Secure, reliable, and affordable nuclear is a safe bet for Labour
Torness Nuclear Power Station in Dunbar is one of four stations which will retire by 2028 | Credit: EDF
Labour should embrace nuclear to deliver on energy security and decarbonisation.
When gas was relatively cheap, and in abundance, the cost of decarbonisation was set against the urgency to reduce emissions. As recently as COP26 last November, when power prices had stealthily doubled, energy security and price predictability benefits of a low carbon system were woefully under-appreciated.
An unwelcome dose of the reality about our fossil fuel addiction has led to a rapid change in the political debate on energy. Energy security has become paramount – but too late to avert an escalation in prices that, in turn, results in an inflationary impact the likes of which we have not seen for a generation.
The unit price of natural gas – bearing in mind half of our electricity comes from burning gas – has risen to over ten times what it was in 2021. In July, typically one of the calmer months in power markets, the UK had to pay Belgium nearly £10,000 per mega-watt hour, 50 times the usual price, just to avoid disruption to power supplies in the south-east.
As we head into the colder and darker months, the price and availability of power for homes, businesses and public services will be determined by air temperature and wind speed. Will we have enough energy for all our needs, whatever the cost? A mild, windy winter and some good fortune and our system may well scrape though – but a high-pressure weather system sitting over northern Europe for a few days in mid-January, as reasonably frequently happens, and everything could well be a lot more worrying.
The most damning aspect of the situation we are in is that not only was it predictable – it was predicted. A combination of high demand for expensive gas; less than anticipated yield from wind and solar; an over-reliance on importing power from neighbouring countries; and the retirement of our nuclear fleet were all foreseen. There were enough warning signs – and while the additional impact of Russian invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly exacerbated the situation – we should never have been here.
It is the easiest thing in the world to say ‘I told you so’ – but the poorest are now paying the highest price for a lack of long-term thinking. Complacency amongst decision makers and the toxic combination of wilful ignorance and wishful thinking has all too often set the parameters of the political debate on energy.
The most damning aspect of the situation we are in is that not only was it predictable – it was predicted
Providing reliable, plentiful, and clean energy is what our ageing nuclear fleet has done for more than half a century. Had we got on with replacing those power stations earlier, the situation people are facing now would be significantly less acute. If Hinkley Point C were online today, the consumer would be saving £3bn a year.
It is with a mix of low carbon power- nuclear, wind and solar – that we can achieve a secure, reliable, and predictably priced electricity mix. There is no other responsible route. Both the current and next government will need to be focussed on delivering that change – or else leaving the public exposed to the twin risks of high prices and high emissions for generations to come – energy security and decarbonisation are two sides of the same important coin.
How a future Labour government can seize the initiative on nuclear
The Nuclear Industry Association hosted a fringe event at this year’s Labour Party Conference. From funding infrastructure to filling the skills gap, it’s clear Labour has an opportunity to lead the debate on new ideas.
The discussion started with an opening statement from Shadow Minister for Business and Industry, Bill Esterson MP, who emphasised that net zero “can only happen if we have nuclear as part of the offer.”
Citing a recent visit to the largest construction site in Europe, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, he argued that “nuclear has a fundamentally important part in the energy supply” and is an “exciting opportunity for jobs”.
While acknowledging elements of scepticism in Labour about embracing nuclear, Esterson said that “everybody” in the Party “accepts the case for moving to net zero” and that nuclear can provide “the base load” for reducing carbon emissions as part of a broader range of green technology when the “wind doesn’t blow” and the “sun doesn’t shine”. In doing so, he stressed we have to make investment now to get nuclear up and running as early as possible.
General Secretary of the GMB, Gary Smith, offered a Union perspective by saying that Labour is not currently doing enough on nuclear. He warned against dismissal of the industry given its association with the outcome of a Conservative victory at the 2017 Copeland by-election and ever since. Rather, he suggested that the Party should learn from the previous commitment to nuclear under Tony Blair’s government, saying that “Hinkley is a Labour and trade union project” which has since delivered “fantastic skills and a highly paid workforce.”
Smith also argued that Labour’s plan to become electricity independent by 2030 will not happen on the “current trajectory” given the need to fill the gap on skills and the expected reduction in generation capacity over coming years. Instead, he said that there must be a “greater role for the state” in funding new projects and giving taxpayers a stake in them, welcoming recent pledges on this from the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves MP.
Jez Stewart, National Secretary of Prospect, followed by saying that discussions around the funding of nuclear should be shifted from the current focus on infrastructure to the workforce itself. In doing so, he noted that in the region of 40,000 new jobs need to be created over the next 10 years to meet demand, which presents a challenge given the industry’s ageing workforce.
Using the example of Germany, Stewart argued that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “shows the importance of being in control of your own energy”, suggesting that we need to see more substance from the Government on energy security, in particular confirmation on Sizewell C, which there is a £700 million commitment “on paper”. He argued that on the “question of finance, we seem to be committed to private finance and in many cases overseas investment”, echoing the need for more “central government funding”, in a similar vein to other major infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, Senior Vice President for the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way, Josh Freed, was able to offer a viewpoint from the United States. He referenced recent actions from President Biden’s administration to deliver an “industrial strategy that is focused on energy security” and a $4.5 billion government investment for public private partnerships to build advanced nuclear reactors, as part of a broader effort to deliver and export clean energy.
In doing so he argued that “we need to not only see more industrial strategy across the United States…and in the United Kingdom, but our government’s talking to each other and working together and developing longer term plans so that on nuclear and other technologies, we are thinking about how the opportunities can be good for both countries.”
Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, Dr Ralitsa Hiteva, suggested that the whole concept around energy security has changed in light of recent events, with a much greater focus on affordability, beyond the themes of uninterrupted supply, cost and environment. Combined with the goal of reaching net zero, she argued that this has positioned nuclear “to play a big role alongside a portfolio of other options” such as offshore wind, solar and hydrogen.
Hiteva went on to argue that we need to look at not just “making sure that the necessary level of investment is there” for the physical infrastructure on nuclear, but “developing the workforce” and “long term career trajectories” that are required to operate them. She also highlighted the need to not only to consider the best value for money when considering this kind of public investment, but how the whole community can benefit in places where it is being delivered – all of which presents a golden opportunity for leadership from Labour.
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