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Time is running out to capitalise on a green economic powerhouse

Tom Greatrex

25 June 2020

No one will argue that Net Zero by 2050 is an unambitious goal. How to get there though is hotly disputed.

As previous studies from the OECD and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change conclude, the desire to meet Net Zero requires consistent, low carbon, reliable power alongside weather dependent renewables.

In late June, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its World Energy Outlook Special Report which stated “early retirements of thermal power plants, including nuclear power, threaten thousands of jobs, concentrated in Europe and the United States, while the loss of nuclear capacity will hinder climate mitigation activities,” and that, “in advanced economies, nuclear power is the largest low-carbon source of electricity by a wide margin.”

And in the same week the Nuclear for Net Zero report from the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) became the latest credible body of evidence point to one increasingly indisputable fact: Net Zero needs Nuclear.

The report modelled a range of whole energy system scenarios for getting to Net Zero and concluded that at least a further 10 GigaWatts of new established reactor designs was a ‘low regrets option’. This is just over three times the capacity of the Hinkley Point C power station, already in construction.

The report also said its modelling strengthens the case that a small modular light water reactor programme should proceed. The next nuclear plants can manufacture the clean fuel hydrogen and provide district heating, placing the sector at the heart of deep decarbonisation across the UK, where transport, buildings and industry will need to reduce emissions arising from burning fossil fuels.

Net Zero without nuclear, it says, is a risky and expensive prospect which will require huge swathes of the land and seascape to be turned into wind and solar farms.

Of course there is a ‘but’ – nuclear costs must come down.

This is not news to the nuclear industry, which is unanimous in its confidence that the next plants will be cheaper than Hinkley Point C with eventual plants as much as 30-40% cheaper. This relies on moving to a more programme-based approach to new build, ensuring use of tried and tested and repeat designs, shared construction learnings and an increasingly experienced supply chain. Put simply: the more plants we plan and then build, and the more we share learnings and grow supply chain capability, the cheaper it becomes.

The other major factor is the cost of financing these large projects which currently dwarfs the contribution of construction in the eventual customer bill. Again, this is not new news. The Government, which designed the current financing system, is already consulting on an alternative mechanism to tackle this.

Costs matter even more now that a global economic crisis has snuck up on us in the form of COVID-19. Scrabbling to recover is a risk to the vision of a green economy and The IEA has been leading the calls for governments to make our bounce back from the pandemic as sustainable and resilient as possible. The UK government has called for “shovel-ready” projects, to rebuild the UK’s economy.

It just so happens that tens of thousands of green jobs are already being created by the UK’s fledgling nuclear new build programme with billions of pounds being invested in the South West. And multiple projects are waiting in the wings for the clarity on energy policy which will allow them to proceed.  A combination of large scale nuclear plants, Small and Advanced Modular reactor technologies and the possibilities for decarbonisation beyond electricity can keep the momentum going from Hinkley Point C and will give rise to hundreds of thousands of high quality jobs for generations across the country, including in regions with the biggest economic challenges.

We cannot afford to wait, and invest in ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’: we have a proven technology in front of us today that can work alongside renewables to tackle two of the greatest issues of our time, economic resilience and climate change. If we do nothing, our existing fleet will dwindle and with it one of the best levers we have at our disposal for a just transition to a green economy.

We have the answers, so I have one question: what are we waiting for?