Unleashing the full potential of nuclear energy
Hunterston B nuclear power plant in North Ayrshire, which went offline earlier this year
Recent months show why investment in nuclear has never been more important.
We have three goals if we want an energy system that works, is reliable, protects the environment, and doesn’t push people into fuel poverty. Firstly, energy must be low carbon. Second, it must be at an affordable price. Thirdly, it must be secure, so that the lights turn on when we flick the switch and so the country has sovereign control over its energy supply.
It’s right that governments have been focusing on net zero, given the catastrophic impacts of climate change already being felt across the world. But whilst achieving net zero is a must, we ignore the other two goals at our peril, and the past six months have been a lesson in why.
As economies recovered from the pandemic, demand for natural gas saw prices shoot up. The situation was then exacerbated by unusually low winds, and a fire on the electricity cable from France. January then saw the retirement of Hunterston B nuclear power station. By 2028, all of Hunterson’s sister stations will have stopped generating electricity, leaving the UK with only one of its existing reactors still in operation.
And then, most horrifically, came Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Away from the abhorrent human impact of the invasion, the war has shone an uncomfortable light on Europe’s reliance on imported Russian gas to keep the lights on.
While the UK imports very little gas from Russia, we are not insulated from international market costs, and our ability to balance the system has been pushed to the limit.
Our energy supplies have remained secure, but at an astronomical cost. These costs have fed through to consumers, with tens of energy suppliers going bust, millions of customers needing new providers, and an energy price cap increase that risks sending countless into fuel poverty.
We lie at a key juncture. Do we want to remain beholden to international gas markets, relying on other countries, not all of whom we may be aligned with, to provide our energy needs at whatever the price? Or do we want an energy system that is secure, low cost and low carbon?
A renewables-led energy system, balanced by nuclear power, provides the answer. Variable renewables like wind and solar are low cost, low carbon and provide us with energy independence. But they’re inherently intermittent, and that’s where nuclear comes in. Nuclear is the lowest carbon source of electricity bar-none, it is always-on, and it is sovereign.
With only 28 years to 2050, there is no time to dither and delay, now is the time for politicians to look beyond short-termism and parliamentary cycles, to be brave and think of the long term good for the country – energy security, consumer costs and net zero.
None of this will be possible without bold action from politicians.
We are already seeing the first promising steps being taken. The UK Government is progressing a Bill to reduce the cost of financing nuclear power stations, which makes up two-thirds of the cost of Hinkley Point C. They are also investing in Sizewell C, developing the Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactor, and investigating future innovative technologies that will help us on the road to net zero. Meanwhile in Wales, the Welsh Government is also looking to build small reactors.
The case for urgent investment in a fleet of nuclear power stations is clear. We need the equivalent of ten Hinkley Point Cs, and building a fleet is proven to reduce construction costs and times. France, which built 56 reactors over 15 years in the 70s and 80s, has the lowest electricity prices in Europe and is now repeating the same approach with at least seven new reactors.
We cannot afford to continue with our one-by-one approach to nuclear new build.
In the UK, we need Sizewell C to go ahead as a replica of Hinkley Point C, we need a fleet of Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactors, we need to reinvigorate proposals for sites like Wylfa on Anglesey, and we need to develop cutting-edge technologies that will produce hydrogen and high temperature heat to decarbonise some of the hardest-to-reach sectors like steel and aviation.
None of this will be possible without bold action from politicians. As the past few months have shown, balancing our competing energy demands of sustainability, cost and reliability is hard enough today, never mind in the future as we near 2050. We need to unleash the full potential of nuclear energy to make a secure, affordable, net zero energy system a reality.
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