Nuclear power is back in the game, but still a distant prospect for the UK | Energy industry
VSCompared to some of his favorite projects – the Irish Sea Bridge or a floating airport on the Thames – Boris Johnson’s plan to get 25% of the UK’s electricity from nuclear power stations here 2050 is not so fancy.
The same mark has been reached within living memory, after the commissioning of Sizewell B in 1995.
If the climate crisis wasn’t reason enough, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crystallized the case for any energy technology that allows us to avoid fossil fuels provided by foreign despots.
This week, the Prime Minister is expected to present his plan to make the UK more energy self-sufficient, with nuclear likely to be a key element. Charging full steam ahead to a nuclear future is far from straightforward, however, if history is any indication.
Even when the UK generated a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy, the journey was long and bumpy. Sizewell B was connected to the national grid in 1995 but was first announced in 1969, spades only appearing in 1986.
More recently, the industry has been in steady decline. Since this peak in the mid-1990s, capacity has fallen from almost 13 GW to 6.8 GW, or around 16 to 18% of the electricity mix.
Hunterston B retired this year, Hinkley Point B retires this summer and by the time Hartlepool I and Heysham I go off the grid in 2024, nuclear capacity will have fallen to a meager 3.6 GW, just 5 to 6 % of what you would need at 6 p.m. on a cold winter weekday.
Hinkley Point C is expected to recover 3.2 GW of lost ground, but only by 2027, assuming no further delays. It’s not enough to get close to Johnson’s target.
This will require the successful execution of almost every nuclear project that has been talked about in recent years, including some that have struggled to get off the ground so far. That would likely mean extending the life of Sizewell B and giving the green light to Sizewell C, which stalled when the government got cold feet about Chinese involvement.
Wylfa on Anglesey, put on hiatus after Japanese firm Hitachi pulled out in 2020 due to lack of government investment, is expected to be thrown into the mix. Consider also Rolls-Royce’s small “mini-nuke” reactors, which enjoy state support but carry the risk of novelty. Some of the small reactors from the GE Hitachi partnership may also need to be included.
All this brings you to around 15 GW, likely to fall below 25% of demand in 2050, once you consider that the march to net zero will involve significant electrification, of home heating and vehicles, in order to decarbonize .
Some in the nuclear industry dare to breathe in the names of semi-mythical places such as Oldbury and Moorside, where large-scale nuclear projects have been abandoned but could emerge from their slumber.
The government, once friendly but cold to nuclear, seems to be warming to such ideas, minds focused on exorbitant fossil fuel prices. As Tom Greatrex, CEO of the Nuclear Industry Association, puts it: “It reminded people why a significant reliance on something that is traded internationally [oil and gas] is not a good place to be.
There are barriers to jump. Funding issues have plagued major projects in the past. The Treasury has still not approved proposals for a Regulated Asset Base (RAB) funding model, which could boost private investment by transferring some of the risk of multi-billion pound projects to the taxpayer.
The UK must also resolve the question of the “taxonomy”, already sorted in the EU, which determines whether nuclear is suitable for investment funds using environmental and social criteria. There is also a question mark over the number of qualified engineers available, particularly if the nuclear push is replicated across Europe.
But George Borovas, head of nuclear practice at global law firm Hunton Andrew’s Kurth, believes the UK is one of the best placed countries in the world to go nuclear.
“The UK has done the preliminary work, they have done the site assessment, they have a sophisticated regulator, good heavy industry and an existing fleet. I always thought the UK was a great place for new nuclear.