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Realising the UK’s nuclear power ambitions for a low carbon future

Realising the UK’s nuclear power ambitions for a low carbon future

Energy Technologies Institute

3 min read

ETI Strategy Manager for Nuclear, Mike Middleton looks at how the nuclear industry can become cost competitive to provide baseload energy generation in a decarbonised UK system.

New nuclear plants could form a major part of an affordable low carbon transition in the UK, providing the industry can improve the economics of their construction and operation. 

Our research has consistently shown that nuclear power has the potential to play a significant role in the UK’s transition to a low carbon economy. However, for this potential to be realised, traditional nuclear power projects delivering baseload electricity will have to adapt. This evolution is very much dependent on whether the nuclear industry can clearly articulate its role in the changing energy system and also on its ability to demonstrate realistic cost reductions in the ongoing development of nuclear power generation.

Because of it’s potential, the ETI welcomed the recently published Nuclear Sector Deal which seeks to drive clean growth by maximising the potential of nuclear power in the UK. Government activity such as this helps to promote the role of nuclear and its potential to deliver UK energy security within the wider system mix and facilitates further nuclear research, development and deployment. It was also encouraging to see the Deal provided a focus on the reduction of costs within nuclear power generation, a key area of research for ourselves at the ETI, to help mitigate some of the issues that the industry currently faces. Developing cost competitive solutions for the production of nuclear power is something that the ETI believes is possible and we described how this could be realised in a summary report from our Nuclear Cost Driver project, published earlier this year. 

The project helped to identify a number of understandable factors that drive the cost of nuclear plants, and where cost reductions could be made. Our analysis highlighted that successful cost reductions achieved elsewhere in the world have been as a result of nuclear programmes specifically focused on improving performance and delivering cost reduction. The project also found many best practices that are transferable to the UK. We believe that a nuclear industry focused on delivering high quality and lower cost construction and operation, could help nuclear power to prove itself economically against other low carbon options and earn its place in the wider energy mix, especially one focused on decarbonisation.

In this mix, we see potential roles for both larger nuclear, best suited for baseload electricity production, and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the transition to an affordable low carbon economy. Our research has shown that large light water reactors like EDF’s Hinkley Point C and Hitachi’s planned ABWRs for Wylfa can make a substantial contribution in decarbonising baseload electricity production and SMRs using light water technology could fulfil an additional role by delivering combined heat and power helping to decarbonise energy use in buildings. However, the technology development of SMRs is still being progressed and even after completion, successful SMR deployment must be economically attractive to reactor vendors and investors, and gain sufficient public acceptance. The concept of SMRs was recently discussed in a POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) note published last month.

We are now at a point where new nuclear needs to establish a trajectory of cost reduction for both large light-water reactors and advanced reactors such as SMRs, similar to the step change we have seen in other renewable energy sectors such as offshore wind. New reactor designs and power station projects must be driven by economics and market needs to develop future nuclear technologies. As more UK nuclear projects are initiated, the industry must demonstrate its competitiveness alongside other low carbon options, and this is where new thinking on construction and operation has a real role to play

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