Nuclear possibilities

Tom Greatrex

07 February 2020

At the end of the first week the UK has technically been outside of the EU (although as I noted last week there is still some way yet to go on formulating future arrangements between the UK and EU, and for our relationship with Euratom), much of the political noise has been about COP26 and the shape of the government now that the first stage of Brexit is (sort of) done.

While an ongoing row about who is the President of COP26 may be another skirmish in the political village, the success or otherwise of COP26 should be a high priority for the government with its mandate, majority and manifesto.

Not only has the net zero target been adopted, and legislated for, by the UK government before the election, it’s been reiterated by the Prime Minister with Sir David Attenborough this week. The challenge to ensure there is a policy framework to help ensure progress is made in meeting that commitment has become very real.

With the UK government keen to ensure it remains a player on the global stage while outside the EU, then COP26 is an important opportunity. Moreover, if there is not a sense of a meaningful plan to deliver then there will be an increasing feeling of frustration that the clock continues ticking with not much happening.

At the same time, with a likely reshuffle of Ministers and possibly entire Departments imminent, the government will be signalling its agenda for the next four years or so. With a whole wave of MPs for constituencies not previously, or at least not frequently, habitual Conservative voters, meeting aspirations for economic activity, recognition and investment in parts of the country outside of the home counties is a refreshed political imperative.

In that context, with the need for new infrastructure, the desire for growth across different parts of the UK, the target to reduce emissions towards net zero and the appetite for skilled jobs and opportunities, there is a lot to be done. While there is no silver bullet, civil nuclear certainly holds out a lot of promise for each of these priorities the government has set.

Bringing decades of zero emissions power, long-term jobs, and supply chain opportunities in engineering, manufacturing and construction; nuclear power has much to offer whichever ranks as the priority of priorities. It is, however, about more than just the promise, it is happening now in Somerset with the ongoing construction of Hinkley Point C, the first project in renewing our fleet which will all but one retire during the course of this decade.

As the attached infographic from EDF Energy shows, there is opportunity, prosperity and economic activity being spread across all parts of the UK through the supply chain, from Aberdeen to Bridgend and everywhere between. What is true of the South West can also be true of other projects at other sites across the country including in North Wales, the North West of England and the Eastern Counties, making a difference not just locally but nationwide, and with some relatively straightforward financing changes, at a much lower cost.

What applies to large scale projects is also true for smaller and more modular reactor technologies that could be deployed at a range of sites across the country. It does not have to be an either/or, and with the amount of firm (baseload in old money) power the Committee on Climate Change has advised government we will need to meet net zero – the reality is that a lot of zero emissions power with the characteristics of nuclear is a prerequisite for decarbonisation. We will need it all.

So what needs to happen to make this a reality? That goes back to the start of this blog, and the policy framework lacking to put the country on the way to net zero. It is not special pleading to set out that without it, and across different sectors, it makes the challenging but achievable target much less likely to be met in the most logical and sensible way.

For nuclear, clarity about the role it will play in the future mix as part of that decarbonisation crusade needs to come alongside the right financing mechanism (which the government is due to respond to a consultation on), and encouragement for new technologies where the UK has an advantage. With that signalled through the impending budget, infrastructure plan and promised Energy White Paper, we can then move at pace.

It is not just our industry, our global standing, or our economy that is at play here – but rather the UK’s ability to play a significant role in making progress towards net zero. It is our planet, our environment and our very future that demands action and determination over the period ahead.