies of France, Belgium, or the other countries from whom we import.
The alternative to this mess is to build our own nuclear power. Nuclear is the only technology that is reliable, low-carbon and British. It is available whatever the weather and whatever the time of day. It produces no emissions. It is lastly, a sovereign source of power. We would not have to import electricity from Sizewell C on the Suffolk Coast, or from Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey, or from Rolls Royce small modular reactors based around the country. It would be our own.
Since nuclear meets the three goals we have for our energy system, it must be the backbone of that system for the future. The Prime Minister in his 10 Point Plan outlined how nuclear, large, small and advanced, could help build that future. We now need urgent action to put that plan into place. Most of the UK nuclear fleet will retire by March 2024. Without action now, we will lose one surviving source of reliable, British energy, and critical jobs and skills will go.
Nuclear is the only technology that is reliable, low-carbon and British
The first step then is for the Government to introduce legislation for a new financing model to cut the cost of raising money for new nuclear projects. This would help unlock solutions for Sizewell C and beyond, creating tens of thousands of skilled jobs. Another step is for the Government, as the Secretary of State has said, to “commit on the UK balance sheet” to the Rolls Royce SMR, to begin a fleet deployment of that technology. These steps should give private investors’ confidence to put their money into the sector and help bring further large and small scale projects over the line. In nuclear, as in life, fortune favours the bold: it is better to bet on Britain that leave it to other countries to fill the gap.
We have seen clearly and painfully this autumn that other countries will not gift us a secure and prosperous future. That is our own choice to make, and investment in nuclear, as clean, reliable, British alternative, is the right place to start.
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