Getting on with the job of government 

Rupert Lewis

10 November 2017

While much media speculation and political commentary has been about how long the government can survive, it is perhaps easy to overlook that Theresa May’s in-tray is rapidly growing and decisions need to be taken on a number of domestic issues, including the future of the UK’s energy system.

Positive decarbonisation noises have come from this government in the Clean Growth Strategy, the decision to ban the sale of polluting cars from 2040, as well as the falling price of offshore wind in the latest round of contract for difference auctions.

Now it’s time to go nuclear and ensure Hinkley Point C is just the start of a promising and necessary 18GW new build programme rather than a metaphor for another lost economic opportunity curtailed by the political decision making process.

It is cross party policy that the UK needs to decarbonise the grid and that can only been done through a mix. A new report from Respublica – ‘Expanding Horizons’ – clearly makes this argument explaining “New nuclear is not an alternative to renewable and battery technology – it is a (significant) part of the wider solution.”

The need to electrify our heating systems, transport systems and cars, on top of the growing need for more homes means our demand for electricity is only set to grow and if we want to replace efficient but polluting fossil fuel generation, we need nuclear. This also comes at a time when two thirds of centrally available generating capacity is due to retire between 2010 and 2030.

Nuclear provides the always-on, always available low carbon electricity that intermittent renewable technologies simply cannot by their very nature. In the same breath, it’s important to stress that the UK won’t meet its decarbonisation targets, without a collaborative effort between low carbon technologies, and pitting technologies against technologies puts low carbon ambitions at risk.

As the Respublica paper also points out, investing in new nuclear now will ensure the UK has a secure supply of electricity and help create a “framework for experimentation with new renewable and storage technology – de-risking the UK energy market for innovation.”

Looking to the future and small modular reactors (SMRs), Respublica point out that they “may well form part of the answer to tomorrow’s challenges” – tomorrow being the key word. We need decisions on investment for the current new build programme.

There are also a wave of other decisions that the industry is waiting for from government. On SMRs, the government is due to publish the independent economic assessment it commissioned more than a year ago and announce the next stage of the SMR vendor competition.

Industry is waiting for a long anticipated consultation on the proposals for a geological disposal facility, and the plutonium disposition question still hasn’t been answered.

For more than 60 years, the UK’s nuclear industry has played an important role in keeping the lights on, but with all but one of our current fleet of reactors due to retire in 2030, decisions on the future fleet of reactors need to be taken now.

Brexit may have brought economic and wider uncertainty, but this is precisely why investment is needed now. Time cannot wait, and by making decisions such as these, which have Cabinet and cross-party support, as well as being necessary for our future energy needs, the Prime Minister can demonstrate the relevance of government at a turbulent time.