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Time to stop the stuttering and commit to nuclear

High Value Manufacturing Catapult

4 min read Partner content

With new nuclear build solutions coming on stream and the costs of delivery falling, industry groups, environmental campaigners and Government agree that nuclear power must be a key part of our energy mix, writes Professor Andrew Storer FNucI, Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear AMRC.

Few would disagree that cutting the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, at the latest, is both essential and difficult.  Getting there will demand a fundamental shift in both our mindsets and lifestyles.  Belt-tightening and minor tweaks to the way we live now, the products we use and the way we power them might help a bit – and there’s no doubt that we all have a part to play – but if we’re serious in this mission we need more radical action.  We need to make sure we are fully exploiting the technologies we currently have and keep up our investment in the new technologies that will keep pressing our emissions into remission in the longer term. 

The way we generate power has to be front and centre of this charge.  Last year, for the first time, the UK produced more electricity from low-carbon renewables and nuclear, than from fossil fuels. That should be a cause for celebration but the uncomfortable truth is that we are set to lose a large part of low-carbon generation this decade. Nuclear power stations currently provide around 40% of the UK's low carbon electricity. However, all but one will be shutting down by 2030 (the exception, Sizewell B, is scheduled for retirement in 2035). A decade ago, plans were in place to replace that with new nuclear build but, while EDF Energy is hitting its milestones at Hinkley Point C, no other projects have yet broken ground. That should be a cause for concern at a time when decarbonising heating and transport is forecast to double our electricity consumption, even with measures to reduce demand. That means we need to quadruple low-carbon generation.

Renewables must play a huge part in that. Sustained investment and innovation in offshore wind technology has driven the marginal cost of electricity down to a record low, but the inherent variability of wind and the lack of an effective solution to the large-scale energy storage needed to balance supply mean we can’t afford to rely on renewables alone. The UK's largest battery farm costs £20 million for 50MWh of short-term storage capacity – at that price, batteries to store just one day's average output from a windfarm will cost more than the wind farm itself.

We need a significant portion of firm power to balance the intermittency of variable power sources like wind. Nuclear is the only available generation technology capable of delivering that, without a retreat to fossil fuels and the collapse of our emissions ambitions. The good news is that the UK is well-placed both to develop and harness the power of nuclear at home and then lead in nuclear power markets around the world.  Attention is now turning to a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced modular reactors (AMRs), which could be delivering electricity to the grid by the early 2030s. Based on similar technology to current reactor designs, but at a smaller scale, SMRs can be deployed affordably. this also helps to avoid the huge upfront costs and decade-long development times associated with building current reactors. They offer huge potential, not only as a tool to deliver our emissions targets but as a market-capturing global export at a time when every developed nation is desperately trying to deliver on its climate change commitments.

My organisation, the Nuclear AMRC, owned by Sheffield University and part of the UK's High Value Manufacturing Catapult, is working to make sure that new reactor designs can be turned into practical engineering, using advanced manufacturing techniques to reduce cost and maintain the highest standards of quality and safety.  We’re also working with companies right the way through the nuclear supply chain to make sure that they are fit for a global future. 

Government support for nuclear in recent decades has often stuttered, with nuclear power generation treated as the embarrassing cousin of more traditional and polluting energy sources. Today, with new nuclear build solutions coming on stream and the costs of delivery falling, industry groups, environmental campaigners and Government agree that nuclear power must be a key part of our energy mix if the UK is to hit its carbon emissions commitments. It is time for all of us to embrace it. It’s time for us to up the pace of decision making on our energy mix and inject a sense of urgency into our actions.  he climate crisis should put us all on a war footing. As a nation we have huge capability in early stage research, via some world leading universities, and fantastic design and manufacturing skills. If we can coalesce around a common purpose and attack the emissions challenge with gusto the UK can lead the world.

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